As its third season releases, Jenn Gannon wonders if the innate sexual tension is responsible for the runaway success of HBO’s Succession…
Succession shifts perceptions, interlinking comedy, drama and tragedy. It’s a moveable feast of family dysfunction that transcends the trappings of genre. It is prestige TV at its finest with layers upon layers of idiosyncratic brilliance and a true richness and depth to its writing.
It is also the horniest show on TV.[restrict]
When did this happen? When did we start to have a collective thirst for the entire cast? You cannot log on to any social media app without being confronted by somebody rhapsodising over someone in Succession. Stewie, Rhea, Carolina – it doesn’t even have to be one of the main characters, which I guess would be on a par to lusting after Tracey the silent barmaid in Eastenders.
We’ve had memes, gifs, parody songs, ‘nocontext’ social media accounts that randomly throw up a quip or pic for us to swoon over. When it was announced that regulation Hollywood hotties Alexander Skarsgård and Adrien Brody were joining the cast for season three social media went into full sexy meltdown. This week the stars are being interviewed together on US chat shows like they’re the Telly Beatles. “Everyone looked brutally hot at the Succession premiere, congrats to the whole team” screams a tweet, “Succession Is Returning With Some Incredibly Horny Promos” wails a Jezebel headline. Somewhere out there someone is stitching ‘Spank Me Sandy Furness ’ into a baseball cap to be sold on Etsy.
Horny Succession Twitter – of which I am definitely a part, (we put the ‘sex’ in Succession) really came into its own during the dry days of lockdown. We were at the precise point where the oncoming apocalypse surged ever closer and the new season of the show felt further and further away; in this anxious state Twitter became a strange confessional. Those that had previously avoided being ‘horny on main’ decided to give it a go, reasoning that it could be their last chance to broadcast to the world how hot they found Brian Cox in his sunglasses and trapper cap combo calling a workman ‘Mister Magoo’. We had nothing to lose.
This wasn’t the origins of this deep seated passion though. It has always been there. Maybe it’s the Daddy of it all. The show’s central premise of wanting to please big Daddy Roy takes the programme to uncomfortable places. Maybe it’s the sound and fury of Logan Roy bellowing ‘Fuck Off!’ in a myriad of intonations – although if being shouted at by an old man is a kink then I don’t know why legions of women aren’t having thousands of orgasms a day reading the paper or watching the news. Fuck the patriarchy indeed.
Maybe we can blame it on comedian Demi Adejuyigbe who back during the show’s second season in 2019 lampooned the innate masochism of Succession adding lyrics to Nicholas Britell’s theme tune about the family wanting a “Kiss from Daddy”. Maybe Brian Cox is a hot King Lear swaddled in expensive knitwear. Whatever. Succession, to paraphrase Tom Wambsgans makes us all feel ‘Godlike and horny’.
We really shouldn’t though. In an era of Bezos bashing, ‘Burn the Rich’ sloganeering, the constant (valid) criticism of Murdoch, Musk, Zuckerberg and the tangerine spectre of Trump, we should not be perving over a fictional family of billionaires and yet here we are, wringing ourselves out with guilt and other emotions.
It is not as simple as power and money being an aphrodisiac, that’s not why the characters in Succession are attractive to us, although the insouciance of the mind-bogglingly rich is appealing, as are the luxurious locations. Modern audiences are an informed viewership now, and our needs are more complex than that, which is something that the Succession writers have tapped into. After years of pop culture celebrating the antihero, Succession has given us a whole rotten selection box of them. They come in all shapes and sizes, something for everyone to gorge on and make themselves sick over. They are horrible, poisonous humans and yet the true genius of the Succession writing team is their willingness to see shades of grey and engage with the complexities of the characters’ personalities. They don’t want to elicit simplistic sympathy for these characters, they portray them as ruthless and sociopathic, breathtakingly duplicitous and callow, but they also make them so charismatic and fun that as a viewer you cannot help but be manipulated.
We love the minutiae of it all. The show digs deep into the psychopathy of each character individually and over time we understand the beats to their conversations, their in jokes, family shorthand and incessant machine-gun verbiage.The rapid pace ensures not a moment is wasted; every single word in Succession is loaded. From an ‘Okay’ to a ‘Thanks’ to a ‘Let’s talk’ and an ‘Are we okay?’ Every simple phrase has a double, triple meaning, every breath taken is sharp and unsure, every look has an eyebrow cocked in a question mark. Talk is cheap, baby, but it’s also hot.
There is something about this conceal and reveal cat and mouse game that is exciting and alluring. Nobody is ever who they appear to be, personalities and personal loyalties are always mutable, transferring to whoever is the most favourable, not in the heavy handed wretched machinations of House of Cards but in a more lightly devious way – as if terminally swiping left on someone.
Sex and sexuality in Succession pushes its viewers to confront their own compulsions. Sex in prestige shows is usually dryily masculine. A heteronormative grunting performance acted out on a production line of women (Mad Men) or worse, a series of brutal fantastical rape sequences (Game of Thrones). Succession eschews this one dimensional cul-de-sac of redundant sexuality by giving its audience a myriad of neurosis and peccadilloes that we can recognise or relate to.
There is that one moment for everyone where the show moves from being about how reprehensible you find this family, how disgusted you are at their entitled behaviour into a space of something else that although equally repulsive is bizarrely intriguing nonetheless. We love to hate them in a very intense way. It starts with a joke, a zingy one liner, a laugh to loosen things up and then moves into another territory entirely. Everyone begins to have their ‘favourite’. For some it’s the psycho-sexual trysts involving Mommy substitute Gerri and acerbic Roman that have set fan’s brains on fire giving them the fanfic no-one saw coming and creating the most talked about promotional poster for the show’s third season.
