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Vile bodies: the physicality of ‘Succession’

What could possibly hurt the wealthy, cosseted members of the Roy family? Their corporeality
May 10, 2023

In this fourth season of Succession, a lot of critical attention has been paid to what the characters say to each other. There are zingers throughout, but the show reached new heights in dialogue in the third episode, in which the four Roy children find out that their father, the Rupert Murdoch analogue Logan, has died. The inadequate simplicity of it all is masterful. “I can’t forgive you, but it’s OK and I love you,” says Kendall. Part of the reason this episode hit so hard was that it allowed us to forget—briefly—that these are some of the most poisonous, Machiavellian monsters ever to grace the screen, and to see them, in this moment of intense vulnerability, as four humans who don’t know what to do now that their father is dead. 

There’s another way Succession brings its characters down to earth, stripping away both the gaudy excesses of massive wealth and the cold clinicism of the boardroom—one that feels more to the fore this season. The show comes for their bodies. The writers have been doing this since the first episode, in which we see Logan Roy stumble out of bed, disoriented, and pee in a closet. 

The list of moments where Succession’s key players are humiliated by their bodies goes on and on. The dick pic Roman accidentally sends to his father. Roman shoving Kendall to the floor at his big birthday party. Logan slapping Roman. Logan suffering a heart attack while fishing his phone out of the toilet. Kendall defecating in bed after a drug binge. Greg throwing up inside his costume while working at an amusement park. The sweat dripping off them at Lady Caroline Collingwood’s wedding. “Boar on the floor.” 

Bodies, after all, are the great leveller. You can be unthinkably rich, impossibly powerful, and still the body rebels. Still you are just a sack of meat and bones, able to be pushed and prodded, to shit and be shat on. These people are untouchable in many ways. You can’t kill them with words—otherwise, given what they say to each other, they’d be long dead—and you can’t meaningfully dent their material assets. What you can do is humiliate them physically. “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth,” Shiv says as the siblings are on their way to meet Lukas Matsson, the billionaire CEO of a streaming platform trying to buy Waystar Royco, in Norway. 

I got thinking about all of this again during this latest season—specifically in relation to Shiv, the only sister among the siblings. I wonder whether, now that Logan is gone, with his impotent raging against his own frailty, she is the person who will end up most betrayed by their physicality. In the season’s fourth episode, Shiv receives a call from her gynaecologist, confirming her pregnancy. This, we know and she knows, is going to affect her standing in the show’s power rankings enormously. 

In the cutthroat, almost cartoonishly patriarchal world that Succession depicts, having a pregnant woman—and then the mother of a baby—as CEO is unlikely to fly. She is already being muscled out of the running to helm the company by Kendall and Roman. When her body begins to make it impossible for her to keep her baby secret, it will be the perfect excuse for other players to shuffle her off.

It gets hammered home shortly after she takes this call, when she trips and falls in front of everybody in Logan’s apartment. They try to help her up. She shakes them off and looks shaken herself. To be physically vulnerable is to be mentally weak. It’s a foreshadowing of what it will mean for Shiv to be visibly pregnant: she will become someone that people feel they need to take care of, someone physically incapacitated. That will surely be the death of her—whether in this final season of the show or beyond it, off-camera, as she runs into the awful realities of her environment. 

In the following episode, at the retreat in Norway, practically every conversation she has is about her physical difference from Kendall and Roman. When they meet Matsson, Kendall and Roman receive hugs, then he falters in front of Shiv. “Am I gonna get a lawsuit if I hug you?” he asks. She says maybe and hugs him anyway. But it’s an uncomfortable moment. This is the one thing she’ll never be able to argue her way out of: they are men and she is a woman. The body, as ever in Succession, cannot be negotiated with.