The Soul in Cousin Greg’s Linguistic Blunders

In the world of Succession, eloquence is a sign of complicity. Greg, a malapropism incarnate, is the exception that proves the rule.

Greg Hirsch (played by Nicholaus Braun) sits in his new suit, and his new loft, in New York City.
Macall B. Polay / HBO

This story contains spoilers through the fourth episode of Succession Season 3.

It’s morning in New York, and Greg Hirsch has been summoned to the home of his great-uncle, Logan Roy. Greg, despite the hour, is having a drink. (Logan had insisted; flustered, Greg had asked for a rum and Coke.) He hadn’t expected the breakfast booze to be so potent. Greg deals with this situation as he deals with most situations: awkwardly. “Strong. Wow,” he says, his mouth puckered, his lanky body wedged into an overstuffed armchair. “Nice and strong … strong one,” he continues. “Strong … for a man.”

Greg is, as he so often tends to be on Succession, caught between two worlds. Logan has called the meeting to try to bring Greg over to his side as Logan and Kendall battle for control of Waystar Royco, the family company. The meeting has not gone as badly as Greg had feared. (“I have this, like, stupid worry that I’m gonna go over,” he’d told Kendall, “and there’ll be, like, goons and stooges and roughjacks there to administer a beating.”) But neither has it gone well. Logan has said very little. Greg, meanwhile, has blurted out … the partial tagline of a brand of antiperspirant.

Greg is a Roy who is not fully a Roy. The distinction is both nominal and essential. When we first meet him, he is working at one of the family’s amusement parks, overheating—and, soon enough, vomiting—inside the costume of a park character. He is eager; he is meek; he is desperate. (“Cousin Craig?” Logan asks, when reunited with his estranged brother’s grandson. No, it’s Cousin Greg, Shiv corrects. “I’ll answer to both!” the man in question cheerfully replies.) By Succession’s third season, though, Greg has undergone the most evident transformation of all the show’s characters. His hair is now as expertly cut as his suits. He is the semi-proud owner of a $40,000 Rolex. He has engaged in corporate malfeasance; he has testified before Congress; he has betrayed Logan; he has ingratiated himself to Kendall. Through it all, though, Greg’s awkwardness remains. “I’m sturdy. I’m a … sturdy birdie,” he reassures Kendall, before heading over to meet with Logan.

In a show that explores the human basis of economic inequality, Gregisms like that are sources of comic relief. But Greg’s bumbling manner is more than funny; it is also the defining aspect of his character. And it is the show’s reassurance that this sort-of-Roy will remain an outsider. Language is totalizing. And Greg’s ums and uhs and malapropisms—the elemental honesty of his communications, even when he’s trying to be slick—are signals to the audience that, no matter how embroiled he might be in the Roys’ world, he has not fully capitulated to it.

Fluency, in Succession, is evidence of compromise. Logan lies with lyrical ease, having long ago liberated himself from a conscience that might otherwise trip him up as he speaks. Kendall is at his most Loganlike when he spews a giddy flow of Mad-Libbed corporatisms. The same is true of Shiv. (During a company town hall meant to address allegations that its cruise line had covered up sexual assault and homicide, she embraced the grim platitudes of crisis management. “We get it,” she said, unconvincingly.) Roman, by turns the most caring and the most sociopathic of the Roys, is the most articulate narrator of their activities—a Greek chorus of one who sees their world clearly because he is so deeply enmeshed within it. “Waystar Royco?” he says. “We do hate speech and roller coasters.”

Greg’s lack of fluency in the Roys’ dialects reflects a broader imbalance. He is thoroughly misaligned with his environment. Earlier in the series, Greg, trying to bring home company snacks, stuffed baked goods into bags meant for dog waste. (“It’s not like they pre-poop them,” he pointed out, pragmatically. “It’s just a mental barrier.”) He wore boat shoes to the landlocked office. (“Forgive me,” said Shiv’s husband, Tom, who is at his most fluent when he is at his most cruel, “but are we talking to each other on the poop deck of a majestic schooner? Is the salty brine stinging my weather-beaten face? No? Then why the fuck are you wearing a pair of deck shoes, man?”)

As Greg has become more entangled with the Roys, the visual evidence of his outsider status has faded. He now looks like them. He works with them. He hangs with them. But his sayings, still, never quite match his settings. “Likewise, Your Excellency,” he says to Logan’s intimidating ex-wife. “Uh, please hold,” he says to a guy he is conversing with in person. “Uh, if it is to be said, so it be, so it is,” he says to Congress. “No comment!” he yells to reporters. A PR coordinator reminds him that he could simply say nothing in response to their questions. “No comment!” he repeats anyway.

Greg’s awkwardness stems in part from the fact that he desperately wants to be understood. He wants to say the right thing so badly that, in a world that cares so little about rightness, he ends up going wrong. The show’s other characters are not immune from linguistic blunders: They lie and spin and almost never say what they mean. They are Orwellian nightmares in human form. Like Greg, they wantonly mix their metaphors. They say things that, strictly speaking, don’t make sense. “Butterfly wings, but bigger. Huge wings. Like a pterodactyl” is how Logan’s eldest son, Connor, chooses to describe his family’s global influence. “No one is gonna wanna tackle a big angry pufferfish bristling with dick” is how Tom articulates a business strategy. Kendall’s pitch for the company’s future, he tells his siblings, comes down to this: “Detoxify our brand, and we can go supersonic.”

The Roys’ language is muddled too. But Connor, Kendall, and the rest of their corporatized family do not classify their mixed metaphors as errors. They simply speak, saying whatever they want, knowing that the people in their orbit will find ways to translate what they say—to explain it and rationalize it. The Roys talk about life in terms of card games, chess boards, and “battle spaces.” These metaphors reveal the hollowness of people who treat life as an airless competition. And they imply that the Roys, for all their shamefulness, are impervious to feeling shame. “The thing about us [is] we don’t get embarrassed,” Shiv tells the ATN personality Mark Ravenhead in tonight’s episode, attempting to bully him into parroting the family’s talking points on his show. It is one of the truest things she’s ever said.

Embarrassment, though, is a sign of humanity. Awkwardness suggests the possibility of escape from a world full of people who say so little, so eloquently. Kendall can be flowery in his speech, but he can also be stilted and Greglike. That suggests that he might still be able to untangle himself from Logan Roy. And so might Kendall’s cousin. Greg—destroyer of documents, blower of whistles, speaker of his own special dialect—might well leave Logan’s orbit. Or he might give in to Logan. His future is uncertain. His fluency will offer clues to his fate. Meeting with Logan, Greg tries to speak the language of bargained allegiance. “So, okay, I guess, um, my question would be—what’s it worth?” he says of his loyalty. But then he punctuates the concession as only Greg could: “In terms of the me of it all?”