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Succession is a civics lesson

The typical American K-12 education is a civics lobotomy.

Students are taught a simplistic version of American history that constantly centers the country as heroic, just and wise. America, we’re told, always overcomes its hardest challenges and worst impulses. In my 90’s education on the Civil Rights era, for example, we were told that Rosa Parks and MLK solved American racism once and for all. The latter’s assassination in this rendition was inconvenient and sad, but his sacrifice, we were meant to understand, paved the way for a more just and decent future.

Similar simplicity was given to the workings of political power in the United States. Why, there’s a whole bicameral legislature, three branches of federal government, checks and balances, and a noble revolutionary history that gave birth to it all.

Nowhere in this depiction was any time given to explaining lobbyists or campaign finance. Same for gerrymandering. These were yet more inconvenient details swept outside the scope of our lessons.

I mean no slight on the teachers of America by this criticism. They do their best in a system designed for indoctrination and conformity. I think they’re some of the most important civic actors in our entire system. I’d give them more money, more independence, and more day-to-day support if I could wave a magic wand and make it so.

Nevertheless, I emerged into adulthood feeling entirely unprepared to understand the civic complexity of this country. The entanglement of economic and political systems is a sort of dark matter that moves and shapes our everyday life, but lurks out of view without prolonged study and meaningful curiosity.

This was frustrating: the world was obviously broken, and I didn’t have models or vocabulary to explain why. I came of age in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis, struggling economically myself, and watching so many of my peers flailing in their quests to find basic stability and prosperity.

Indeed, Millennials have less wealth compared to previous generations, holding single-digit percentages of the pie, compared to 30% of US wealth for Gen X and 50% for the Boomers. Getting by with dignity and economic self-determination is an objectively hard slog.

HBO’s Succession, now in its fourth and final season, brings a truck-mounted spotlight to the mechanics of inequality. It’s a fast-paced education in how late-capitalist power actually functions: the interactions between wealth, corporations, civic institutions and everyday people.

The show, shot in a choppy, observational style, insists with every stylistic choice: “this is really how the world works.”

I wish we’d had it much sooner.

Elite crisis

Part of what’s broken in America is the rank incompetence of our leadership. People in power are, in too many cases, just bad at their jobs.

Before assuming his role as a Trump hatchet man, Jared Kushner bought The New York Observer as a sort of graduation present. His inept tenure there is the stuff of legend. The scion of a wealthy criminal, Kushner used the paper to prosecute personal beefs and, eventually, to endorse Donald Trump’s bid for the presidency.

This is, indeed, the way the world works. Everything is pay-to-play. If you want something that people value, you can buy it.

In following the travails of media titan Logan Roy, along with his children and the various toadies and yes-men who support their ailing empire, Succession makes the same point over and over again:

It’s adjacency to wealth that determines your power, not your fitness to lead or your strategic competence. In an unequal world—63% of post-pandemic wealth went to 1% of humanity—money distorts relationships and decides opportunity.

Over the show’s trajectory, we see Logan’s striver son-in-law Tom Wambsgans rise from minor functionary to chairman of a network that’s a clear stand-in for Fox News. All along, it’s clear that Tom doesn’t have any particular talents for the roles he’s given, but he is a loyal and trustworthy puppet for Logan.

Meanwhile, the billionaire Roy children are constantly bumbling through various exercises at proving they’re the equal of their working class-turned-plutocrat father. Frequently out of their depth, they’re inserted relentlessly into positions of authority, with occasionally disastrous results. In rushing the launch of a communications satellite, for example, Kieran Culkin’s Roman Roy—somehow COO of his father’s media conglomerate—ends up destroying a launch vehicle and costing a technician his thumb.

There’s never enough

As much as the show is about wealth and power, it is also an exploration of personal and family dysfunction.

Despite lives of extraordinary wealth and comfort—everyone lives in a state of Manhattan opulence mortals could never imagine—the Roy family carries decades of scars and trauma. They are human beings just like you or me, in this sense: they feel pain, they can be wounded, they carry grief.

But unlike you or me, acting out their pain and grief lands with billion dollar shockwaves. The money doesn’t make them happy, no, but it does let them amplify their pain into the lives of others.

So we see people of incredible power who can never have enough. What they need—peace, healing, clarity of self—is something they are unable to buy. What does it mean when flawed, broken human beings have the power to re-shape our world so completely? What does it mean when people have the money to buy their way out of consequences, even for the most dire of fuckups?

It’s particularly resonant to follow the role and power of a media empire in this moment of our history. What does it mean to never have enough when your role is to inform and educate? What does “winning” mean, and cost, in an attention economy? What are we all losing, so a few rich guys can post a few more points on their personal scoreboards?

Can we really sustain a few wealthy families using our civic fabric as their personal security blankets, instead of going to therapy?

Succession wants us to ask these questions, and to imagine the consequences of their answers.

Succession reassures you: it really IS nuts the world works like this

Inequality isn’t an abstract statistic.

Inequality is most people being a few bad months away from homelessness and destitution. It’s the majority of American workers living paycheck-to-paycheck, subject to the whims of their bosses. Inequality is medical bankruptcy for some, and elite recovery suites for others.

Far from lionizing the wealthy, Succession constantly places the mindset that creates and preserves inequality under the microscope. The show is full of wry humor, quietly laughing at its cast in every episode. At the same time, it does a devastating job at explaining just how dark the situation is. The humor leavens the horror.

With a tight four season trajectory, the show’s principals have created a show worth your time. There’s not a single wasted “filler” episode. The cast performs at the top of the game. The original score by Nicholas Britell manages to feel fresh yet permanent.

It’s well-crafted entertainment, yes, but it’s also a window into the parts of our civic reality they didn’t teach you in school. With corporate power challenging and often defeating that of our civic institutions, it’s important to have some personal context for exactly how this all works in practice.

It’s fiction, but there’s serious insight here. We just watched Elon Musk—son of a guy rich enough to own an emerald mine—set fire to tens of billions of dollars in part because he just desperately wants people to like him and think he’s cool. The real world absolutely works this way.

The show is worth your time.

Succession is a civics lesson Succession is a civics lesson