← Return to search results
Back to Prindle Institute

The Ambiguous Perspective of HBO’s ‘Succession’

photograph of cast of Succession after Golden Globes

Succession, one of the most popular recent additions to HBO’s stable of prestige dramas, dominated the drama category at the 2020 Emmys. But despite critical acclaim, the show inspired complicated and even unpleasant emotions in viewers. Equal parts pleasure and disgust contribute to Succession’s allure, and if articles like “How embarrassed should you be about your ‘Succession’ crush?” are any indication, guilt is the price fans often pay for their investment.

The Roys are a treacherous and amoral clan of one-percenters dominated by aging patriarch Logan Roy, a media mogul who made his fortune disseminating right-wing propaganda through a FOX-esque news network. The central conflict of the show, as its title suggests, is who will inherit his sprawling media empire. The main contenders are Logan’s three children, recovering drug-addict Kendall, cunning political analyst Shiv, and wisecracking playboy Roman. Other possibilities include various cronies and extended family members, like Greg, an unpolished (and impoverished) Roy cousin who stumbles into the family’s orbit in search of a job.

The closer we get to the family, the more our discomfort grows. We’re drawn in by Kendall’s perpetual sadness and vulnerability, Roman’s darkly funny sense of humor, and Shiv’s resentment at being passed over in favor of her brothers. We can’t help but identify with and even pity them, but our identification is constantly challenged by the wickedness of the Roy family. In the show’s first episode, Roman invites the young son of a staff member to participate in the family’s baseball game. When he seems reluctant, Roman writes out a check for one million dollars, offering it as a prize if the kid can hit a home run. Of course, he gets tagged out just inches away from home base. Roman rips up the check with a flourish and offers the boy a fragment, or a “quarter of a million dollars,” as he puts it. In his review of the show, writer Jorge Cotte asks if “As viewers, do we separate our ethical concerns from the conniving and calloused amorality of the Roys’ business machinations? This is related to another question: is there something suspect in feeling for these fictional power brokers who are so similar to those causing actual harm and systemic violence in the world?” In other words, how can we identify with the child and the spoiled billionaire taunting him at the same time?

The show’s engagement with wealth and privilege offers no clear moral perch for the viewers to situate themselves upon. The show seems to set up bumbling and well-intentioned Greg as an alternative to the Roys, yet he is purposefully difficult to identify with. His scenes, though invariably funny, are excruciatingly awkward. He can never read a room, and always seems to take up too much space. But over the course of the series, he proves to be as mercenary and self-serving as his cousins, illustrating the impossibility of achieving affluence without dirtying one’s hands. In Succession, we are never allowed to rest too comfortably in one place. The audience is situated everywhere at once, ricocheted from viewpoint to viewpoint.

This discomfort is built into the very fabric of the show. The camera is usually handheld, and its gaze feels shaky and restless. When characters move from one location to another, we often see them from a distance, as if through the perspective of the paparazzi. In this way, Succession borrows much from Veep, another show filmed in a mockumentary style without in-fiction justification. In Veep, the handheld camera is used for comedic purposes. It allows for quick reaction shots and zooms, which provide extra flair to jokes. But in Succession, the effect is disorienting, even nauseating. While the mockumentary style usually suggests verisimilitude, here it suggests voyeurism and instability. There is a fundamental clash between how the Roys see themselves and how they are perceived by the world, or on another level, a clash between how they perceive themselves and how the audience perceives them. We learn that as children, Kendall frequently locked Roman in a dog cage and made him eat kibbles. Roman insists that this was sadistic torture, but Kendall insists that Roman enjoyed it too. Storytelling is central to this family, which made its fortune spinning yarns, but even the Roys can’t agree on their own narrative.

Critic Rachel Syme points out that “While Succession does not glorify wealth, it also makes no apologies for it. The Roys are not like you and me. They have SoHo lofts and trust funds and cashmere everything, and they own theme parks and movie studios and shady cruise lines . . . They have everything anyone could want, but they are all empty and lonesome, neglectful and neglected.” Syme describes the ambiguity at the heart of the show, an ambiguity that is mirrored in audience reactions. While we may cheer them on, we derive equal pleasure from watching them fail. As a character from an equally rich but far more old-money family tells Kendall in season two, “Watching you people melt down is the most deeply satisfying activity on the planet.” The amoral world of Succession allows for both disgust and identification, which is perhaps a more honest way of depicting the rich and famous than complete disavowal or complete worship.

