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'Succession' Questions the Competence of Powerful White Men

In the season two premiere of the HBO show, we learn that patriarch Logan Roy might be just as clueless as everyone else.

by Eric Thurm
Aug 12 2019, 2:24pm

Everyone wants to know what Logan Roy is thinking.

The domineering patriarch of the Roy family and CEO of the enormous multinational corporation Waystar Royco played by Brian Cox, Logan is the terrifying cipher at the heart of HBO’s Succession. The initial premise of the show—that Logan is going to retire and choose one of his children to take over—places a premium on whatever’s happening in his head. After all, the rest of the characters are fighting over something he and he alone will decide.

In "The Summer Palace," the premiere of Succession’s second season, the question of Logan’s "real" plans take center stage: He spends most of the episode deliberating on whether or not to sell Waystar Royco, going so far as to actually ask the rest of his feckless family for advice.

Understandably, the other Roys—the utterly broken manslaughterer Kendall (Jeremy Strong), irrationally cocky Roman (Kieran Culkin), and the just-married, still-miserable Shiv (Sarah Snook)—perceive this as a test of loyalty at best and an invasive mind game at worst. Even Marcia (Hiam Abbass), Logan’s wife, lashes out when asked for her opinion on the sale: "I have to dance for the daddy too?" Everyone assumes Logan has already made a decision and is just asking to see what they all say. After all, he’s Logan.

By the end of the episode, it seems like Logan has, in fact, made that decision. He will fight to have Waystar Royco and its subsidiaries be the final legacy media conglomerate standing after tech forces obsolescence on most of the industry, ostensibly with Shiv at the helm. (Eventually. Maybe.) Logan is still confident, still on top. But "The Summer Palace" uses his hesitation to play its own mind game, prodding at one of the questions at the heart of Succession: What if Logan Roy is just a rich old white guy with a deep voice?

Of course, Logan is those things. For most of Succession, he has also been portrayed as a terrifying, hyper-competent monster, the shadow looming over everyone else as they try to figure out their lives. Competence, Succession asks, of what kind?

Succession uses viewers' assumption about Logan’s competence—and the contrast with the other men on the show—to reflect the way real-life Logans operate. Is there any reason to believe venture capital guys who say they know how to fix media, when their only real skill is possessing an effective haircut and basic knowledge of slide decks? After all, the real-life corporate families who inspired Successionthe Murdochs, the Redstones, the Bancrofts—continue to run their companies as they wish with no oversight on the horizon.

The only real difference is that Brian Cox is a commanding presence, a man who looks like he should be playing the president in an '80s movie or hurling a glass of whiskey at Don Draper’s head. (Cox’s other 2019 TV performance is literally voicing Death on Amazon’s adaptation of Good Omens.) He’s an actor capable of delivering lines like the one Logan uses to open his interrogation of Kendall: "Step up onto the rack. I’m going to pull you limb from limb like a piñata and see what falls out.”

When Cox says this, it’s funny. But take a step back. Don’t imagine these words coming from a normal person—it would be psychotic, and besides, the point of Succession is that all of these people have what doctors like to call a "smooth brain." Instead, imagine them coming from Veep’s Jonah Ryan, an idiot gifted with whiteness, height, and a partial facility with insults. It still works! The words would be identical, but rather than communicating power, the joke would be about Jonah’s immaturity, his impotence, his rage at a world that doesn’t give him everything he wants exactly when he wants it. He would, functionally, be Roman Roy.

Succession tells us repeatedly that Logan is a force to be reckoned with. After all, he started a massively successful company, survived a ruthless business environment for decades, and maintains an iron grip on his family. But being a successful executive, as we well know by now, has no actual correlation with intelligence, business savvy, or really any sort of merit at all. Logan has certainly been lucky, but you can simply assume he knows what he’s doing, even when episodes like "The Summer Palace" peel back the curtain and reveal that he might just be making it up as he goes along.

To be sure, the other characters occasionally question Logan’s competence. In particular, Kendall admits to having described his father as "emotional, unstable, not necessarily logic-driven" during his attempt to take over the company. But throughout the premiere, Kendall is utterly destroyed, a husk who exists largely to repeat the phrase, “My dad’s plan was better,” even though we don’t know what his dad’s plan even was. Logan’s "plan," such as it was, was to take advantage of the fact that his son killed someone. Without this juicy blackmail material literally falling into his lap, Logan would have lost Waystar Royco.

It doesn’t matter, because Logan perfectly embodies the classic ideal of the manly businessman, willing to throw out an enormous quantity of food simply because his house smells, threaten a contractor, or dismiss several of his employees as "ground-pounders." By comparison, nearly every other man on Succession looks like a block of quivering tofu. (Apologies to tofu, which comes in a variety of densities and is a truly wonderful, versatile ingredient.) Roman and Kendall constantly look weak, like they’re constantly waiting for someone to run up and take their lunch money. And let's not even start on Tom.

For the most part, Logan’s business tools are his pre-existing wealth, intimidation, and violence. (At one point in the episode, Shiv reminds Logan that he once beat Roman with a slipper for ordering lobster.) In "The Summer Palace," he’s faced with a problem that can’t be fixed immediately by any of those tools, and seems genuinely unsure about what to do in response. The most pained Cox appears—and the most genuine Logan has maybe ever looked—is when his financial advisor tells him bluntly that tech’s consumption of media is nearly complete, and that his only bet would be to be one of the remaining stragglers.

So Logan leans back on the real source of his power: his network, and his reputation. When he confronts the contractor, a man whose total net worth likely doesn’t measure up to Logan’s collection of shoes, he bellows, "My lawyer used to work for the Justice Department. Who’s your lawyer, Mr. Fucking Magoo?" Faced with that level of connection, what is the contractor supposed to do? Is that lawyer also a rich, old white man with a deep voice? I’m not nearly as willing to take financial risks as Logan Roy—after all, he might be talking about Waystar general counsel Gerri Killman—but it’s still a safe bet.

This article originally appeared on VICE US.