Stop calling the characters on Succession “terrible people,” you jerks

Max Landis
6 min readApr 25, 2023

So, Darth Vader, right? Darth Vader.

If someone in real life murdered an entire school full of children with a sword, then led a fascist movement that annihilated planets and led to the death of billions, I think it would take a lot for you to give a shit about whether or not this prick was willing to hug his son.

That is the magic of storytelling; often times the absolute grandiose spectacle of a story can allow for leaps of emotional empathy; thusly, the evil of Vader feels abstract enough that when he is redeemed in his love for Luke, we, you know, we like it. We think it’s cool and actually he was a pretty cool guy kind of maybe.

The same cannot be said of things that cut closer to the bone, that don’t simply show us other worlds, but instead stab straight into our own memories, capturing more perhaps complicated emotions than the ones felt when seeing a big spaceship exploded to shit.

Such as the case with HBO’s Succession, which, as I write this, it’s halfway through its final season. Despite taking place in the upper echelons of wealth on planet earth, Succession is primarily about interpersonal foibles, with hundreds of billions of dollars representing a kind of abstract backdrop on which a royal family drama plays out.

Succession’s much-celebrated cocktail of writing, directing, editing and acting gives the show an ability to capture little nuanced emotional moments that feel familiar from our real lives; glances, silences, insecurity and shockingly cutting remarks. The show occasionally has the feel of a masterfully crafted stageplay, with an emotional immediacy and incredibly performance focused editorial style that allows us to deeply understand why each member of the Roy family behaves the way they do.

And yet, in discussion around the show, I again and again here the refrain that “Succession is about terrible people.”

Like what the fuck, shut up. Like you’re so perfect. Emoji of barfing.

People express feigned hesitance, occasionally, when picking a favorite sibling on the show, often times talking about these characters like guilty pleasures, people who they judge every bit as much as they relate to.

Maybe you’ve encountered this too, the implication that while talking about Succession, it’s very important to communicate that we condemn these people, that we don’t relate to them, that they are infinitely more messed up then we are.

So I will say it flat out: with the possible exception of the insidious Logan Roy and his nemesis, the depraved button-down sadist Mattson, I don’t think any of the characters on Succession are terrible people.

its literally a show about hugging

As malicious as the Roy dynasty can be to one another, they are almost never malevolent. The distinction is what allows us to believe they would forgive each other, again and again, as the show moves on. Their actions lead to hurt feelings yes, but more than anything, the foibles of the Roys are about self destruction.

But what about the waiter, that poor young man who drowned? Surely Kendall deserves some kind of cosmic comeuppance, surely he at least is “terrible.”

To this I say, re-watch the episode. Kendall’s “guilt“ in the story exists only with the waiter being complicit, and believe it or not, whether you remember it or not, he does make an admirable effort to swim back down and save the young man’s life. His retelling of the incident at the end of season three to his siblings is actually remarkably honest, even though at the time I saw it portrayed on social media and think-pieces as “delusional.”

He literally says exactly what happened.

The subsequent cover-up is sinister, yes, but barely even scratches the edges of the transgressions of characters like Jesse Pinkman, another addict under different circumstances.

As someone who has spent time in the mental health system and had many of my own up close encounters with people with serious addiction problems, it kind of scares me to consider the moralistic anti-realist mindset that would look at the horrible accident in the series one finale and conclude that Kendall is a “murderer,” or even anything close to an inherently “terrible person.”

It’s not legally defensible. It’s not good. It’s tragic. But it’s also most certainly not evil, and the choice is made very clear in the depiction and fall out because, barring perhaps Mattson, there are no classically evil characters on the show.

Simply selfish ones. And that’s because Succession is all about love.

The main thing Succession asks from its audience isn’t for engaged catharsis, it isn’t some kind of antihero thrill ride and it isn’t a fairytale.

The main thing Succession asks for, as again and again it shows its strangely warm heart, is compassion.

It asks you to understand and care about and root for addicts and narcissists, delusional billionaires and emotionally stunted weirdos who send unsolicited dick pics.

Let’s actually zoom in on that. That’s worth dissecting to show you what I mean.

If you heard about a creepy billionaire’s executive kid who sends unsolicited dick pics to coworkers, courts fascists for major platforms, who is incompetent to a fundamental degree, you might have trouble believing that could be a protagonist who you’d root for.

Certainly, to bring us back to an actually evil character, an actual “terrible person,” Walter White, we can see the inherent differences of how Succession works versus a more typical moralistic TV show.

Walter’s initial character bio is “sweet chemistry teacher diagnosed with cancer turns to selling drugs.” It’s an obviously more sympathetic set up then the dick pic guy.

And yet Roman’s eventual explosion of “I hate you” on the mountain to Mattson was every bit as fuck yeah hell yeah let’s go as Walter White’s “say my name.”

And that’s because Succession secretly isn’t about the chess game. It’s about love. Have you ever noticed that? How fucking cute the show is?

Even as the characters maneuver around each other, make chess moves to ruin each others lives, love is a constant presence. Even in the toxic dynamics of the royal family, expressions of real love and affection, verbal and physical, happen at a much greater frequency than you might imagine considering the show in abstract terms.

There is a reason the Royce siblings are shown very regularly touching each other, hugging each other, and supporting each other in key moments on the show. And it’s not because you’re supposed to be rooting against them or judging them. It’s because the show is telling you it’s OK to love them.

It’s OK to want to see these people hug.

Nowhere is this more present than in the character of Tom, who is written simultaneously as the most Machiavellian yet most sincere character on the show. the agony of Tom and Shiv’s relationship isn’t the agony of terrible people, it’s the agony of terrible decisions, burning away at something that feels pure and real on some level.

The storytelling supports this. The music cues, the editing, the performances; if you are judging them as soulless manipulators, there’s a strong chance you’re just projecting.

Compassion compassion compassion. Again and again Succession shows empathy and consideration to its characters, asks us to understand people who hurt themselves and hurt each other. If you didn’t understand Connor and Willa’s wedding conversation as a beautiful moment of emotional vulnerability for both of them, that’s on you. The show is absolutely rooting for these kids.

So maybe stop it with the “terrible people” stuff. It’s just virtue signaling.

Everyone’s got a little Roy in them.

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