Market-Speak Is the Love Language on Succession

One of the bleakest elements of the show’s satire is that its characters aren’t sure how to distinguish between earning capital and earning affection.

Kendall, Shiv, and Roman in deep discussion on 'Succession.'
Macall B. Polay / HBO

This article contains spoilers through the eighth episode of Succession Season 3.

Last month, as fears about inflation filled the American news, Elon Musk sent out a tweet. “Due to inflation,” his brief missive went, “420 has gone up by 69.”

Musk being Musk, the note caused a flurry of speculation. What did it mean, this winking reference to sex and weed? What was the richest man on Earth trying to convey about his mind and the market, which are edging ever closer to the same thing? In a recent episode of Succession, the Roy family finds itself asking similar questions while attempting to decode the statements of a Muskily obdurate tech tycoon named Lukas Matsson. “I shouldn’t say anything,” Matsson tells Kendall, humorlessly, of his potential interest in selling to Waystar Royco. “Even the look on my face is commercially sensitive.”

Matsson is a new character on Succession, but a familiar figure: someone who enters the mix as a potential business partner for the Roys and who does extremely little, in the end, to alter their circumstances. Matsson, played with viscous conceit by Alexander Skarsgård, is another iteration of Stewy Hosseini or Lawrence Yee or Nan Pierce: He promises—or threatens—a restructuring of the Roys’ empire. As of this writing, he fails to bring it. He is in some sense an embodiment of a show in which very much happens and very little meaningfully changes.

“Really? Again??” I sometimes found myself asking, as Stewy returned once more, as Kendall schemed anew, as the Roy family reunited for yet another cursed birthday party (or wedding, or Mediterranean vacation). One reading of all the stultified sameness is that Succession, a show otherwise known for its propulsive writing, is stuck. Another, though, is that the sameness is part of the satire. Succession posits a world where people, as well as companies, can be deemed too big to fail. Its inertias, shaped by the whims of the wretchedly rich, double as indictments of a culture that loves to talk about change—and then chooses, again and again, to side with the status quo.

Kendall Roy, a guy who once described words as nothing but “complicated airflow,” has a habit of turning conversations into speeches. One of his third-season soliloquies ends with a meditation on inevitability and its discontents. “Maybe we’re all irrelevant,” he tells his siblings. “Maybe there were always going to be death camps, and maybe the planet is going to fry, and there’s nothing we can do. Or maybe people make a difference. I don’t know; do you think human beings matter?” Kendall likes to think they do. Or, rather, he likes to tell himself they do. “That’s actually what I’m about: change,” Kendall tells Stewy. “You should save that for Vanity Fair, bro,” comes the reply.

All of the airflow gets interrupted, though, by the force that operates, in Succession, as variously a looming threat, a tool of interpersonal reprisal, and an all-purpose rationalization: “the market.” At one moment, Kendall is yelling “Fuck the patriarchy!” to paparazzi at a gala; at another, he’s telling his sister why she’ll never be CEO. “You’re still seen as a token woman, wonk, woke, snowflake,” Kendall says. And then—“I don’t think like that, but the market does.”

The line makes fun of Kendall, who lets convenience dictate whether he calls himself a master of the market or its minion. But it doubles as a broader joke. Even the 1 percentiest of the 1 percent, in this show, profess obligations to the market’s hazy demands. Their compliance neatly mirrors—and subtly satirizes—the way finance, with all its logics and limitations, infuses Americans’ lives. If metaphors tend to reflect their times, from human as machine during the industrial age to human as animal during the height of Darwin, then many of today’s metaphors come down to capital. People become brands, companies become people, workers become human resources. Humans become abstracted and then conscripted into the service of that most powerful god: the GDP.

The language trickles down, on the show as elsewhere. Logan’s sanctimonious brother Ewan diagnoses Logan as “morally bankrupt.” Shiv, once an alleged progressive, rationalizes her presence at a conservative mega-summit by claiming that she is “just shopping at the marketplace of ideas.” She diagnoses Gerri’s nonreaction to Roman’s harassment of her as a bid at “leverage.” Tom interprets a secret Greg reveals to him as “a valuable piece of capital.” Logan defines advice from an executive as “a long-term investment in my trust in you.” The characters talk that way because so many people, magnate and mortal alike, talk that way.

