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Succession (2018–2023). Image:

Last Monday night—along with most of my friends, colleagues and a good chunk of Australia—I tuned in for the finale of Succession. It had followed an afternoon of discipline, with a self-imposed social media blackout as spoilers reigned supreme across American news outlets. Fortunately, I had practice. Late to the Succession party, I have been on a ‘Binge’ binge that would make Kendall proud, indulging for weeks now in an intense stream of American corporate conquest.

My family emigrated from the United States when I was four years old. When asked why, I jokingly say it was my father’s midlife crisis. As he tells it, Dad anticipated what the next three decades would bring for America, and factors like the exorbitant cost of health care, access to education and gun violence all made the prospect of raising a young family on the other side of the world very appealing.

Now, nearly 30 years later, I have spent most of my life in Australia. I’ve visited the United States only a handful of times. So my connection to the country has been sustained through its worldwide media dominance and cultural exportation. A certain kind of story was ubiquitous while I was growing up: a hero’s journey, tied to the American Dream and its suggestion that anyone, regardless of where they were born or what class they belong to, could attain success. It’s a narrative structure prevalent in many TV shows and films. Think Forrest Gump, Sex and the City and even The Social Network. Or any of the superhero films that dominate the box office.

My connection to the U.S. has been sustained through its worldwide media dominance and cultural exportation.

At the same time, the story elements that are celebrated within this narrative appear in stark contrast to the way we, as outsiders, experience the U.S. through the news media lens. This narrative is one of division and instability, regression on women’s rights, racism, police brutality and rising inequality. It’s a trend that has only become more persistent since 2016, when the election of Donald Trump saw the United States enter a new era of political division and cultural upheaval.

There have been notable narratives that critique the American Dream. Iconic works like The Great Gatsby, The Godfather trilogy and Taxi Driver have captured the collective imagination because of the way they explore the fallacies and limitations of its exceptionalism. Beneath the veneer of glamour and success, there is shown to be corruption and disenchantment. But in recent years there has been a shift towards ‘eat the rich’ tales, likely in response to rising global inequality. This genre has gone mainstream with hits like Triangle of Sadness, The Menu and The White Lotus, but I have found this trope particularly resonant in my viewing of Succession’s epic of family and corporate drama, with its layers of duplicity and schadenfreude worthy of a Shakespearean stage.

Triangle of Sadness (2022), The Menu (2022) and The White Lotus (2021–). Images:

The American Dream sits at the heart of Succession, embodied by the family’s patriarch, Logan Roy (played by Shakespearean-theatre great, Brian Cox). It’s a quintessential immigrant success story: the man left Scotland as a child, fleeing the devastation of WWII, eventually settling in the United States where he built his media empire. Viewers are introduced to the Roy family at a time of upheaval, amid questions of who will be the successor as Waystar Royco CEO. Our understanding of the myth of Logan and his legacy is drip fed to us over the course of the show but underplayed by the man himself. When questioned about his rise to power in the show’s second season, Logan references Citizen Kane, Orson Welles’ 1941 film about a reporter trying to find the human story behind an oligarchic media tycoon: ‘You want a bit about old fucking Rosebud? Rosebud is a dollar bill. It’s whatever it took to get me the fuck out of here.’

The underside of Logan’s rags-to-riches narrative is most pointedly addressed in Succession’s penultimate episode. His brother, Ewan, reflects on Logan’s effect on society:

I can’t help but say he has wrought the most terrible things. He was a man who has here and there drawn in the edges of the world; now and then darkened the skies a little; closed men’s hearts, fed that dark flame in men, the hard, mean, hard-relenting flame that keeps their hearths warm while another grow cold, their grain stashed, while another goes hungry.

But this condemnation is not the final word. Logan’s son Kendall assesses his father and we again see that seed of American exceptionalism: yes, Logan is a ‘brute’ but he’s also a ‘builder’. Kendall commends him for being ‘a man who made an unspeakable amount of money’, which is ‘the lifeblood, the oxygen of this wonderful civilization that we have built from the mud’.

The American Dream sits at the heart of Succession…It’s a quintessential immigrant success story.

However, Logan is the beginning and end of Succession’s American Dream, as across the generational divide, little or no interest is shown by his children in building—indeed, in an earlier episode when Logan suggests they create something of their own he is met with disdain. Rather, the narrative of all four seasons hinges on that question of succession, with the plot driven by the machinations of the characters and the power gained through manipulation and ‘plays’ (and it’s worth noting the aptronymic nicknames borne by each of the children—Con, Ken, Shiv and Romulus). Words like ‘royalty’ and ‘dynasty’ are evoked repeatedly by the show’s writers. Much of the discussion between the three siblings hinges on what Kendall refers to as their ‘birthright’, with its assortments of inheritances, roles of power and fiefdoms in the form of various company interests.

