Can a Protagonist Be Evil? The Art of The Villain Protagonist in HBO’s Succession
Art and Experience: HBO’s Succession isn’t just a sneaky-good prestige drama, it’s very a powerful and well-crafted one.
If you aren’t watching HBO’s Succession, you should be; it’s certainly binge-worthy. It is the current heir in HBO’s long legacy of shows about the building, maintaining, and losing of empires.
Swap the New Jersey Mob for the Baltimore Drug trade, the Houses of Westeros, and now the very modern and slick media conglomerate.
Jesse Armstrong’s Succession is the latest in this line, and its central figure is Logan Roy (Brian Cox) patriarch of the Roy family (Roy literally means King). Roy is coming to the end of his reign and considers a successor from within his dysfunctional family, while barbarians are at the gates and the world shifts from far below their penthouses.
Succession does so much so well. It’s darkly funny while being deeply human. But there is a secret key beneath its layered genius and breakout success. It has to do with breaking some of the most commonly championed rules about screenwriting and storytelling.
The sorts of things that lead to so many stale cookie-cutter stories and characters, the very rules we’d often espouse here in our own writer resources are upended by Succession on subtle and not-so-subtle levels.
The subversiveness of the show on a fundamental level is what gives it its edge and makes it stand out in a crowd.
And what a crowd it is… with new streaming giants launched seemingly every day, how does one show or one idea crack through the surface and get anyone’s attention for even 5 minutes, let alone to watch the whole series.
People will say you need big-name stars, you need action, you need VFX… maybe you need all of these things. Succession proves that maybe all you need is to be truly punk rock.
So what is it we’re talking about? What does Succession do?
Let’s get into it, learn from it, be inspired by it, and get creators to do similarly different things that grab attention away from the stale and familiar. Because to make a Tomlette you gotta break a few Gregs.
The Villain Protagonist
You might have considered among Succession‘s strengths or flaws that it is at its core about bad guys and gals.
This is one way, but far from the only way, the show grabs our eyeballs and doesn’t let go.
If you haven’t watched the entire series I’ll hopefully be able to do this without spoiling it for you. But beware there may be some things dropped here and there and if you want to go in totally fresh, stop, watch, and come back later.
I recognized the extent to which Succession was pushing the boundaries on the villain protagonist at a certain point in season two of the series.
It was always clear this family was based largely on The Murdoch clan of Fox fame, a group of people who are not particularly sympathetic. But it was fictionalized… and not so front and center.
But the series gets to a point where the lead characters, the villain protagonists themselves, are faced with answering for some very heinous crimes and I found myself rooting for them to escape on every level.
If I were to witness this event in real life, and I have because the events of Succession are an excellent parallel by no accident to a great many events in our world today, I would be hoping to see these characters/people punished by the full extent of the law.
Yet in this fictional recreation… I was on their side. I was not only on their side… I found myself actively disliking those who tried to bring them to justice.
This in and of itself is nothing new. Bonnie and Clyde were murderers, the seminal 1967 film makes them romantic heroes and their lawmen pursuants seem like bumbling squares.
‘Bonnie and Clyde’ (1967)
History is littered with examples of heroes who were criminals, not even righteous ones with a cause, but just cold-blooded killers and thieves, who appeal to the masses on some level and rise to the level of icon or hero.
What does Succession do with its villain protagonists that goes to new places?
Well first off…
Timing is Everything
There are obvious real-world comparisons for the Roy family beyond Rupert Murdoch and his sons. The Trump family is one. By the numbers, they’ve become particularly unpopular in this country of late. How can so many people who’d likely dislike them… root for something that feels almost like their doppelgängers?
Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook is another. Jeff Bezos, yet another. These are super powerful people who draw the ire of Americans on all sides of the political spectrum. Yet after we watch the news lambasting the crimes and misdeeds of these folks, we can watch a fictional TV series about people just like them facing similar obstacles… and root for them.
This is no small feat. HBO and Succession didn’t just roll with villains. They rolled with villains exactly like the ones in the news exactly at this moment.
And it’s worked!
Now, we have to talk about how.
How to make the audience care about a character
There is an entire screenwriting book who’s title is based on this all-important idea. You’ve heard of it. We’ve written about it.
