Succession’s Roman Roy Is the Best Dirtbag on TV
As much as HBO’s not-quite-comedy, not-quite-drama Succession is about the moral depravity and familial dysfunction of a billionaire Murdoch-esque clan presiding over a media empire, it’s also the story of disappointing heirs and insufferable brats known to the extremely online as failsons. Succession boasts a Baskin-Robbins assortment of these loser offspring. Connor (Alan Ruck) is the eldest son of the Roy family, a tinfoil hat libertarian posted up in the desert who has deluded himself into thinking he’s in a legitimate loving relationship with the call girl he put on retainer. Cousin Greg (Nicholas Braun), the audience surrogate, is a lovable burnout who awkwardly inserted himself into the familial power center after exhausting every other entry level professional opportunity available to him. Absent Greg, the success and mediocrity of these men is the result of an upbringing shielded from consequences and psychic fallout wrought by the gruff, severe patriarch Logan Roy (Brian Cox).
Rounding out the spectrum is Kendall Roy (Jeremy Strong), the recovering addict and beleaguered but ambitious executive who doesn’t want to wait until his father dies before ascending to his throne, and his younger brother Roman (Kieran Culkin), the Puckish baby brother whose entire life has been an extended semester abroad. As one might expect from a kid born into untold wealth, Roman both fancies himself a visionary, yet is allergic to doing any actual work.
Unlike his brother Kendall, who has deluded himself into believing there’s an inherent nobility in attempting to wrestle the family empire away from his aging father, Roman seems to delight and revel in his own awfulness. He lurks in the periphery of each scene using his wit in a surgical strike designed to embolden the innermost fears and anxieties of everyone in his orbit. The most transparent example of Roman’s sadistic nature comes when the jerk plays in his family’s traditional baseball game and offers a million dollar check to a bystander child–the son of the baseball field’s maintenance manager–on the condition that the kid hit a home run, only to rip it up in his face when he’s tagged out. When rescuing Kendall from a relapse where he holed up with a few tweakers in a New Mexico meth den, Roman seems far more appalled that his brother fell off the wagon on filthy plebe drugs than the fact that he fell off the wagon at all.
A character as cruel and self-involved as Roman Roy should feel one-dimensional, but fortunately, Succession creator Jesse Armstrong traffics in compelling shitbags. Across the pond, Armstrong has written for such influential dark comedies as The Thick of It (adapted in the U.S. as Veep) and Peep Show, two shows littered with wickedly funny, layered characters unburdened by redeeming qualities. The closest analogue to Roman from Armstrong’s previous work is Jez (Robert Webb), the dirtbag slacker half of the self-loathing odd couple who comprise the cult comedy Peep Show. Jez was the chronically broke and unemployed freeloader who was convinced of his own genius, made laughable drum n’ bass tracks with his acid casualty Keith Richards stand in Super Hans (Matt King), and seemed to believe that he was going to be whisked away to a life of fame and critical acclaim despite little to no effort on his end.
Roman Roy is what you get when the Jezes of the world are born with infinite resources available to them. He sees himself as a trailblazing producer and has his media mogul father appoint him as the head of a studio only for Roman’s eyes to glaze over the minute he realizes he has to perform such mundane tasks as reading and responding to emails. He upstages his sister’s wedding with a satellite launch he helmed for shits and washes his hands of the matter after watching a live stream of the rocket explode all over the launchpad while locked away in the bathroom. Later in the evening, Roman’s mood turns celebratory when he realizes that no one died in the mess he created, even if a few bystanders are now missing body parts as a result. After all, people who are down a few appendages can be bought off, and an actual body count puts him on the hook for negligence and corporate manslaughter.
Although Roman serves as a sort of comic relief for more outwardly tortured and conflicted characters like Kendall and Shiv, conniving political strategist sister, he is clearly dealing with his own demons. During a disastrous family therapy session, Roman seems to abruptly remember childhood abuse in the form of Kendall locking him away in a dog cage His sexuality is an enigma as he engages in a playboy lifestyle complete with parties and beautiful female companions despite his girlfriends complaining that they “never fuck.” In fact, one of the few times he seems to be aroused is when he’s shirking the responsibilities that come with being COO of the family firm to jerk off all over the plate glass windows that adorn his corner office.
Roman is a mystery yet to fully unravel and reveal what will likely be a pandora’s box of depravity and damage culled growing up within the familial vipers’s nest. Because Roman truly does not give a fuck about anyone around him, he is an absolute delight to watch onscreen. Season two can’t come fast enough.