Family feuds, sibling rivalry: What this cult TV series tells us about family businesses
Season 3 of the Emmy-winning HBO show Succession revolves around the coma-stricken, billionaire patriarch of a family business and his children, who compete to inherit his assets. But art imitates life: The plot has parallels to real-life magnates and their squabbling brood.
In the forthcoming third series of Succession, a character said, “I thought my family was f**ked up. This is next level.” That’s an understatement: Succession seems to be the penthouse of dramas, far above ordinary means and mayhem.
Yet the Emmy-winning HBO show does not imagine what could go wrong in family empires; it plasters together what has gone wrong in case after case in real life, and applies a glorious gloss of wordplay and satire. In Succession, history really does repeat itself, the second time as farce and much more enjoyable.
The show centres on the Roys, a plutocratic media family grappling with two biological facts: The patriarch will die, and none of his children is his clone. (This article contains spoilers for seasons one and two.)
In the very first episode, billionaire Logan Roy has a stroke – before naming a successor. He joins a very large club. Medieval kings were desperate to produce an heir; their modern equivalents are inclined to forget their mortality. Indian magnates Anil and Mukesh Ambani feuded after their father Dhirubhai died following a stroke, without leaving a will.
Logan’s problem is more complicated. As he lies in a coma, we discover his company has billions in hidden debt. Now we are in the annals of Robert Maxwell, whose media group was revealed by the FT, the day after his death in 1991, to owe hundreds of millions of pounds more than stated. Maxwell’s sons Kevin and Ian found that their first inheritances from their father were a financial crisis and a fraud trial.
Unlike Maxwell, Succession’s Logan survives. He retakes the reins of his empire, despite being so unwell that he confuses his son’s office carpet for a urinal. It is enough to rival Sumner Redstone, who tried to remain chairman of his media conglomerates, CBS and Viacom, when he could no longer speak. Redstone communicated via an iPad loaded with audio clips of himself saying “yes”, “no” and “f*** you”.
“I have no intention of ever retiring, or of dying,” he had said, at the age of 85. He died last year, aged 97, two years after a court had declared him incapacitated.
But Succession never pulls too hard on one thread; there is always more to the picture. Shortly before his stroke, Logan tries to blindside his children into weakening their control of the family trust, telling them on his 80th birthday that it’s the one present he really wants.
Welcome to the life and times of Australian mining billionaire Gina Rinehart, who warned her children that they would go bankrupt unless they agreed, within three days, to extend her control of a family trust. A judge found her legal tactics against her children had “closely approach[ed] intimidation”.
“They don’t appreciate… the efforts I went to,” Rinehart shot back, soon afterwards.
In Succession, Logan ends up facing a boardroom coup, led by his son Kendall. That scene will not have surprised the Shin family, head of South Korean conglomerate Lotte Group, where the younger son convened a board meeting and removed his father.
Kendall fails in his coup, so teams up with a hedge fund and a rival media group to mount a hostile takeover. The set-up recalls the case of George Strawbridge, grandson of the founder of Campbell’s Soup, who allied with activist hedge fund investor Dan Loeb to oust the entire board.
However, Kendall is troubled by addiction problems, which recall the struggles of Australian scion James Packer. He drives a car off the road into a lake, and his young companion drowns, an incident that strongly resembles Senator Ted Kennedy’s crash on Chappaquiddick Island.
Succession’s characters are constantly questioning what is real – “Is this real?”; “Are you for real?”; “No real person involved”. The joke is that none of it is real, and yet all of it is.
The family that Succession draws most from is the Murdochs. Years ago the show’s creator, Jesse Armstrong, wrote a script (never produced) about Rupert Murdoch’s 78th birthday party.
These days he and the show’s stars sometimes play down the link, and not just because Murdoch knows good libel lawyers. They cite other influences for Succession: King Lear; Roman tragedies; Ivan the Terrible, who murdered his adult son; and Andre Agassi, whose father devised a machine that would force him to hit nearly 1m tennis balls a year. The endless ingredients generate the richness, like a sort of Oedipal Ottolenghi recipe.