Blake Snyder’s ‘Save the Cat’.
The idea of ‘save the cat’ is simply that early on a writer must give the audience an idea of who they are ‘rooting for’ by having the character perform a small but important heroic/selfless deed. Like saving a cat.
This is a great simple way to get into some of the basics, right?
It’s easier to relate to a character we like, that we want to be… that we want to see succeed. When we’re talking about the easiest way to build a story we’re talking about…
A main character with an objective that will be hard to reach.
So, we’re writing a character the audience will have to ROOT for to get that objective.
Audiences caring about characters is pretty critical. If you don’t care about the character… then you don’t care about their objective and you won’t care about the story.
But we have only defined ‘care’ in such the slimmest of ways here.
Does care mean… like?
Not necessarily. Now that we’ve asked that question it’s almost like we’ve knocked down a huge wall that separated us from fresh ideas.
We should be able to make audiences care about a character they don’t like. As we pointed out earlier… it’s been done countless times.
So while the idea of ‘save the cat’ is a fun rule, easy to remember… and somewhat effective. It’s so limiting.
The danger to all creatives and all audiences is that something like that rule becomes absorbed by executives in development. At one time you couldn’t go into a room in Hollywood and pitch without knowing Save the Cat backward and forwards because executives expected you to follow it. DOWN TO THE PAGE NUMBER.
We all lose when that sort of thing happens.
So, let’s open up the idea of caring about a character. There are a lot of ways to make the audience care about a character. You could care about a character because you want to see him fail. At least… at first.
If you’re writing a series there is room for a lot of growth and change. You can set up one thing and hopefully subvert it by the end of your pilot. And subvert it again by midseason, and end of season one.
Succession is effective in making audiences care about a bunch of characters and their objectives even though… and this is really impressive…
None of the character’s objectives are truly high stakes if you look it with any perspective. This is a show about people rich beyond any of our wildest dreams and no matter WHAT they will remain that way.
They are surrounded by luxury and safety nets. They are also, from the get-go, outwardly cruel to one another and to others. There is the opposite of a “save the cat” scene towards the end of the pilot where a character, who audiences will grow to adore, goes out of his way to do something needlessly cruel to someone truly helpless, and all the other characters stand by and do nothing.
Someone drowns the cat. Nobody saves it.
Welcome to Succession.
That’s punk rock.
How to make a character likable
Ok, let’s back up a minute though… we should crawl before we run.
Beyond saving a cat, what are the keys to making a character likable? And now we’re talking about likability not just getting audiences to care.
It might make sense to make a list of traits that you think are admirable, but then keep in mind that people easy feel intimidated by a perfect seeming character.
How often, for example, is there a super handsome ‘stiff’ male character in a rom-com that is set up to see like a boring and unlikable Mr. Perfect?
There is such a thing as too good looking, or too selfless, or too kind. James Marsden has made a career of playing this guy.
The true key to likability?
If a character is strong and good looking maybe she should also be emotionally unavailable, or socially awkward.
That balanced suddenly creates empathy.
Even Superman, who is strong, handsome, righteous, and can fucking fly, is a bit of a dork. It makes him… ironically… human. It makes him NEED Lois Lane.
If Superman was truly everything then he’d be more like Super-Jerk because even if he was actually perfect nobody would like him. It would just remind them of their flaws in a painful way.
But a balance of characteristics? That can remind us of our flaws in a way that feels good.
Wait… what? How?
I’ll show you. And now we’ll get back to what Succession does so well…
How to make an unlikeable character likable
So, what is it about a character with balance that creates likability?
If we see a character with some good qualities we want (or think we have) but who also has some bad traits or flaws that we also might have… bingo.
That’s where we can become hooked on a character. Tony Soprano suffers from anxiety attacks, but he’s also a mafia tough guy who throughs his considerable weight around. We can connect to the weakness while still feeling safe because “Yes like Tony, I too am tough on the outside.” or more specifically: “I like this character because he’s got the thing that I have that’s hard to deal with but he’s also a total badass. I feel cool for having my flaws and I’m more comfortable probing them cathartically through this avatar.”