Animals as Entertainment: Some Notes on Animal Bullying

photograph of dolphin balancing ball at zoo

Cats are scared of cucumbers.

If you haven’t seen the viral videos of pet owners sneaking up behind their feline companions and quietly placing a green vegetable just out of sight, you might be surprised to learn this fact. Nonetheless, it remains true that something about the unexpected presence of a long, emerald gourd activates a fear response in the cognitive systems of most cats. It may be that the visual similarities of such produce to predators like snakes primes the cat’s automatic reactions to flee from what it perceives as danger. To many cat-owners, and many more cat-video-watchers, these reactions are amusing (hence their popularity), but I have quite intentionally avoided providing links to any examples of such behavior, for the simple reason that I do not wish to support the mistreatment of animals, however small.

All things considered, needlessly scaring a pet is a minute example of the ways in which human and nonhuman animal interaction goes badly for the latter group; everything from hunting, to habitat destruction, to factory farming could be trotted out as an example of a far more serious case of animal mistreatment. Nevertheless, the relatively mundane instances of abuse, precisely because they are so common, are worth considering.

Take, for example, the recent report that as many as three-fourths of the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums allow for or promote at least one form of patron experience demonstrably contrary to the best interests of the nonhuman animals involved. According to the international nonprofit organization World Animal Protection, examples range from allowing park-goers to take “wildlife selfies,” to pet or ride various large creatures, or to watch performances of nonhuman animals in demeaning, circus-like settings. In many cases, years of harmful training are required to prevent the animals in question from endangering the park-goers, including harsh methods to establish dominance over strong-willed creatures. Although zoos and aquariums are often heralded as important players in conservation efforts, insofar as they educate the general public about the value of nonhuman life, if they do so at the expense of the well-being of the animals most directly under their care, then questions of hypocrisy arise.

In a similar vein, wild creatures in America’s national parks are frequently cornered by well-intentioned nature-lovers in ways that inevitably lead to dangerous situations for humans and nonhumans alike. This year, bison attacks in Yellowstone and Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota were captured on video – in one, a nine-year-old girl was launched into the air by a bison after a crowd of four or five dozen park visitors surrounded the animal for over 20 minutes. Although park regulations require guests to remain at least 25 yards from all wildlife, the average bison’s calm appearance gives many people the impression that it’s safe to approach. In reality, bison tend to conserve their energy until it is most needed, moving in quick, short bursts of intense speed. As Emily Perrine, a Swiss psychologist, explains, “We interpret this as the bison being nice, and wanting to be near us, and that they want us to touch them. We have to understand that our human behavioral signals are very different than the behavioral signals given by wild animals.”

 This is precisely the point: whether we are misreading ‘fearful’ as ‘calm,’ ‘broken’ as ‘playful,’ or ‘terrified’ as ‘amusing,’ we are misreading the animals we encounter nonetheless – and, in all seriousness, potentially causing them harm. If a third-grader perpetually tormented a skittish first-grader by hiding behind corners and jumping out to scare her, then tried to defend this bullying on the grounds that “I find it funny,” we would call her a bully nonetheless – so, too, with cat owners and their cucumbers.

If we truly wish to be the animals lovers we claim we are, then we would do well to try and imagine how they experience the world we share, just as much (if not more) than how we consider it for ourselves. This could take the form of the sorts of concerns about relations of dependence and moral orientations as highlighted by care ethicists like Carol Gilligan or Nel Nodding; philosophers in this tradition highlight how bonds between individuals can ground unique sorts of obligations and rights – such as those between a human pet owner and the creatures who depend on her. Or this might look like the sorts of perspectival concerns highlighted by Sandra Harding and others under the heading of ‘standpoint epistemology’ – the thesis that individuals in certain social positions have privileged access to various forms of knowledge. Even though the setting on the side of a Yellowstone trail might seem peaceful to the humans present, it might equally be quite stressful from the standpoint of the bison – giving this perspective serious consideration is not only epistemically virtuous, but morally preferable.

