Unexpected Asian Family Representation in ‘Succession’

Although the show’s characters are primarily wealthy white folk, I saw a lot of my working-class Chinese American family reflected on the screen.

4 years ago

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When I started watching Succession, I went in with a lot of prejudice, expecting debauchery, the usual HBO soft-core porn, and a tired ‘screw-the-rules-I-have-money’ glorification of the mega-rich getting away with anything and everything. I watched it anyway because I had heard about a shocking phone sex scene involving an older woman. After Netflix’s Mindhunter featured a cross-dressing autoerotic asphyxiation cold open that was somehow sex-centric yet not at all a traditional sex scene, I was eager to see if Succession would deliver more of the ilk.

The series follows the fictional Roy family and their power struggle to gain control over the family media empire after patriarch Logan Roy suffers a brain hemorrhage. The Roys are not an aspirational family by any definition, and it’s easy to delight in the ways they scheme and sabotage each other because they’re all so unlikable. Logan is a mean man, both at work and at home. Since his children are in some way involved or affected by his company, Waystar-Royco, any professional misstep threatens losing their father’s favor.

I was over the moon when I realized that the Roy family mirrored mine almost exactly: four children in roughly the same age range, a 3:1 gender ratio with the youngest child as the odd-gender out. They even had a moment where three of them go off and smoke weed during a wedding — nearly identical to events of my life, right down to the eldest child being excluded. (To be fair, we did not forget my sister like the Roys forgot Connor; she was the bride and too busy to toke, if she had any interest in doing so.)

Even though everyone in the show was so terrible, I eagerly tried to assign characters to each of my siblings. Whether I tried to align characters to my sisters and brother by birth order or personality, none of them felt like a strong match. I couldn’t find an exact reflection in the Roys to my own sisters or brother, but I recognized aspects of my home life in the way Connor, Kendall, Roman, and Siobhan behaved around each other and their father.

An image of Connor Roy, a character in Succession
Connor Roy (Source: Vulture)

The one child that is rarely on the receiving end of Logan’s outbursts is first-born Connor, a trust fund man-child who has never worked a minute for his luxurious lifestyle. He spends most of the first season on his New Mexico ranch, removed from the day-to-day dramas of the family on the East Coast, buying companionship and historic oddities. He eventually moves back to New York to fund his escort-turned-partner’s playwriting endeavors, and begins his presidential campaign in earnest (to his siblings’ chagrin). For much of the series, Connor appears to be in Logan’s good graces, though Logan is quick to quash his eldest son’s attempts to understand him on a deeper emotional level.

While I am glad none of my siblings are as removed from reality as Connor is, I definitely resented that my brother never seemed to feel the pressure to find a job the same way my sisters and I felt. I tried to be empathetic with the struggle to find a job in a stagnant economy, but I would get irritated when he would sooner spend hours obsessing over the latest iPhone than write a cover letter, despite his current phone working perfectly fine. I also feel like my second sister shares a similar disposition as Connor, being the slowest to anger of our siblings. She is also the only one of us who’s had a significant other with dubious performing arts aspirations, and I am grateful that relationship ended before any of us had to suffer through his stand-up set.

An image of the character Kendall Roy from Succession
Kendall Roy (Source: Mic)

Unlike Connor, second son Kendall is very involved with the family business and expects Logan to pass him the reins upon his retirement. Kendall has such oldest-child energy that in the second season finale, longtime legal counsel Gerri slips and nearly refers to him as such. He is the only child ready to prepare for the worst-case scenario when Logan is hospitalized. While Kendall has ambitions to run the company, his dissent at some of Logan’s impulsive business decisions comes from a place of concern for the family company and his father’s best interests.

The way Roman and Siobhan (Shiv) oppose Kendall, especially while Logan is hospitalized, is so petty yet relatable. Being a younger child, I often found my oldest sister bossy when I was younger. We grew up in a household where we were expected to obey people older than us simply because it was assumed wisdom was proportionate to age. In the case of my sister, I am certain that she did have the superior knowledge to wield authority over us, though I also think we would have been more agreeable to her if we were reasoned with instead of simply spoken down to. The way Shiv and Roman initially reject Kendall’s proposal to take over the company — especially with Kendall insinuating that Logan intended for him to be successor — reminds me so much of the times I used to challenge my sister just because who gave her the right?

