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Freudian Psychology

"Succession" and a Freudian End

Has "Succession" ended in repetition compulsion?

Mohamed Almari/ Pexels
Source: Mohamed Almari/ Pexels

Along with millions of viewers around the globe, my husband and I have been captivated by the Emmy-award winning series, Succession, which follows the fictional Roy family and its children’s ultimate quest for control of their father’s company.

Throughout the series, and indeed the children’s lives, the brilliant but cruel patriarch of a multi-billion dollar conglomerate, Logan Roy, mistrusts, manipulates and ultimately lords over his now-grown children, even beyond death, pitting them against each other for the ultimate possession of power and fatherly approval.

Warning: Spoilers ahead.

If you are reading this, I imagine you’ve seen the series and are well aware of how it ends: Despite the three siblings’ agreement to allow Kendall, the self-proclaimed eldest son, to take his rightful place on Logan’s proverbial throne, their pact dissolves much like the ‘meal fit for a king’ that Kendall is forced to drink — just a vestige of childhood, the sort of pretend play not afforded to the Roy children until this very moment, when their “silence”-demanding, scolding father is permanently gone, unable to hear. And so, the empire crumbles.

The ultimate decision for Kendall’s succession rests on a pregnant Siobhan. Nodding her vote towards Kendall is perhaps the most important role she’s ever been or will ever be allowed to play in her father‘s company — if she cannot become CEO in an impossibly misogynistic system, she at the very least gets the final choice in who does. And now, in perhaps her last act of power, if she were to grant control to the brother she has seen as a lifelong rival, her defeat would be self-inflicted — an admittance that Kendall’s name was in fact underlined, not crossed out, as she had initially remarked. In the underline rests the final act of an assured father who discounts and dismisses all potential others. In giving Kendall what he most desires, Siobhan would never achieve what she most desires: Her father‘s love, acceptance, and esteem, symbolically cemented in his ultimate successor.

But Roman, the youngest, is right: It is a matter of bloodline, and Siobhan ultimately sacrifices her brother to propagate the very system that discounted her — one of male primogeniture, in which her unborn child, who will now be the eldest in a new generation, may theoretically succeed their father, Tom Wambsgans; the now-CEO.

What Would Freud Say?

Freud is perhaps most well known for his theories on sexuality including the Oedipus complex, which suggests that sexual desire begins in childhood, with boys lusting after their mothers, rivaling their fathers, but ultimately dealing with this anxiety by using their fathers as a role model, eventually “re-finding” feelings appropriately.

While the unresolved struggles of the complex may be best displayed by Roman, who continuously makes inappropriate innuendos, Siobhan perhaps also exhibits elements of the Electra complex, wherein a girl lusts after her father — a theory falsely credited to Freud but developed by his “successor”, Carl Jung. While these theories were built on arguably weak case studies, research on attachment styles first conducted in the 1970s, an ongoing topic of interest and study today, suggests that the way in which we attach to our parents or caregivers in infancy is the way we attach to intimate partners in adult relationships, and what we find familiar in our child-parent relationships is what we seek in our adult romantic relationships. In essence, “the finding of the love object is in fact a re-finding" (Freud, 1905: 222).

On the surface, Siobhan’s husband Tom, a pliable lackey, is nothing like Logan: In the better times of his marriage, he openly cares about his wife, who in turn asks him for an open relationship and describes him as “highly interchangeable” professionally. Tom also lacks talent, accountability, character and charisma. In essence, there has arguably never been a better display of such cringe-worthy sycophancy by a character on television.

Upon deeper inspection, however, Tom is incredibly self-centered, manipulative, and exercises abusive power — verbally, emotionally and physically, much like Logan — to his own family, notably Greg. Although we are never privy to Tom’s professional success before meeting Siobhan, he logically is to some degree self-made, similar to Logan, using whatever skills he does have as a mechanism to ameliorate his own position and satisfy his quest for power. He chooses obtaining his goals, whether they be for power or simply approval, over the potential consequences for his loved ones, including discounting his mother’s wishes for a holiday visit, discarding his “Fly Guy” friends at his bachelor party; or fully betraying his wife on multiple occasions.

While the surface characteristics between Siobhan’s father and husband are different, the ultimate underlying cruel narcissistic traits remain the same. This may prove why Siobhan chose Tom instead of Nate to marry: Nate was too decent, too far from what was familiar, too distinct from what her subconscious could tolerate and, in her own unhealthy way, what her subconscious could call love.

By voting against her brother, ergo choosing her husband to ultimately replace her deceased father as CEO, what may be seen as the empire falling in fact has no slip at all — it is reborn, with a familiar cast of malevolent characters, ego pressures, misogyny, and the angst of female entrapment in a patriarchal world. In other words, Freud’s repetition compulsion forever reigning true.

More from Mariana Bockarova Ph.D.
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