In Succession, the Roy children are subjected to intense, Maxwell-style bullying and belittling by their father, who refuses to appreciate whatever they give him (particularly when Roman tries to buy him his favourite Scottish football team but mistakenly buys Hearts, not Hibs). Their mother is just as bad, spending the reception before her daughter’s wedding asking guests to bet how long the marriage will last.
The show suggests that the Roys are not a family at all, just a conglomerate of unintegrated assets. “We’re eating family-style,” said Logan’s third wife, Marcia, at a get-together. “Almost like we’re a family,” quipped Roman. Strong, who plays Kendall, has quoted a phrase attributed to Carl Jung: “Where love is absent, power fills the vacuum.”
But there is love in Succession. Kendall is passed over by his father to become chief executive, but still ends up singing a laudatory, cringe-inducing rap: “L to the O, G, A, N.” Many family disputes – the Ambanis, the Murdochs – have involved siblings taking on siblings.
In 1980, Charles Koch, chief executive of Koch Industries, survived a coup attempt by his younger brother Bill. He voted his brother out of the company at the next board meeting. By contrast, the Roy siblings jostle, but they haven’t actually fought directly in Succession. They recognise that they alone share the burden of being Logan’s children. And better that one of them takes control than an outsider.
Ultimately, the Roys can hire people to cook their meals, treat their psyches, and clean up their mess. But they can’t hire people to be their family (although Connor, the eldest, most delusional child, does try). When Logan’s spiteful brother, Ewan, is asked to back a no-confidence vote in him, he replied: “My brother’s an ex-Scot, an ex-Canadian, an ex-human being. But he’s still my brother.”
Family businesses have strange dynamics, particularly around the selection of an heir. At least Oedipus didn’t have to win his father’s backing as his named successor. The oldest is not always the best fit. “I’ve managed to get myself into this situation, where ‘what does my dad think?’ is my entire fucking universe,” lamented Succession’s Shiv, as she tries to overcome Logan’s resistance to favouring a woman. With your parent as your boss, you may be infantilised forever.
One tempting conclusion from the show is that you should never try to work with your family. That would be wrong. For every feuding family business, there are probably several happy ones. Eddie Hearn, the British boxing promoter who is taking over his father Barry’s business, has said of Succession: “It’s just like us!” The Hearns’ rivalries seem to be contained in a successful business that is bigger than father or son could have built alone. Succession may be a modern King Lear, but Shakespeare wrote more comedies than tragedies.