Famous families. They enthrall us (say, the royals) and often infuriate us (you, Kardashians) with their power, wealth and privilege — and their ability to emerge unscathed from scandal or misstep.
But what is it really like to be part of one? To have your forebears and family name be inescapable reminders of all you must live up to? Or try to live down?
HBO’s stellar, slyly funny new family dynasty drama Succession — from comedy veterans Adam McKay (Saturday Night Live) and Jesse Armstrong (In the Loop) — examines the inner workings of the fictional Roy family, proprietors of international media conglomerate Waystar Royco. Led by no-nonsense patriarch Logan Roy (Brian Cox, Churchill), a thrice-married, by-your-bootstraps octogenarian on the cusp of retirement, Waystar includes print and entertainment entities and theme parks but not enough new-media holdings for some Roy progeny’s collective taste. Especially Logan’s middle son Kendall (Jeremy Strong, The Good Wife), the tightly wound heir apparent plotting to fast-track his destiny, whether his dad and three intriguingly disparate siblings approve or not.
Though comparisons to media’s most famous clans are expected and apt, Armstrong says his writers room examined family empires from the Julio-Claudian dynasty to the Trumps and Bushes to fully explore the peculiar layers of loyalty and betrayal when power is passed down through bloodlines. There’s another facet to this tale, too. Via the Roys, McKay and Armstrong also appraise our perception of the media, its mercurial evolution and how the digital era impacts critical thinking and dwindling attention spans.
“There’s a number of successions going on in the show,” Armstrong explains. “There’s the family succession. But we were also very aware of this era of Murdochs and Redstones, [Liberty Media chief] John Malone and [Comcast CEO] Brian Roberts — these big, individual controlling shareholders — as the media, the nexus for control of the stuff we consume, passes to the tech giants. We took that area as good meat and drink for the show.”
And served it via a family where business is never not on the table. Where a family birthday party turns into a father’s power play and an annual softball game becomes a showplace of passive-aggression with a stranger’s child as unwitting prop.
In addition to Kendall, the tribe includes Logan’s protective third wife, Marcia (Hiam Abbass); detached eldest son Connor (Alan Ruck); youngest son Roman (Kieran Culkin), the family’s wily clown prince; and daughter Siobhan (Sarah Snook), who’s made her own way as a political consultant while mastering her family dynamic. “A preoccupation of the show is about mortality and the end coming to human beings and to organizations,” says Armstrong of crafting Logan and his kin. “I was interested in somebody that has a lot of vitality, but is having to start to think about the end — but my sitcom background suggested a sort of mini-family amongst the kids.”
Especially as the latter jockey for position in their father’s eyes and empire.
“In all great businessmen, there’s a narcissistic, controlling thing,” says Cox, who likens Logan to Macbeth and King Lear (he’s played both). “This is what the story is really, deeply about. It’s about loss of perspective. For Logan, the loss of perspective has to do with how his own success and what he wants has inured him from everything else.”
With a roster of characters so fascinating even in their earliest moments, Succession is both timely and escapist — making pointed statements about wealth and power, nepotistic and otherwise, but not requiring a business degree to get caught up in the Roy family affairs.
Meet the Roys
Logan (Brian Cox)
Suspect of new media and his children’s plan for the family business, the Scottish-born patriarch’s succession plans get shockingly interrupted. “It’s impossible for me to think of anyone other than Brian Cox playing him,” Armstrong says. “His unique qualities … and little bits of his actorly persona feed into the character.”
Marcia (Hiam Abbass)
Elegant and unflappable, Logan’s current wife is his savvy and trusted partner in life and in business — and is rewarded as such. “Logan realizes that he is very alone, but he needs someone who can empathize, if not sympathize, with that sense of loneliness,” says Cox. “That’s why the relationship is vital for Logan — because it’s a question of trying to achieve, with her, some kind of peace of mind.”
Connor (Alan Ruck)
Logan’s eldest son and only child from his first marriage eschewed the family and family business for farm life in New Mexico, deferring to his siblings in business matters and earning a grudging acceptance from his dad. “Logan knows Connor will survive because he has a wonderful fantasy world that he lives in,” Cox says. “Logan also knows that Connor will have problems forming relationships that are not based on some kind of fiscal arrangement.”
Kendall (Jeremy Strong)
Logan’s eldest son from marriage No. 2 is introduced as a stereotype, a slang-spouting white-collar cowboy with eye-roller vernacular and — though he’d never admit it — daddy as his spine. But the truth is soon revealed. “There is something of the poet about Kendall; something of the delicate personality,” Cox muses. “That’s where he brutalizes him — and he feels he’s brutalized him a little bit too much. But Logan knows that Kendall can’t be trusted, because he will be at the mercy of people who will take him to the cleaners, even though Kendall thinks he’s in charge.”
Roman (Kieran Culkin)
The youngest Roy brother cloaks a keen understanding of business and his family’s ways with impish charm. “I wanted to posit a dynamic with these two perfectly possible [succession] candidates and then have, around them, people who cast a different light on it,” says Armstrong of the full brothers. “You see that Roman’s adopted a role because it was the one offered to him within the family, but he would like to be taken seriously.” “Roman has a lot of the young Logan in him,” Cox adds. “The ability to bounce, to make complete screw-ups but then bounce back.”
Siobhan (Sarah Snook)
Logan’s only daughter and favored youngest child is also his most confident. “She’s the one who has marked out her own territory in the most initially satisfactory way,” Armstrong explains. “The question for her is going to be the allure of what she’s been taught — [that] the most interesting thing you can do in the world is to be involved in the family business — will she succumb to that, or could she really imagine trying to build a life totally separate from it? And can the people she meets in her profession imagine her as a person totally separate from this powerful family?”
Tom (Matthew Macfadyen)
Siobhan’s schmoozy significant other is only too happy to let Logan’s beloved girl be his entrée to wealth and power. “I was interested in who would end up choosing to marry into a family like this,” says Armstrong. “We see a glimpse of Kendall’s ex-wife, who can see what it’s done to this person who she once loved. Tom is the other extreme.” “From Logan’s point of view, Tom is no match for his daughter,” Cox adds. “Logan ultimately recognizes that there is an innate goodness about Tom that is easily misled.”
Greg (Nicholas Braun)
The immigrant Logan recognizes his younger self in the guileless grandson of his estranged brother. “Greg provides our eyes into a world of rarefied wealth and power,” says Armstrong. “Initially, Logan feels he can manipulate him quite easily, but he also has complete empathy with the whole notion of the country-bumpkin idea.” “He knows that Greg has an incredibly intuitive intelligence, an incredible ability to observe and see certain things,” Cox adds. “He finds him a bit tedious, a bit of a joke. But he’s happy that Greg’s part of the firm because he’s family. That’s important. He’s family.”
Succession premieres Sunday, June 3 at 10/9c on HBO