In Season 2, Episode 4 of the HBO series Succession, someone fires a gun.
This is far from the first gunshot (in the previous episode, for example, the top managers at Waystar Royco, the fictional Murdoch-esque media-and-entertainment company, were flown to a castle in Hungary for a team-building retreat which involved hunting wild boar). But this gunshot, fired in the offices of ATN—the company’s Fox News-y cable network—sends members of the inner circle into a different sort of panic.
“I’m in the wrong panic room,” says the venal, hapless Minnesotan Tom Wambsgans (played by Matthew Macfadyen). Tom, you see, is an executive married to Shiv Roy (Sarah Snook), Titian-haired princess of Waystar Royco. No one, including Tom, thinks he is good enough for her, and here is physical proof: a white-walled breakroom with snacks and a laminate countertop that’s neither sealed nor secure. Tom recognizes that his wife and her father, company founder Logan Roy (Brian Cox), aren’t in his room. They are in a better one.
Panic room hierarchy serves as a neat shortcut into the Roy family’s architectural psychology. This is not a show that merits deep reading of throw pillow choices or kitchen island family dynamics. What matters most is: Who’s in the room?
In the Roys’ world, there is no time for personal taste. Personal taste won’t get you anywhere. God forbid you feel sentimental about your ancestral home. God forbid you like something. God forbid you express a genuine opinion. Keeping decor liquid means you can break up, get fired, get married, get divorced, or get promoted without having to carry more than an expensive attaché.
If I had to describe Roy decor, it would be through textures that read visually: velvet, leather, shot silk. Every room has those fancy layered drapes. Shiv’s extravagant trousers, which have their own fan club, have the same effect as the drapes: fabric as armor, fabric as cocoon. She decides who gets in her pants.
Within a decidedly neutral color wheel, each Roy has their own color scheme. Shiv is shifting sand. Kendall (Jeremy Strong) charcoal. Roman (Kieran Culkin) quicksilver. Connor Roy (Alan Ruck), the useless eldest son now running for president, terra cotta (he owns a ranch). Logan Roy’s townhouse is a gilded cage. My kingdom for a primary color! Even the family’s amusement parks are shot as dingy off-brand spectacles, with unrecognizable animal mascots, log rides too slow to thrill, and a 1970s palette of brown and red and mustard.
The soulless luxury of the Roy family décor comes into sharpest relief in “Tern Haven,” Season 2’s fifth episode, in which we are introduced to the Pierce family, a through-the-looking-glass version of the Roys but with old money, PhDs, and homes rather than corporate investments. The Pierces (themselves stand-ins for the Sulzbergers, the Binghams, and every other old, liberal American news dynasty), purchased their possessions themselves, more than five minutes ago. Ladderback chairs, Chinoiserie panels, charcoal sketches, quilts, toile.
Nan Pierce, the matriarch of the family, even makes a show of serving her own dinner, taking the leg of lamb from her housekeeper and carrying it into the wood-paneled dining room to applause.
In the first episode of the second season, “The Summer Palace,” we saw how the Roys sweep into their own beachfront mansion. An armada of cooks, maids, and housekeepers is deployed, seemingly on hours’ notice, to remove dust cloths, make beds, vacuum, sweep, and prepare étagères of shellfish, platters of lobster, slabs of steak. I loved the choreography of it, the rare admission—within the confines of filmed richness—about how much work it takes to make it work. Not one of the Roys would even pretend to cook; in fact, it is not clear if they even like to eat. After the Tern Haven dinner each member of the family is just on the hunt for booze.
Which is not to say the Roys don’t understand the power of real estate. They want their boxes expensively wrapped. They want their summer house pristine. The dance of service that I admired is, in fact, an elaborate setup. While the house and food look great with our noses pressed to our iPad screens, the house is infected with a horrific stink. It is literally rotting from the inside out.
What really matters to them is not the trimmings (as long as they are expensive) but the space. Space is where you assert control and dominance.
Do you have your bodyguard manhandle your nephew in the lobby? Yes, if he is Cousin Greg.
Do you masturbate to your master-of-the-universe office view? Yes, if you are Roman.
Do you use your employee as a footstool? Yes, if you are Tom.
What matters in RoyWorld is not the nature of the furniture (or human equivalent)—it’s how you can use it to humiliate.