But the dominant flavour is still Murdoch: a rightwing media magnate who allows three of his children to compete with each other for position; who fights off a corporate debt crisis; who indulges an extremist TV host; who denies all knowledge of criminal behaviour in his empire; who tries, with mixed success, to buy trophy media assets; and who hires a therapist to try to reconcile his family in what may be a publicity stunt.
It’s all in the Murdoch family history and it’s all in Succession. “I read everything ever written on the Murdochs,” Jeremy Strong, the actor who plays Kendall, has said. “I read that James Murdoch ties his shoelaces very tightly. That was interesting.”
In broad brush, Kendall is James Murdoch, the child who feels he has earned the top job by slaving away in the empire but who is passed over. His sister Shiv Roy is Elisabeth Murdoch – the liberal who keeps her distance but would love to take over. Roman is Lachlan Murdoch – the maverick. (Lachlan now runs much of what remains of the Murdoch empire after the family sold out lucratively to Disney.)
The Roy children are not only competing for their father’s job; they are competing for his affection, which he offers just often enough to keep them interested. “For a media guy, he’s not the greatest communicator,” Kendall noted drily.
The fact that Succession is recognisable from reality makes it more compelling (see also: The Crown, The West Wing). But how recognisable is it for people who don’t travel on superyachts, who don’t spend US$15,000 (S$20,200) on a birthday present or eat endangered songbirds for dinner, and who actually need to wear overcoats because they may not be chauffeured at every turn? How universal are its depictions of sibling rivalry, the desire for parental approval and dilemmas about family obedience?
More universal than it might seem. In his book The Audacity of Hope, Barack Obama seeks to explain the “chronic restlessness” that drove him into politics. “Someone once said that every man is trying to either live up to his father’s expectations or make up for their father’s mistakes,” he wrote. Obama went from hero-worshipping his father to being shocked by his failings. Unlike Succession’s Logan, Obama Sr was not visible on every TV screen and every newspaper, but he still shaped his son’s outlook.
Logan doesn’t push his kids to flatter him, like Donald Trump did when he interviewed Donald Jr and Ivanka on camera. But he has fixed expectations: He wants his children to be like him. That is impossible, not least because his wealth means that they didn’t have his impoverished childhood.
Some psychotherapists use the term “reproductive narcissism” to describe parents’ tendency to favour children who resemble them. Logan forces his children to choose between two versions of themselves, one that is defined by his achievements and one that isn’t. His own narcissism comes to the fore at the end of series two, when Kendall betrays him again. Logan smiles, because finally his son is acting as ruthlessly as he would.
A school of economics posits that sibling competition is widespread and rational, not limited to family businesses. The bestselling book SuperFreakonomics cited evidence that adult children who stood to receive a large inheritance visited an elderly parent more often if they had a sibling. Subsequent research has questioned that conclusion, suggesting siblings may not be mercenaries after all.
Psychotherapists tend to distinguish between natural sibling rivalries and desires for parental attention, and pathologies that emerge when affection is in short supply. “Some families think healthy competition is good for children. I really don’t think that is a good idea at all,” said Hannah Sherbersky, senior lecturer in psychology at Exeter university.
In Succession, the Roy children are subjected to intense, Maxwell-style bullying and belittling by their father, who refuses to appreciate whatever they give him (particularly when Roman tries to buy him his favourite Scottish football team but mistakenly buys Hearts, not Hibs). Their mother is just as bad, spending the reception before her daughter’s wedding asking guests to bet how long the marriage will last.
The show suggests that the Roys are not a family at all, just a conglomerate of unintegrated assets. “We’re eating family-style,” said Logan’s third wife, Marcia, at a get-together. “Almost like we’re a family,” quipped Roman. Strong, who plays Kendall, has quoted a phrase attributed to Carl Jung: “Where love is absent, power fills the vacuum.”
But there is love in Succession. Kendall is passed over by his father to become chief executive, but still ends up singing a laudatory, cringe-inducing rap: “L to the O, G, A, N.” Many family disputes – the Ambanis, the Murdochs – have involved siblings taking on siblings.
