FEBRUARY 2020: Succession and The Good Place

Heads up: We went real real long this month and if you’re receiving this via Gmail, you’ll probably see it cut off before the end, but no fear! At the very bottom you’ll see a note that says “[Message clipped] View entire message” and by clicking that link you’ll be able to see the whole thing, and you can also always access the newsletter on the Pop Culture Pen Pals Substack website by clicking on the title. Thanks for reading!


Dear Kelsey,

I take full ownership for the fact that this is our first newsletter that is really, truly, genuinely late. For being the shortest month of the year, February was cursed with feeling like it was precisely 1 trillion years long. I have had extended social contact with others without alone time for a full 10 days straight. This is the first day in TEN DAYS when I have not exerted significant amounts of emotional energy! No coincidence then that in the last 24 hours I have come down with some kind of cold bug that has rendered me stuck on my couch. C’est la vie, I suppose. (Also, be forewarned, I have gone CRAZY with the gifs.)

gif: Roman Roy nodding

That being said, I’ve been tremendously looking forward to this newsletter for quite some time, because this is when it finally happens—we finally get to talk about Succession. AND we also get to discuss The Good Place again, which we discussed in one of our very first newsletters exactly a year ago. I love that a recurring theme of our newsletter, including our discussion of Good Girls last year (which is currently airing Season 3 and is WELL worth your time!), is what it means to be a good person. While we won’t be talking about Good Girls this time around, I’m very excited to be talking about Succession instead.

gif: Logan Roy saying “Money wins" and raising a glass

On paper, Succession should be everything I hate. A show about a bunch of excessively wealthy white people, fighting with one another for more power and favor with their emotionally abusive and horrible father? No thanks. So when I saw Film Twitter collectively raving about this show, I was reluctant but curious to give it a try.

gif: Tom Wambsgans saying “I feel god-like. And horny.”

(Every man on this show)

For those unfamiliar with the plot: The general plot of the show is about a family (the Roys) who controls a major media conglomerate (think kind of like Disney, with cruises and theme parks and news stations, etc), but the family patriarch, Logan Roy, has a major health crisis at the beginning of the first season, immediately raising the question, who will Logan ask to replace him? The two seasons currently airing proposition a different person in every episode or season. (I truly have no idea who will be selected).

gif: Frank asking “What happened” and Connor replying “Uh…I got tipsy and I offered him the State Department.”
gif: Kendall saying “Because my dad told me to.”
gif: Shiv saying “I am the smartest, which is why I can see through you.”
gif: Roman taking a bite of a pastry and putting it back.

The four children—Connor, Kendall, Siobhan (Shiv), and Roman—are the key competitors for this crown, and their relationships with Logan and their relationships with each other are the core plot of the show. (It’s important to know their names, because we will be talking about Kendall and Roman especially quite a bit in this letter.)

There are two key pieces to making a show like this that is not completely insufferable or out of touch with our current discourse around wealthy media billionaires: 1) a show like this must be self-aware about the politics embedded in this classed context, and 2) none of these characters can be true unproblematic heroes—because, as many have noted on Twitter, there is no such thing as a moral billionaire. The nature of having that kind of wealth is fundamentally corrupt. The show is horrifying yet fascinating because it is deeply aware of these two truths, and uses them to its advantage, to portray troubling yet realistic and mesmerizing moral dilemmas for each character.

*Spoilers, probably, from this point on.*

gif: Logan saying “Time for a blood sacrifice.”

Succession is similar to Fleabag in that Season 1 is good, Season 2 is EXCELLENT, but you need S1 first in order to enjoy the deliciousness of S2. One of the major subplots of S2 is a sexual assault scandal within the company, and the way the writers handled it from the perspective of the company to show us just how horrible they really really are? *Chef kiss* truly masterful.

