It’s been nearly 150 years since Leo Tolstoy penned the opening words to “Anna Karenina,” “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way,” and the more things change, the more things stay the same.
While the drama unraveling on HBO’s Emmy Award-winning drama “Succession” isn’t quite on the scale of a Russian literary epic, it’s not far off. The progeny of Logan Roy (Brian Cox) are forever in conflict, both with each other and their father, jockeying for position and cutting each other off at the knees, in the hopes of landing control of the family’s global media empire (and/or a kiss from daddy.)
In fact, the Roy family’s particular flavor of unhappiness might have a lot more to do with that latter point than the former, at least as far as show creator Jesse Armstrong is concerned.
“Is it the money that’s the corrosive thing in the family? Or is it not about the money?” Armstrong said during the show’s panel at the Television Critics Assn. virtual Summer Press Tour last month. “Is it about lack of love and affection or something else? You know, is it that that’s the driver? Or is it just a dysfunctional family?”
Armstrong isn’t one to expound much beyond what the show presents onscreen, so it’s unlikely we would score more insight into Roy family dynamics by asking him, but he’s not the only one with a take on what drives his broken and back-stabbing characters. It turns out the stars of the series had a lot to say in recent interviews with IndieWire about where their affections lie when it comes to their characters’ flesh and blood.
For Alan Ruck, who plays Connor Roy, eldest child of Logan, and half-sibling to Kendall (Jeremy Strong), Shiv (Sarah Snook), and Roman (Kieran Culkin), the answer is straightforward.
“Oh, he most definitely loves his father and he loves the golden trio,” Ruck said. “He loves the other three. And Connor is crazy about Willa. Connor’s in love with Willa. There’s no doubt.” Willa (Justine Lupe), of course, is Connor’s escort-turned-(reluctant)-girlfriend, whose willingness to put up with Roy family hijinks appears to be wearing thin, despite Connor bankrolling her theater career.
But defining loyalties and love was more difficult for other cast members, whose familial affection was not quite as unwavering.
“I don’t know. I don’t know if I can answer it,” Strong said, when first asked about Kendall’s feelings toward those closest to him.
“I do not feel particularly close to anyone. I think in a sense, he loves Naomi. There is not a lot of spaces where, like you and I might have, where there are people to confide in or really open up to, and because I can not do that to my siblings anymore and because I have this thing that I have done, but I can not tell anyone about that, it just separates me from the living world.”
“I think when you have done something like he has done, the possibility of love, that is really the punishment. When you talk about crime and punishment, it is the loss of love.”
Strong’s reference to the thing Kendall has done refers, of course, to the unfortunate incident from the “Succession” Season 1 finale, the shadow of which still haunts him.
Sister Shiv is in a similar, if not comparable, spot. As Season 3 begins immediately after the events of the Season 2 finale, she and husband Tom (Matthew Macfadyen) are on the rocks. It turns out newlywed life isn’t all its cracked up to be. There are significant fissures in the foundation of Shiv and Tom’s marriage that are showing and growing, and that pressure is sure to only exacerbate.
So it was unsurprising that it took Snook a moment to unpack how her character really feels about her so-called loved ones.
“My first thought was like, ‘Shiv loves nobody,’ but that’s not true,” she said. “I think she does love Tom. And she does love her family. She loves Logan and Roman and Kendall and Connor. But I think she struggles with love and with the concept of it. I think she struggles with the vulnerability that love demands. And that’s not a safe space to occupy in the Roy family.”
That rejection of intimacy and vulnerability is a familiar one within the Roy siblings, as evidenced by the reaction of Culkin, when asked about youngest child Roman and love.
“He would be shitty at using that word,” he said as a disclaimer. “But he loves his siblings and his dad, his mother. That’s it.”
“Probably, he might love Gerri (J. Smith-Cameron) because she’s like family,” he said, before adding, “And he loves to hate Frank (Peter Friedman).”
Culkin continued, after pondering further.
“He might love Connor.”
He might love Connor? But he just said he loved his siblings!
“I know. He was the adult one who would come to visit sometimes, like, ‘Oh, yeah, that’s my brother.'”
Each actor interpreted their character having varying levels of affection for their blood family and most seem wary to trust in those relationships and in the vulnerability required to commit to love in earnest. But where, oh where, could all of this existential angst over affection come from?
“Well, I don’t think Logan thinks about love in that way. I mean, he doesn’t, he’s not a mushy person,” Cox said when asked about who Logan loves. “No. I think intuitively he loves his children. He does love his children. And that’s something that’s visceral. You can’t analyze that. I have four kids and I love my children, but they drive me nuts. And they do, but I do love them. And I try to turn the face sometimes when it’s very hard, when you go, ‘I just want to beat the shit out of you, but I can’t.’ So I can understand the dilemma. His dilemma and my dilemma are very similar, but coming from different worlds.”
And while Logan finds himself unable to be the father that his children appear to need, that doesn’t mean that he’s unable to feel those emotions they long to to hear or see expressed. He has lots of love to give. He just has no intention of letting anyone know that.
“He does love his children. And actually he has a lot of deep liking for his crew. He likes Frank. And he knows how far or even how not so far it goes. So I think there’s an element of Logan, which is a little more considerable than people give him the benefit for. Not that I’m going to play any of that because it will all end up in a great, big mush, but I do think he’s incredibly misunderstood.”
Every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. And the Roys are no exception.
“Succession” premieres new episodes Sundays at 9 p.m. on HBO. Seasons 1 and 2 are available to stream via HBO Max.