In ‘Succession,’ Democracy Goes Up in Smoke

In ‘Succession,’ Democracy Goes Up in Smoke

On Sunday night, the Roys pondered whether to sell out democracy in exchange for their father’s kingdom. In the real world, the going rate is usually cheaper.

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By James Poniewozik

This article includes spoilers for the most recent episode of “Succession.”

In Sunday’s episode of “Succession,” a TV network sold out democracy. The most implausible part of the story was how high a price the sellers got for it.

In the episode “America Decides,” the heirs to the conservative media empire Waystar Royco helped Jeryd Mencken, a Nazi-curious presidential candidate, claim a violence-tainted election by ordering their cable-news network to call it for him. The multibillion-dollar reward: Mencken would kill Waystar’s pending sale to a Swedish tech bro, handing Kendall and Roman Roy the kingdom after their father’s death.

In reality, cable news favors for antidemocratic political forces come much cheaper. But let’s deal with the fake news network first.

In the “Succession” episode — which probably should have carried a content warning for anyone who has followed the last couple of presidential elections — the night begins with the Democrat, Daniel Jimenez, ahead in the polls. The results end up tight enough to be decided by a highly convenient, apparently intentional fire in a Milwaukee vote counting station, which incinerates enough pro-Democratic ballots to swing Wisconsin to the Republican Mencken.

After watching the previous episode, I sketched out a scenario in which the Roys’ network, ATN, has to take sides in a contested election, with the fate of the deal at stake. This doesn’t make me Nostradamus. “Succession” is predictable in the best way. It simply sets up conditions, gives characters motivations, then lets them act in their interests. It’s only as unpredictable as you fool yourself into believing it is.

So there’s chaos and opportunity. There’s a fire and an election call that, while not carrying the force of law, would determine the narrative advantage in a legal (or extralegal) showdown.

For America, it’s the choice between remaining a country where elections are won with ballots or becoming one where they’re won with torches. For the Roy siblings (minus Connor, conceding the end of his libertarian vanity campaign), it’s a golden jump ball, and each one of them reacts in character.

Roman, who has always vibed with Mencken’s edgelord energy, sees no reason not to get on the good side of a history-smashing win. Roman knows who Mencken is, better than any of the Roys do; in Season 3, it was to him that Mencken expressed his openness to borrowing ideas from “H,” his pet name for Hitler. But what’s a little fascism between friends?

This had to be a rough episode for Team Roman, the “Succession” fans who love his broken-toy impishness and “Clockwork Orange” banter. He is funny, even while electing a white nationalist, telling his sister, Shiv, “It’s only spicy because if my team wins, they’re going to shoot your team.” That’s exactly what has always made him dangerous. Does he endorse Mencken’s worldview sincerely or ironically? Does it matter? Does an ironic arson fire burn any cooler?

His siblings respond with different flavors of ineffectiveness. Shiv, once a Democratic operative, is horrified at the “nightmare” of a President Mencken. But not horrified enough to sabotage her own schemes. Given the chance to ask the Jimenez campaign to promise to kill the Waystar sale — a deal she has been secretly working against her brothers to make happen — she fakes a call instead, and gets caught out. It’s a double-or-nothing bet with democracy as her stake, and she loses.

Kendall, meanwhile, resists with the force of a wall of Jell-O, telling Roman, “I don’t necessarily feel good about this.” Necessarily: On “Succession,” statements of principle are always hedged.

Kendall knows the stakes too. He wants to be good, or to be seen as good, and his daughter recently had an upsetting run-in on the street with an alt-right racist. But he also wants to win his company back. As often happens when he can’t reconcile his self-interest with his self-conception, he shuts down like a glitching robot, until learning of Shiv’s betrayal pushes him to push ATN to call the election.

His anger at Shiv is a reason, but it’s not the reason. As usual on “Succession,” this is about the money, and the dysfunctional family competition in which the money keeps score. As the brothers argue, Roman accuses Kendall of “big brother”-ing the election call, using seniority to get his way, just as Kendall did at dinner time when they were kids.

If only little Roman had gotten steak, we might have gotten democracy.

In our reality, of course, the ordinary pressures of the cable news business might have sufficed to force the call, deal or no deal, steak or chicken. As we just saw in the Dominion voting machines libel trial, Fox News — the none-too-subtle real-life analogue to ATN — indulged election theft hoaxes simply to try to hang on to its existing audience (at an eventual cost of hundreds of millions of dollars so far and potentially more).

“America Decides” plays as if the writers committed the pretrial discovery file to memory. The episode follows Tom Wambsgans, Shiv’s estranged husband and ATN’s head, through an ulcer-making election night. He is sleep deprived and coked up, under pressure to deliver big ratings for the Roys and scary antifa stories for his audience, which is getting raw, uncut propaganda from ATN’s farther-right competitors.

This was much the dynamic at work in the internal messages disclosed in the Dominion suit, which showed Fox stars and executives freaking out over competitors like Newsmax, who were gaining traction by embracing the election-fraud lie. (And of course, Fox’s worries stemmed from viewers’ fury over election night, particularly about the network calling Arizona for soon-to-be President Biden.)

Asked why ATN isn’t reporting the evidence that the ballots were torched by Menckenite brownshirts, Tom says, “We need to respect our viewership” — phrasing almost verbatim from the Fox messages. “Respecting this audience whether we agree or not is critical,” the host Sean Hannity texted after the 2020 election.

So ATN brings out its sneering alt-rightist, Mark Ravenhead, to insinuate that the fire was a false flag, while Tom suggests booking an egghead historian to tell viewers that everything is fine and normal. “Succession” has always had a feel for how the shamelessness of extremists defeats, and is enabled by, the flaccid reasonableness of centrists.

Of course, ATN, like Fox, operates in a larger media environment, and the episode is less clear on how election night is playing elsewhere, especially on PGN, the in-world analog to CNN. There’s a brief clip suggesting that PGN, and presumably other mainstream news, is treating the election as undecided while the legal process plays out. (On a story level, this suggests that the election and Waystar Royco’s fate may have a few turns yet to take.)

In our reality, mainstream outlets have their own pressures and owners. CNN, which is part of Warner Bros. Discovery, has a new head, Chris Licht, and a reported new corporate mandate to reposition after years of pugilistically covering President Trump.

CNN spent the 2020 campaign trying to learn the lessons of 2016 by scaling back on airing live Trump rallies and assertively fact-checking him in detail. Now — knowing full well that the former president tried to overturn a democratic election — it seems determined to spend the 2024 campaign unlearning the lessons of 2020.

Thus last week, CNN granted Donald J. Trump an hour of live TV to be as dishonest about the attempts to overturn the last election as you knew he would be if, at any point in the last few years, you watched CNN. While the town hall moderator, Kaitlan Collins, interjected corrections, he boisterously played his “rigged election” hits to a cheering crowd.

CNN got a spectacle; the former president got a live platform for another dominance-politics performance. The morning after the town hall, Licht reportedly told the CNN staff: “Kaitlan pressed him again and again and again and made news. Made a lot of news.” And, he said, “that is our job.”

Here, life echoes “Succession” once more. At the end of election night, with ballots burning and Mencken delivering a dog-whistley speech about making America “clean,” Roman insists that nothing he or ATN did that night was that bad or consequential. “We just made a night of good TV,” he says. When the smoke clears, you can always tell yourself that you didn’t start the fire.

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