I finished S1 and S2 before Kelsey began S1, and it’s hard to say what I enjoyed more, watching the show myself or reading Kelsey’s absolutely bonkers text messages while SHE was watching the show. Kelsey, I have never worried so much for your mental health as I did when you watched the Roman/Gerri sex scene and, instead of being disgusted like a normal person, you texted me saying “....I think I could do that.”

gif: Roman saying, “This is what it looks like when you resolve all your issues” with Shiv in frame

So now that we’ve established that all of the characters are horrible people with no intention of becoming better people, let’s talk about the mystery of thirst for these characters. Much like “Which Sex and the City character are you?” or “Which Little Women sister are you?”, “Which Succession character would you like to bang?” says a great deal about one’s personality.

Kendall is a complicated boy. Power-hungry, moody, rule-following (except for the drugs), Kendall wants to play by the book. Kendall is also the family’s whistleblower (if you can even call him that), the one hypersensitive to the family toxicity and the most motivated to see it change. Kendall’s vice isn’t cowardice like Roman’s, or pride like Shiv’s; it’s naivety. The belief that somehow Logan would pick him, that just this once it would work out in his favor, in spite of the odds. That somehow his dad wouldn’t manipulate him again, that it would magically be different this time. Except it never is. And Kendall always gets played, until he finally plays his dad back (in one of the most epic betrayals of all time).

gif: Kendall saying “You’re all living in a f*cking dream world.”

Don’t get me wrong, Kendall is still an asshole, but it’s an assholery I begrudgingly respect. Kendall is the one who might have actually been a good person, had his circumstances been different. Also, I have a thing for misunderstood boys. It’s a curse, really.

gif: Kendall putting on headphones

(THE MOST MOODY)

S1 Kendall is….fine? But it’s really S2 Kendall that shines—especially with the season finale, where (MAJOR SPOILER) he blames his dad for the coverup of the sexual assaults on live television. It’s incredibly satisfying and I did not see it coming at all, making it that much more exciting to watch.

gif: Kendall saying “This is the day his reign ends.”

The only thing I have left to say is that Greg, the regular middle-class cousin who comes in trying to vie for Logan’s money and attention, is a whiny baby who should know better and he is just as horrible as the rest of them. No compassion for Greg. And the only sane person on this show is Gerri, and she’s barely in touch with reality.

gif: Gerri shrugging

All right. That’s it. Time for The Good Place.

gif: Eleanor Shellstrop at a shrimp dispenser saying “This is the dream”

I’m not going to recap the whole show since we’ve done that already, so I’m just going to talk about the last season—major spoilers below if you haven’t seen it.

gif: Chidi and Eleanor eating popcorn shrimp

I was really nervous about how they could possibly pull off the incredibly ambitious ending they created for themselves of creating the perfect afterlife. The biggest task of creating an ideal heaven isn’t that we know nothing about it (although that’s true lol), it’s that creating what heaven “should” be says something about what it means to be good here on earth in the meantime.

TGP trends toward nihilism more often than not about time on earth, before switching to a more purgatory-oriented afterlife structure. And then they end with a clear, profound statement about heaven—in order for heaven to be heavenly, people have to be allowed to leave.

gif: Eleanor saying “I owe it to you to let you go.”

A 30-minute comedy making me weep at the finale like that should be a crime! Eleanor’s desire to hold on to Chidi, but accepting his desire and choosing to honor it, giving him the space to be his own person? *Sob emoji* Eleanor and I are very different people, but her grief about spending the rest of the afterlife alone is like seeing myself in a mirror. (After watching this, the grave realization that someday I will be alive on this earth without Logan, or Logan will be alive without me, broke me for a solid day or two before I managed to recover.)(I literally couldn’t finish typing the previous sentence without going to the kitchen to give him a hug because it makes me so unbearably sad to think about.) In fact, as a kid, I used to dread heaven because 1) I thought it seemed boring and 2) it seemed unbearably lonely to have none of the people I was closest to still be deeply involved in my life after leaving this earth. In some ways, the end of TGP reinforced both of these things for me—there are few versions of heaven that seem interesting and involve more meaningful relationships and connection, not less. But these are what give life on earth meaning, why wouldn’t they be the things that give heaven meaning too?