In 1980, Charles Koch, chief executive of Koch Industries, survived a coup attempt by his younger brother Bill. He voted his brother out of the company at the next board meeting. By contrast, the Roy siblings jostle, but they haven’t actually fought directly in Succession. They recognise that they alone share the burden of being Logan’s children. And better that one of them takes control than an outsider.
Ultimately, the Roys can hire people to cook their meals, treat their psyches, and clean up their mess. But they can’t hire people to be their family (although Connor, the eldest, most delusional child, does try). When Logan’s spiteful brother, Ewan, is asked to back a no-confidence vote in him, he replied: “My brother’s an ex-Scot, an ex-Canadian, an ex-human being. But he’s still my brother.”
Family businesses have strange dynamics, particularly around the selection of an heir. At least Oedipus didn’t have to win his father’s backing as his named successor. The oldest is not always the best fit. “I’ve managed to get myself into this situation, where ‘what does my dad think?’ is my entire fucking universe,” lamented Succession’s Shiv, as she tries to overcome Logan’s resistance to favouring a woman. With your parent as your boss, you may be infantilised forever.
One tempting conclusion from the show is that you should never try to work with your family. That would be wrong. For every feuding family business, there are probably several happy ones. Eddie Hearn, the British boxing promoter who is taking over his father Barry’s business, has said of Succession: “It’s just like us!” The Hearns’ rivalries seem to be contained in a successful business that is bigger than father or son could have built alone. Succession may be a modern King Lear, but Shakespeare wrote more comedies than tragedies.
“Family businesses at their best are world-beating,” said Professor Nigel Nicholson, an evolutionary psychologist at London Business School. He recalls one British family business owner who felt confident enough to surround himself with clever people because he knew he was unsackable.
By contrast, “the level of competition and distrust in non-family businesses is seriously problematic”, said Nicholson. (Even in Succession, arguably the most duplicitous character isn’t one of the Roys but Stewy, a private equity investor and university friend of Kendall’s.)
Jonathan Knee, a former investment banker and a professor at Columbia Business School, argues that family and non-family businesses are less different than they appear. Among turbulent US banks in the early 2000s, “every single one of them had a Succession-like drama”, he said.
“There are two different lines of research that I’ve never been able to reconcile,” said Knee. “One is that family businesses do better and there are reasons that make sense for that: Levels of trust, facility of communication etc. Then there’s a bunch of really interesting research that diversity really does allow you to cross-pollinate and learn things. What is the opposite of diverse? A family!”
Knee’s working hypothesis is that organisations outperform when they are “at the extremes” – with lots of family control or lots of diversity. The problems come in the middle, when organisations are too heterogeneous to have high trust and not diverse enough to cross-pollinate. “That’s most of the world!”
Perhaps the most far-fetched part of Succession is Shiv working for a Bernie Sanders-style senator intent on destroying the family empire. That has no parallel in real life. But scions are speaking out: Abigail Disney campaigned against the pay of Disney’s then chief executive, Bob Iger. Mary Trump detailed the psychological flaws of her uncle Donald (who is now suing her, accusing her of leaking his tax affairs).
James Murdoch quit News Corp’s board last year and has since taken potshots at his family’s Fox News. And the idea of Succession’s Connor Roy – a man so privileged and bored that he “hyper-decants” his wine – running for president as a libertarian has precedents: David Koch was the Libertarian party’s candidate for vice-president in 1980, and Steve Forbes, of the Forbes publishing family, ran for the Republican nomination in 1996 and 2000.
We wait to find what happens in the third season of Succession. But if the writers wanted material, they could have looked to the UK’s Sir Frederick Barclay, who was bugged by his own nephews while he smoked cigars in London’s Ritz Hotel (which the family owned at the time).
And if the show wants a dark turn, there’s the fate of Robert Maxwell’s favourite daughter: Ghislaine Maxwell goes on trial next month on sex-trafficking charges, which she denies. By comparison, the Roys are not exceptional. They even start to look like us.
This article has been amended since original publication to clarify the arrangement of the Murdoch family’s media holdings
By Henry Mance © 2021 The Financial Times