For others it’s Shiv Roy, the woman in complete control, like a clutch of cream in a silk evening dress informing Tom that she wants an open relationship on their wedding night. We constantly see her play with Tom’s heart as she toyed with ex-lover Nate’s. “I tried playing with you, and you broke” she snaps at him after one rendezvous.
My own heart belongs to Roman. This curious desire could have begun midway through him jizzing all over the windows of his office, erupting onto the heads of the oblivious New Yorkers below – a world beating wank, lost in the ecstasy of his own perceived power, or when Tabitha under her halo of perfect hair informed the youngest Roy sibling that she wasn’t ‘uninterested in solving him’ after a night of dismal necrophiliac bedroom antics or the disparaging nature of Dommy-Mommy Operations Manager Gerri Kellman referring to him as a Slime Puppy. How could I resist the specific charms of this short king and more importantly what does this say about me?
Baby Romy, played by Kieran Culkin, is one part Holden Caulfield, two parts potential Patrick Bateman with the hair of a young Crispin Glover. He is the sharpest of the Roys with the best one liners but is also caked in the inadequacy that haunts youngest siblings. Unsure of his place in the company, derided as the ‘joke’ of the family, he takes refuge under an armour of snark and sarcasm. He’s full of bravado talking about “snorting purified sertraline off women that don’t know they’re prostitutes yet” but in reality his deficiencies extend to the bedroom where he views sexual desire with distaste. He is only fulfilled when he is being humiliated. From his days in a dog cage used as punishment (‘You enjoyed it!’ his brother Connor airily informs him) to being slumped behind the door of Gerri’s hotel room listening to her berate him, drenched in an eroticised version of his father’s lexicon of failure and shame, Roman is no-one’s romantic ideal.
There have been endless column inches and podcast episodes devoted to the broken toy charm of would-be hero Kendall Roy. He is the saddest little rich boy that legions of fans want to fix. In Jeremy Strong’s finally tuned, nuanced performance we see a man wanting to break free of the trappings of his upbringing but who is also used to this lifestyle of instant gratification, shipping off an unwanted actress he had sex with on the first flight home after the disapproval of his father. Kendall likes to assume the mantle of woke hero here to change Waystar Royco but he also loves to use and abuse.
Although perhaps none of these central characters can match the strange figure of Tom Wambsgans. The spectre of Mr. D’Arcy looms large over actor Matthew MacFadyen’s career as the ultimate stoic, swoonsome gentleman but in Succession he has obliterated the Austen fantasy to become this unknowable, slippery, excuse of a man. The character of Tom could have been ripped straight from Armstrong’s old writing job at The Thick of It. He’s a calculating, swivel-eyed careerist, attempting to manoeuvre his way into the protective bosom of the Roy family. His open relationship with wife Siobhan may expose his vulnerabilities and shows that at heart he is a traditionalist who loves his wife but it is his relationship with Cousin Greg, everyone’s favourite human flog, that is the most stirring.
This bumbling cartoonish, anorak wearing tallboy seems like he was created from the minds of timid girls. Through his blushing, comedic turn actor Nicholas Braun has become a fully fledged indie boy heartthrob. He is the Harry Styles of Micheal Ceras. Now the hottest property in New York, gossip social media account Deux Moi details every swipe of Raya he makes.
Together MacFadyen and Braun are a kind of double act that in any other show would be a wisecracking duo with a very conventional, conservative bromance. Yes, they may be the Rosencrantz and Guildenstern of Succession – both outsiders, we view the madness of the Roys through their eyes, but there is also a sinister sexual undercurrent in their relationship that explores the master-slave dialectic. There is a distinct tang of the public schoolboy prefect and underling aspect to their relationship as if it was cut from Lindsay Anderson’s seminal film If…. with Tom relishing his role as the freshly minted bully ready to torment the new plaything. In one of their first scenes together he asks Greg to kiss him; observing Greg’s stuttering state he extinguishes the moment stating it was a joke. Tom constantly assumes this jesting tone within their partnership, veering in and out of this state of undetermined desire.
This strained partnership, according to Jesse Armstrong, was inspired by the relationship between the Roman emperor Nero and his freedman Sporus. With the egomaniacal emperor becoming consumed by the young boy, culminating in Nero forcing Sporus to be castrated, before undergoing a sham marriage ceremony with him. You don’t get that kind of characterisation and context on Billions, that’s for sure.
“Sorry if last night got a little bit fruity,” Logan says after subjecting his executive team to the dehumanising game of Boar on the Floor to sniff out traitors. He could be talking directly to us, the receptive audience willing to become part of this masochistic mind-fuck. Our Succession obsession has reached fever pitch with season three on the horizon, and the promise of more unexpected seductive behaviour.
This time around things are more toxic than ever as the stakes have increased and the viciousness of the family is truly exposed. We are really in the nest of vipers that Grandpa Ewan warned Cousin Greg about. As usual with Succession the professional is the personal. Everything goes too far and the most destructive state is when sibling side-eye turns into attempts to not only crash and burn careers but to destroy each other on a deeply personal level. This electrifying frenzied chaos will be examined and debated throughout social media and beyond with every gesture and hair flick picked apart and thirsted over. We love our terrible, horrible family who draw out our worst behaviour because maybe just like the Roys, we are monsters too.
Season 3 starts on Sky Atlantic/Now TV from Monday October 18th at 9pm.