Mark Overanalyses Film

Succession Pt I

January 16, 2023 Mark Hennigan Season 2 Episode 9
Succession Pt I
Mark Overanalyses Film
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Mark Overanalyses Film
Succession Pt I
Jan 16, 2023 Season 2 Episode 9
Mark Hennigan

Mark wants his own Greg as he wonders what makes Succession's first season so compelling, why the show's character architecture is so popular, and who the best worst person is.

Show Notes Transcript

Mark wants his own Greg as he wonders what makes Succession's first season so compelling, why the show's character architecture is so popular, and who the best worst person is.

Hi everybody and welcome to Mark Overanalyses Film! Except today, I will not actually be overanalysing a film. I’ll be overanalysing the HBO series Succession, created by Jesse Armstrong. 

Last season, I looked at Fleabag’s season 2, but I will aim to do something more different here. Fleabag’s season 2 was only about 3 hours long, and clearly the story of one person changing in that time. It was also the end of the show. So, here I’ll be diverging more from my usual approach to talk about Succession in more of a kind of deconstructed Series Bible way. Now, a Series Bible is generally used to pitch or sell a show, and tends to include some or all of the following: A one page pitch, character breakdowns, a pilot script, a breakdown of the first season, and future seasons ideas or engines.    

So, normally what I would do is ask 5 key questions about the protagonist, then move onto looking at the structure of the film by going through the sequences, and then I’d talk about some things of particular interest in the structure or telling of the story. So, today I’m going to do a variation of that. I’ll begin by talking about the characters, then go through the structure of the pilot, and then season 1. Then, I’d like to do a follow up episode, where I’ll run through seasons 2 and 3, and then make a fool of myself by attempting to discuss the overall structure of a so-far incomplete show. Which is hopefully not some kind of overanalysing equivalent of a Connor Roy campaign for president.

So, the characters. I’ll go through the main players in just a moment, but there’s a few things to mention beforehand. First of all, the character infrastructure of Succession is indicative of a strikingly common structure in these kinds of succession stories. In King Lear, there are 3 children, all vying for power, and unwilling to share it with the others. Cordelia, the most honest and goodhearted child, is punished by her father for her honesty. By the time he realises the folly of this, it is too late, and he loses everything. Now, in his Write Your Screenplay Podcast, Jacob Krueger points out the bizarre similarities between the character infrastructure of Succession and Arrested Development. Which reminded me that Arrested Development also has unusual similarities with The Godfather. So, in all 3 of these Succession stories, you have a foolish, bombastic eldest son that gets passed over (Connor, Gob, Sonny); a dedicated and sensible middle son who doesn’t quite fit in (Kendall, Michael, Michael); a soft, placated youngest son who can’t handle anything (Roman, Buster, Fredo), and a daughter who is on the outside to some degree and marries a man that nobody likes or respects (Shiv marrying Tom, Lindsay marrying Tobias, and Connie marrying fucking Carlo). Weird, isn’t it? Now, something else that comes up in these succession stories is that the kids all tend to be defined by one characteristic of the patriarch, while lacking the others. In The Godfather, Sonny has Vito’s fighting spirit but lacks sense, Michael has his smarts and cunning but lacks heart, Fredo has his heart but lacks brains, and Connie is the one who actually looks after people. 

Now, this also reminds me of another story about a collection of characters who band together, each with particular flaws or needs: The Wizard of Oz. So, as I go through the characters of Succession, I’ll be thinking about them in terms of what they have, and what they lack. First, I’ll do my usual 5 Key questions about the protagonist, and then I’ll go through the other main characters. With each one, I’d also like to talk about how they’re introduced, as this is often overlooked a bit in terms of just how important it is.    

Q1: Whose story is it? 

Or, basically, who is the protagonist? Now, I’m sure there’s a case to be made that it’s Logan, or that Logan, Ken, Roman, and Shiv are all protagonists. Oh, and Connor. We shouldn’t forget Connor. But really, to my mind, Kendall Roy is the clear protagonist of Succession. The engine of Succession is who will get the company, but really the heart of the story is: Will Kendall get what he needs? More on that in a moment.

Q2: What is his life dream? 

Life dream here refers to what it is that the protagonist wants or is aiming to do when the story begins and things have yet to properly change. When Succession begins, it is Logan’s 80th birthday and Ken is to be announced as his successor that very day. It would appear to be everything Kendall ever wanted. 

Q3: What is his Want?

