'Succession,' 'Sanctuary,' and the Shadows of Our Fathers
Both stories are about offspring grappling with the legacy of their father, but they end in VERY different ways.
This post was originally published on May 30, 2023. AFD has since switched platforms, and for technical reasons, this post didn’t port over. Since it’s a slow month for new movies worth discussing, today seemed like a good time to re-publish it. Enjoy!
This post contains spoilers for all four seasons of Succession, as well as the movie Sanctuary. You've been warned.
Why do so many of us work so hard to both emulate and please our parents, even if they are unworthy of such tributes?
I'd argue that these desires, be they conscious or otherwise, stem - as does a LOT (if not most) of human behavior - from our constant attempts to heal some childhood trauma.
To be clear, by "trauma," I don't necessarily mean something that's a TV movie of the week-level of dramatic; you don't need to have been the victim of physical violence or severe neglect, and your parents needn't have been terrible human beings. At some point when you were young - like, possibly pre-memory - something you perceived as being "bad," "dangerous," or perhaps even "life-threatening" happened, and your brain forcibly settled on the two guiding principles of your life: That not only will you never allow that terrible thing to ever happen to you again, but you will go back in time and prevent it from ever happening in the first place. Both of these goals are impossible, though, so you end up a) unconsciously putting yourself in situations that mirror the original trauma, and b) inevitably failing to produce a different outcome.
So, for example... let's say your dad was a titan of industry. He was emotionally distant, because he held money, status, and ego in higher regard than he held you. And the fact that he was emotionally distant was traumatic for you! Consequently, you may very well spend the rest of your life trying to please him - both literally and in a more metaphoric sense - by becoming the kind of person with whom you believe he'd have been more emotionally generous. You try to become him, but better. This, you (falsely and unknowingly) believe will fill the hole left in your heart by not being loved the way you wanted to be loved the first time around. But you're doomed to fail.
According to Jesse Armstrong's just-completed series, Succession, and the new film from director Zachary Wigon and writer Micah Bloomberg, Sanctuary, we can internally-interpret that failure in be one of two ways: As a gift or a curse.
Succession concluded this past Sunday by leaving its primary characters in a kind of metaphysical Hell from which they will likely never escape.
In a very literal-minded way, nothing that bad happens to any of the would-be heirs to Logan Roy (Brian Cox), all of whom will continue to be rich beyond anyone's wildest dreams. But they're all fucking MISERABLE. None of them will ever "prove" to their father that they were worthy of his love. Furthermore, they've all alienated or destroyed the only relationships in which they might have found genuine support.
Shiv (Sarah Snook) remains in a loveless marriage with Tom (Matthew Macfadyen), the man who betrayed her and ultimately took the CEO position she so coveted (in his very mild defense, she wasn't so nice to him, either).
Roman (Kieran Culkin) doesn't even have a spouse he dislikes. His father is dead, his siblings likely estranged, and his bridge to Gerri (J. Smith-Cameron), the only woman with whom he ever seems to have shared any genuine maternal and/or sexual sentiment, has been forever burned.
Somehow, this still doesn't feel quite as awful as the fate that befalls Kendall (Jeremy Strong), who is left with Logan's former body man, Colin (Scott Nicholson¹). In the penultimate episode of the season, Kendall very confidently hires Colin to be his aide - he clearly thought he was cementing his position as Logan's one true heir. But Colin was also the guy Logan tasked with covering up Kendall's connection to the death of a waiter at the end of the show's first season... and Shiv uses the Chappaquiddick-esque incident as ammo when she decides not to back Kendall's bid for CEO. And so Colin becomes an inescapable symbol of all of Kendall's failures - he may as well be an anvil shackled to Kendall's ankle. As Strong told Vanity Fair after the finale aired:
"To me, what happens at the board vote is an extinction level event for this character. There's no coming back from that. But what I love about the way Jesse chose to end it, it’s a much stronger ending philosophically, and has more integrity to what Jesse's overall very bleak vision is of mankind—which is that fundamentally, people don't really change. They don't do the spectacular, dramatic thing. Instead, there's a kind of doom loop that we're all stuck in, and Kendall is trapped in this sort of silent scream with Colin there as both a bodyguard and a jailer."
Kendall strove to be his father, because that, he believed, was the way to earn Logan's respect. But Kendall will never be Logan - and to him, at least, that is the worst possible thing that could ever happen.
Sanctuary is a two-hander, set almost entirely inside a single hotel suite, about Hal (Christopher Abbott) and Rebecca (Margaret Qualley). Hal's recently-deceased father was a William Hilton-esque hotel magnate who has bequeathed his empire to his only child; Rebecca is the dominatrix Hal pays for regular non-physical "sessions" in which she teases and commands him until he reaches sexual climax (Succession fans will already sense shades of the relationship between Roman and Gerri, albeit with a less-obvious age difference). Now that Hal is set to take over his father's company, he feels he can no longer see Rebecca; quoting a passage about "people who win" from his father's memoir, he says something to the effect of "I need my insides to match my outside." Put more simply: He does not believe he can be a boss in the boardroom if he's a bondslave in the bedroom.
But Rebecca won't allow Hal to sever the relationship. Initially, she claims to want a cut of Hal's seven-figure salary, arguing that Hal lacked a CEO's assertiveness before he started "working" with Rebecca - although we have reason to believe she's being dishonest. Gradually, we learn, Rebecca has fallen in love with Hal, broken up with her fiancé, and stopped seeing her other clients - a notion Hal finds so appalling he ties her up and threatens her with death if she doesn't "take it back."
Rebecca won't take it back, of course. The turning point comes when she attempts to induce him to admit that "I'm nothing like my father, and I never will be" - a statement we can easily imagine running through Kendall Roy's head as he sits there, shell-shocked, at the end of Succession.
But what Hal actually says is, "I'm nothing like my father, and that's okay." The second part of the statement is, of course, key. Hal's choice is between trying to be his dad or being with Rebecca, who loves him for who he actually is. Opting for the latter is what ultimately saves him.
Is there any world in which Kendall could have gone down the same path as Hal? Was there some Rebecca out there who could persuade him to abandon his ill-fated dream? Probably not. Hal's father never looms quite as large as Logan Roy... and besides, Sanctuary is ultimately a(n admittedly pretty dark) romantic comedy, and there's an argument to be made that Rebecca is a Manic Pixie Dream Girl. Still, I'd argue, the narrative's point has value. We can't make go back in time and make our parents love us the way we wanted to be loved; the emotional warmth we crave can be found only by crawling out from beneath their shadows and standing on our own two feet.
¹Incidentally, I just learned that Nicholson also played the cop who gives Samuel L. Jackson a hard time in Die Hard with a Vengeance. The other main actor is in that scene is Ralph Buckley, who was the guy in NY State Lotto commercials for many years. It took a few decades, but somehow all three actors in this scene ended up achieving various levels of fame.