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Succession Passes the First Major Test of Season 2

The show managed to thread a delicate needle in an episode that got very real about digital media.
  • Kieran Culkin as Roman Roy in Succession (HBO)
    Kieran Culkin as Roman Roy in Succession (HBO)

    Spoiler alert: This post contains spoilers from the August 18, 2018 episode of Succession.

    One of the oft-asked questions about HBO's Succession is "why?" Why is this show so appealing? Why are we riveted by the story of a rich asshole billionaire whose rich asshole children are competing for control of his rich asshole media conglomerate? Why don't we feel crummy or complicit for liking it so much? The answer is that Succession walks a tightrope between investing in the lives and schemes of its main characters, and giving its audience a cathartic laugh at the base, dumb amorality of the idle rich. It's a fine line that involves letting viewers see the real-world implications of the Roy family and its businesses — the family is reminiscent of Rupert Murdoch and his ascendant sons, with Waystar Royco mirroring NewsCorp — without actually setting it in the real world. We have enough TV shows that reference geopolitical realities to up our anxiety levels. The beauty of Succession is that they can have a populist Democrat running for president (Eric Bogosian's Gil) who we can all recognize as Bernie-esque, without actually creating a Bernie Sanders analogue. The President of the United States in the universe of Succession isn't Donald Trump, and thank God for that. It's bad enough knowing Roman Roy exists in this universe, imagine knowing that Don Jr. and Eric Trump are his contemporaries?

    That fine line was tested in a big way with Sunday night's episode, "Vaulter," which took the series' hardest look yet at the impact Waystar Royco has on the media landscape of its own particular universe. To start with the least traumatic of the two storylines, Tom (supported by a morally reluctant Greg) has been installed at the head of Waystar's cable-news division, ATN, where he clashes with existing chief Cyd Peach (Jeannie Berlin). Tom's amorality in the face of the conservative news network is instructive. One minute he's bullying away Greg's apprehension about working for a news station that doesn't share his principles ("Greg, don't be an asshole, you don't have principles"), the next he's needling Cyd about "the way the debate keeps on getting shaped like a burning cross." Tom's not oblivious to what ATN is putting out into the culture, it's just that he doesn't care about anything in the news division that interferes with winning Logan's favor. It doesn't make Tom any better, but keeping him from being an idealogue keeps Succession from becoming a show about issues.

    In other words, it keeps Succession from turning into The Newsroom when it references current events in the media landscape, as it does in the episode's major storyline when Logan tasks his competitive, feuding sons to look into the situation at Vaulter, the digital media company that Kendall acquired in the Season 1 premiere. Vaulter has been a big, flabby eyesore on the Waystar balance sheet, and Logan wants his boys to fight over the most efficient way to get it fixed and fast. While Kendall advocates a long-term commitment to the brand — he believes the company can be their voice of the future, though he's probably just protecting his early investment — Roman is predictably eager to gut the whole endeavor. Roman's aggression, perhaps unsurprisingly, wins Logan over in the end. As for Kendall, after feinting toward protecting Vaulter from his father's intentions, he ends up readily playing the hatchet man to successfully re-gain his father's approval.

    Here, it's not the politics of the storyline that are at work. Roman advocates gutting Vaulter because a) he's an asshole who relishes wielding his power this way, and b) he thinks it's what will impress his dad the most. And by not getting bogged down by politics, Succession is instead able to deliver a by-all-accounts terrifyingly accurate depiction of the state of digital media. Which might not enrapture HBO subscribers across the map, but certainly traumatized the demographic that writes about Succession and chats about it in social media circles.

    Vaulter is presented as a prototypical digital media house, staffed by Millennial journalists who sneer in Kendall's general direction and are talking about unionizing. Smartly, Succession doesn't try to make Vaulter any one place. That's what The Newsroom did in a particularly terrible episode in which they attempted a takedown of Gawker. Vaulter could be any number of hot-ticket digital media companies, from BuzzFeed to Vox to Vice to Vulture to, yes, Gawker. But while the analogue remains amorphous, the details about corporate overlordship of digital media could not be more accurate as the Vaulter staff assembles in the open-layout office, staring warily at Kendall as he makes his empty promises while bemoaning the way changes to the Facebook algorithm having torpedoed traffic. Adding insult to injury, after gutting Vaulter, Kendalls holds on to their food and weed verticals, intending to assign an editor and some interns to continue running them. It's all frighteningly accurate. And none of it takes the easy sideswipes at Millennial workspaces that many a lesser show would. Roman sneers at their almond milk and rooftop beehives, but of course he would. The real jokes are much smarter — and funnier — like the Vaulter headline lurking behind Roman's head during their meeting:

    An episode like "Vaulter," which offers Succession so many chances to get didactic about the current state of American politics, news, and media, feels like a test passed with flying colors. Rather than getting bogged down in Newsroom-style grudge matches, the show lets the Roys be Roys, delivers a dose of keenly observed new-media trauma, and then nails the comedy beats that follow. These people are monsters, but they're monsters that stay in the TV and play in a sandbox that sometimes seems like our own but, blessedly, is not.

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    Joe Reid is the Managing Editor 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, The Herald Sun, Vulture, The A.V. Club and more.

    TOPICS: Succession, HBO, The Newsroom