Succession

succession

“Not to be crude about it, but politics is what comes out the asshole. Wouldn’t you rather be up front, feeding the horse?”

Last year I said Marvelous Mrs Maisel is the best thing currently on television. Looking back, I humbly retract my words – had I been aware of Succession in 2019, I might not have said so.

Created by Jesse Armstrong (Peep Show) and directed by Adam McKay (Step Brothers, The Big Short), Succession is HBO’s new flagship drama. It follows the trials and tribulations of the aptly named Roy family, a fictional business dynasty who rule a sprawling empire of media and finance. This 1% drama is told through a darkly comedic lens with what TV tropes calls an ‘eat the rich’ mentality. Horrible people in horrible situations with an ‘imperial’ opening theme.

succession logan roy

Logan Roy is a self-made man and tyrannical mogul of Waystar-Royco, a bloated conglomerate running cable news, print media, theme parks and cruises. Though he is ageing and should consider which of his imperfect children is to inherit, he is happy to keep them guessing.

Logan rules through fear. His company hides a web of lies and deceit that rewards and incentivises the most backstabbing and conniving behaviour. He is a titan in the industry, seeing everything through the eyes of a businessman and only showing his children love when it suits him.

Though its characters are morally compromised and widely dislikeable, they are distinct and well-crafted (and unfortunate) enough to draw the viewer in.

Main characters:

  • Logan Roy – Head of Waystar Royco. Played brilliantly by Scottish actor Brian Cox.
  • Connor Roy – Logan’s business averse eldest son. He spends his time collecting Napoleonic memorabilia and dating an escort in his New Mexico ranch. Played by Alan Ruck.
  • Kendall Roy – groomed for succession, but compromised by a drug problem. Most invested in Waystar-Royco’s success. Played by Jeremy Strong.
  • Siobhan, ‘Shiv’ Roy – the most like her father of the three children. Works outside the family businesses as a political consultant for liberal candidates. Played by Sarah Snook.
  • Roman Roy – the youngest Roy child. Foulmouthed, sarcastic and incompetent. Played by Keiran Culkin.
  • Tom Wambsgams – Shiv’s long term boyfriend and head of the cruise division. Lampshaded as somewhat of a buffoon among the conniving Roys. Played by Matthew MacFayden.
  • Cousin Greg – the bumbling, overwhelmingly naïve newest member of Logan’s entourage. Played by Nicholas Braun.

The Roy family is a pastiche of real-life business dynasties like the Murdochs, Redstones and Trumps. Their leading cable network, ATN, is modelled on Fox News.

succession shiv and romanDialogue is the show’s forte. Subtext and snarky one-liners reign supreme. Succession indulges in the indirect, jargon-laden speech beloved by businessmen and politicians. Its characters eschew middle-class morality and spew words like they have no meaning. Hostage crises are ‘administration action functions’. Fetching lattes fall under a range of ‘target orientated tasks’. Words are ‘complicated airflow’.

Rookie cousin Greg desperately wants to be like his remorseless colleagues, and when facing a panel, he comes out with gold:

Senator Eavis: Gregory Hirsch, executive assistant to Tom Wambsgans, correct?

Greg: Yes. Yes, if it is to be said.

Eavis: I’m sorry?

Greg: Uh, if it is to be said, so it be, so it is.

Eavis: Are you all right?

Greg: Uh, yes. Uh, I merely wish to answer in the affirmative fashion.

Eavis: You can speak to us normally.

Greg: Oh, no — thank you, sir. Uh, uh, so I shall.

succession greg and tom 2

Greg’s relationship with mentor / adversary Tom (above) makes for the most laugh-out-loud moments of the show. Though they both are connected to the family, unlike the teams of suits and executives who trail Logan, they are not quite a part of the inner circle they desperately seek to join.

While a satirical drama first and foremost, Succession does not shy from Shakespearean turns. It is a glimpse into the web of business, politics and media that controls America and the crushing egoism of those involved. Season Three premieres next year.

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Why Did King’s Landing Burn?

Flipboard: These Memes About Daenerys Burning King’s Landing On 'Game Of Thrones' Show How The ...

Yes, I am weighing in on Game of Thrones. In a polarising final season, the penultimate episode has proven especially divisive. Critics have derided it. An online petition to remake Season 8 has 900,000 signatures and counting. Personally I liked it. Here’s why.

*Spoilers will follow*

Criticism for Season 8’s ‘The Bells’, the longest Game of Thrones episode to air, and the second-to-last of all time, is laid most heavily on Daenerys Targaryen burning King’s Landing, and the fate of Jaime Lannister. Conversely few can deny its cinematic weight.

Since last episode the Dragon Queen has flipped from slave-freeing heroine to mass murderer without rhyme or reason. Game of Thrones prides itself on its unpredictability. Viewers sit on the edge of their seat, not knowing whether their favorite character will live or die. Eddard Stark’s execution or the Red Wedding, however, were believable and consistent with character motivation. The burning of King’s Landing, meanwhile, seemed less because of an authentic and foreshadowed shift in Daenerys’s character but because the story demanded it.

