During a recent episode of Succession, Kendall Roy shits the bed. It’s not pretty, so to speak... but it also kind of is, at least for a moment: As a soft morning light filters through the gossamer drapes of a pristine country estate, we see Waystar-Royco’s prodigal son stir from his drunken slumber and sniff at the air, only to discover his lily white sheets are covered in his own feces.
On Succession, elegant spaces are always at odds with the ugliness of those who can afford to move through them. This ugliness takes different forms. Many are verbal. But the show’s sharp wit — the velocity and precision of its writing — belies its preoccupation with a much blunter instrument: its characters’ piss and shit and vomit and cum.
Succession is often discussed in Shakespearean terms, both by critics and the characters themselves. With his viperous greed and warring offspring, Brian Cox’s Logan Roy is “the obvious [King] Lear,” writes Sadaf Ahsan, noting that Cox has played Lear a number of times. “Twisting allegiances, tragic misunderstandings, reversals of fortune, unspoken pacts, the playful mixing of comedy and drama and history,” observes Emily Heller in Polygon, “these are Shakespeare’s core dramatic mechanisms, borrowed by Succession.” In “Tern Haven,” Naomi Pierce — of the Roys’ liberal, Sulzberger-like rival family — opens dinner not with grace but with a foreboding passage from Richard II. At one point in season two, Roman Roy (Kieran Culkin) cites Hamlet, even though what he’s actually describing is much closer to Macbeth.
Yet Succession and Shakespeare share more than literary themes and a penchant for wordplay. They also share a preoccupation with bodily fluids. In Shakespeare’s day, audiences still believed in a Hippocratic system of medicine known as humorism, whereby four “humors” indicated a person’s physical and emotional health: blood signified passion and youthfulness; phlegm signified apathy and cowardice; yellow bile signified anger and irritability; and black bile signified melancholy.
Nothing says, “I’m no longer full of poopy melancholy” quite like embarking on a psychosexual expedition with a Broadway actress and sycophantically rapping about your Dad.
Shakespeare’s characters often took their cues from one of the four humors. You’re probably familiar with his classic Elizabethean melancholic: Hamlet. Wan and weak and sad and brooding — a Debbie Downer with a big boy sword and black tights stomping around his kingdom — the prince is suffering from a textbook case of dyscrasia, or an imbalance of humors. (“Good Hamlet, cast thy nighted color off,” Queen Gertrude tells him; thanks, Mom.)
Like Hamlet, the OG Number One Boy, Kendall (Jeremy Strong) is wracked with grief; he’s been drowning since emerging from the pond where his druggie companion suffered that fatal accident, back in season one. He is also, like Hamlet, extremely calculating, alternately performative and earnest, and prone to making decisions that are either insane or ingenious. Kendall shitting the bed is more than the consequence of doing too much cocaine, or even a visual pun for an idiomatic phrase: It’s a kind of accidental enema that purges his body of excess black bile. And it seems to have worked. Nothing says, “I’m no longer full of poopy melancholy” quite like embarking on a psychosexual expedition with a Broadway actress and sycophantically rapping about your Dad to the sweet beats of one DJ Squiggle.
The bodily fluids on Succession literalize its characters’ emotional states in less humoral ways, too. Early in season one, an incontinent Logan urinates on the floor of Kendall’s office, revealing both the extent of his illness and his need to mark his territory as the company he built is slipping out of his control. During the pilot, Cousin Greg (Nicholas Braun) vomits inside the mascot suit he wears during his parks department training, foreshadowing the fact that he may not have the stomach to do what’s necessary to succeed in the family business. One of the most indelible scenes from season one features the enfant terrible, Roman, masturbating in his office, ostensibly climaxing to his view of the city inside a building where he feels utterly powerless. He’s simply jerking off, physically as much as professionally, for no other reason than to prove he can.
Of course, a discussion of ejaculate on Succession would not be complete without Tom Wambsgans (Matthew McFayden), the husband of Logan’s most eligible successor, Shiv (Sarah Snook). In the episode “Prague,” Tom’s plans for an overseas bachelor party are abruptly cancelled. Instead, the Roys take him to an all-hours sex party in an abandoned train terminal, where, according to Tom, he receives a blowjob, only to have the girl transfer the cum back into his mouth, for him to swallow. As an outsider from the Midwest, Tom has somehow found his way into the rarefied stratosphere of New York society; he is willing to do anything, no matter how craven or gross, to stay there. And if his bumbling appearance in front of the congressional committee is any indication, many of the tasks he’s performed in service of the Roys are, like his cum, in danger of falling back on him.
Despite all the sex talk on Succession, it features no real sex scenes, unless you count Shiv reaching inside an ex-coworker’s pants to give him a handjob, or Roman attempting to have sex with his girlfriend by having her roleplay a corpse in a morgue. Nor is there any nudity, nary a piece of lacy lingerie. Even the kissing — say, between Shiv and Tom — feels perfunctory and dry, befitting the show’s style, which is less sensual than clinical. As Olivia Ovenden notes for Esquire, “When we do get to see sexual moments, they’re usually self-serving.” They’re usually discreet, too. Sharing pleasure, either intimately or publicly, is a mess; simply receiving it, less so. It’s clear the Roys would rather keep their fluids to themselves, and you can’t really blame them: In their world, reproduction is both an imperative and a threat.
On the whole, the show is a carnivalesque commingling of wealth and barbarism, politesse and degradation, candlelit feasts and games of Boar on the Floor. While the Roys’ exacting barbs may have us believe we’re witnessing a battle of intellect, their bodily fluids remind us that the family’s avarice is fundamentally animal — a contest predicated on hunger and will, brute strength and fear. It should come as no surprise that, in a political climate (and climate climate) subject to the whims of an egocentric billionaire class, us liberals get a subversive kick out of watching the Roys literally throw up and shit all over themselves. They’re the kind of family you’d model an Aristocrats joke after — right down to the incest.
Both that joke and Succession belittle a lie the 1 percent like to tell themselves: that they’re endlessly more sophisticated and less vulgar than everyone else. In reality, the uber-rich are just as dirty, if not diritier, than the “plebes,” even if the mud doesn’t always get on their clothes. Blood is on their hands, even if their hands are clean.