In a film, Want is what the character is trying to achieve in the second act, or middle, of the film, from the moment they really begin their journey until the moment they are at their most defeated. It’s normally a SMART goal, in that it is Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time bound, so that it gives our story a clear shape. In other words, it’s tangible and has a clear Yes or No answer. Now, the other thing about a Want in a film is that it drives the plot forward. It spurs the protagonist into action and makes sure that they actually have practical things to be doing while approaching their human Need or otherwise. But in a series, this is really more of what we tend to call an ‘engine’. Because we’re not talking about a 2 hour story here, but maybe 50 hours worth of story, the engine is the thing that produces the tangible objectives of the characters over and over and over again. And the engine in Succession is of course the question of who will succeed Logan Roy as head of the company. That is the Want that drives the plot of season 1 for Kendall. It is the thing that drives Shiv’s want in season 2. And again, it reverts back to Ken in season 3 in a somewhat different way. I’ll talk more about the engine in an overall way next time.

Q4: What is his Need?  

Need is the human quality or piece of wisdom that the character lacks at the beginning of the story. To my mind, the protagonist’s Need really defines what the story is about. The change that the protagonist does or does not make is ultimately what the argument or message of the story is. So, what is Kendall’s Need? It’s an interesting question. He certainly lacks judgement. As Rhea says in season 2, Kendall has all the shots, but he doesn’t know when to play them. But why? He’s kind of an idiot, but he’s not ‘just’ an idiot. So, I can’t help but feel that there’s something impairing his judgement. So, let’s keep digging. Logan says he’s not a killer, and Shiv says he lacks the killer instinct, he’s wet, green, intellectually insecure, not emotionally strong enough, and he has addiction issues. So, Ken’s got some Needs apparently. But what is the fundamental change that he needs to make? Well, I think if this was The Wizard Of Oz, Ken would be the lion. Shiv’s idea that he is insecure really rings through. When we are introduced to Ken in the pilot, he’s a hodge podge of coping mechanisms to overcome his own insecurity. He’s pumping himself up listening to hip hop in the car, then made to look ridiculous when it’s shown what he actually looks and sounds like doing so. He then goes up and talks “at” people, clearly less sure of himself throughout than he wants to let on. Ken has been decimated time and again by his tyrant father, and so he really needs the courage of his convictions, not to take his father’s place, but to truly become his own man. I think really that is the ultimate, underlying question of Succession. Can you truly move past an abusive tyrant of a parent like Logan Roy? To my mind, to end satisfactorily, Succession will have to answer that question one way or the other. Will Ken move past the need to impress and/or serve his father, or not?

The fifth question is “Does he get what he wants and/or what he needs?”, but of course, at this point, we don’t know that. But I would like to point out that like so many great story engines, the want and the need here are in clear but not necessarily unbridgeable opposition to each other. Ken wants to run his father’s company, but he needs to get away from his father and become his own man. How do you square that circle? It’s hard to know, and that provides massive amounts of fuel for our engine.

Now, Logan Roy is our principal antagonist. And like so many antagonists, he is the embodiment of what the protagonist lacks. Who has more confidence and who is more his own man than Logan “Fuck em” Roy? While all the kids have to deal with the fact that they’ve been handed all this excessive wealth and comfort, Logan gets to enjoy it knowing that he is a self-made man. Or at least, that is undoubtedly how he would see it. The facility that he and Kendall share is their interest in the company and devotion to their work. Shame that Logan just so happens to also be a fucking bastard and a tyrant, who bullies his own children for kicks. Now, we kind of have 2 introductions to Logan. We start the whole series with him being confused in the middle of the night and peeing on some carpet. He’s clearly getting older. But the next time we see him, he’s fully alert, and happy to allow Kendall to stew in discomfort and insecurity over the phone while he retains all the power. This is Logan Roy. 

Roman is Logan’s 3rd child, but it’s worth noting that many assume that he’s the youngest. And that’s because in the Wizard of Oz scenario, he’s the Scarecrow. He lacks the brains to knuckle down and do what he needs to. He actually has the best judgement — or at least, instinct — of all the children, which is what he shares with his father. Also, like Fredo in The Godfather, he is surprisingly soft-hearted at times when it comes to those around him, especially his father. In the first season, when Logan is in a coma, he suggests they sign the papers against his own self-interest to honour Logan’s wishes. He then can’t bring himself to vote against Logan in the board meeting. In Season 3, he’s horrified that Shiv would go public with Ken’s dirtiest of dirty laundry out of spite. I’m certainly not saying he’s a great guy. The pilot actually goes out of its way to show him in particular being an absolute bastard to a child for his own amusement. But he does have some kind of loyalty to people, and that also allows him to bring people with him. He allies with Geri throughout, and he wins over both a fascist presidential candidate and a Swedish tech billionaire in season 3. Or he’s strung along by them, depending on your point of view. But Connor, Ken, and Shiv do not have this in their locker. So, Roman’s tension, then, is whether or not he can knuckle down and become what Ken might call “a serious person”. When we meet Roman, he’s playing a practical joke on Kendall, and then doesn’t even see that through. He says he’s so over being in the company and mocks the whole thing, but is soon reporting to Logan with surprising insight into the situation before jockeying to be made COO. That is Roman Roy.