This all-powerful plot, which defies character or sense, has plagued the show since Season 5. How did Danaerys reach Beyond the Wall in Season 7 all the way from Dragonstone in time to save Jon and friends from the White Walkers? Why did no one important die in the crypts in Season 8’s Battle for Winterfell? How did Jaime, the Hound, Brienne, Tormund, Greyworm and Ghost survive the army of the dead? How did Cersei and her minions identify Missandei? Not because it was credible, but because the plot demanded it.

Critiques of Daenerys’s murder spree follows similar reasoning. The Targaryen Queen spends half of ‘A Dance with Dragons’ mourning an unnamed child scorched by her dragon. Why could she destroy an entire city, just because a few of her friends had died? Why did Jaime, after all he had been through, still go back to Cersei and die in her arms?

Though I concede Season 8’s character arcs are rushed and haphazard, the burning of King’s Landing is not unexpected.

A million people live in King’s Landing, according to Tyrion Lannister. That would equate Danaerys’s slaughter with the Rwandan Genocide if she killed half. By sheer body count, it is leagues worse than anything Joffrey, Cersei, Ramsay Bolton or even the Night King ever did. Despite vowing to never be like him, Daenerys ends up fulfilling her father’s last wish: Burn them all.

It is a fallacy to think great leaders hold themselves to a high moral standard. Alexander the Great crucified 10,000 outside Tyre and burned Pasargadae to the ground. Julius Caesar perpetrated genocide in Gaul and Genghis Khan killed 5% of the world’s population. Burning King’s Landing resembles the nuking of Hiroshima and Nagasaki or the firebombing of Dresden, two acts committed by the ‘good guys’ of WW2. It is not always madness or bloodlust which demand the death of innocents, sometimes and it is cold and calculated strategy.

Daenerys knows the people of Westeros will never love her. She therefore opts to instill the fear of God in anyone who would cross her by turning King’s Landing, its surrendered defenders, and innocent inhabitants to ash. It signals that anyone else who defies her will meet a similar fate. Now her advisors who cautioned forbearance have either betrayed her or are dead. In Daenerys’s mind only unquestioned obedience will guarantee peace and her right to rule. The ends justify the means.

Season 8 has alluded to this.  Though it was handled somewhat clumsily, I appreciated the paradigm shift. As our heroine burned the innocents to death and Jon’s soldiers murdered and raped, it became clear good and bad are relative concepts, a cornerstone of Game of Thrones’s moral lens. What’s more, pitting Jon and Daenaerys against each other makes for a higher stakes game than if Cersei Lannister remained ‘the big bad’. I pray the finale will satisfy.

Update 19/05/9: finale did not satisfy.
Update 27/05/19: petition has over 1,500,000 signatures.

John Oliver’s China Episode

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Two weeks ago on HBO’s Last Week Tonight, British-American comedian John Oliver criticised Chinese government censorship and poked fun at leader Xi Jinping. In response China blocked the HBO network and all mention of John Oliver within its borders.

Last Week Tonight with John Oliver (2014-) is an Emmy award winning satire show that explores current events with a liberal and comedic bent. It focuses mainly on US politics.

On the 17th June, Oliver spent the episode’s first half discussing the narrative pushed by Chinese propaganda: the fact China is more prosperous than ever before and the idea that ’Uncle Xi’ is a benevolent ruler adored by his people. Oliver also showed a clip of the English language propaganda video for the Belt and Road Initiative, which he later parodied. The original is available on Youtube, a website ironically banned in China.

Internet content is tightly regulated in China, where freedom of speech is not permitted. More than any other authoritarian government, The Communist Party has the wealth and state capacity to enforce this effectively.

Oliver discussed:

  • Xi Jinping’s removal of term limits
  • Subsequent censorship of search terms including ‘my emperor’, and ‘personality cult’
  • ‘Dystopian’ oppression of the Uighur minority
  • China’s social credit system, which denies privileges like buying plane flights or real estate to ‘untrustworthy’ citizens
  • The blocking of candle emojis following the death of Nobel winning activist Liu Xiabo

pooh1In 2013 Chinese dissenters started sharing memes comparing Xi with Winnie-the-Pooh. Authorities responded by blocking all mention of the fictional bear on the Chinese internet. Though noting the resemblance is not particularly strong, Oliver suggests this makes it all the more funny:

“Clamping down on Winnie-the-Pooh comparisons doesn’t exactly project strength. It suggests a weird insecurity.”

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The comparisons were a running gag for the remainder of the episode.

Though the HBO network is not available on mainstream Chinese television, its website was accessible. Since then Chinese authorities have blocked the entire network and all mention of John Oliver, who has joined Liu Xiabo, Justin Beiber and Winnie-the-Pooh as figures deemed ‘harmful to national security’.

Given China’s economic leverage, today western governments rarely criticise its dubious human rights record. Free Tibet has been forgotten. What’s troublesome is that such censorship is slowly leaking beyond the Great Firewall. The FCC has already killed Net Neutrality in the USA and opened the door for corporate tampering. Less than a week ago Youtube quietly removed John Oliver’s China episode without comment.

Sources: BBC, Greatfire, Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, New York Times, Variety 

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