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HBO Is Smiling: A Psychoanalytic Take On Your Obsession with "Succession"

Are you obsessed with the hit HBO show Succession?

Key points

  • What obsesses fans of HBO's Succession most: The relationship between father and son.
  • Freud might say that many boys compete with their fathers for the affection of their mothers.
  • Children are easily wounded by guilt and fear when they have conflict or power struggles with their parents.
Photo Warner Media/HBO / Fair Usage Rights
What's the psychoanalytic take on the family dynamics of Succession?
Source: Photo Warner Media/HBO / Fair Usage Rights

By Austin Ratner, M.D. with Linda Michaels, Psy.D.

The hit HBO series Succession has private jets, yachts, sex and drugs, and plenty of bloodthirsty corporate sabotage. But what seems to obsess fans most is the relationship between a father and a son. That could have something to do with the infamous Oedipus complex, which has been scaring people away from psychoanalysis for over a hundred years.

If Sigmund Freud had just kept quiet about that particular theory, his work might have been easier for people to swallow. He reflected that none of his ideas aroused more scorn and incredulity. And it’s not surprising. The ancient horror story of Oedipus, who unwittingly killed his father and wedded his mother, belongs after all not to actual history but Greek myth. What was Freud up to in applying the Oedipus story to the psychology of real people? Can such a crazy and abhorrent tale possibly relate to real life?

The writers of HBO’s Emmy-winning series Succession seem to think so. They organize their compelling family drama around a vicious father-son conflict between the domineering Logan Roy, an aging media mogul, and his brash and insecure son Kendall, who wants to take over his father’s company.

Sibling rivalry and father-daughter issues play significant roles on the show too, but the Logan-Kendall conflict is the show’s beating heart. In case viewers missed that, the writers liberally splash the name Oedipus around in the show’s dialogue; Kendall’s patricidal agenda gets him tagged with the unwholesome nicknames “Oedipus Roy” and “Oedipussy.”

“It’s pretty simple,” Kendall told his siblings in season three as he plots to usurp his father’s control of the company. “Let’s gang up on Dad and take him down.”

“My only concern with that—it might actually kill him,” Kendall’s younger brother Roman said.

Half-brother Connor noted wryly, “It’s not right to kill one’s father.”

Kendall won’t think too deeply about the psychology. “I don’t know what I think about Dad,” he said. “I love him, I hate him, I’m gonna outsource it to my therapist.”

Series creator Jesse Armstrong does that thinking for him.

“All our relationships to our parents are complicated and, boy, are they complicated in this family,” Armstrong said in HBO's Behind the Scenes interviews.

Most fathers and sons don’t wrangle over multibillion-dollar companies, but only because they don’t have multibillion-dollar companies. Regular fathers and sons regularly get tangled in competition and fight over privileges and control. And such conflict features mixed emotions of love and hate. When psychoanalysts use the term “Oedipus complex” or “Oedipal feelings,” they often refer to that toxic brew of hostility, competition, and guilt that can trouble parent-child relationships, particularly between parents and children of the same gender.

Why does gender matter? One answer might be that it doesn’t—at least not as much to modern psychoanalysts as it did to Freud, who formulated his Oedipal theory in an era when everyone was expected to be straight and cis-gender. But Freud’s idea was that many boys compete with their fathers for the affection of their mothers and measure themselves in comparison to their fathers.

“My father is the gravitational force of my life, either in relation to him or in opposition to him,” actor Jeremy Strong said of Kendall Roy, the character he portrays.

“Does Kendall hate Logan?” showrunner Armstrong said. “Yeah. Does he love him? Yeah. And there’s a lot more layers below that to unpack.”

However, psychoanalysis’s point in invoking the Oedipus story is not that we’re all monsters under the surface. A wish to take a father’s place can be innocent enough in the inexperienced mind of a child. The point is that we can both love and hate our parents simultaneously, and those strong emotions can be a lot to balance.

The point is that children are easily wounded by their guilt and fear when they have conflict or power struggles with their parents. And then later in adulthood, proximity to the family can trigger old childhood “issues.”

Keep that in mind as you head into the holidays this year!

Austin Ratner, M.D. is a writer in Brooklyn, NY. He is the author of The Psychoanalyst’s Aversion to Proof and several novels. Ratner received his M.D. from the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine and is a member of the American Psychoanalytic Association.