gif: Jason hugging Michael’s head
gif: Tahani and Eleanor hugging with Janet in frame
gif: Eleanor and Michael hugging
gif: Eleanor and Chidi looking at each other and smiling
gif: Tahani, Jason, Eleanor, and Chidi sitting on the ground eating frozen yogurt

There was no way they were going to end TGP to my satisfaction, so I’ve accepted that this ending will always make me a little bit sad. It is the way of things, I suppose. But I actually love the idea that people are allowed to leave. That is very true of life right now, too: What gives something meaning is the knowledge that the other person isn’t forced to do it with you—they’re choosing to, over and over.

gif: Eleanor saying “I like being with you” to Chidi

I love choosing this newsletter with you, Kelsey.

See you in 1(!) week,

Hannah


Dear Hannah,

As you know, if my February has been marked by any one thing it has been….some intense feelings about Ewan McGregor. They were bubbling for awhile (ever since I rewatched the Star Wars prequels in December), but at the beginning of February my roommate and I made the decision to watch Moulin Rouge! and let me tell you, that decision has had CONSEQUENCES!!!

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gif: Ewan McGregor singing “But I love you”

If I never fall in love, it is because of a few things, namely: Ewan McGregor’s hair, Ewan McGregor’s voice, Ewan McGregor’s face, sense of humor, carriage, and smile. I have been listening to the Moulin Rouge! soundtrack (specifically Elephant Love Medley, Come What May, and El Tango Roxanne) a lot and in general tweeting a lot of unhinged thoughts about Ewan McGregor. I cannot wait to shower you in even more unhinged Ewan McGregor thoughts IN PERSON in A WEEK!!

Image result for ewan mcgregor gif
gif: Ewan McGregor turning over in bed

And honestly, unhinged is the best place to begin when we’re talking about Succession, so I’m just gonna dive right in.

Alan Ruck Hbo GIF by SuccessionHBO
gif: Connor Roy saying “I will take a full bottle of burgundy”

The episode that really sank its teeth into me was the Thanksgiving episode in Season 1. We meet Logan’s brother/Greg’s grandpa Ewan (who I made THIS eerie observation about!!), realize how entrenched the top Waystar Royco executives are in the Roy’s family life, and really begin to understand both the allure of the Roys and what makes them so horrifying.

Up until this episode, Greg has seemed just kind of bumblingly confused, mostly in the dark about how fucked up the Roys are; you want him to get out of there like they’re the basement in a horror movie. His grandpa feels similarly, and tries to warn Greg off multiple times within the show, including just after Greg has destroyed a bunch of documents at Tom’s behest. Bafflingly, Greg simply refuses to listen, but it started to make sense to me a little later in the episode, when all the Roys go around the table and say what they’re thankful for. Tom’s answer is that he’s thankful “to be marrying into one of the most vital and interesting and kind and loving families in the world.” Kind???? LOVING??????? At first I thought this was just further evidence of buffoonery from Tom, but then I realized that everyone in the show feels that way, even if they rationally know that’s not true.

Image result for succession gif
gif: Cousin Greg saying “I apologize if my bell summoned you.”

Similarly, there’s a scene near the end of season 2 when Rhea (played by the amazing Holly Hunter) is quitting the CEO position Logan has offered her. Logan is trying to put a spin on the idea that the cruise ship disaster situation they’re in is really not that bad, and she wryly notes, “I know you’re lying, and I still find you very plausible and appealing.” 

Spoilers here for the rest of Succession! Come back when you see a javelina running video.

Image result for succession gif
gif: Roman Roy saying “Can we think about it? I thought about it, f*ck you.”

And that’s nearly the thesis of the show. There’s something about the Roys that’s so magnetic and compelling that everyone around them is constantly thirsty for their approval and recognition, so thirsty that they’re willing to put up with being constantly berated, always on a knife’s edge of sunshine and disaster, and their own moral compromises, because it feels so good when Shiv laughs at your joke, or when Roman includes you in a conversation, or when Kendall promises to take care of you, or when Daddy Roy tells you you did a good job. Of course, the downfall of the Roy kids (including Connor, who is an awful and hilarious person that I would adamantly protect) is that they’re more susceptible than anyone else to the charm and cruelty of Logan Roy. I texted you during the penultimate episode that I hate when one of the kids falls for Logan telling them they did well, which is every time (or, as the S2 finale bears out, almost every time).

