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HBO Has Perfected the Art of Sibling Rivalry

The network has always relied on the chaotic dynamics of brothers and sisters.
  • The Roy siblings in Succession, Viserys and Daemon in House of the Dragon, and the Fisher siblings in Six Feet Under (Photos: HBO/Primetimer graphic)
    The Roy siblings in Succession, Viserys and Daemon in House of the Dragon, and the Fisher siblings in Six Feet Under (Photos: HBO/Primetimer graphic)

    This month marks the 50th anniversary of HBO, which launched on November 8, 1972. In our "HBO at 50" retrospective, Primetimer tracks the evolution of the cabler, from fledgling network to prestigious programmer and awards magnet.

    The centerpiece shot of the brief teaser HBO released for Season 4 of Succession was something we hadn't seen much of in the show's first three seasons: unity among the Roy siblings. Last we saw them, Shiv (Sarah Snook), Kendall (Jeremy Strong), and Roman (Kieran Culkin) were getting bodied by their father Logan (Brian Cox) after attempting to block his sale of the company. But the important thing was they were getting bodied together, which was something of a momentous occasion for them after three seasons spent going for each other's throats, both professionally and personally. The dynastic tensions on Succession have lately been reflected on HBO's other acclaimed drama series House of the Dragon. The panoply of familial conflicts within the Targaryen family will likely take several seasons to untangle, but at the root of it is the sibling rivalry between wary King Visrerys (Paddy Considine) and his hot-blooded younger brother Daemon (Matt Smith).

    That the engines of HBO's two current flagship drama series are fueled by intra-familial conflicts is notable but not at all surprising. Throughout the golden age of HBO programming, one of the most consistent and compelling narrative through lines has been sibling rivalry. This dates all the way back to Oz, the hard-boiled prison drama that in many ways kicked off the "It's Not TV, It's HBO" era. The Tom Fontana series featured real-life brothers Dean and Scott William Winters playing convicts Ryan and Cyril O'Reilly. Ryan was the bad one, the hard one, the one who "deserved" to be in prison; Cyril was sweet and soft and brain-damaged. It was all very Steinbeckian.

    That hard sibling/soft sibling dynamic has recurred quite a bit through the years on HBO, most recently via Daemon (hard) and Viserys (soft). Game of Thrones also played around a lot with hard/soft sibling dynamics, with everyone from Arya and Sansa Stark (Maisie Williams and Sophie Turner) to Meera and Jojen Reed (Ellie Kendrick and Thomas Brodie-Sangster). And while it's a far cry from the harsh environs of a medieval landscape or an upstate New York prison, the central dynamic on The Gilded Age is that of hardened society sister Agnes van Rhijn (Christine Baranski) and soft-hearted quasi-pushover Ada Brook (Cynthia Nixon).

    When it came to the show that changed everything — for HBO and television in general — The Sopranos was chock full of family drama of all kinds. But one of that show's most fascinating relationships was the one between Tony (James Gandolfini) and his sister Janice (Aida Turturro). Janice meandered back to New Jersey in the show's second season, the free-spirited, full-of-shit sister who was all too willing to leave Tony holding the bag with regard to their nightmare of a mother. Tony resented her for that, but Janice had her whole bag of resentments too — for being a girl in a family that valued boys, in a community that let boys grow up to take on the family business and left girls to become obedient wives or disrespected goomars. That Janice chose a different path for herself would be admirable, if she weren't such a manipulative, passive-aggressive, flighty pill. It made her one of the show's most fascinating characters, and Turturro's performance was incredibly underrated on a show whose performers were generally lauded to high heaven.

    Janice and Tony were constitutionally unable to ever get on the same page, due in large part to having been raised by a monster like Livia (Nancy Marchand). Which once again brings us back to the Roy siblings, forever poisoned by Logan and Caroline's (Harriet Walter) abhorrent parenting. The same could be said for the Lannisters on Game of Thrones. Cersei (Lena Headey), Jaimee (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), and Tyrion (Peter Dinklage) had their own domineering patriarch to f*ck them up, leading to twisted romantic relationships (Cersei/Jamie) and impenetrable enmity (Cersei/Tyrion). The bad dad/ruined and competitive children dynamic is also at play on The Righteous Gemstones, where patriarch Eli (John Goodman) raised a bunch of amoral successors (Danny McBride, Adam DeVine, Edi Patterson) trying to elbow each other out of the way to get ahead.

