Succession: a family business morality tale for our times


With such implicit dramatic possibilities, it’s odd that family business hasn’t often been the subject for fictional treatment on the stage, TV or big screen. 

In recent decades we’ve had Dallas, The Crown, Six Feet Under, Good Morning Babylon.  But go back to the early 17th century and we have William Shakespeare’s King Lear – the most compelling tale ever of a family enterprise going wrong. 

Surely, the drama suggests, if you wish the business to survive and flourish while run by your descendants then trying to make them rounded human beings and leaders will be in your interest

And, interestingly, it is to Shakespeare’s tragedy which the most acclaimed family business TV series in years has been compared – HBO’s Succession which has been tagged: “the King Lear of the media industrial complex.” 

Succession’s patriarch is Logan Roy (roi equals king),  an ageing, irascible and unpredictable tycoon, whose billion-dollar New York business empire employs his privileged offspring who are the results of several ill-fated marriages. As Succession opens, Logan finds himself in poor health facing retirement, with a brood of four hugely wealthy, entitled and insecure offspring, all profoundly ill-equipped to inherit his mantle.

Immediately it appeared critics noticed many striking parallels with the real-life soap opera that is the Murdoch dynasty.  Succession’s creator, Jesse Armstrong, is adamant that his fictitious media mogul is not Rupert Murdoch. Or even Donald Trump.

He attempted to put the dogs off the scent by pointing out there were many similar families from which he had drawn inspiration: the Redstone family, which owns CBS, the Roberts family, which controls NBC, the Mercers who run Breitbart. 

When it comes to tricky behaviour within family enterprises we need go no further than the First Daughter’s husband, Jared Kushner’s clan where the father enticed his own brother-in-law into a triste with a prostitute, a video of which was then sent to the father’s sister. Not even Don Corleone went in for an “offer he can’t refuse” of that nature.  Kushner Snr did 14 months in a federal prison for his misdemeanours.   

Succession shows us a truly harsh world void of trust. “This is a tough world, full of mostly men, who behave in that Trump-like way, of feeling not only that they have got to win, but they’ve got to destroy the other person in doing so,” said Jesse Armstrong in a magazine interview. “It’s that idea that the only way you really know you’ve won is if the other person is crying.” 

It is the profound lack of empathy, of fellow-feeling that makes Succession so compelling. The upbringing of the Roy children leaves them believing – “The only way dad will respect you is if you try to destroy him.” There is simply no trust whatsoever between family members. They are competing monsters in a compelling morality tale. And there is no redeeming child-like Cordelia as we get in King Lear. 

As Scottish classical actor, Brian Cox who plays Logan Roy/Murdoch noted in a Vanity Fair interview: “The thing he wants is the security of his family, but they’ll never be secure in themselves and he can’t make that happen. That’s his tragedy, if you like. He cannot do it for his children.”

One of the most revealing episodes in Series One has a storyline in which the family are finally persuaded that their behaviour towards each other is so dysfunctional (and the public plus shareholders are aware of the fact) that they might benefit from a family therapy session out at a ranch in the New Mexico desert with a counsellor, Alon Parfit – ‘he’s a very highly respected corporate therapist – he just did some work with the Sultan of Brunei and the Bolkiah family.” (The Murdochs did something very similar with a Brit corporate shrink a decade back.) 

The children react with predictable scepticism, especially when it’s revealed that a compulsory photo op is part of the package. “It’s going to be like tossing a bag of Uzis into the soft play area,” predicts the daughter Shiv. And she’s correct. Needless to say, the session gets nowhere as they descend into in-fighting and the therapist is carted off to hospital after he dives into the infinity pool and knocks his front teeth out. 

Never mind corporate governance – an issue which consultants continually press on family business and a subject in which the Roy’s empire, predictably, is on a low par with the Saudi Royals – it’s human relations and how to maximise their effectiveness that businesses should concentrate on. 

Surely, the drama suggests, if you wish the business to survive and flourish while run by your descendants then trying to make them rounded human beings and leaders will be in your interest. If they weren’t so profoundly lacking in a moral compass and any empathy the extremely sharp and intelligent Roy kids – with the exception of the moronic eldest Connor who foolishly blows his inheritance on a no-hope bid for the US presidency  – could be quite something. 

The Roy’s dilemma is that despite the odd flash of brilliance the children continually disappoint their father. Their childhood has been a long series of tests and failure – their chilly and unloving English mother from the landed gentry has failed to nurture them any better.  

The Roy brood is completed by Kieran Culkin (brother of Macaulay), who plays the youngest son, Roman, a potty-mouthed womaniser and the embodiment of entitlement. Roman is the family’s true sociopath for whom human beings are just considered another expendable natural resource.

In one scene he offers a lowly staff member’s young son $1 million if he hits a home run during a family softball game. The kid fails and the cheque is torn up in front of his eyes.  

Indeed Roman is so awful he wouldn’t have been out of place in the family business film that tops all others – Coppola’s The Godfather. Here’s a reminder from eldest child Sonny teaching his college-educated little brother Michael how to get things done when an obstruction sits in a Corleone’s path: 

What ya gonna do? Nice college boy, didn’t want to get mixed up in the family business. Now you want to gun down a police captain. Why? Because he slapped you in the face a little? What do you think this is like the Army where you can shoot ’em from a mile away? No, you gotta get up like this and, badda-bing, you blow their brains all over your nice Ivy League suit.” 

Don’t try this at home or in the boardroom or you might wind up in enforced exile in Sicily.  

Matthew Gwyther, the former editor of the UK based publication Management Today, writes a regular column on business for The Times of London

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