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gif: Kendall Roy saying “It’s not unsaid when you say it.”

One of the most chilling puzzles of Succession is trying to figure out the specific dimensions of the hold Logan has on each of his children. Emily VanDerWerff has a fantastic piece on Vox about this, describing the Roy children as all “[wanting] so badly to be loved by a man who is only capable of trying to bludgeon them (occasionally literally) into a form that is more pleasing to him, which is to say a form that is more subservient to him.” She goes on to write about how this trauma spills outwards, each of the Roys scrabbling for control as a substitution for emotional safety.

Particularly for his sons, Logan is committed to keeping them in a constant state of guiltless self-hate. Guilt is dangerous for Logan; it could lead someone to *gasp* do the right thing, which most often would require turning on him, which Kendall does at the end of Season 2. Self-hate, however, is useful for him. During their conversation when Logan is informing Kendall that it will be his head on the chopping block, Kendall asks Logan if “you ever thought I could really do it” (“it” being here the coveted role of successor). Logan frustratingly equivocates, claiming it’s “impossible to know,” but when Kendall brings up the first season’s vehicular manslaughter, musing that perhaps he deserves this as punishment, Logan jumps in immediately, soothing the flare-up of insecurity because it has the potential to come back around and harm Logan.

Image result for succession shiv gif
gif: Shiv Roy saying, “I think you’re a super-talented superstar, and I love you.” to Roman

I’d like to talk more about Shiv, but sadly she must cede her time to the great love of my life, Roman Roy.

I knew going in that my feelings about Kieran Culkin were going to prove……...challenging. He hadn’t been on my radar much until I started seeing gifs and pictures from Succession on Twitter and then, well…..

Image result for succession gif
gif: Roman Roy saying, “Can I suggest something? Can I suggest we all take our shirts off?”

WHAT CAN I SAY, I LOVE A FLOPPY-HAIRED SLIME BALL.

And yet I will say that what I didn’t expect was how much he would tug at my heartstrings????? I expected to watch the show with an attitude towards him that was as simple as “he is hot and terrible and not as funny as he thinks he is, and it’s hilarious that he is attractive to me” but then?????????? Okay so it started for real when Kendall gets sidetracked on his way to “family therapy” at Connor’s desert ranch and ends up doing meth with strangers. The LOOK on Roman’s FACE when he went to pick him up made me so SAD and I realized that this character was capable of DOING things to my EMOTIONS!!

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gif: Roman says “Oh yeah?” as Gerri buttons his shirt and says “Yeah.”

That picked up steam in the second season, when we realized that the first season’s hints about his….unusual….relationship to sex were not unfounded. The first couple episodes of the second season really play up a particular ~energy~ between him and Gerri (who I absolutely love) and then at the end of episode 4....WELL! You’ve summed up my response splendidly.

Their relationship [of sorts] continues through the series, and Roman clearly has some deep feelings for Gerri, despite how immature and bizarre he is at expressing them. (one of the things I find both endearing and “oh baby NO, you need HELP” is Roman’s habit of proposing to people very casually and at confusing junctures and in strange ways. I don’t know! I need help too!!!) But the last episode of season two!!!!!! My affection for him just ballooned in ways even I was unprepared for!

  • A OF ALL: he survived the Situation in Turkey and it made him want to connect with his siblings more!!! and when Kendall and Logan revealed that Kendall would be the sacrifice he was the only one who was actually concerned and sad! the tears in Jeremy Strong’s face when Roman asked him if he was okay UNDID ME!!!!