    You could probably read f*cked-up parenting into most of the strained sibling relationships on HBO throughout the years, even if it didn't lead to actual fratricide like it did on GOT. Certainly, the specter of a dead parent literally haunted the Fisher siblings on Six Feet Under. There was a prodigal son angle to this one, with eldest son Nate (Peter Krause) returning home to help run the family funeral business after their dad (Richard Jenkins) died, much to the dismay of responsible, uptight, simmeringly resentful David (Michael C. Hall). Complicating that relationship was youngest sibling Claire (Lauren Ambrose), who was alternately a mediator and a problem who needed to be handled. Without Claire as a quasi-chaos agent, the Nate/David dynamic would have felt too binary and simple. With three siblings, Alan Ball was able to create more idiosyncratic family bonds.

    The three-sibling bond worked well on Big Love, too, in an even more unconventional way. Jeanne Tripplehorn's Barb, Chloë Sevigny's Nicki, and Ginnifer Goodwin's Margene were sister-wives rather than actual sisters, but their dynamic reflected other HBO siblings just the same. As with SFU's Claire Fisher, Margene being the youngest meant she was often the one causing the most headaches. Meanwhile, Barb was the dependable first wife, and Nicki the dissatisfied second wife, a dynamic which became the driving force of the show far more than any one of the wives' relationships with husband Bill (Bill Paxton).

    The aggrieved second-born framing was also at play on Boardwalk Empire, where Steve Buscemi's Nucky Thompson was the successful bootlegger living high on the hog off of kickbacks and such in Atlantic City, while Eli (Shea Whigham) was the resentful younger brother, reduced to being a crooked cop cleaning up Nucky's messes.

    Resentment was certainly at the core of the toxic relationship shared by sisters Arya and Sansa Stark on Game of Thrones. The sentiment cut both ways there, especially in the early years, with Arya holding particular disdain for Sansa's unserious love of pretty clothes and her affinity towards the Lannisters. Sansa, meanwhile, rolled her eyes at Arya being antisocial and problematic in King's Landing. In the later seasons, each sister ended up resenting the other for not experiencing what they had to endure throughout the punishing run of the series. Thankfully, they made up just in time to execute Littlefinger (Aidan Gillen) for treachery against their family, so that one had a happy ending at least.

    While the lion's share of sibling rivalries on HBO ran through its drama series, the comedies weren't entirely free of this narrative construct either. On Entourage, Johnny Drama (Kevin Dillon) mostly enjoyed the fringe benefits as his younger bro Vinny Chase (Adrian Grenier) reaped the benefits of Hollywood stardom, though occasionally you could see the struggle of having to be the Frank Stallone in that relationship. Things were far more fraught between Girls’s Adam and Caroline (Adam Driver and Gaby Hoffmann), who grew up taking care of one another only to grow into a stunted adulthood characterized by co-dependency and personality disorders. Somehow, Adam and Caroline were both too close and not close enough at the same time, and it made them a nightmare to be around.

    Every one of these sibling relationships — Nate and David bickering over the future of the family funeral home; Cersei and Tyrion plotting each other's demise; Adam bailing Caroline out of the latest mess of her own making — ties the golden age of HBO to something classical, mythological, even Biblical (Cain and Abel HBO limited series when??). The story of HBO is the story of these tempestuous sibling dynamics recurring again and again. They'll continue to do so, whether at the Waystar Royco negotiation table or on dragonback above King's Landing. Long may they bicker, long may they feud.

    Joe Reid is the senior writer at Primetimer and co-host of the This Had Oscar Buzz podcast. His work has appeared in Decider, NPR, HuffPost, The Atlantic, Slate, Polygon, Vanity Fair, Vulture, The A.V. Club and more.