So, Shiv. I have to admit, Shiv is the one who annoys me the most of the children. As Rhea says, she thinks she’s smarter than she is, and she is just so entitled. She consistently believes she can play real-politik with people, and then she’s appalled when they play it back at her. Now, something in this is what she has of her father. Shiv is probably the real so-called killer in the family. Some would say she’s the smartest, but on that front I’m really not sure. She definitely thinks she’s smarter than she actually is, but her real failing is that she’s the tin man, and lacks any real heart. Or at least, her defences are so piled up that she can’t access it. Unlike Roman, she cannot bring people along with her, cos frankly why would anyone go along with her? She’s guarded, dismissive, and selfish. At least with Ken and Roman, you can kinda see right through to their fragile egos. When Ken goes for the top job in episode 2, Roman is pretty clear that he wants the top job. At least that’s a position. Shiv obviously wants the top job, but won’t admit to it. Instead she keeps spouting nonsense, or actively states the meanest things that anyone says about Kendall to Kendall. And then she doesn’t even own up to it. She says she’s mimicking what Logan would say. Then again, in her defence, she’s the one who gets closest with her father, cos keeping your distance and playing hard to get is the best way to get Logan’s attention and affection. But, again, why would anyone else ever side with her? She’s got no heart. And I haven’t even gotten to her treatment of Tom! And this is really the personification of her tension, or need. Can she be unselfish? Can she be vulnerable and love openly? Could she let Kendall or Roman be top dog in the company and not get pissy about the fact that she is “obviously” so much smarter than them? And, most importantly, could she ever love Tom truly as an equal? When we first meet Shiv, she’s being typically Shiv. She is openly dismissive of corp-speak while being very much a part of that world. And, to be fair to Shiv, corp speak is an abomination. Tom explains the corp speak to her, and she is then uninterested in Tom’s panicky neediness over what to buy Logan. This is Shiv, and also Shiv and Tom’s relationship.

To my mind, these are the main players, but we then have a secondary group of Connor, Tom, and Cousin Greg. Now, Connor lacks…most things. But he does actually have something of his father that the others lack. In spite of everything, Connor has his father’s unshakeable sense of self-importance. Like his father, he’s genuinely interested in capital H History. Unfortunately, like his father, he also believes that he has a place in it. Which is why when we meet him, he’s informing a young child that the end of civilisation is coming, and that’s why he has a ranch with its own water supply. This is Connor.    

Tom and Greg are then coupled together as the show’s clear comedy B plot. They are an interesting corollary to Arrested Development’s George Michael and Maeby Funke in this respect. Never more so than when Tom suggests he would dress Greg up as a woman and marry him in a heartbeat. But they are both at the whims of the more senior family members. Tom is totally dutiful and subordinate to Shiv in particular, but then a complete bully and jackass to those below him. Which is just a lovely trait. Greg is then something of the everyman in the show. He is the one who gets to have the wealth of the family, and the trappings of said wealth, explained to him for the benefit of the audience. He also more than anyone shows just how fast and completely this wealth could corrupt someone and turn them into some kind of parasitic hanger on. So, when we first meet Greg, he’s smoking weed in a beat up car, then throwing up inside an animal suit at a theme park, then making up a pathetic excuse to his own mother about how he got fired. Greg is something of an everyman, but also a total screw up and a spineless liar. This is Greg.

Ok, so now that we have something of an understanding of the characters, their needs, and how they’re introduced, I’d like to have a look at the story structure of Succession. One of the biggest influences on my understanding of story is John Yorke, and his brilliant book “Into The Woods”. And in that, he makes a compelling case for the idea of ‘fractal structure’. Basically, every story has a beginning, middle, and end. But within that beginning, there will also be a smaller beginning, middle, and end. And within that beginning’s beginning… well, you get the idea. So, I will have that very much in mind as I first look at the pilot, and then at the wider season 1. And again, I’ll certainly have it in mind next time when I examine the overall structure of the series.


