Everyone loves a deeply flawed hero or heroine. Hamlet, King David, Emma, Gatsby, Scarlett O’Hara. Despite their dark sides, we are attracted to these people because there is something good and beautiful in each of them. The tragedy is always that their goodness just isn’t strong enough to prevail.
The popular TV series “Succession” appears at first to offer us tragic Shakespearean characters like that. In a thinly-veiled portrayal of the Murdoch clan, the series chronicles the Roy family, owners of the global media conglomerate Waystar RoyCo, and their fight to determine who will control the company amid uncertainty about the health of the family’s patriarch. Three sons and a daughter all vie for the prize.
We’re immediately taken with the baseness of these children, who are only following the example of their titanic, amoral father. These sibs are unfailingly bad. In their quest for ultimate power, they stop at nothing. They don’t ever surprise us with a sudden eruption of goodness, compassion, deep empathy, or even a little act of ordinary kindness. They just get more anxious, self-absorbed, cynical, willing to betray blood not for some great victory but for petty revenge. And so characters that stride the big stage—private jets, black SUVs, private helicopters—and would seem to expand with their outsized ambition . . . actually begin to shrink and shrivel into people you just feel pity for.
When the credits rolled for the last time, all I could think of was the Ring. In J.R.R. Tolkien’s trilogy, the Ring, which has the power to make one invisible and therefore powerful and unaccountable, corrupts whoever holds it. It corrupts wholly bad characters like Sauron and Gollum, but it eats away at good people too—Sam, Frodo, even Bilbo. Even those who desire the Ring’s power in order to do good and defeat evil, they die of a soul decay.
Inside our own worlds, our own little kingdoms, we all seek power. Yet power seized is always a cancer. It corrupts our hearts. In his desert temptation to rule “all the kingdoms of the world,” Jesus taught us how to respond to the offer of ultimate power. Just say no. In surrender we find a potent force, a true authority rising up within.
That, in the end, is what makes the Roy children, Kendall, Shiv, Connor and Roman, so sad. They are just empty inside.