One of my favorite series in recent years is HBO’s drama “Succession,” about the Roy family, led by the hugely flawed and highly successful aging patriarch Logan Roy. He is a media and entertainment mogul much like Rupert Murdoch. Logan is emotionally manipulative, pitting his adult children against each other to determine his successor. His moral compass has veered from north for many decades. And his children are at least as flawed as he is, with the addition of an entitled attitude that Logan, who rose from abject poverty, finds repugnant.
No one knows how to relate
Connor Roy and magical thinking
There’s Connor, Logan’s eldest son and only child from his first marriage. Connor brought Logan, who is all about the finer things in life, sourdough starter as a gift for Logan’s 80th birthday. And Connor is humiliated when Logan is predictably unimpressed with the gift. He is rudderless, has a hair-trigger temper, and bounces from fantasy to fantasy as he tries to figure out what he will be when he grows up. He’s already in his late forties or early fifties. Finally he sorts it out and announces without a trace of irony that he has thought of a job that would suit him: U.S. President, despite the fact that he hasn’t held a job as an adult and has no understanding of history, politics, economics, law, international relations, etc.
In psychology we call this “magical thinking,” meaning in this case that Connor believes that he can go from his hippie life on his New Mexico ranch to leader of the free world without any steps along the way.
Connor doesn’t understand that the escort who doesn’t want to be called his girlfriend only tolerates him so that he will invest his money from Logan in her fantasy of being a playwright. She finally agrees to marry him, rhetorically asking, “How bad could it be?” Not exactly the enthusiastic answer anyone would want to hear, but that doesn’t phase Connor, who’s just happy she said yes.
The other siblings are from Logan’s second marriage, to a British aristocrat, from whom he is divorced.
Kendall Roy and the futility of outside-in self-esteem
Kendall is the eldest child from the second marriage, and sees himself as the logical successor to Logan. He is empty, narcissistic, earnest, and tends to binge on alcohol and cocaine. He would certainly benefit from a deep dive in treatment to understand the issues underlying his substance use disorder. During one of his binges, he partied with a waiter, accidentally drove off the road into a body of water, and left the scene of the accident in which the waiter drowned. Logan covered it up for him.
Kendall’s fortieth birthday bash was a study in the excesses of narcissism, an attempt to feel better from the outside in. He made it into a cringe-worthy celebration of his imagined magnificence, and felt the emptiness that always comes from efforts motivated by narcissism. Outside-in attempts to feel better may work for a brief period—though for Kendall the good feelings didn’t even make it through the evening—but they are bound to disappoint, because they are built on nothing of substance. The attempts to fix internal problems with external things are always futile. Internal problems require internal solutions.
Which is where therapy comes in. Kendall needs to learn how to relate to others, rather than seeing other people as means to an end, in the Roy family psychology. This failure to relate has led him to be a poor partner and father. If you want to learn a bit about feeling good from the inside out, rather than the outside-in approach, and how treatment can help with this, read here and here.
Roman Roy and debauchery
Roman is the second child from Logan’s second marriage, and is sexually conflicted, lazy, impulsive, and immature. He is the epitome of disinterested and unambitious. Roman has no career goals and is only interested in the shifting alliances among his siblings and company associates because they will affect his continued funds for his indulgences. He can’t have a real relationship with a woman, and embarks on a completely inappropriate one with a much older very senior woman at Logan’s company. Theirs is a relationship built on her humiliation of him, which is the only motivation, it seems, for Roman’s sexuality.
Siobhan Roy and the willingness to believe
The youngest is Siobhan (Shiv), a redheaded daughter who is often called “Pinky” by her father, as an endearment that is a simultaneous putdown. Shiv is ambitious and will sacrifice anything and anyone, including her husband, to get what she wants. She is as ruthless as Logan, but is easily played because she wants to believe that Logan appreciates her and sees her as special. Shiv’s husband is Tom, an angry toady who matches Shiv’s strivings, always trying to move higher in the family’s corporate foodchain. They are endlessly competitive with each other, which hurts their relationship—because they are not relating, only trying to win. Tom is a sadist who habitually punches down.
Dance of the puppets
In Logan’s worldview, he is real and everyone else is a puppet whose strings he pulls. He thinks nothing of promising the same things to all of them at various points. Then he pulls the rug from underneath them. It is sport. It is entertainment. One gets the sense that the conflict and connivance keep him feeling vital.
Logan revels in the bloodbath that he instigates among his children and long-suffering senior employees as he considers stepping down as head of the company he built. He relishes humiliating everyone in his orbit, from wives (former and current), his adult children, and corporate lieutenants, to his professional rivals who may be able to infuse his company with relevance and the veneer of journalistic integrity in a changing political and economic environment.
He is so committed to his identity as a corporate leader that he wouldn’t know what to do with himself if he stepped down. Who would he be if not pulling the strings?
You don’t have to be a mogul to tie your identity up with your work in an unhealthy way. This is something that many people do and it can interfere with life satisfaction. How can you feel good about yourself if you’re laid off in an economic downturn or corporate restructuring? How can you feel good about yourself if you scale back or retire? Many lessons here! And it can be helpful to explore work-life balance with a therapist.
The ultimate betrayal, or how not to parent
By the end of the third season, Logan has outdone even himself by selling out all of his children with the help of his allegedly cash-strapped second ex-wife (who is the mother of all the “kids,” except Connor). The kids are shocked and dismayed when they realize the extent of the betrayal and that they will not have jobs. They have defined themselves in relation to him: either trying to mimic him or in opposition to him. They are like spinning ballet dancers who have been trained to look at one spot, Logan in this case, to keep their bearings. At one point Kendall asks Logan what they are supposed to do now. Logan bellows, “Make your own f-*&ing piles!”
This highly entertaining series illustrates in an overt form the sort of situation that some parents may put their children in, when the parents are not capable of properly loving the children for who they are. It’s not just the uber-wealthy who play their children against each other, sometimes knowingly, like Logan, and many times absolutely unwittingly. Parenting counseling is helpful to learn how to parent in a loving way that isn’t based on copying your parents—or doing the opposite.
I knew someone from a large family with a depressed alcoholic mother and a raging alcoholic father. The parents didn’t have the capacity to love their children, and the kids all suffered throughout their lives for that lack of love. The parents owned a beautiful antique lamp that each adult child admired. The father promised it to each child, swearing each to secrecy at the time of each promise. It was only years later when the siblings compared notes that they learned of his multiple promises.
Unlike Logan Roy’s adult children, the adult children in this family had a good laugh together.
There is help to step out of family drama and find satisfaction
If you grew up in an emotionally-manipulative family, you may recognize these dynamics and may struggle to step out of the drama. You may need help to define yourself, to step away from unknowingly mimicking what you grew up with or defining yourself in opposition to your family. Working with a good therapist can allow you to learn to fully enjoy your life. If this is something you’d like to explore, contact me and let’s get started working together.