So, the pilot. The pilot here works like any story would. Ken is our protagonist, and the mini first act is his first attempts to buy Vaulter. The inciting incident, as we’ll learn later, is Vaulter’s CEO Lawrence turning his offer down. When he lies to his father about the deal, this triggers the 2nd act, as we wonder something like “Will Ken be able to impress his father by buying Vaulter?” This then leads to the refusal of the call sequence, where Ken is unsure of himself in evaluating Vaulter, while also leaning towards not going to his Father’s 80th birthday party. Then, there’s the first unconscious move towards his need, where he foolishly trusts Logan and signs the papers without lawyering them. Logan would have lawyered them. But Logan has gotten what he wants at this moment, so he is momentarily nice to Ken. And so Ken accepts the call and in the next sequence attends Logan’s birthday party. Here, Logan reveals what he’s done, and that he’s lied to Ken to get what he wants. This leads to the episode’s midpoint, or Ken’s first conscious move towards his need. He confronts Logan about fucking him over. And it’s not often I’ll think “Fuck it, just hit that old man already”, but this is one of those moments. Logan wants him to do it. But this is the honeymoon sequence, and Ken is still better than his father. So, he doesn’t. Now, I should note that Logan tells Ken, and us, why he seems to have had a change of heart. Lawrence talked shit to Ken, and because Ken tried to keep it semi-professional, Logan thinks he “bent for him”. Whether or not this is the real reason Logan has delayed retiring, or just an excuse, it would appear that Ken not telling Lawrence to go fuck himself is the inciting incident for the entire series. Anyways, this confrontation between father and son then gives way to the bridge from the Honeymoon to the low point. Kendall reverts to his bad habits. He talks at his siblings, trying to convince them to give him what he wants without admitting that this is at least largely driven by self-interest. The siblings immediately call bullshit on what is obviously bullshit, and Kendall is left with little to cling to. So, he hits his low point. He gets a call, leaves his family to go back to the takeover bid, and then calls a reporter to dish background dirt on Logan. Just like Logan would do. There’s then a false resolution where things appear to go well for him business-wise, before the eventual true resolution kicks in. Logan has a stroke, and Kendall gets to be told by a business partner who hates his guts and tells him out of spite. He then sits alone and away from any and all family as he takes the devastating news in.   

So, the structure of the pilot pretty clearly follows our typical story structure. What about the seasons? Well, you might notice a pattern in the seasons of Succession. Basically, the first 2 episodes function as an Act I, setting up the season. The last 2 episodes are always a pair, and function as an Act III. And the 5-6 episodes in between are our Act II.