  • B OF ALL: the scene near the beginning when they’re all bickering over who will be sacrificed he GOES TO BAT to protect Gerri in a way that literally no one does for anyone else on this show! SHIV didn’t care to protect her GODDAMN HUSBAND half so committedly!! HE LOVES HER MORE THAN SHIV LOVES TOM AND THAT’S CANON!!! (though to be fair, Tom is a useless goddamn cheap beige crayon, and it is only through the good graces of Matthew MacFadyen’s delivery that he’s any fun on this show) 

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gif: Roman and Gerri looking at each other

In conclusion, I am dead serious about this offer and am absolutely open to negotiation:

And as a transition into Topic #2, I offer a very Good video of a javelina running to the Succession theme:

And now…The Good Place!

Whew...like Jane the Virgin and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, The Good Place has been one of the defining shows of my post-college life and I don’t feel ready to let go of it. So naturally, “letting go” is essentially the theme of the final season, particularly the final few episodes.

Image result for the good place gif
gif: Janet acting out human crying

I want most specifically to talk about the final few episodes (so obviously….spoilers). There’s a lot to chew on from the fourth season, but the ending is what’s really gotten into my head and heart. In the penultimate episode Team Cockroach has finally made it to the actual Good Place and to their dismay...it’s kind of a bummer. It’s incredibly exciting at first, but a constant state of bliss isn’t eternally sustainable, and the long-time residents are emotionless zombies who have passed whatever pleasure threshold once existed. The Good Place committee has entirely given up on how to prevent this, how to keep eternity good, and after tricking Michael into completely taking over abandon the project entirely.

As is every decision the show makes, the solution Michael, Janet, and the humans reach is a bold one. Everyone who reaches The Good Place (and make no mistake, the goal is for every single person to arrive, no matter how long it takes) can stay for as long as they want, infinite Jeremy Bearimys. But they acknowledge that one day even paradise may be unsatisfying, that you may feel ready to move on, to cede your consciousness to the universe, to return, as Chidi describes in the finale, like a wave to the ocean.

And in the finale, one by one, Jason, Chidi, and Eleanor each do just that. (Tahani, at least for the foreseeable eternity will be dedicating her vast array of skills to afterlife architecture.)

Season 4 Nbc GIF by The Good Place
gif: Tahani saying “There’s a lot to unpack here” as Jason nods

The concept of heaven that I grew up with is of a endlessly joyful existence, contrasted with hell, an endlessly painful one. The show’s take is mechanistically different, but foundationally pretty similar, and I assumed the show would conclude with finding a way for every human to achieve the endlessly joyful existence. But they went a step further, and I believe it was for this reason: whatever your feelings or beliefs about the possibility of an endless joyful, pain-free existence, that’s not available or helpful to us now. Philosophers, theologians, poets, and pretty much everyone else has debated for centuries whether the idea of an infinite afterlife is ethically helpful. Does it really help us be better to each other in the here and now? But that’s not the question the show is asking in these final episodes. The question is whether an infinite afterlife is helpful to us narratively or practically, whether characters who exist in heaven can help us live our lives on earth.

We don’t currently exist in an endless, joyful, pain-free paradise, and no one truly knows if we ever will. We have to say goodbye, almost always before we’re ready.

Season 4 Nbc GIF by The Good Place
gif: Tahani, Jason, Eleanor, and Chidi walking through a portal while Janet watches

Linda Holmes has a lovely piece about this, and this particular line has really stuck with me: “Heaven is not never leaving; it’s leaving at the right time, when the work is done.” As much as the show is about enormous existential questions about goodness and human nature, it’s about the practical ways in which we live our day to day lives. How do we deal with disappointment, sadness, and fear? How do we treat others with compassion and understanding, particularly those who get annoyingly under our skin? How do we build healthy, life-giving relationships with people we care about and how do we show people we love them?

How do we say goodbye before we’re ready?

Because this show rejects easy answers, and in some sense rejects even definitive ones, the only answer it provides is that we do it by cherishing the people who are with us. We do it by holding each other up and trusting our loved ones to do the same. It will probably always be hard, and no one can make that go away, but we can lessen the sting for one another. 

You lessen the sting, friend. May you always have many who do the same for you.

Season 4 Nbc GIF by The Good Place
gif: Janet and Eleanor clinking margaritas

(Us in a week!!!!)

Kelsey