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Who Wins in Succession? The Answer is Barry.
The best antihero is the antihero who isn't your hero.
I stopped watching Succession somewhere in the middle of season 2. The ubiquitous discussions of the finale on social media have only confirmed my decision not to return to the show. The series was well acted and well written, but its very ability to make its characters fascinating and compelling was at odds with its supposed themes.
Who Wins? Who Wins? Who Wins?
Succession is a story about how rich people are repulsive and a blight which is also about how rich people are fascinating and attractive. It's engineered to make you hate to love them and then love to despise them, seducing you and then repelling you. It doesn't glorify its protagonists, but it makes them and their narratives interesting in a way that resonates uncomfortably with philosopher Kate Manne's discussion of "himpathy"—our tendency to empathize with and to center the stories of powerful men.
The breathless discussion (before and after the finale) of who "won" and whether it was fitting or convincing or in character underlines the dynamic and the problem. The show presents itself in part as satire and critique. But if it's a satire and critique, why are viewers so invested in the success or failure—or even in the moral and psychological consistency—of a bunch of tawdry reactionary oligarchs?
If you put the ruling class at the center of your narrative, you end up rooting with and for the ruling class, even if the show keeps telling you the ruling class is all scum. You're essentially providing celebrity coverage of Rupert Murdoch, or Jeff Bezos, or Elon Musk, diving into their psychological nuances and moral ambiguities rather than focusing clearly or directly on the misery they inflict on others. We all know the ins and outs of Kendall's inner life; I don't think we even ever learn the name of the waiter whose death he causes.
This is a consistent problem for peak television antihero series, like Breaking Bad or Mad Men. The moral message is in conflict with the genre pleasures—violence, manipulation, power reversals, surprising revelations, and especially character identification. That's what makes the shows feel edgy and complicated, for those who like them. For those who are more skeptical, it's what makes them feel glib and hollow—a smirking exercise in having your sadism and denying it too.
Bill Hader's Barry on the surface seems broadly in this tradition as well. The hero is an ex-marine who became a contract killer after leaving the service. He decides to give up his life of violence in order to become an actor. Much of the series follows him as he ruthlessly murders his way through passersby, acquaintances, and friends who threaten to prevent him from shedding his past.
Bill Hader as Barry is deeply charming; you root for him to succeed in his acting career, and you root for him as he shoot his ways through roomfuls of bad gang guys. You even root for him as he tries to cover up the murder of his mentor's girlfriend, Janice, who also happens to be a cop.
Barry's the main guy, so empathize with Barry—even though he's a lying, murdering psychopath. The person who's at the center of the narrative is at the center of the narrative.
And so, in season 5, Hader sidelines Barry. He's no longer the protagonist.
Obviously, the show is still called Barry, and Barry is still a character. But he's not the main focus of, nor the main driver of, the action. Instead, the narrative wanders to other characters: Barry's narcissistic, abused, miserable girlfriend Sally Reed (the amazing Sarah Goldberg), aspiring gangster kingpin NoHo Hank (Anthony Carrington), Barry's acting mentor Gene Cousineau (Henry Winkler), Barry's hitman mentor Monroe Fuches (Stephen Root.)
Instead of a story about Barry trying (or not trying) to redeem himself, you get a story about how Barry's horrific violence ruins the lives of those closest to him, either by terrorizing them, or by pushing them to be their worst selves. Sally's fate is especially miserable; her association with Barry ruins her incipient acting career, and in an impulsive moment of despair she decides to run away with him after he escapes from prison. She ends up trapped in the middle of nowhere in a dead-end waitressing job with a terrifying man. Her eyes are about the deadest thing I've ever seen on television.
Sally and Barry's life on the run is shown after an 8 year time jump. The leap deliberately breaks the character development arcs that are so important to peak tv's fandom and credibility. Barry's story was built on possible redemption (for Barry and to a lesser extent for Cousineau); the show dangled reform as a moral tease for viewers, allowing them to root for Barry to kill (the bad guys!) and to stop killing.
But when you bounce into the future almost a decade, you see Barry using the same rationalizations, and turning to guns and firepower to solve his problems the same way he ever did. He's supposedly found God; he's got a child; he presents himself as a good man. But he's still not willing to face any consequences for anything he's done. Will he change? is, it's clear, just a distraction from more pressing questions—like, who has he hurt, and how do they go on?
Here Is the Story You Hoped For
The finale telegraphs that it's going to end with an action bloodbath; Barry goes to a Wal Mart type store to buy a ton of guns in preparation for rushing off to rescue his wife and son. But said bloodbath doesn't happen; Barry doesn't get to be a hero, and you don't get to root for him as a hero. His end is pathetic, ridiculous, pointless, and unjust. The story ends with a whimper, not a bang.
Hader's quite aware that he's refusing audience expectations. And you can tell he's aware because, after the anticlimax, he gives you the climax you were begging for. There's another time jump, and then you and Barry's son watch the movie that was made of Barry's life.
Barry wanted to be an actor because he wanted to be a Hollywood version of himself—someone whose darkness and violence translate into tragic, nuanced, complicated emotions. And that's the version of Barry's life Hollywood made. Barry is presented, in the film within the episode, as a man working towards redemption, whose skills in violence haunt him, but allow him to save his family in extremis. Cousineau is cast as the manipulative supervillain, the brainy evil mastermind who must be defeated by Barry's straightforwardly hearty American virility.
This is the version of Barry's story that everyone (including his son) ends up believing. The lie is that Barry is a good man, and that the world is minimally just. But even more than that the lie is that Barry is an interesting man, worthy of a big budget Hollywood film to chronicle his passion, his struggle, his soul.
Succession leaves you talking about the nuanced shades of character development in Kendall, Shiv, Roman, Logan, Tom. Hader in contrast, is self-consciously adamant that Barry's emotional and spiritual arc is meaningless. If he matters, it's because we've decided that men like him deserve our attention by dint of their violence and their power. Barry wants to tell a different story—though it also knows that different stories about violence and power aren't necessarily what people want to hear.
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