In ‘Succession,’ the Very Rich Are Very, Very Different

The HBO drama, which ends on Sunday, updates past rich-people soaps like “Dallas.” But unlike those series, it argues that the problems of the hyper-wealthy inevitably become ours too.

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By James Poniewozik

On Nov. 21, 1980, more than 83 million people — over three-quarters of the entire American TV viewership — watched “Who Done It?,” the episode of “Dallas” that revealed who shot the love-to-hate-him oil magnate J.R. Ewing. The mystery, which CBS milked for eight solid months, was a consuming obsession, a Texas-sized example of the power of 20th-century TV to focus the world on one thing.

On Sunday, HBO’s “Succession” will answer the question (or not) of who inherits the media empire of the late tyrant Logan Roy in front of a viewership of — well, a lot less than 83.6 million. (The show’s final season premiere had 2.3 million same-day viewers; delayed viewing on streaming brings the total average audience to over 8 million.)

Airing its finale to a much more dispersed audience is a fitting end to the saga of a family that got rich off the modern media market, whose final episodes are set against the backdrop of a country that is coming apart.

But numbers aside, “Succession” is in many ways the premium-cable, late-capitalist heir to “Dallas,” a prime-time saga that uses delicious dialogue and sibling rivalries to explore the particular nature of wealth in its time. It’s “Dallas” after 40-plus years of wealth concentration and media fragmentation.

The “Who Shot J.R.?” sensation was, in retrospect, the high-water mark of mass media’s reach. In 1980, three networks still controlled the entire TV audience, which they would soon have to share with cable. It was also a cultural turning point; prime time was becoming fascinated with the rich just as the Reagan Revolution was beginning.

“Succession” is very different from “Dallas” in the details. There are no twangy accents, assassination attempts, cliffhangers or season-long dreams. Its plot turns are simply, devastatingly inevitable: The show sets up conditions, gives its characters motivations and lets them act in their interests. (“Yellowstone” is a closer heir to “Dallas” in both cowboy hats and murder plots.)

And if the “Succession” audience is smaller, the money is, pointedly, bigger. Rewatched in 2023, the idea of luxury in “Dallas” looks quaint, almost dowdy. The aesthetic is Texan country club; the Ewing homestead, the size of a decent suburban McMansion, is a toolshed next to the Manhattan aeries, Hamptons manors and Italian villas that the Roys flitter among.

Some of this is a matter of modern premium-cable budgets vs. the grind of old-school network-TV production, of course. But it also reflects the changed, distorting nature of modern riches. In 1980, American wealth inequality was still near its postwar lows. Since then, the wealth of the top .01 percent has grown at a rate roughly five times as much as that of the population overall. Today, the very rich are very, very, very richer.

The holdings of Waystar Royco — Hollywood studios, cruise lines, newspapers, amusement parks, a king-making right-wing news channel — make Ewing Oil look like a franchise gas station. We know only vaguely how Logan Roy built his empire, but it was enabled partly by the media-consolidation and antitrust deregulation, beginning in the “Dallas”/Reagan era, that allowed his real-life analogues like Rupert Murdoch to make their own piles.

Meanwhile, the smaller TV audiences of the cable and streaming age have allowed “Succession” to thrive as a more specific and more niche entertainment. A series in the three-network era had to appeal to tens of millions of people just to stay on the air — “Dallas” needed to serve a crowd-pleasing spread of barbecue. “Succession” can afford to be a rarefied, decadent pleasure, like an ortolan, the deep-fried songbird, eaten whole, that was featured in a memorable Season 1 meal.

“Dallas,” like its followers from “Dynasty” through “Empire,” was in the populist soap-opera tradition of letting the audience delight in the woes of rich people. Its characters were like us — jealous, envious, heartbroken — just with more money and less happiness.

“Succession” has its crowd-pleasing and universal elements too. Logan was an irresistible brute, able to pack a Shakespeare soliloquy’s worth of emotion into a two-word curse. The Roy children — Kendall, Roman, Shiv and their half brother, Connor — have developed a survivors’ bond and survivalist cutthroat instincts; one arm joins the group hug, the other holds a dagger. At root, the series’s family themes are talk-show simple: Hurt people hurt people.