But Succession doesn’t just make its characters fluent in market-speak. The thrall of commerce also shapes their most intimate interactions. Some families play Pictionary after Thanksgiving dinner; the Roys play a game called I Went to Market. Logan metes out his love—or, at least, his carefully worded statements of love—via Fortune 500–style rankings. You’re No. 1, he’ll tell one of his children, typically when he needs something from them. Caroline, Shiv’s absentee mother, explains to Shiv why she didn’t fight for her after divorcing Logan: “I gave him custody so you could protect your shares and I could protect your interests.” Kendall informs Greg, his cousin and sometime ally, “I’m still not saying I will burn you; all I’m saying is I might burn you. It’s a margin call.” Tom, after he and Shiv conduct (another!) negotiation of their feelings for each other, concludes, wearily, “It’s good to know we don’t have an unbalanced love portfolio.” Later, as the two discuss the possibility of a baby, “I just think it’s smart to bank some embryos,” Shiv says. “And then, you know, we can see where we are.”

And on and on. The satire extends to the characters’ artful deployment of euphemisms—the way they have of saying nothing and everything at the same time. Those who live outside the Roys’ orbit are not so much individuals as, in their minds, a singular atmospheric contingency. Public opinion, in the Roys’ parlance, is “the temperature,” “the climate.” “You have to look at the climate,” Shiv tells Logan, trying to persuade him not to support a fascist presidential candidate. Her father dismisses the concern. “Climate said I was going down,” he tells her. “Climate said I should just step aside. I guess I’m a climate denier.” One of the most brutal lines of Succession’s first season, “no real person involved”—the phrase that protected Kendall from the consequences of killing a worker at Shiv’s wedding—has become, by this point, a refrain. “We’re real people!” Karl, Waystar’s chief financial officer, says when he learns that Roman has been betting on the fates of the company’s executives. “You are not,” Roman replies, impishly, icily. “You claim to be real, but look at ya. Look at ya!”

In the show’s confining cosmology, Roman has a point. Logan has a point. No real person involved: Again and again, the Roys benefit from a world that pits human interests against bottom lines. They find ways to alchemize people into coffered gold. Whatever happens to them, around them, or because of them, they face few meaningful consequences for it. A magazine publishes its report about the crimes alleged of the family company’s cruise line: rape, harassment, manslaughter, cover-ups. The revelations lead to a flurry of dramatic action—congressional testimonies, Logan’s decision to sacrifice Kendall, an FBI raid of the Waystar offices—and in the end, for the viewer, almost no catharsis. The Justice Department effectively gives up on its investigation of Waystar’s wrongdoing. The whistleblower who was prepared to testify in Congress has simply receded into the shadows. No one, not Kendall or Tom or Logan himself, spends a moment in jail. (“It’s going to be a number,” Logan reports, champagne in hand, having learned that the company’s crimes will likely be punished with merely a fine. He follows this up with a toast: “To justice!”)

He believes it; that is the dark joke. In Logan’s mind, the universe has righted itself. In a world biased toward its old equilibria, inertia will always win. The status quo, for characters on this show, is the ultimate status symbol. They may claim that the market is their menace, but it is also their salvation. It holds them in its grip and elevates them at the same time—guaranteeing a world of limitless choices and exceedingly few possibilities.

The history professor and author Yuval Noah Harari talks about “imagined orders”: the mythologies that shape people’s most fundamental conceptions of the rules of the world. Laws, corporations, money—these things are not hard realities. They are inventions that are communally agreed upon to make life smoother and easier, if not just or equitable. Imagined orders shape Succession’s satire. (“Most things don’t exist,” Logan puts it. “The Ford Motor Company hardly exists. It’s just a time-saving expression for a collection of financial interests.”) Metaphors are constraints as much as they are permission. When people are conditioned to outsource morality to vague notions of “the market,” production is valued; people are not. Growth is celebrated even as people’s lives are caught in the forward movement. “Life’s not knights on horseback,” Logan tells Kendall. “It’s a number on a piece of paper. It’s a fight for the knife in the mud.” It might be the bleakest—and most revealing—line of the show.