Money, Morals, and Mental Illness: Succession’s Look into the Modern Psyche

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The cast of the HBO series Succession. Photo courtesy of HBO

Lauren Cisewski, Reporter

“Succession,” the HBO series headed by Jesse Armstrong and nominated for 25 Emmy awards this year, opens each episode with plaintive credits set to dramatic music: images of fancily-dressed children standing alone are interspersed with sweeping shots of the New York skyline, images taken straight from the upper echelons of America’s rich. The series follows the fractured family behind a Disney-esque media empire, closely detailing never-ending power grabs and the wreckage left in their wake.

“Succession” paints itself as a dark satire, but in its off-tune notes, it inadvertently shows what’s under the mask. America’s corporate culture is built off of the idea of the never-ending climb—a climb whose hypothetical peak is a comfortable life complete with Tuscan villas and creature comforts. But for Shiv, Roman, and Kendall Roy, the supposed heirs of their father’s empire, the peak of the mountain holds neither happiness nor an end to ambition.

Crushing blows and defeats are contrasted by constant excess. The declines of each sibling take place on gorgeous backdrops, contrasted by side plots only reinforcing the show’s decadence: Cousin Gregory attempting to buy Rolexes, the purchase of second apartments, and family fights on a yacht. Constantly, we are reminded that the Roys’ world of wealth is cold and unforgiving.

While it’s easy to view “Succession” at surface level—to see it as far removed from the majority’s daily life as it is—at its deepest level, it’s a warning against the false promises wealth provides. None of the characters are likable, morally healthy, or happy. They’re instead tortured with want for more, and undermined by their own grabs at happiness. To the masses, “Succession” has a strong message: no matter the prestige or wealth, humans are innately talented at summoning unhappiness from within.

“Succession” rings the bell of absurdity over and over. At first, it seems impossible to understand why the Roy children are all so fractured. But as the show progresses, this perception begins to shift dramatically, instead posing the question: why should any of them be happy at all? Perhaps its greatest success is how effectively it reveals the worthlessness of wealth in the absence of a support system, a loving family, or a healthy mindset.

And just as we begin to understand the inner mechanisms of the Roy family, we begin to find more and more pity for those who, at the outset, have climbed the metaphorical mountain to reach the peak. We see that, among watches and bags, expensive clothing and luxurious landscapes, there are some things that are unfixable—things that come from inside ourselves—and that the shine of wealth is truly only a patina.