The Gerontocracy Is the Villain of Succession

Logan Roy has a UTI. But as the show’s old men decline in health, they grow only more ruthless.

The 'Succession' character Logan Roy
Macall Polay / HBO

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

Logan was ill. He was the victim of an ailment so common that most people would consider it trivial. But when it gets to Logan, it can plunge him into a state of anguish, deep depression, panic, even rage. Logan Roy had a UTI.

I’ll stop there with the rewrite of Gay Talese’s legendary 1966 magazine article, “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold,” though it is tempting to keep going in light of the latest episode of Succession. When Logan, the patriarch of the family-run Waystar Royco media empire, contracts a urinary tract infection, it causes a dementia flare-up so severe that he confuses his daughter for his wife and his son-in-law, Tom Wambsgans, for someone he likes. Just as Sinatra’s sniffles created ripples across the entertainment industry, Logan’s temporary illness throws everyone around him into disarray and threatens to upend the global-media landscape by spoiling a gargantuan deal.

Should so much depend on one person’s excretory system? More than ever, Succession is about the gravitational heft that America gives particular men, and the chaos that ensues when mortality wobbles them. The latest episode, “Retired Janitors of Idaho,” depicts the long-awaited Waystar Royco shareholder meeting, at which the rank-and-file investors theoretically get to give their input about the company’s direction. But the event’s outcome is ultimately decided by the machinations of powerful guys whose ruthlessness seems inversely proportional to their health. Men like Logan have created a world that seems as though it cannot exist without them—yet when their faculties fade, the problems of hoarding power become clear.

One of those problems is that master-of-the-universe types tend to rule not by principle but by force of personality. During the episode, Waystar’s top deputies are negotiating with a hostile conglomerate attempting a takeover, hoping for a settlement that would keep the Roys in control of the company. When Logan’s loss of mental faculties becomes indisputable, Waystar’s top executives are left to puzzle over his last semi-coherent order: a highly typical “Fuck ’em!” His son Roman—whose irreverent manner belies his total worship of his father—says they should take a strict interpretation of fuck ’em and walk away from negotiations. But Logan’s daughter, Shiv, thinks he’d want them to keep pushing for a deal. Neither sibling really has much evidence to base their case on.

On the other end of the bargaining table is another weakened demigod, the media executive Sandy Furness. Though his exact illness is not known—Waystar spread rumors of syphilis—he is now in a wheelchair and communicates in a low mumble that his daughter, similarly named Sandi, interprets. Yet his hatred of Logan has grown only more extreme. During negotiations, he makes harsher and harsher demands that are clearly motivated less by economic logic than by malice. His business partner Stewie and the younger Sandi are frustrated by the complications this creates—but they have no choice but to execute his wishes. On both Logan’s side and Sandy’s side, the negotiations really are about, as Kendall puts it early in the episode, “just managing egos.”

Shiv and Sandi eventually devise a compromise to add two seats to the company board. This is a shameless bit of self-dealing on Shiv’s part—but, judging by the positive reactions of Waystar’s career executives, it also may be a solid business idea. Yet when Logan regains his cognizance, he is grumpy about the outcome. When Shiv asks him what he would have done instead, his reply—“not that”—doesn’t reveal anything other than his disdain. Maybe he is angry not at the details of the deal but at the fact that business went on in his absence. Shiv has dented the illusion that the world would stop turning without him.

Easing back, willfully relenting one ounce of power, is anathema not just to the Logans and Sandys of Succession’s world, but for many movers and shakers in our own. Maybe that is because admitting one’s own frailties is just not something our society rewards. In this episode, we learn that the unnamed president of the United States won’t run for reelection, because of a neurological issue—or at least because of Waystar’s journalists’ coverage of that issue. We also learn that Ewan Roy, Logan’s dour brother, is donating all his wealth to Greenpeace. These men may be acting somewhat honorably, but the show’s other characters generally regard them as losers.

The challenge for the Roy family—and for Succession, which feels a bit stuck in a holding pattern this season—is to really reckon with the possibilities of a post-Logan world. For now, his children scrap viciously, each holding the likely delusional ambition of becoming him one day. What they never seem to ponder is that vesting so much influence in one individual is a form of insanity, and that some models of succession don’t involve creating God figures. But embracing such models would mean giving up a chance to become that thing Talese said Sinatra embodied: “the fully emancipated male … the man who can do anything he wants, anything.” Perhaps having your UTI shake the earth is simply the American dream.