The Bodily Horrors of Succession

Infestation. Insects. Ointment. This is not the stuff you might expect from a work of prestige TV that takes extreme wealth as its subject.

A not-very-fun hunting party (Peter Kramer / HBO)

Late in Season 2 of Succession, HBO’s satirical dramedy about a Murdochesque media empire, the Roy family and those in their orbit convene for a preview performance of a new Broadway show. Sands was written by Willa, Connor Roy’s girlfriend, and financed by Connor. The most Succession reveals about the play is that it was extremely expensive to produce; that it is not very good (“That was, uh, you know? You’re a playwright,” is the highest praise one character is able to summon for Willa); and that its set involves, literally, sand. It will turn out that the sand, imported to the theater in great quantities, from lands unknown, is … infected.

“I think there’s something, maybe ... living in it?” Cousin Greg, who had the alleged good fortune of a stage-side seat at the show, informs Connor. “Like perhaps, uh, thriving in the sand? Like sand mites, maybe?” Greg is correct: The creatures, soon, are feasting on him, invisible, invincible, a scourge from which Greg can find no relief. Even the salve he applies fails to soothe. The opposite, in fact: “This stuff’s making it worse!” Greg squeals, in agony. “And I feel like it’s attracting midges! My sand mites are getting eaten by midges!”

Infestation. Insects. Ointment. This is not the stuff you might expect from a work of prestige TV that takes extreme wealth as both its subject and its setting. The typical exploration of wealth as a kind of ecology—in series such as Billions, or Dirty Sexy Money, or the Real Housewives franchise, or the many other shows that reimagine Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous for the post-Occupy era—takes the allure of aspiration for granted. Billions is a slick soap opera with how-to overtones. Big Little Lies, for all its subtleties, might as well be set in a Pinterest board.

But Succession is a different beast, and that is in part because its stories involve, so often, actual beasts. Animals are everywhere in this show: Characters insult one another through invocations of weasels and snakes and extinction-ready dinosaurs. They compliment one another that way, too. (“No one is going to want to tackle a big, angry puffer fish bristling with dick,” Tom tells Shiv.) A second-season episode, “Hunting,” is devoted to the idea that wild boars can be, for a certain kind of human, nature and food and sport all at the same time—game, in every sense. Logan Roy, the family patriarch, observes the guests who have come to one of his parties and mutters, “Look at them—all the little piggies at the trough.” His son Kendall, capitulating to Logan’s desire to buy the left-leaning media conglomerate PGN from the Sulzberger-and-Bancroft-like Pierce family, tells his siblings, “Come on. Let’s go bag this elephant for Dad.” Connor describes the Roy family’s global influence—via its Fox-like news channel and its movie studio and its cruise line and its amusement park—like so: “Butterfly wings, but bigger. Huge wings. Like a pterodactyl.”

The presence of animals allows Succession’s writers to serve up some lines of truly excellent absurdity. (Tom, downplaying his role in a corporate cover-up: “I was but a minnow trailing in the wake of Bill—the big sperm whale, the legend.”) But the show’s menageristic dimension achieves something else as well. It inflicts nature on the show’s humans. It implicates. Extreme wealth, in the American imagination—and very definitely in the Roy family’s mythology—works as an agent of exceptionalism: Wealth is impunity. It is the ability to play by a different set of rules. It is the freedom to travel the world by helicopter and private jet, to live in soaring towers, to avoid the grub of the ground. It is, essentially, to inhabit an ecosystem separate from the one that constrains everyone else.

Succession’s insistent physicality, however, forecloses that kind of escapism. It reminds the Roys—and it reminds the show’s viewers along with them—that the very rich, at the level of the body, are no different from anyone else. Bodies equalize. Bodies neutralize. Man versus nature, that epic old standby, was never a fair fight. One of the show’s earliest scenes finds Greg, working at an amusement park, throwing up inside the costume he wears, his vomit gushing out of the character’s eyes. Another finds Logan urinating onto a carpet. One of the show’s characters is rumored to have contracted syphilis (“very much the MySpace of STDs,” Tom taxonomizes it). Another engages in a quite literal shitting of a bed. Roman, the youngest Roy, ejaculates onto the window of his high-floored office, Manhattan’s manufactured skyline spread before him through floor-to-ceiling glass. This would seem to be a gesture of Darwinian dominance—until, moments later, Succession’s camera finds Roman, tissue in hand, trying to wipe away the fluid, the glass emitting a series of high-pitched squeaks.

Humiliation is currency among the Roys. (“Oink for your sausages, piggy!” Logan yells, during a game whose rules he has written, to people whose livelihoods depend on his largesse.) But humiliation is also currency within the series that tells the Roys’ story. Succession is an itchy show. It is a uniquely visceral show. It takes characters who assume that their wealth makes them meaningfully different from everyone else and finds new ways to remind them that they are incorrect. Greg may stand to inherit, through an accident of chromosomal collision, a quarter of a billion dollars; the sand mites that have taken residence on his person, however, care not at all about that. This is the crux of Succession’s satire: Whatever the show’s characters might have to say about it, nature has a way of biting back.

