The secular poetry of “succession”
I have nightmares awake of being insulted by characters from Succession. It’s a compliment, by the way. Good writing doesn’t just make you laugh or say “Wow, cool description of a flower” or whatever. It temporarily readjusts your brain. Your little conscience hums its tune, la la la, and the good handwriting falls like a drummer. He makes your thoughts conform to his patterns. So here I am. It may be cold; maybe I just put on a sweater. I like big knits in the fall. Give me a good Donegal tweed and I’m happy. Now normally if someone tried to shame me I would tell them to take the Fuck You Train back to Bad Opinion Town. But lately I watched Succession, I got this beat in my head, so when I look at myself in the mirror I get this imaginary horror reaction chorus:
Shiv: Did you pay real money for this?
Roman: Looks like Robert Frost jerked off on a bighorn sheep.
To M: I really like. I think more men should dress like illiterate 1930s sheep ranchers.
Kendall: The mess happened to you, man? Did you lose a bet against a carpet factory? Did a yeti eat part of you and then have to take a call?
Season 3 of Succession debuts on October 17, after a quarantine hiatus that appears to have lasted 14 years; I am both excited and dreaded of his return. Excited, because at the writing level Succession is the most viciously beautiful show on tv, every episode is a layman master class in the school of poetry of I Hear You Jizzed 500k on a fake Napoleon Dick, its individual scenes as finely crafted Chopin studies in the key of It Was Tom Who Farted in Sa poo. And in awe because … well, my God. The strength of the writing means that all of those moral vampires, the Roy family and their luxury fleet of spine gnawing hangers, will be living in my head and taking script notes of my insecurities.
It’s worth it, however. For the rest of this paragraph, I’ll be pasting sentences from the series out of context, as the work of series creator Jesse Armstrong and his writing room is too weird, funny, and awesome to be fully appreciated when you’re also paying attention. to things like history and acting and the hideous proliferation of Jeff Bezos’ vests (all of which are the best in the high-profile drama space). Ready? If I eat more songbirds, I will howl. Excellent title for your memoir: a benign mushroom. Have you, for example, built a glider from a Caesar salad? You are as fungible as it gets. I look at your face and, without offense, but I see dead babies. I’m afraid I agreed to be the CEO of a pirate dumpster death ship. You’re kind of like a fun, bouncy gun tuned to MILF, with a women’s Lean In branding that works well with the Fitbit-jerk no matter the folks. (Sidenote: !!!) Love is the last remaining fridge magnet. What polyglot genius could hope to crack your impenetrable code? I am interested in becoming a meth boss. Waystar Royco: We do hate speech and roller coasters. Great, go ahead and operate, Doctor Google! You don’t hear a lot about syphilis these days; really the Myspace of STDs. You fucked me like a tied goat. Oh, horse potatoes!
It is nothing new that the best-written TV show and the grossest TV show are the same. Television is by far the most heavily censored medium in the last half century of American cultural life; it is also the most suitable medium for exploring social groups and their norms on a large scale. No wonder the rawest, smartest, and most incisive shows are often the most sensitive to how people use words they’re not supposed to say. Thread, famous, featured a scene in which the only dialogue was the word “fuck” repeated 38 times in a row. Dead wood used his Elizabethan impasto of scatalogical, misogynistic and homophobic swear words to reflect his argument that violence, brutality and exclusion shape civilization as much as the will to suppress them. The Sopranos used profanity to emphasize his theme of American decline: “What happened to Gary Cooper?” right next to “What, no fucking ziti?” The big exception of the Golden Age and the Pantheon here is Mad Men, which explored a more politely spoken medium – its characters only behaved horribly – and was not on HBO either.
In many ways, Succession has the juiciest setup of all for writers who love to swear. (These are all writers.) The world of Roys is intensely, childishly Oedipal, and its hierarchies are reinforced by constant hazing and humiliation. It’s a radical combination, at the language level, because it means verbal inventiveness is both a source of power for the characters and a way for them to reveal their weaknesses. If you’re ingenious enough to say that something is “smoother than sperm off a dolphin’s back” (which, second note: !!!!), then you’ve got a weapon you can use in the game. Darwinian death from moment to moment of every conversation. You’ve also opened a window to something strange and strangely vulnerable about your own inner life. It makes sense, in this light, that Roman is both the most verbally brilliant character on the show and the most hurt, pitiful and dysfunctional; in a universe where Boar on the Floor is an essential board game for the lords of creation, power will always open up on the Freudian abyss. This is where good dialogue comes from!
It’s not just the gonzo writing and deep vulgarity that makes Succession such a delight for writers. My favorite line in the series is a throwaway from the Season 1 finale, “Nobody Is Ever Missing,” written by Armstrong and Susan Soon He Stanton. No one I have ever mentioned this line to remembers it; I think this is my favorite statement from the past five years on television. Billionaire Patriarch’s daughter Siobhan played by Sarah Snook and Billionaire Patriarch’s lackey played by Matthew Macfadyen are chatting moments before their wedding. Shiv is cold-eyed, she wants Tom to accept an open relationship which he doesn’t, but they are both wrong right now and it’s not all out yet. Tom tries to convince Shiv that their life can be one great romantic adventure; they don’t need to be slaves to Logan Roy and his money. This is total bullshit, but she indulges in it for a second. “Let’s go fucking New Zealand,” he said (that’s not the line), “become sheep ranchers.” She laughs at it, so he thinks he better take it up a notch. Maybe he can invite her to run away and become a diving instructor with him. “Can you go diving? He said (not the line either).
And here it is: She says, with a complex but totally accessible blend of impatience, irritation, and encouragement, the kind of tone you hear all the time in real life but rarely encounter on TV: ” You know I can dive! And I’m sorry, I know that probably sounds disappointing on paper, but go. If the purpose of TV dialogues is to convey as much as possible about characters and relationships in as few words as possible, “You know I can dive in” belongs to the fucking Traveler disk. In a fun sentence of only five words, that tells you a lot about this person, the kind of life she’s had (she not only had access to diving lessons, she’s so used to deference to people around her that she expects them to remember), her relationship with her fiancé (who wants to sell her on a great love story but forgets the details of her life while he does, and at the same time should also defer to her), the quality of their shared history (they’ve been scuba diving, but that’s forgettable), the things they understand and don’t not understand each other, all of it. I’ve read novels that give you less in 300 pages than “You Know I Can Dive” gives you in a fraction of a tweet.
The point here isn’t that it’s the best line ever to appear on Succession. The point is, this is a typical line. He’s just the one that tickled me the most when I heard him. Each episode has such rich and economical character writing moments. And that is surely why the series is so popular. The Roys aren’t the deepest characters in television history, but the writers give us a clear view of them all the way to the end. Actors of course deserve credit here too, but actors always get credit; writers not so much.
“When it comes to language,” critic James Wood once wrote, “all writers want to be billionaires. The creators of Succession living out this fantasy in a much more literal way than Wood had expected. But – and this is what makes the show so fun – they can also imagine a world in which the reverse is true. At Succession, when it comes to money, all billionaires want to be writers.