Kate Maltby

Succession was a rare portrayal of greed that wasn't antisemitic

It's rare to see billionaires depicted without invoking Jewish themes

June 01, 2023 10:48

In the end, Succession was never really about power. The HBO TV series was marketed as the story of a power struggle: the tale of a media mogul’s children each jostling to assert themselves as his successor. “King Lear meets the Murdochs” was an early tagline.

Between the references to Shakespeare’s political tragedies and its unremittingly dark vision of influence-peddling between media, politics and tech players, Jesse Armstrong’s show couldn’t help but teach us something about power along the way. Yet it wasn’t the quest for power that actually turned the wheels of Succession’s plot. Each twist of the tale was driven by something much simpler: money.

Tom Wambsgans, tycoon Logan Roy’s son-in-law, gave us the show’s keycode halfway through the final season, had we chosen to hear him. Tom was the only one of Succession’s main players born without the security of deep wealth, as he reminded his wife Shiv while he sought to justify a corporate betrayal that wrecked their marriage. “All my life, I’ve been thinking a little bit about money. And how to get money, and how to keep money.”

With the security of money — their financial shares of the business were always guaranteed — Shiv and her brothers Kendall and Roman were free to play games for other stakes. Politics, film-making, the ego–thrill of corporate leadership. It divorced them from the language that everyone around them was speaking. (“I’m just trying to make you f***ing rich”, said corporate raider Lukas Matsson. “Already rich” said Kendall, blocking a takeover deal others would have killed for.)

Logan’s rise, however, was driven by the same avarice as that driving Tom. Kendall, in his more lucid moments, knew it. At Logan’s funeral, Kendall’s eulogy for his father became a full-throated endorsement of the capitalist dream. Mourners were invited to wonder at “The money. Yeah, the money. The lifeblood, the oxygen of this wonderful civilization that we have built from the mud. The money, the corpuscles of life gushing around this nation, this world, filling men and women all around with desire.” It was Kendall at his most eloquent, and he missed his own message.

Shiv made a similar mistake. Presidential candidate Jeryd Mencken muttered at the wake about Logan’s “ideological sympathy” with the Right; Shiv rejected this with a much more basic vision: “My Dad… was about money, winning, and gossip”. But what Shiv wanted was power, and when she backed the takeover in return for a shot at running the company, she showed him too quickly that she expected to pull his strings. She mocked her husband as “a highly interchangeable modular part” with a “plausible corporate manner”. That was exactly what Matsson was seeking.

Tom became Waystar Royco’s new CEO because he was willing to trade power for wealth. He promised his new master his total subservience, but he’ll still be taking home colossal stock options. Meanwhile, Matsson won ownership of the company because he could offer most money on the dollar to its shareholders. Shiv baulked at her chance to block it, because she couldn’t bear the prospect of Kendall in triumph. But such emotions were ultimately self-defeating. The two men who came out on top, Tom and Matsson, were the two men who’d kept their eyes firmly on the cash.

How refreshing to see a cultural vision of avarice in which no one greedy or grasping is a Jew. In fact, the show’s most rapacious character was its most explicit antisemite. Logan Roy embodied the capacity of capitalism for corruption. But where Trollope or Shakespeare would have made such a figure a Jew (Melmotte in The Way We Live Now, Shylock in The Merchant of Venice), Logan projected his own greed onto Jews.

Most obviously, Logan sniped at Adrien Brody’s character, Josh Aaronson, an investor who quite reasonably raised concerns about the ruling family’s corporate self-cannibalism. Aaronson’s Jewishness was central to his identity and to Logan’s bile towards him, which Kendall characterised as “your antisemitic f***ing bagel and gold bullshit”. We saw a large mezuzah in the first shot of Aaronson’s home; Logan, a capitalist pretending to be a Catholic, instead saw a man “counting your gold in your castle”.

Succession was populated by characters seeking money, but only Aaronson’s greed was unacceptable to Logan. It is useful, after all, for billionaires to find a subset of other billionaires to blame for hoarding wealth and influence. Something to remember next time Elon Musk takes a shot at George Soros.

Unlike many anti-capitalist polemics, Jesse Armstrong’s show was always clear-eyed about the dangers of antisemitism. Roman, Logan’s youngest son, marked his descent into moral depravity when he endorsed a fascist and joked about blaming political violence on “the blacks and the Jews”. WASPy retainer Frank (played by Jewish actor Peter Friedman) also muttered about Aaronson’s lust for “his pound of flesh”. Armstrong knows his Shakespeare, as the finale reminded us. Eyeballs were “blobs of jelly”, gouged and abused just like they are in Lear; Roman, crumbling on sight of himself in a mirror, recalled both Richard III’s self-loathing and Richard II’s despair at comparing himself to his rival cousin Henry IV. But though we did meet a Shylock, he wasn’t the show’s Jew. For once, Gentiles were this story’s money-grubbers. Bravo.

June 01, 2023 10:48

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