This story includes Succession season 3 spoilers.
If you’ve ever been a Black employee in boardroom full of white executives — truly, my least favourite place on earth — you know that watching HBO juggernaut Succession is like getting a perverse peek into what horrible things those horrible bosses say and do when they’re not on their best (read: still horrible) behaviour in your presence. On the rare occasion that there are Black characters in the room on the show, specifically Black women this season, they offer insight into the reality of how we are overlooked, ignored, exploited and dismissed — and how Black women can expose the insecurities of powerful white people. In order to succeed at depicting its specific brand of white privilege, Succession has to fail its Black characters. Whether it’s through a well-timed eyeroll, the purposefully measured tone of a carefully-constructed sentence, or a blistering one-liner, the Black women on Succession do a lot with very little, whether it’s on the page or not.
They’re relegated to one-episode cameos (Ziwe Fumodoh as late-night comedian Sophie Iwobi), underwritten arcs (Sanaa Lathan as hotshot lawyer Lisa Arthur) or long-suffering sidekicks (Juliana Canfield as overworked assistant Jess Jordan), but in the world of multimedia conglomerate Waystar Royco, undercooked Black characters may just be the best-case scenario. The alternative is subjecting hypothetical characters of colour — a request frequently made by people calling out the show for its lack of diverse cast — to the tyrannical whims of the Roy family at the centre of Succession. Do we really want more Black characters to be on the receiving end of a Logan Roy (Brian Cox) berating, a Roman Roy (Kieran Culkin) mindf*ck (remember when he baited a Latinx kid in season 1 with a million-dollar check only to rip it up in his face?), or a humiliating Kendall Roy (Jeremy Strong) errand, like tending to his kids’ pet rabbit?
The latter was a task for Jess given by Kendall, the prodigal son who after three seasons is unraveling in real time after trying, and failing, to overthrow his father — again. Every major Black woman character this season has been strictly in Kendall’s orbit, but none more than Jess. Jess is a character I spend way too much time worrying about considering how inconsequential she is to the plot. She is so incidental, she has inexplicably been absent from the past two episodes. After seasons of putting up with Kendall’s bullshit tirelessly, and being by his side for every single one of his f-ckups and breakdowns, Jess disappears in the episode “Too Much Birthday” where Kendall plans an extravagant, obnoxious, extremely on-brand 40th birthday party. As he was methodically dishing out orders to his team while planning to descend from the rafters singing Billy Joel’s “Honesty,” we were left wondering where Jess was to look up from her phone long enough to say “OK” with her mouth and “Are you fucking kidding me?” with her eyes.
Do we really want more Black characters to be on the receiving end of a Logan Roy berating, a Roman Roy mindf*ck, or a humiliating Kendall Roy errand?
Even though she’s done many things outside the scope of her executive assistant job title, Jess technically works for Waystar, so that could explain why she wasn’t running point on a party that included an inflatable rendering of Kendall’s mom’s vagina. But it was when his PR assistant Comfry took over the role of his right hand and also became the object of Cousin Greg’s affection in “Too Much Birthday” and in last night’s “Chiantishire,” set in Italy, Jess’s absence felt glaring.
We all know Jess is even more out of Greg’s league than Comfry is, but the fact that she wasn’t even considered as a crush option feels a little anti-Black to me. I want Jess to stay as far away from the Roys and their kin as possible, but I could also watch 100 episodes of Juliana Canfield throwing silent exasperated cut-eye at Jeremy Strong. I would also love it if she was given more to do, even if that means awkward flirting with towering bag of milk Cousin Greg. Let Jess get her eat, pray, love on in Italy! But it’s Succession and every character is there in service of the Roys. “You’re always reminded who the main character is,” author and podcast host Aminatou Sow said on the official HBO Succession podcast recently. “The Roys are the main character. Why would anyone [else] benefit from anything that they’ve done?”
Not only does no one else benefit except for the Roys (which Roy is dependent on the episode), the supporting characters are there solely for their benefit. Take for example Kendall’s lawyer Lisa Arthur. When Sanaa Lathan was cast in the role, it was big news. It was positioned in headlines as an answer to “social media criticism of the show’s nearly all-white cast,” as The Hollywood Reporter put it. In response to this notion, Lathan said, “Well, clearly they took the note.” But did they? If Succession was using Lathan for good optics, they were taking a note from Kendall’s playbook. Lisa is hired because she’s a celebrity lawyer whose politics align with Kendall’s agenda to play the woke white saviour in opposition to his out-of-touch bigot daddy. She’s also hired because she’s Black.
“The few Black folks who move through the Roys’ orbit are always at the family’s service, and if they are in public-facing roles, it is because their Blackness is yet another thing the Roys can exploit,” Kali Holloway writes for The Daily Beast in a piece called “Here’s What Succession Gets So Right About Toxic Whiteness.” But Kendall can’t even get out of his own way long enough to exploit Lisa and her Blackness in his favour. And Succession clearly didn’t know what to do with Sanaa Lathan and her talent. To Lisa’s face, Kendall is a pompous dick who couches his condescension in coded language like telling her to “try harder” when she breaks it to him that his case “isn’t a slam dunk.” The audacity of a white man who has inherited every job he’s ever had to tell a successful Black woman in America to “try harder” like hard work isn’t a necessity, a tool of survival, and a prerequisite.