One of the elements that makes Succession great is the helplessness it induces in the viewer. How, I keep asking myself, can I feel sympathy for Kendall, the drug-addicted, double-crossing, empty-suit oldest son? Yet every time he ends up on the roof of the skyscraper Waystar Royco calls home (this season, it is SOM’s 1960 Chase Manhattan Bank building) I am afraid that he might be about to jump. His isolation, his position at the top of the world and, simultaneously, as the loneliest man in the world, underline the architectural similarity between the glassy penthouse and the transparent suicide barrier.
In the first season Kendall had a house and an ex-wife and children, but all of those tethers have now disappeared. One night, Greg finds him in a rental apartment (“It’s fashion week; all the good penthouses are gone”) and wonders what happened to his previous house. “It smelt of Rava,” his ex-wife, Kendall replies.
Kendall is literally floating through his own life. We see him first, in Season 2, floating in the healing waters of a Zumthor-esque spa. His peace is short-lived. He is hauled out, dripping, and puppeteered first into defending his father on television, and then into shutting down Vaulter, the new-media venture that was Kendall’s Season 1 baby. He’s saying all the right businessy things but his eyes are empty. Papa is proud, but not proud enough to give Kendall his own office. Instead, he is installed in the dining area of his father’s vast workspace. He’s close to power, but also under constant surveillance.
The ambiguity of this arrangement becomes more apparent when Shiv, who has been fired—“I walked out”—from her job as chief of staff on a liberal politician’s campaign, comes in to take a look around. She thinks she’ll have one-on-one time with her father, but there’s Kendall blocking her. “Lucy, can you find Shiv somewhere?” Logan says to his assistant. As she flits through her day at the office, she’s always perched on the edge of someone else’s trappings of power, a physical manifestation of her father’s inability to hand her the power he’s promised.
My Succession fanfiction includes only this: Me and Cousin Greg shopping for furnishings for his new apartment at the Red Hook Ikea. Surely I’m not the only woman watching who just wants to take care of this “beautiful Ichabod Crane.” Greg, played by 6-foot-5-inch Nicholas Braun, is the poor cousin to the ruling Roy family, the literal overgrown manchild in a cluster of figurative ones. In Season 2 we watch him look for an apartment like the rest of us, a hapless pawn of real estate brokers who try to sell him on Staten Island and mezzanine bedrooms.
It feels good to laugh at a 6-foot-5-inch man trying to fit himself into a mezzanine. It feels good to see an apartment we, the viewers, recognize from our own Village Voice or Craigslist disasters, depending on your era. No penthouses for the likes of us! The place has good storage, the broker says. “The thing I need storage for most urgently of all, Stanley, is me.” Greg responds.
At the last minute, Kendall swoops in, sparing us the Working Girl-inspired ferry montage. He will let Greg use one of the five empty apartments he’s bought. But there’s a catch: It’s a party pad. Greg can live there, but he has no say over who comes over and when, who’s using the bedroom or what drugs they are scoring. Is that mezzanine starting to look cozy? This might be the best example of the Roy family’s attitude about architecture: What matters most is location and control.
After touring the many Roy mansions, one can always return to Succession’s alluring opening credits, which feature, yes, more real estate. Over the plinky-piano-dramatic-strings theme by Nicholas Britell, we see images of the Roy offspring as children and then teens, leading a pony, playing tennis, riding an elephant, and all dressed up for photos on a succession of sprawling, sunny country mansions. The interchangeable symmetrical mansions, columns without, staircases within, look a lot like the Manhattan townhouse, the Hamptons mansion, and the Hungarian castle we will visit with the present-day Roys. Their pastoral charms are interspersed with the engines of that gilded existence: newspapers, skyscrapers, TV stations.
The kids may have been plied with sunshine and fun, but I don’t think it is a coincidence that both seasons set some of their darkest scenes at the family’s shabby chain of amusement parks. Neither Cousin Greg nor Roman Roy can successfully inhabit the off-brand character suits, just as no number of posed photographs can successfully create a happy family. When Logan is driven by his childhood home in Dundee, Scotland, he doesn’t even want to go in; when Shiv gives him a photo album of the houses he owns, he doesn’t recognize them. If you are a Roy, you are always moving on. To another country, another wife, another football club.
Caring about things will only slow you down.