The media industry, you may have heard, is a precarious place to make one’s career. The digital advertising landscape has been fully devoured by the twin powers of Google and Facebook, private equity firms have made a cottage industry of stripping publications for spare parts, and venture capital has (mostly) caught on that the news business, at its most profitable, isn’t going to get you 10x returns. Seemingly every other week another site or publisher — some of which you grew up reading — is set to be shuttered.
Enter Succession. It’s no secret that Media Twitter, the loose conglomerate of writers and editors and readers that make up the most insufferable corner of the internet, is enamored with the HBO drama, but it’s not because the show is about the industry. Waystar Royco, the corporation the Roy family owns, is a media company, sure, but it could just as well be an oil company for all the characters care; the money, not the news business, is the animating force. But on Sunday night, Succession took a turn; suddenly it was very much about the media. Its depiction was painfully accurate.
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In the show’s first season, occasionally wayward oldest son Kendall sticks his neck out to close what he believes is a bold business decision: purchasing Vaulter, a digital media company that splits the easily parodied distance between BuzzFeed and Vice. Fast forward a season, and Waystar Royco is against the ropes and looking to cut costs: “How many skulls?” is a question Tom, the new head of the company’s news decision, would very much like answered. The bigger the number, the better. Quickly, Kendall’s prized deal is on the chopping block.
Mass layoffs are often a surprise, and usually seem short-sighted. Succession, then, felt like a sort of wish fulfillment, if your wish is to see your worst professional fears confirmed and dramatized for the screen. If everyone’s sneaking suspicion is that people at the top of the chain make decisions not based on business savvy or a long-term vision, but instead capricious, self-serving sprints toward power, then Succession did an excellent job of making that feel real for media professionals, down to the inclusion of Chartbeat — what editors look at all day to see how their stories are performing — and oft-repeated phrases like “Facebook changed the algorithm.” It was as if the screenplay was cobbled together from leaked Slack chats.
Kendall, still dead-eyed and funneling cocaine, is a broken man. However, in his muted, pathetically humbled state, he’s never been more useful to his father Logan. He loses the argument to keep Vaulter on the company roster, despite a spirited debate. However, once the decision is made, he goes about dismantling the company with a grim, straightforward satisfaction. He’s more brutal than he has to be (and gets more spit in the face for his efforts than your typical corporate raider), wringing everything he can from the company and knowingly torching any personal reputation in the process. Nothing matters more, it seems, than impressing his father. When the deed is done, and Vaulter’s young staff has cleared out their desks (except for the weed and food verticals, and the associated interns), he’s rewarded with a seat in his father’s office. He takes his place with the energy of a beaten lap dog.
There was no indication in last week’s premiere that Succession was interested in holding back any plot in order to have a stately second season. This episode proved that the pace is more breakneck than ever. Shiv is still the heir apparent to Logan’s throne, and adapting well to the role. Despite a potential White House Chief of Staff job on the horizon, she burns her day job as a political consultant almost immediately. There’s no waffling, just action. It leaves Tom, her new husband, watery-eyed at the prospect that she won’t simply make him the CEO of the company after all. It’s touching, in retrospect, to think that Tom has held on to that aspiration for their entire relationship, despite overwhelming evidence that he would never climb to the top of the Roy ladder. Regardless, Shiv crushes his dream in a moment’s notice, refusing to acknowledge his obvious surprise and hurt.
Similarly, Roman has also held on to improbable designs for the CEO role, despite moving through the world in a state of dazed, profane confusion. He’s responsible for the shuttering of Vaulter, but doesn’t have the first idea of how to go about closing down a publication; he knows to throw a dinner party, but has no idea how to interact with anyone for more than a 15-second burst. He tells Shiv, stupidly, that he believes himself to be next in line for the big job, not knowing that his fate, for now, has already been sealed.
For an episode that moved fast and with the show’s signature dedication to illustrating the creativity of cruelty, Cousin Greg was once again the sole ray of lightheartedness. The hapless, gangly scion is looking for an apartment now, and having some trouble finding a place in the Manhattan housing market with enough storage space for… him. Of course, he’s eventually gifted a multimillion-dollar condo/Kendall party location, and fails to stand up for being “against racism” when he begins a job on the show’s Fox News stand-in. Even the good ones turn out to be disappointments.
Previously: A Better Plan
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