Kendall and Lisa’s relationship is the closest Succession comes to overtly depicting the nuances of race and white privilege in the corporate world. And it never really goes there. After a disastrous deposition where Lisa confronts Kendall for acting like he’s smarter than her, undermining her, and for coming off as a magniloquent ass (she used more Kendall-friendly language), he fires her unceremoniously. “Turns out she’s a toxic person,” Kendall announces to his team after an off-screen dismissal. I’m not sure if the Succession writers used the word “toxic” on purpose, to expose that Kendall is threatened by his own white fragility and toxicity, and that his silver spoon is so far up his ass, he can’t see that he just fired the one person who could help set him free of his “toxic” family. It’s not clear if they did it on purpose because so much of what we have to take away from Lisa’s underwhelming arc is in the subtext.
Succession is a show that uses hip-hop as a punchline and has more incest jokes per episode than Black people in the whole series. But surprisingly, that fact hasn’t made me stop watching. Unlike The White Lotus or Nine Perfect Strangers, Succession has never pretended to be anything but an absurd dark comedic satire about rich white people with no morals. There isn’t supposed to be a moral to this story, or a lesson about how tourists treat Indigenous Hawaiians. Succession never takes itself too seriously and therefore if you do choose to tune in, you know exactly what you’re getting: great writing, great acting, and a story about white billionaires and their ridiculous mess — for better or for worse.
One of the season’s best moments came from Ziwe’s Sophie Iwobi, whose purpose on the show was to tell Kendall about himself, as Black women do. As Kendall is walking around like a martyr for the progressive feminist movement yelling “f*ck the patriarchy!” unprompted, Sophie is dragging him and his “caucasian rich brain” on her talk show. When Kendall blows off an appearance on her show, Sophie gets to deliver lines like “Oedipussy has ghosted my ass!” and “I’m heartbroken because I had so many names I was going to call him — Wokestar Royco. Benedickhead Arnold. Paranoid Kendroid.”
Succession doesn’t have to reckon with race in any meaningful ways because the Roys haven’t — and wouldn’t — either.
Sad Kendall was slowly emerging as the lone hero on a series stacked with villains (Shiv being the worst of them all; I said what I said). People started to feel sorry for the poor rich boy with daddy issues. Sophie brought the audience, and Kendall, back down to earth. He’s just a misogynist, ignorant, egotistical, broken man, just like his dad. He’s still a villain, even if he’s a walking tragedy. If Kendall had actually absorbed any of Sophie’s scathing critiques, or taken the legal advice of his lawyer, or started paying attention to Jess as a capable coworker instead of his minion, maybe he wouldn’t be face down in a pool in Italy when we last see him. But, again, this is Succession and the show we are watching is one of debauchery, not redemption. Kendall is the guy who tweets “listen to Black women” for clout while he’s talking over one, and always will be — even if the show never explicitly shows us this. We’ve seen more of Roman’s penis than substantive depictions of Black characters, and you know what, on this show (and this show only), that’s OK with me.
To some, Succession’s inability to confront its racial blindspots is a glaring omission. “This isn’t to suggest that Succession is a racist show, merely that its whiteness lets it avoid confronting the subject of race with any real complexity, which is of course one of the many perks that whiteness has historically conferred on actual white people,” Jack Hamilton writes in Slate. It’s only ever implied that the Roys themselves are racists, like when Roman wants to endorse a noted white supremacist as a presidential candidate, but we all know who they are. Even Shiv, who tries to girl boss her way out of any accountability for her family’s horrific actions, only half-heartedly attempts to squash the endorsement, and in the end, takes her place in the family photo with a Nazi. Like Jess and Lisa, any conversations about “the climate” or how race factors into the Roys’ rule over the country have not been referred to in weeks. Succession doesn’t have to reckon with race in any meaningful ways because the Roys haven’t — and wouldn’t — either.
And would we — the Black viewers — even want them to? That’s not to say that a show depicting the ills of privilege can’t also give its Black characters their due, it’s just that we know this show is never going to. And expecting it to be anything more than what it is (a showcase of the Roys desperately clinging to capitalism, their wealth and power as they tear themselves apart from the inside) will be just as disappointing as believing in the systems that have enabled them. Succession is about watching whiteness implode all on its own, and in this world, it’s best that we’re left out of it. “This show is our cocaine,” Sow said as she talked about her group chat full of her Black friends who also love Succession. “It represents everything that we rail about in our professional lives but watching it for entertainment is just beautiful… It either confirms the things you think you know or it just plays to the base fantasy that you have.”
Revelling in the shambles of the Roy family (who are allegedly loosely based on the Murdochs) and their moral-less, downright evil, yet often hilarious depravity is so much fun because within their ludicrousness lies the truth about whiteness, privilege, extreme wealth, and exploitation: even though their actions have serious consequences, their money and power are a joke and should be treated as such. They are buffoons, fumbling in the dark and subsisting on generational wealth and entitlement instead of intelligence or competency. They are emperors with no clothes, Greek gods wreaking havoc amongst the cosmos, colonisers drunk off their conquests.
It’s less funny when you think too hard about the fact that these are fictionalised versions of real people who act as barriers to Black people getting jobs, block systemic change, and who uphold racism at the highest levels. They bar Black women from boardrooms and if we do become the exception with a seat at the table, they constantly remind us of our disposability. Sure, it’s more “realistic” to keep Succession as white as it is, considering the world it inhabits, but it’s also easier to laugh at the chaos (and the accidental dick pics) that isn’t our business, than cry like Kendall on his birthday.
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