An image of the character Roman Roy from Succession, with subtitles indicating "exclaims in disgust"
Roman Roy (Source: Tumblr)

Roman, the third and youngest Roy son, is one of Kendall’s biggest dissenters early in the series. Of all the Roys, Roman has probably had it the hardest just from the fact his actual first name is Romulus. He works for Logan, but unlike Kendall, he gets softball assignments that put him far away from the company steering wheel. Roman wants to be taken seriously, but his dwelling on validation and glory as the goal rather than pleasant side effects from a job well done leads to disastrous results. Towards the end of the second season, Roman is sent to secure money from a Central Asian partner, and gets caught up in a frightening hostage situation.

I found myself relating to Roman, particularly how he seems to have an admiration-hate relationship with Kendall. My second sister was always the most in-demand when we were younger, as all the kids in the family seemed to always want to play with her. I was jealous of her popularity, as it meant having to share her time. In her later high school years, I remember hoping that she would stay home and play video games or watch mediocre Hong Kong movies with me and my brother instead of going out with her friends. The way Roman vacillates between shit-talking and forging allegiances with Kendall is not far from the way I resented my sister yet wanted to spend time with her.

An image of the character Shiv Roy from Succession
Shiv Roy (Source: Medium)

Siobhan, who goes by the tough-sounding nickname Shiv, is smart, incredibly ambitious, and ruthless in acquiring whatever she sets her sights on, be it success for her clients or protecting her family. Having three older brothers (and Logan as a father), Shiv has a sharp tongue and has no problems holding her own against them. The first moment we see her and Roman interact at Logan’s birthday party, she comments on his cologne, “What is that? Date Rape by Calvin Klein?” (Roman’s “you wish” response shows just how mismatched their wits are.) In the next episode, she and Roman get into a slap-fight at the hospital while waiting to hear news on Logan’s condition.

This is pure siblinghood. I cannot imagine my sisters and brother without the often-nonsensical dunks, the rips, and the drags. My sisters and I often wouldn’t let my brother forget how easy he had it compared to us. I can’t let go of the image of our derpy younger brother, especially when I hear about how he (as an adult) had to dispose of his rice cooker because it somehow became a maggot breeding ground. I have a similar impression of my second sister due to a vivid memory of her setting a toaster oven on fire in her teens. Despite over a decade passing since that incident, it’s hard not to dunk on her anytime she’s in the kitchen. It does not help that she recently baked a tray of cinnamon buns that can only be described as Cronenberg-esque.

While it is easy to find superficial parallels between my siblings and the Roy children, a simple one-to-one comparison isn’t exactly the connection I felt with them. The Roy children had a domineering parental figure whose approval, respect, and affection they all desperately sought, even as adults. Over the series, they grow from being purely self-interested and viewing each other as obstacles to their own ambitions, to actively caring for and protecting each other, even at the risk of losing the status with their father. It is those interactions between the Roy siblings — the attempts to sincerely care for each other despite not having grown up with the tools to express it — not their individual personalities, that remind me of my sisters and brother.

An image of the character Logan Roy from Succession
Logan Roy (Source: TV Guide)

When my brother graduated 8th grade, my mother was upset at him during the reception and would not participate in the mother-son dance. He stood awkwardly at our table while my older sister, my father, and even I tried to get my unyielding mother to join him. She refused because moments earlier, between the ceremony and reception, my brother had taken photos with his friends for a few moments instead of taking photos with us first. It was such an egregious offense in her mind that she would deny him this sentimental moment at his graduation. When given the chance to create a memory with my brother, my mother chose to sulk and stayed resolutely in her seat. My second sister ended up having the dance with my brother so he wouldn’t be left standing alone in front of everyone.

I remembered this incident when I watched Logan sit out on Shiv’s wedding after feeling betrayed by her professional choices. Connor, being the next eldest man in the family, steps up to take on the father role in Logan’s absence. Connor’s understated explanation to the wedding officiator is a refreshingly sincere moment — he doesn’t try to center himself or take an opportunity to disparage Logan (though it would have been justified). My sister, like Connor, stepped up in place of a willful parent who chose their ego over their child.

The way Shiv’s relationship to Kendall evolves is unexpected yet feels so true to my own experience. The basis for their conflicts is rooted in their upbringing, mainly that their parents’ limited emotional capacities meant parental affection was a zero-sum game for them. When Kendall hits rock bottom post-”Chappaquiddick,” he breaks down in front of Shiv in a way that really shakes her — she’s never seen any of her brothers so wrecked, and it’s a side she would never reveal to them for fear of being perceived as weak.

