Woe to You Who Are Rich: What ‘Succession’ Gets Right About Wealth

TV tends to treat the rich in one of two ways. The first is to make them aspirational objects, living lives of luxury the rest of us would be lucky to dream of. These characters populate the world of Downton AbbeyGossip Girl or The O.C. The second is to make them hilariously out-of-touch whackadoos, like the Bluth family on Arrested Development or the Banks in The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. And so, television is adept at containing most Americans attitudes about the rich: we want to be them, but we don’t want to be like them. We’re a little jealous of them, so it’s comforting to think of them as inept buffoons.

Succession dives into this space and puts the wealthy under a new kind of microscope. HBO’s hit series about four siblings jockeying for power as their media mogul father’s health declines depicts wealth as something more like spiritual poison. Or, in the spirit of the season, something like vampirism: it gives you power, sure, but the cost is your soul.

Logan Roy (Brian Cox) has raised his kids at arm’s length, molding them into creatures as amoral as he is and desperate enough for his approval that they’ll countenance almost any horror to gain it. They’re desperate enough to inherit the keys to the kingdom that there’s no bridge they won’t cross. Kendall (Jeremy Strong), Siobhan (Sarah Snook) and Roman (Kieran Culkin) will sacrifice dignity, friendships, marriages and their own sibling bond at the altar of power (oldest sibling Connor [Alan Ruck] would do the same if he could just figure out how to get anyone to take him seriously]. What’s more, it’s an understood element in their relationship now. They treat each other like contestants on Survivor — useful when goals intersect, but ultimately disposable.

This makes for terrific, if not exactly uplifting, television. Handsomely shot and deftly written, Succession can be in turns thrilling and very, very funny, with an overflowing swear jar that probably rivals Deadwood for most profane script on cable. That means it doesn’t fall into the general purview of “Christian TV” but its view of money is awfully biblical.

Jesus’ words on wealth are harrowing. “Woe to you who are rich, for you have already received your comfort,” he cautioned. He sent a rich young ruler looking for salvation away because the man was unwilling to part with his money, declaring that “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.”

Over the centuries, Christians have found a number of creative ways to dodge the uncomfortable implications of this teaching. Maybe the “eye of a needle” was actually the local nickname of a nearby gate that camels could walk through? Or maybe Jesus didn’t mean that being rich was bad but that having an unhealthy love of being rich was bad?

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Succession doesn’t really have any interest in splitting such hairs. The wealthy denizens of the Succession-verse may occasionally tip their caps towards good causes, but only as a means of building a little social clout for their true ends. The occasional moments of genuine love and humanity are inevitably undermined by a lust for power, and the recognition that love and affection are liabilities for such pursuits. Every familial overture is tinged with suspicion. “Is he really reaching out, or does he see me as a means to an end?” “Are we having this conversation as family, co-workers or rivals?”

Those questions should ring familiar to us, even if we’re not the scions of a media empire. We’re all familiar with the way that money colors our humanity. Interactions that should be simple get twisted when finances are involved. Deeply held beliefs are tabled, so that donors aren’t upset. Victims are silenced, so that jobs aren’t compromised. Relationships are held at a distance, in case a colleague becomes competition. Most of us are familiar with the caution against going into business with family, and it’s a good one. But those same liabilities exist for non-family members too, and can wreck the same havoc on our relational lives.

Succession understands this, and understands how many of the Roys problems would go away if they’d just be willing to surrender their need for wealth and power. But of course, that’s the one thing none of them can give up. They are, very much, all rich young rulers looking for salvation. And like the first rich young ruler, they’re likely to go away disappointed.

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