In August, as Succession’s second season was getting under way, the writer Aaron Bady argued that the show’s execution, and its “half-baked class politics,” failed to condemn the Roys in the way early episodes had suggested it might. Succession likes its characters too much, Bady suggested—and therefore makes its viewers like its characters too much—to interrogate the problems of unfettered capitalism as sharply as that subject deserves. “It is amazing who you can be made to sympathize with, if you are made to watch them suffer,” he noted, citing Kendall’s tragedies, Roman’s comedies, and Shiv’s attempts to secure the approval of a father who doubles as a boss. When King Lear is told through the eyes of the children, those children, Bady wrote, “become too pitiful to hate.” Eating the rich becomes much less appealing when the rich are so wounded and charming.

A show about extreme wealth—particularly one that aims for satire—will always walk a fine line. Succession laughs at the Roys, and it laughs with the Roys, and viewers might well find it difficult to determine where the one ends and the other begins. But the idea that Succession is too soft on its subject overlooks the aspect of the show that is both ambient and elemental: its gross physicality—its ongoing suggestion that the world the Roys inhabit is at once impossibly expensive and deeply disgusting. Succession might have empathy for its characters; it has exactly zero sympathy, however, for the environment that contains them.

Americans are accustomed to discussing the corporate world in ecological terms: landscapes, ecosystems, poaching, pouncing, clashes between the victors and the vanquished. Succession, in one way, capitulates to the metaphors. The Roy family considers capitalism itself, for the most part, a struggle to be won. They hunt. They regard people as prey. They try their best to bag the elephants. But they also treat money the way only very wealthy people are able to: as a mere abstraction. Roman buys a Scottish football team just because he can. Logan forgets how many houses he owns. Connor, not content with a role as a Broadway producer, launches a presidential campaign—one premised on the idea that the wealthy should pay no more in taxes than those who have not been so fortunate.

The show mocks them for all this and finds ways to even the score. Tom, initiating Greg into wealth’s rituals, bullies him into ingesting a drink with flecks of gold suspended in it—on the grounds that, later, the two men can both enjoy the pleasures of “a 24-karat piss.” Not long after Greg capitulates, though, the show finds him enduring the agony of his excess. “I think too much edible gold hurt my tummy,” he whines. Physicality, in this world, doubles as accountability. It punctures wealth’s myths. Nature, here, is not romantic or serene or something to be tamed for human consumption; it is a kind of comeuppance. It puts people in their place. Succession, which is cannily shot but rarely beautifully shot, situates its outdoor scenes, most often, under gloomy and overcast skies. Its cinematographers find creative ways to make sprawling mansions seem claustrophobic. The show sets a notably large number of its scenes in bathrooms. In its environments—sumptuous, vacuous, cold—there is a sense of menace.

And that is how Succession saves itself, as satire. The show counters hubris with humiliation. Its wealthy world is full of rot. Call it Logan’s Law: The closer a character gets to the top, in this hermetic hierarchy, the greater the chances that he will find himself vomiting in a dining room as fellow billionaires look on.

In Succession’s Season 2 premiere, the Roys arrive at their Hamptons house (“the Summer Palace,” they call it, practically daring the proletariat to object), only to discover that the whole place smells of death. The stench, it turns out, has emanated from the decaying carcasses of raccoons that had been wedged into one of the mansion’s chimneys—a vengeance enacted by a contractor who had worked on the house and whom Logan had refused to pay in full. The stink travels. It insinuates. As Logan sums up the situation: “It smells like the cheesemonger died with his dick in the Brie.”

This is another kind of metaphor. Nature, in Succession, is both the victor and the spoils. Bodily health is a constant anxiety in the show, which begins with Logan’s stroke and—even after his speedy recovery—offers multiple hints that his vigor remains in jeopardy. Logan’s body is a vulnerability. It is a liability. There are two visions at play in Succession: In one, the body of the capitalist creates its own kind of gravity. The world arranges itself around him; the heart beats and the neurons fire and the markets move. (Employees at Waystar Royco, following Logan’s incapacitation in that first episode, make decisions based on the idea that a bedridden executive will have potentially devastating global effects; they are, in that assumption, correct.) But then there is the other vision—the one the show endorses, in the end: the utter absurdity of this unsteady state of affairs. The brutal contingency of it all. In Succession’s universe, power accumulates and concentrates until the whims of one person have a direct influence over the world and its whirlings. These are familiar physics. And the show mocks them even as it mimics them. The capitalists here are named after kings; that is its own dark joke.

Succession airs into an America that is currently in the thrall of another would-be sovereign—another leader full of bile and spleen. The show streams into the era of “cancel billionaires.” Its humors are melancholy. The Roys live in the fiction of infinite economic growth: wealth that accretes indefinitely, a financial system that operates outside the world’s blunt physical limitations. But Succession rebukes its characters for their magical thinking. It recognizes how destructive—how cruel—their world can be. The show situates its story within an ecosystem: One that is shared. One that is fragile. One that comes with its own hard accountabilities. The Roys assume themselves to be exempt from the rules; the great comedy of Succession—and the great tragedy—is that nature will allow no such absolution.