It seemed until these last few years, if found in a similar position most of my siblings would have had the same initial confusion Shiv felt in response to Kendall. We were not a family that encouraged sharing, much less supporting each other through any truly personal feelings or struggles. My parents never showed interest in our personal lives as long as we were going to school and not causing any trouble. For a while, I was the outlier in freely unloading on my siblings, mainly because I wanted us to be able to confide in each other beyond petty family gossip. I thought in order to earn their trust, I had to be open with them the way I hoped they would be with me.

Luckily, I know I am not alone in yearning for a stronger connection to my siblings. While I never had the explicit fear that we would become estranged or have a falling out, my siblings independently have held that concern. Growing up, we had seen our mother constantly at odds with our uncles (her brothers), and their poor conflict resolution skills and overwhelming need to blame others for their anger meant our household was just a pressure cooker of passive aggression and resentment. I remember feeling an uncanny parallel during the second season finale when Roman, after surviving a traumatizing hostage experience, flat out asks Kendall and Shiv to be more open in communicating with himself and each other.

The conversation was eerily similar to a conversation my brother had with me a few years ago in the aftermath of a fight between my mother and my uncles. At the time, I had been pressuring him to get a job — any job — to help with finances at home, and it exacerbated his mental health rather than motivated him to action. Seeing their wrought relationships led him to actively reach out to and be proactive in making sure we didn’t end up the same way, and I am so glad that my brother had the courage to make the first move to repairing our relationship.

One of the hardest scenes to watch in the series was when Connor, Kendall, and Roman talk about Dog Pound. Kendall and Connor remember Dog Pound as a weird but harmless game that they all mutually enjoyed, but Roman’s memories of the incident are much more sinister and traumatic with long-term effects. The moment of dawning realization on Kendall’s face when he realizes the truth behind the game, as well as his own complicity in Roman’s abuse, was a mirror of guilt towards my own siblings I didn’t know how to articulate until I saw it on screen.

Growing up, we had a running “joke” in my family that my second sister was the slow one. The jokes seem less harmless in the context that my mother used to shame my sister’s poor academic performance with my successes. She was also perceived as lazy for having issues waking up in the morning, and she often slept well into the afternoon on weekends. No one ever considered that my sister wasn’t just being willfully bad at school or chose to be tired. Things like sleeping disorders or depression weren’t options. The only plausible explanation was that she chose to be this way, and with enough shaming or scolding, my sister would change.

I’ve read anecdotes of individuals who had experienced abuse from their entire family, parents and siblings alike. But based on how media portrayed abusive families as malicious people who seemed to enjoy tormenting their victims, I never fathomed that I could be one of those horrible people. I don’t think many people do. It seemed scary at first to think my siblings would consider any of my jokes or teasing abuse, but that was only because I was worried about how I would appear through their eyes. When I decided I wanted to support their journey to healing from our childhood than only be concerned with how their experiences might reflect on my character, it was much easier to consciously do better for them.

It’s difficult to discuss these experiences candidly because the media I grew up with often represented deviance from traditional WASP modes of communicating affection as shorthand for an unloving, abusive household. For more family-oriented shows, those types of dynamics were often relegated to a Special Episode that ended with a somber black screen and white text advising viewers to call a hotline if they or someone they knew were experiencing mistreatment. There is often a clear right and wrong party, and daring to approach the topic with nuance could be seen as being an apologist or invalidating a victim’s experience.

In Succession, the family fortune and the status it bequeaths answers any question of why the Roy children would continue to bear with Logan’s abusive ways. However, coming from a household without any money or status incentives, it’s not that simple of an answer. Understanding my parents’ limited social, economic, and educational circumstances does not erase the pain of our negative childhood experiences, but context helps clot some of the wounds. The reality is that despite falling short for reasons within and beyond their control, I believe my parents do truly love and care for us. I don’t doubt there is always a place in their home for us unconditionally if anything were to happen to one of us.

Watching Succession has given me a medium to exercise radical empathy towards myself; through the misery of the Roy children, I found an outlet to feel sadness for the ways my parents couldn’t and/or didn’t provide for my siblings and me, without harboring any resentment towards them. I do not want to be angry with my parents, but I needed acknowledge that my childhood wasn’t perfect, independent of whether I blame my parents for it. I don’t expect my siblings will have the same exact journey as mine in coming to terms with our upbringing, but I will be there to support them as they work on themselves in their own way (and marathon Succession with them, if it helps).

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Jane Chu

Published 4 years ago

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