1 My thanks to Sofia Huerter and Jasmine Gunkel, whose paper presentations at this summer’s workshop of the Society for the Study of Ethics and Animals in Boulder, CO, provoked my thinking on these matters.

Sephora and Diversity Training

photograph of exterior of Sephora outlet

If you were trying to buy cosmetics from retailer Sephora on the morning of June 5th then you may have found yourself mildly inconvenienced: retail locations across the US were shut down for an hour between 10 and 11 a.m. for employee diversity training, something that had been planned, according to the company, for months beforehand. That the shutdown had been planned for so long came as a surprise, as many had assumed that Sephora had decided to implement diversity training as a response to an incident involving musician SZA earlier in April. At that time, a Sephora employee called security on SZA, apparently to make sure that she wasn’t stealing, an action that seems clear was motivated by racial bias. Sephora apologized for the incident on Twitter, with the diversity training coming soon afterwards, although officially the timing is merely coincidental.

If this all sounds familiar, well that’s probably because you’ve heard it before. About a year ago, Starbucks closed their stores for half a day for mandatory diversity training after a similar incident: an employee in a Philadelphia location called the police because two black men were in their store, sitting and talking to one another. And if incidents of people calling the police on black men and women for completely innocuous activities in general sounds familiar, that’s also because you’ve probably been hearing about them a lot lately: perhaps an incident in which a Yale student called the cops on a fellow student napping in the library rings a bell, or maybe you’re reminded of one of the many, many recent incidents of “___-ing while black” (you can fill in that blank with pretty much any mundane activity).

With these kinds of incidents occurring frequently, we might think that diversity training of the kind implemented by Sephora and Starbucks would be a good thing. Nevertheless, we might still have reason to be concerned about Sephora’s actions in this case.

First, we might naturally be skeptical as to whether Sephora really cares about diversity training, or is simply trying to do damage control. The fact that the mandatory training came soon after a publicly embarrassing incident for the company, combined with the fact that the training was only an hour long, seems to indicate that they are not taking their responsibilities terribly seriously.

We might think, though, that any diversity training is better than none at all, and that Sephora is doing the right thing in attempting to make some things better, even if they could do more. Many news outlets reporting on the incident, however, point to research on the effectiveness of diversity training appearing to be somewhat conflicted: for example, one frequently-cited study reported that while diversity training programs are now extremely common in companies in the US, they do not generally result in greater diversity within the company itself, and warn that mandatory diversity training can induce resentment in employees, which could actually make biases worse. On the other hand another series of studies report that taking certain measures in diversity training such as “perspective-taking” (namely “the process of mentally walking in someone else’s shoes”) and “goal setting” (which involves having employees “set specific, measurable, and challenging (yet attainable) goals related to diversity in the workplace”) can result in concrete improvements, with employees “displaying more support and engaging in less mistreatment towards marginalized minorities.”

There are a couple of lessons we can take away from this, and at least one that we should not. Let’s start with the lesson we should not draw from this, which is that diversity training is, on the whole, a waste of time, or that it does more harm than good because it always breeds resentment from employees. If we are considering what responsibility Sephora has to account for the actions of their employee, then we should not take the mere fact that there is disagreement in scientific studies about the efficacy of diversity training to say that Sephora is not required to take strides to provide its employees with such training. Indeed, it seems that an obvious way to rectify their past mistake and attempt to prevent such mistakes from happening again in the future is to provide employees with the relevant diversity training.

What we should take away is that, like most things, diversity training will only be effective if it is done conscientiously and in a way that is informed by data and evidence. Furthermore, the problems that diversity training is meant to address cannot be solved in as little time as an hour, or half a day: effective diversity training will likely take time and effort, which is not something that can all be accomplished between 10 and 11 a.m. on a Wednesday.

How, then, should we think of the actions of Sephora in this case? Have they done what they ought to have done in response to the SZA incident? While apologizing and implementing diversity training seems like the right way to respond, it is hard to see how one could in good faith really believe that a single hour of diversity training could accomplish the goal of preventing such incidents from occurring in the future. It seems, then, that not only could Sephora have done more, but that they really should have known that what they were doing was not good enough.