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Succession Pits Roman Roy Against the Hollywood Elite

"Living+" continues to dismantle Roman's psyche with a disastrous meeting with a studio head.
  • Kieran Culkin (Photo: Claudette Barius/HBO)
    Kieran Culkin (Photo: Claudette Barius/HBO)

    This week's Succession took a long-awaited trip out west to the Waystar Los Angeles offices and, not coincidentally, featured the Roy siblings reveling in their power in some thrilling and unsettling ways. The Waystar Studios water tower has always loomed tantalizingly in the show's opening credits, a nod to the Roy empire's status as a giant of old media, but it's thus far gone largely unexplored.

    "Living+" changed all that, with the Waystar top brass hitting L.A. for Investor Day and the product launch for Living+, their new venture that promises the bespoke cruise-ship experience on land, essentially a retirement community for white people who have been made terrified of the world by Waystar's news networks.

    But while Kendall (Jeremy Strong) is donning his bomber jacket and getting ready to converse with the green-screen version of his late father, Roman (Kieran Culkin) is sent to what is on the surface a pretty simple meeting with Waystar Studios head Joy Palmer (Annabeth Gish), one of the more disastrous "how it started" / "how it's going" meetings we've seen on the show.

    To be clear, this meeting was supposed to be a pep talk, per Kendall, if you could cut through the thicket of business-bro buzzwords ("break up the logjam, get the franchise pump pumping, shoot it to the moon!"). Of course, Roman, with his sneering contempt for the creative class and anything with a whiff of virtue-signaling, is not who you send to "sprinkle some confidence" over the head of a slumping movie studio.

    The meeting between Roman and Joy communicates a ton — about Roman, Waystar's wary relationship with the entertainment industry, liberal Hollywood's connections to conservative money — in an incredibly economical amount of time. Director Lorene Scafaria ratchets up the tension, pushing the camera uncomfortably close as the meeting descends from "I'm gonna turn on the money hose for you" to Roman unceremoniously firing Joy for making him feel inferior to his father in a matter of minutes.

    It's obviously a rash decision on Roman's part that says a lot more about his volatility as a leader and his toxic inferiority complex when it comes to filling his father's shoes than it does whatever deficiencies Joy Palmer may have as a studio head. But it's also a much more contentious conversation on both sides than it seems on the surface. Unsurprisingly, Succession writers Georgia Pritchett and Will Arbery pack every single line of dialogue with a ton of meaning. Joy's simple curiosity about Matsson is met by Roman undercutting the Swede with a flurry of tossed-off insults ("flaky, druggy, not focused") designed to further undermine the deal. Roman clearly wants heads to roll at the studio for the failure of the sci-fi tentpole Kalispitron, but Joy downplays it with assurances that they can "sidebar" that discussion since it deals with "a lot of big personalities."

    Joy's either reading Roman completely wrong — look at the giant smile on his face when he asks who's getting fired! He wants blood! — or she feels comfortable enough to blow Roman off since Matsson's going to be in charge in a matter of days anyway. Even Joy's cringey attempt at a Groucho Marx impersonation ("inside… cinema") feels condescending. Roman's ultimate reaction is way over the top, but he's not exactly wrong when he intuits that Joy doesn't respect him at all.

    What Joy does feel empowered to do is press Roman on ATN's favorable coverage of Jeryd Mencken (Justin Kirk), the would-be incoming fascist President of these fictional United States. "Lots of people are concerned about democratic institutions," she presses. "We have values here in this creative community." A Hollywood studio head talking about values and democratic institutions is always going to draw a raised eyebrow, especially on a show like Succession, which holds such a dim view of altruism among the moneyed elite.

    It was only a handful of episodes ago that Nan Pierce's (Cherry Jones) liberal piety was shredded as she faux-humbly ratcheted up a bidding war between Logan and his kids. Joy's concerns about Mencken are coming from the creatives down the ladder who are perhaps expressing uneasiness about working with the parent company that's propping up this aspirational autocrat. That's bad for business, and Joy clearly thinks this is her opportunity to press the "weak monarch" (to quote Gerri from a later, more outwardly contentious meeting with Roman) into granting some concessions. Again, this is a spectacular misread of Roman, who is the least sympathetic of all the Roy siblings to hand-wringing concerns about Mencken.

    Within the first 20 minutes of the episode, Joy managed to condescend to Roman, blow off his desire to have someone scapegoated for Kalispitron, and push his buttons over liberal politics. Kieran Culkin has been brilliant this season playing Roman's conflicting feelings about his father, grief over Logan's death, and rage at Matsson, making Roman the most sympathetic he’s ever been. That gets upended in the span of this meeting, as that grief and rage and pain add up to Roman flexing his power in some incredibly ill-advised ways.

    Nothing that Roman or Kendall do in "Living+" is good business in the long term. Roman firing high-ranking people like Joy and Gerri (J. Smith-Cameron) on a whim; Kendall antagonizing Karl (David Rasche) and artificially inflating the company's value; their combined efforts to tank the GoJo deal. But each son in his own way is trying to live up to some imagined ideal of Logan Roy. Roman knows in his heart he doesn't measure up to the terrifying stature of the old man, but he's going to flex that power indiscriminately until people can at least believably fake their respect for him. Anybody with an eye for cinema's oldest tropes should probably have seen these volatile daddy issues coming a mile away.

    Succession airs Sundays at 9:00 PM ET on HBO. Join the discussion about the show in our forums.

    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.

    TOPICS: Succession, HBO, Annabeth Gish, Jeremy Strong, Jesse Armstrong, Kieran Culkin