But its voice, as set by the creator, Jesse Armstrong, is arch and referential; its details demand a range of knowledge or at least the willingness to Google. As Logan is laid to rest in a mausoleum that he bought for $5 million from a dot-com pet-supply mogul — one last cold and expensive residence — Shiv jokes, “Cat food Ozymandias.”

Like “Mad Men” before it, “Succession” is a drama that also happens to be the funniest thing on TV any given week. (Its earliest episodes tilted the other way, with the rhythms of a comedy disguised as a premium-TV drama.)

But its showmanship is informed by a caustic clarity about the toxic business culture Logan Roy built. “He fed a certain kind of meagerness in men,” Logan’s brother, Ewan, says in a tender and damning eulogy at his funeral. Waystar’s offerings — mass entertainment and right-wing propaganda — have had America on a sugar and poison binge.

Now, it’s time for the purge. I once wrote that “Succession” viewers “can enjoy it knowing that we have no stake, except for the tiny fact that people like the Roys run the world.” This final season has emphasized that that is a very big “except.”

“Succession” has long hinted at the Roys’ willingness to play footsie with dark political forces for ratings and influence. Waystar’s right-wing news network, ATN, leaves a popular commentator on the air despite his Nazi sympathies. The family backs a far-right presidential candidate, Jeryd Mencken, who voices openness to the ideas of Hitler and Franco. (Mencken fittingly shares a surname with the American writer who said, “Democracy is the theory that the common people know what they want and deserve to get it good and hard.”)

Late in the final season, the close presidential election is disrupted by a fire, apparently started by Mencken supporters, that incinerates thousands of ballots for his opponent in liberal Milwaukee. In exchange for Mencken’s regulatory cooperation in a struggle over control of the company, ATN declares the handsome fascist the winner, legitimizing his claim to power amid a legal challenge. The result leads to riots. But it’s great for ratings.

As for American democracy — well, good luck! Part of the fantasy of past rich-family sagas was that none of the drama affected you, even by implication. When Ewings did each other dirty in the oil business, you were never asked to imagine yourself, somewhere offscreen, seeing your gas prices go up.

“Succession,” on the other hand, argues that the problems of today’s hyper-rich inevitably become ours because they have so much influence and so little sense of responsibility. (Its main exception is the Pierce family, the owners of a rival media empire, whose blue-blood noblesse oblige comes across as patronizing and ineffectual.) We are swamped in the wake of their yachts and chopped up by the propeller blades, even if the billionaires, sitting on the top deck, scarcely feel a bump.

And while the damaged characters are fascinating, even pitiable, there’s no one among the Roys or their enablers worth rooting for. As with “Game of Thrones,” if you think the important thing is who finally ends up in the big chair, you’re missing the point.

There are no heroes on the horizon. Mencken’s election opponent is a bloodless centrist who mewls about “process” while the country burns. (The election episode and its aftermath felt like a vicious inversion of a “West Wing” good-government fantasy.) In the streets, people are taking action, but all they can do is rage.

Throughout the series, the constant has been that however the Roys might suffer, emotionally or on the corporate org chart, they never faced true material consequences. They might be more calculated than F. Scott Fitzgerald’s careless Tom and Daisy Buchanan, but they still smashed up things and creatures and retreated into their money.

Up to now, at least. But the penultimate episode suggests that things could take a turn.

As Logan is laid to rest, in a Manhattan funeral befitting a president, the streets are choked with crowds protesting Mencken’s smoke-scented victory. The menace circles closer: sirens in the distance, protesters banging on a limo, explosions rattling guests arriving at the St. Regis for a post-funeral reception. The Roys’ force field holds, but it quivers.

In the final scene, Roman, having botched his shot at chief executive by having a breakdown at Logan’s funeral and misjudging Mencken’s loyalty, wanders outside, where a throng of demonstrators are coming up the street. He hops the barricade to pick a fight, gets hit in the face and is nearly trampled.

The scene is disorienting after four seasons inside the protective bubble of wealth. It suggests that the Roys, fumbling to seize their father’s legacy, may have unleashed something beyond their control, capable of hurting even them.

I still doubt that “Succession,” being “Succession,” will end with any true, proportional comeuppance. But it might just yet leave a mark.

James Poniewozik is The Times’s chief television critic. He writes reviews and essays with an emphasis on television as it reflects a changing culture and politics. He is also the author of “Audience of One: Donald Trump, Television and the Fracturing of America.”

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