(Originally published 10/11/2019)

What Is Dead May Never Die: ‘Succession’ and the Legacy of Traditional Media

Facing pressure from my friends, family, and feed, I caught up on HBO’s Succession just in time for its season finale this Sunday. Aside from the titular question of who’s to take control of Waystar Royco — a multibillion-dollar media conglomerate — after patriarch Logan Roy (Brian Cox) either retires or dies, the series hinges on the struggle by such legacy media institutions to remain viable, profitable, and relevant amid widespread changes in production, distribution, and reception practices. In the latest episode, Logan’s son Roman (Kieran Culkin) speaks to this narrative while pitching in favor of a leveraged buyout that would allow his family to retain control of the company. He argues that Waystar is “undervalued,” claiming “tech just had everybody shitting their pants about legacy media, but really the wheel turns.” This moment furthers Succession’s unsubtle ventriloquism of the ongoing conversation regarding new and old media, but also cheekily reflects on how the series itself — whose fan community grows larger and more vocal by the day — fits into the notion of television “monoculture,” the death of which was supposed to have coincided with the conclusion of Game of Thrones.

Roman Roy (Kieran Culkin). Image via HBOGo.

This past spring, critics clamored that the Thrones finale constituted mass collective reception’s last breath on television. Salon published an article titled “Game of Thrones in the year of the pop culture apocalypse.” Vulture pointedly wondered, “Is Game of Thrones the Last Show We’ll Watch Together?” while USA Today declared yes, it very well could be. Cultural soothsaying is generally dubious, and such apocalyptic predictions fail to consider the numerous odds against which Thrones succeeded to become a monolithic touchstone, thereby circumventing the question of whether lightning might strike twice in favor of fatalistic conclusions about the social consequences of new-media infrastructure. New practices of distribution and access had already begun to take hold by the time the series, which was telecast on HBO in traditional serial style, attracted an audience far beyond that which was all but guaranteed (readers of A Song of Ice and Fire, the book series on which the show was based, as well as fantasy adherents generally), and the very fact that the series fell squarely within that genre was an obstacle to the success it eventually garnered.

Drogon. Game of Thrones. Image via HBO.

The Ringer called ThronesThe Very Last Piece of TV Monoculture,” writing that “it feels good to have something that connects us . . . and the more culture silos us into perfectly personalized microclimates . . . the rarer those shared touchstones become.” Fantasy, however, is certainly a microclimate, and Thrones — with its fantastical plot and origins in a series of lengthy novels — hardly seems unsiloed. Many were drawn to the series more for its emphasis on believable character psychology than for its magic and dragons. Its relatable, or at least legible character histories, relationships, motives, and tendencies made the show palatable to viewers who don’t normally care for fantasy. I for one was reluctant to watch Thrones for this very reason, and only did so once someone I had a crush on told me it consisted of “recognizable situations in a fantasy setting.” Rather than simply benefiting from the outmoded norms of old-media practices, Game of Thrones reached unlikely heights by virtue of its unique merits. Additionally, the new-media infrastructure that supposedly dooms us to our respective silos in fact contributed to the eventual popularity of Thrones, given that would-be fans had the opportunity to catch up at their own pace and on a variety of devices.

Cersei Lannister (Lena Headey). Image via Forbes.

While catching up in this manner on Succession, which is also a traditionally-serialized HBO series, I remarked on Twitter — tongue in cheek — that it’s “just Game of Thrones for people who preferred Mad Men.” The similarities are obvious (replace the Seven Kingdoms with Waystar RoyCo and the Iron Throne with the CEO title and you’ve got a shockingly similar premise), but the relationship between the two shows goes beyond their common concern with power struggles. Friends who initially resisted my pleas that they give Succession a chance on the perfectly reasonable grounds that they’re sick of watching shows about Rich People Being Bad now generally agree that this is merely packaging, albeit politically relevant/timely, and that the series’ real heart lies in a family psychodrama whose treatment of attachment, trauma, and motive, much like in Thrones, rings devastatingly true.

Succession. Roy Family. Image via HBO.

I tweeted about the show in part because I thought it was an accurate, or at least funny observation, but mostly because I wanted in on the social media discourse. The very fact that such widespread conversation about the series not only exists but is readily available and apparent — even to those who don’t (yet) watch or care — indicates that the bandwagon doom-saying about pop culture post-Thrones was perhaps premature. Whether or not Succession is the next nexus of televisual “monoculture” is beside the point. What matters is that it succeeds in attracting viewers with little or no personal interest in the superficial contours of its plot while also reflecting on the state of media institutions today. My Twitter feed consists of my friends, friends of friends, and some moderately famous comedians. None of us wear suits to work, none of us have pitched a multibillion dollar leveraged buyout, and the vast majority of us — unlike every major character on Succession — are queer. Nearly every component of the show’s surface is alienating, and yet we fervently express personal investment in the stakes of each episode. If this is a silo it’s oddly accessible.

Rather than being the happenstance product of a soon-to-be-bygone infrastructure or the result of a premise with inherent mass appeal, the kind of community that developed around Thrones is something we as a society actively seek out and foster — as I did with my crush — to help us mediate lived experience. All we need is an object that exceeds the limitations of its genre and scope, and viewers with a variety of perspectives who resonate with what’s left over. Succession may or may not be that object. It’s an hourlong, traditionally serialized premium cable dark comedy; whether or not it will succeed in attracting audiences more accustomed to TikTok than television remains to be seen, but as Roman reminded us last week, the wheel continues to turn. Aren’t you curious where it’ll take us?