In the closing moments of Succession Episode Two, we see a dead-eyed Kendall Roy toss a pack of shoplifted batteries into a Manhattan street corner trash can. Why? Maybe just because he can. Or maybe because it makes him feel something, anything.
The scene marks a perfect ending to an episode in which Kendall has transitioned into something more akin to a white-collar Michael Meyers than to something of a Selina Meyer-type caricature. He’s no longer a blubbering loser with a rich dad that we can laugh at. Now he’s a robotic, machete-wielding suit-and-tie monster who’s chopping off the livelihood of innocent people.
And when you consider this show’s core audience, Succession—at least in this episode—is absolutely a corporate horror story.
We often find ourselves here at Esquire wondering who actually watches Succession. Look at any major culture outlet—including this one—and you’ll see breathless coverage of the HBO drama about the fictional Roy family. But that coverage doesn’t necessarily translate to viewers. Succession Season Two debuted to 1.2 million viewers last week, up 32 percent from its Season One debut. It’s a good showing, but compared to HBO Sunday night premieres this summer like Big Little Lies—which debuted to 2.5 million viewers—its audience is meager. Compared to something like Sunday Night Football or The Big Bang Theory—which averaged 19.2 million viewers and 17.4 million viewers in 2018 respectively—these ratings are miniscule. Have you heard of Yellowstone on Paramount network? The seventh episode of that show’s second season just debuted to 5.4 million, but you won’t see nearly as much coverage of Yellowstone on most major media sites.
Considering that data, it certainly doesn’t seem like a wide swath of America is tuning into Succession—which is to be expected of a niche show that is a satire of powerful families in corporate America. So who is watching? Given the fervor of coverage, it’s obvious that journalists and critics are. And despite it being a very clear satire of billionaire families like hers, funny enough, Rupert Murdoch’s wife Jerry Hall happens to be a huge Succession fan.
It’s certainly possible that journalists and media entertainment elites make up the show’s core audience. If that’s true, it makes watching Kendall emotionlessly gut a burgeoning digital media company even more horrifying. It’s surreal, like watching Alien for the first time after having just been trapped on a commercial space tug with a violent extraterrestrial.
When I moved to New York in 2015, I did so to escape the heartless gutting of the Denver Post by a heartless hedge fund. All of my friends at the paper have since been fired or forced to resign. I’ve watched from afar as corporate overlords ignored national outrage, and continued to beat down an already crippled regional newspaper.
On the orders of his father, that’s exactly the sort of thing Kendall Roy carries out in this episode. He coldly stands in front of a group of journalists and tells them they’ve been fired, effective immediately. They must leave their laptops. They will not be compensated for unused vacation.
It’s like something out of a reoccurring nightmare I have—and considering our hypothesis about Succession‘s audience, I’m probably not alone. Though Kendall instigated the Waystar Royco acquisition of Vaulter, Logan—at the urging of Roman—decided to shutter Vaulter, which had been fudging its audience and time on site data. Vaulter (with headlines like “5 Reasons Why Drinking Milk On the Toilet Is Kind of a Game-Changer”) could very well have been Gawker or Mic or Mode.
For the thousands of journalists and members of the media watching, Kendall represents ultimate real-life corporate villain. He’s the monster in control of our livelihood, who can take it all away to appease his daddy. What’s more terrifying than a drug addled COO billionaire with nothing to lose and an unshakable loyalty to a father who helped him avoid humiliation and a manslaughter charge?
These horrifying real-world comparisons extend to the other plots weaving around the future of the Roy family. Most specifically the main question of who becomes Logan Roy’s successor. In the Season Two premiere, Logan tells Shiv that she will take his crown when he decides to step down. She was rightfully skeptical. And in Episode Two she decides—after his assurances—to break ties with the Bernie Sanders-type politician she’s been advising in his run for president. As I—and Shiv—expected, it doesn’t look like Logan’s offer was genuine. More than likely, Logan made this play as a way to get his daughter to quit the campaign and come back to his side, as she was slipping away into the arms of an adversarial politician. Now that he has Kendall as his lapdog (they’re also sharing an office), Logan will likely continue to pit the siblings against each other as they fight for daddy’s attention.
What’s Logan’s end game then? If you look at the real-life Murdoch comparison, there might not be one. Rupert Murdoch left his career to be picked up in a $71 billion acquisition by Disney rather then let his children run the family business.
At one point in the episode, Tom suggests to Shiv that she keep the plates spinning as long as she can. It seems like Logan will continues to resist retirement and fight the dreaded “Bear Hug” until he dies, leaving his family to fight over the spoils (or be sold off to his rival).
That might be the most horrifying message of all to come from the second episode of Succession: The powers that be are just keeping the plates spinning while they build these empires. The plates will inevitably fall, and everyone else is just the collateral damage of their shattering.