Home » Culture » Succession’s “Vaulter” Episode Is a Brutally Accurate Satire of Our Doomed Digital Media Landscape
“You know they have, like, a beehive upstairs?” Roman Roy mutters to Kendall early in the second episode in Succession’s second season. The brothers (played by Kieran Culkin and Jeremy Strong, respectively) are scrutinizing the offices of Vaulter, the digital media property that their father’s company, Waystar Royco, acquired during the series’ first season. Projections of the site’s trending lifestyle blog posts surround them (including “Is Taylor Swift Secretly Marxist?”). Roman continues: “Is that, like, a business model: conflict porn and hipster honey?” The episode quickly sets up a clear picture of the kind of company Vaulter is: a millennial-forward content farm, bloated thanks to a couple of rounds of generous VC funding. It’s an archetype is familiar to viewers with even modest awareness of the digital media landscape, or who have perused a listicle after Googling for information about something; there’s no need for the writers to delve into too much detail.
In “Vaulter,” both over-ambitious media startups and the pitiless businessmen who chew them up and spit them out are played for the grimmest possible laughs. As an all-too-credible exploration of the worst antics of the corporate American one-percent, Succession’s plots usually revolve around financial and ideological deregulation in some form. But the episode is one of its most eerily specific and timely investigations to date, embodying everything that makes the show so idiosyncratic and effective. It’s also a candidate for the best portrayal of the state of modern journalism seen on scripted film or television in at least the past five years.
In the episode, Kendall and Roman are tasked with investigating the situation with Vaulter, consulting with the site’s snide and ruthless CEO Lawrence (Rob Yang). Last season, Lawrence seemed to think he could exploit Waystar’s organizational tumult and dated priorities to gain leverage at the organization. He also clearly believed his brand was untouchable—valued in the public eye and by investors, ahead of the curve while Logan Roy (Brian Cox) and his maladjusted sons were on the way out. Ultimately, though, Royco made Lawrence an offer he couldn’t refuse, and the digital media landscape changes very quickly.
Kendall and Roman have been set loose on Vaulter because Logan worries that he “might have acquired a giant pile of bullshit.” It’s quickly clear that he was right, at least from a business perspective. Though culture blogs like Vaulter are crucial to contemporary media conglomerates’ portfolios, their actual utility is largely subjective—that is to say, they are usually more important from an optics perspective than a financial one. Therefore, once acquired, sites like Vaulter must continually make themselves still seem worth the continuing investment to the people who own them—for instance, by demonstrating short-term growth in a fashion that looks impressive in the context of a PowerPoint.
The problem in “Vaulter” is that its eponymous brand has clearly gotten too big for its britches. The implication is that the site is in crisis mode, or at the cusp of it: attempting to jack up traffic by any means necessary, chasing trends rather than finding new stories, aiming for “solid” numbers at the expense of their credibility as a brand. Eventually, a desperate Lawrence informs Kendall that the site’s effectiveness has been stunted by a change in the “Facebook algorithm.” (This, of course, is a real issue that sent many digital media companies into a tailspin a couple of years ago. A recent HuffPost post-mortem on the downfall of Mic—a hip multi-vertical publication once valued at over 100 million that was ultimately sold for $500,000—explains how the site grew rapidly based on “gaming Facebook” for engagement. Once the platform began to restrict the reach of the site’s posts, Mic higher-ups “decided to start throwing everything that wasn’t guaranteed to generate virality under the bus,” as one staffer put it.)