Don Draper had a bunch of flaws many male viewers loved to pretend they shared. What did they really share with Don?
Probably his legendary case of imposter syndrome and massive substance abuse. But they wanted to think about how “Yes, like Don I am irresistible to women, and I’m a tortured genius.”
When you balance out traits this way you create a safe hiding place for the feelings we have about ourselves that we have a hard time accepting.
But that’s just the trick. We all want to go to a place where we can feel accepted for the traits we have that we hate. We don’t feel alone. Suddenly the story becomes… catharsis.
Now, this goes even more into an extreme when you consider how to make a bad character likable.
You think about how if a few of those really negative traits combine with some really compelling positive qualities… suddenly we can really like someone who is actually really awful.
Suddenly we have a villain protagonist.
But how does it play out in the instance of a character like Succession’s Kendall Roy who in real life is either this guy:
Or even worse… this guy
Whatever you think of these guys’ fathers, they are basically flunky kids who were born well into wealth, inheriting positions of power and prestige… it’s hard to find any way to like to these guys, right?
How do you walk into a meeting and pitch a show where a character like this is the center of a drama that sustains interest week to week and year to year? Audiences will come back to see how Donald Trump Jr. is doing in his attempts to run his dad’s company?
For starters what could this guy want that he’ll never get?
His father’s approval.
That’s actually something common in most stories. It’s something many humans can relate to.
If you build on the idea of family (one can argue all great TV is about families and family structure… even when it’s about an Office or a Spaceship) then you can relate to this character more. He has sibling rivalry. That’s another universal experience.
He has a strained marriage.
He has battled with addiction.
Everyone around him thinks he’s incapable of doing this job.
Oh and he’s kind of a massive doofus when he tries to sound cool. People snicker at him.
Now he seems human, and the fact that he was born on third base with billions of dollars almost makes him attractive to us because all those flaws he has get balanced out by the qualities he has that we all wish we had.
Who doesn’t wish they had billions of dollars?
I can look at Kendall Roy and safely accept and examine some of the flaws he and I share because he’s running around on private yachts the size of small cities and well… that seems cool! What a comfortable way for me to explore my issues, and suddenly I’m rooting for people who in real life I would want nothing to do with.
But Kendall is just one piece of the ensemble.
Logan Roy is a villain protagonist extraordinaire, and as deeply unlikeable as he is… there is something likable in his struggle to maintain all that he built.
I personally don’t like Fox News or Rupert Murdoch. But Logan Roy reminds me of my late Grandfather in how he carries himself, how he built his business, how he presides over his family.
And that comes back to that idea of family.
We may not all have media conglomerates, but we all have families.
Succession uses a family’s struggle to live with one another and gain favor with one another, to tell a human story about extremely rare and unlikable people.
When my sister watched Succession she saw various family members of ours in characters that I didn’t see. Because the power of the metaphor of family is so great that people from the same family can relate to it in inconsistent ways.
HBO has entertained us time and again with villain protagonists that do very bad things and fight for their right to do more. Think Deadwood’s Al Swearengen. At the shows start, Seth Bullock is set up as a white-hat wearing do-gooder and Swearengen is set up as his black-hat donning foil.
Before too long we are rooting for both of them, often on the same side.
Succession does the same thing with the father and son feud between Kendall and Logan. They clash. They reunite. Like a Lion and its eldest male who must leave the pride; there can be only one alpha. And we watch this dance between them because we’ve watched it countless times before. We’ve watched it between Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker. Between King Lear, his daughters, and his potential heirs.
Logan even turns to his younger son Roman at one point after being told he needs to seek therapy, “I’m not the one who wants to fuck his mother.”
“Glad we can have these talks, Dad.”
We laugh, we relate, and then we shudder. Is it possible in the age when everything seems so polarizing, this show has demonstrated the common humanity between the most polar opposites?
That’s the power of great art. Succession achieves all this by both bending rules and embracing the oldest primal stuff we share.
That’s why even if it’s happening on the executive floor of the largest media conglomerate in the world we recognize the players and their roles. We’ve not only watched it, but we’ve also lived it.
That’s how the characters can be so completely awful, yet we can forgive them and root for them. Just like family.