Succession siblings: Shiv, Roman and Kendall. Image:

This imagery creates a vision of a feudal system that is illustrative of the contemporary landscape, where wealth inequality in the United States (and globally) has reached an astronomical level of disparity. In his piece for the New York Times, James Poniewozik notes that since the 80s, the wealth of the richest ‘.01 per cent has grown at a rate roughly five times as much as that of the population overall’. The result, Poniewozik suggests, is that the rich lead lives totally dissociated from our own while their problems and their decisions, as opposed to their prosperity, have a major trickle-down effect. Nepotism reigns. Based on their wealth, the Roy children could indeed lead lives of privilege and ease—as often suggested by discussions of ‘getting out’—and yet, the desire to maintain power remains a driving factor in all of the characters’ lives.

The implications of the Roy family’s undue influence on broader society are best captured by a series of words that are uttered continuously across the course of the show: ‘shape the narrative’. This is the idea that lies at the heart of their power and is no more present than in season four when the Roy family has a role in influencing the outcome of the American presidential election. The show’s focus on the overlap between industries and interests reveals the importance of the public imagination, especially for those who have much to gain by controlling it. The family sits at the heart of a Venn diagram that includes business, politics, the media and entertainment. It is a monopoly similar to the show’s inspiration, fellow American-Australian hybrids the Murdochs, whose company Fox recently agreed to an unprecedented US$787.5m settlement to the voting equipment company Dominion due to misinformation claims after the 2020 election.

So much of the media we consume here in Australia is American. Shows like Succession play a part in the way we understand both that culture and our ideas of what defines success. Associate Professor Lauren Rosewarne is a researcher on the influence of the media on society and notes that the hyper-individualism present in the American Dream narrative ‘wasn’t an Australian ethos’. The Australian dream was usually typified by a house in the suburbs, 2.5 kids and more abstract terms like ‘mateship’ and ‘a fair go’.

Shows like Succession play a part in the way we understand both that culture and our ideas of what defines success.

‘I think that the questioning of capitalism or the American Dream that you see in Succession is worth viewing with a cynical look,’ says Rosewarne. ‘Because there are two things happening at once. Yes, there’s an idea that the wealth dream is not perfect, that it comes at a cost, but also that it’s still a desirable life for a lot of people. Why is it still presented in a way that even if they’re horrible people we’re still meant to desire what they have?’ It’s a notion that is in line with recent pushback that argues that the increasingly popular ‘eat the rich’ genre criticises the dark side of capitalism while accepting its inevitability.

Rosewarne’s point emphasises the underbelly of the American Dream, and the more insidious effects of its precursor, ‘Manifest Destiny’, a 19th-century doctrine that suggests American settlers were ‘destined’ to spread across the North American continent, bringing the systems of democracy and capitalism with them. It is an expansionist, colonial mindset that is mirrored in Succession’s portrayal of the media elite. In season 4, Tom Wambsgans—then chair of ATN—acknowledges this to his Swedish counterparts. ‘What you need to know…from a U.S. news perspective is that we really don’t give a fuck,’ he tells them, addressing the state of America’s global and cultural hegemony, and acknowledging that it is past its peak. ‘[The] U.S. is late imperial and we don’t know. Because we don’t really want to know…when it burns we’ll build another.’

Within the media context, Australia has its own challenges. We face similar issues around the consolidation of media ownership and unscrupulous ‘shaping of the narrative’. This became particularly resonant in May when we saw Stan Grant, a proud Wiradjuri man and one of the country’s most prominent journalists, resign from his position hosting Q+A, citing the racial abuse he and his family has received in response to his coverage of the inauguration of King Charles III and the upcoming Voice to Parliament referendum. In the closing speech of his final episode, Grant noted that his resignation was not simply because of racist vitriol, but because he feared that he had become ‘complicit’: ‘We in the media must ask if we are truly honouring a world worth living in. Too often, we are the poison in the bloodstream of our society.’

Grant is a reporter for the ABC, Australia’s government-funded broadcaster, which in an ideal world would provide some counterbalance to the issue of concentrated media ownership and the influence of corporate interests. But Grant’s delivery reflects the broader issue of the decline in trust for the media. It is a cultural change that has unquestionably been present in recent years, with the platforming of hate under the guise of free speech that is in part—but undoubtedly—a result of a media and political elite that is out of touch with the everyday person and has incentives to polarise society.

This emerging ‘eat the rich’ genre criticises the dark side of capitalism while accepting its inevitability.

Stories have the power to shape our society, for both good and ill. Where certain ideas or ‘dreams’ are being reinforced, we should ask ourselves, as Rosewarne does, ‘Who’s dream is it anyway?’ What may once have been representative of success for a previous generation may now be a ‘noose of unhappiness’. What should we aspire to if social mobility is no longer a dream but increasingly an impossibility?

Since watching the Succession finale, every article I’ve read and friend I have spoken to agrees that it was the ending the show ‘had to have’. It is beautifully written and built on groundwork that was laid out over the course of all four seasons. I couldn’t help but remember the moment in the second season when Logan stands before his family and delivers a victory toast: ‘Money wins.’ Ultimately, he’s right. In the wake of the final episode, there’s a question that lingers. But at what cost? The dog-eat-dog world of Succession, where even the winners are losers, suggests that the American Dream has become a farcical nightmare.