So, in Season 1, we have an inciting incident for the season (and really the whole series) at the end of episode 1, which is that Logan has a stroke right after reneging on his plans to retire. In a series, the inciting incident has to happen in episode 1 so that the audience knows what the whole show is actually about. They need to see the trigger. Then episode 2 acts as our second sequence, where the protagonist scrambles to react to the inciting incident and begin their journey. So, act I ends at the end of episode 2, where Kendall and Roman have taken over the company as CEO and COO respectively… right as Logan comes to. This sets up our second act, as we wonder some version of the question “Can Kendall find a way to keep control of the company once his Dad is back in action?” Then episode 3 functions as a typical sequence III, wherein we have the protagonist’s first attempts to solve the problem while they also in some way exhibit a “refusal of the call” to their need. And so, what does Ken do first thing in this episode? He tries to copy his father in talking to the bank, with disastrous consequences. Eventually, this all leads to the events of the end of the episode, where Kendall has done his best to make a deal, for which a recovering Logan calls him “a fucking idiot”. He will never earn his father’s respect trying to be his father. And so, we move into sequence IV: the greater attempts to solve the problem. This is episodes 4 and 5, where Kendall starts experimenting with what will become his need. He tries to play ball with his father while asserting his own authority with Stewy. And Logan pees on his carpet in response. Then Logan becomes convinced that Ken and Roman are planning to Goneril and Regan his King Lear at a Gala, so he gives a speech at the event to declare that he’s back. This then leads to Logan floating the idea of sending Kendall back to Asia. Which honestly, sounds amazing. I mean, Ken has kids, but it’s not like he ever actually spends time with them anyways. But Kendall doesn’t think it sounds amazing, so after Logan has an odd incident with coffee, Kendall convinces himself that the old man is not all there and must be pushed. And it just so happens that it gives him what he wants. So, we’re clearly approaching our midpoint here, or the protagonist’s first conscious step towards their need. And so, at the end of episode 5, exactly halfway through the series: Logan hits Kendall’s child, and Kendall finally stands up fully to his father. This is a common theme by the way, as often Kendall will step up when his family is threatened by Logan. In season 2, completely under Logan’s thumb, he suddenly shows some backbone when Logan hits Roman. Anyways, for now, we’ve had season 1’s midpoint, and so we enter episode 6, which is our 5th stage: the honeymoon sequence. Here, the protagonist begins to act in accordance with their need and things appear to go well for them. And so, Kendall acts in a way that his father doesn’t. He plays nice with others. He already has Frank and Gerri on board for a push, and he spends episode 6 suring up the other votes. Unfortunately, his lack of judgement, courage, and straight up luck comes back to bite him. He gets stuck in traffic so can’t be physically at the board meeting, and Logan refuses to play by the rules in his absence and intimidates the others into not voting against him. It’s pretty pathetic all the way around, and signals the end of the honeymoon period as Kendall is now fired and things do not appear to be going well for him anymore. This leads to the next stage, episodes 7 and 8: the bridge from the honeymoon to the low point. So, Kendall’s lack of courage, conviction, and judgement comes back into play. He’s accused of relapsing, then fails to convince Rava that it’s not true. By the way, I actually think Rava is the absolute weak link of this series. I kinda feel sorry for the actress, cos she does her best I think. But she’s just such a typical wet blanket love interest character for the protagonist. I have no doubt she’s meant to have it tough, but she’s so passive aggressive and snide to Kendall every damn time they meet. And the writers never give her anything else to do other than point out how deluded or misjudged Ken’s behaviour is. It’s a shame, when so many other characters are so well realised. Anyways, Kendall ends up actually relapsing. Only then can he stand up to Logan, and by becoming more like Logan. At the end of episode 7, he dismisses Logan’s childhood abuse, almost causing a physical altercation. In episode 8, he descends fully to his low point. At Tom’s bachelor party, he learns that he can’t escape his family name when he’s rejected by an artist collective for being a Roy. And so, Kendall decides to go all in. At the end of Act II, or at the low point, the protagonist generally no longer believes in the counterargument to his Need, but the attainment of the Need seems impossible. So, there’s nothing to believe in anymore, which leads to total loss of purpose. Here, Kendall attempts to intimidate and shoves his little brother, spreads tabloid-esque rumours about the artists who rejected him, and signs a deal with Sandy and Stewy to launch a takeover bid of the company in order to tear half of it down. So, here at the end of episode 8, we appear to have an answer to that Act II tension. Kendall will find a way to take control of the company. Unfortunately, it would appear that his way to become the new boss is to become the exact same as the old boss. And this is the low point of season 1. He can’t stay under the thumb of his father, but nor can he really become his own man. He no longer believes in the counterargument, but the argument seems impossible. And so we enter episodes 9 and 10, this season’s Act III. Episode 9 acts as our false resolution, where everything sets up for Kendall. Logan begrudgingly leaves the States to come to Shiv’s wedding, but Kendall’s insecurity begins to get in his way. He approaches Frank to seek assurances, which lets the rumour out. And so, the takeover bid is accelerated to the wedding day itself. It’s now make or break, but Kendall has everything going for him. And so we enter episode 10, our true resolution. Aaaand Kendall fucks it. He tells Logan, because he has to. Logan tells the kids. Then, Kendall has to confront all of the family. And in front of everyone Logan twists the knife where he knows it’ll hurt. Again, Ken’s need is courage and conviction to become his own man. And so, Logan tells him that he doesn’t have it. Not for the real world. And it gets to Kendall. So, he needs a cocaine ‘straightener’. And in pursuing this coping mechanism to boost his ego, he gets into a road accident with a kid, and the kid drowns. And again, here we have a mini-false resolution, where it seems like Kendall might just be able to put it behind him and get away with it. But of course, he can’t. Logan finds out and uses it to blackmail — I mean, ‘reconcile’ — with his son. Kendall lacks the courage to face up to a terrible accident that has befallen him, and so season 1 ends with a downer ending. The rich cover up their mistakes, and Kendall is more at the mercy of his father than ever. Because when push came to shove, he didn’t have the courage necessary to do what was really needed.  

This has been Mark Overanalyses Film on Succession Season 1. This is something of a 2 parter, so I’ll be back soon with seasons 2 and 3, and a look at the show so far overall.  If you enjoyed this episode, please like, rate, follow, recommend, and whatever else it is that’s good for this kind of thing! A special thanks to Mary Kate O’Flanagan, and also Eilish Kent, who taught me everything I know about film and TV, including these methods. Thanks for listening. Take care of yourselves, and see you soon.