The world may be a stage, but the boardroom is a battlefield. As the Roy scions needle, parry, and spar in Jesse Armstrong’s Succession (2018-), the other staff of Waystar-Royco can only watch on in horror and fascination. Gerri (J. Smith-Cameron), Karolina (Dagmara Domińczyk) and Karl (David Rasche) may well have their own schemes and plots within the company, but the webs of resentment and deception woven by the Roys are complex and sticky and treacherous. Abandon hope all they who enter there.
In sociology, dramaturgy considers how people present themselves and work together, formulating shared understandings and meanings in their lives (Benford 2019: 79). It is a methodology drawn from the work of Erving Goffman and Kenneth Burke, who both observed that the commonalities between theatre and everyday life were fruitful for social analysis. Goffman proffered the term ‘impression management’, meaning the lengths that we go to in presenting a particular face (or mask) for others (Goffman 1956: 49).
Succession is a masterclass in the kind of strategy and deception that would have both thrilled and morally irked Goffman. Thankfully for him (and us), the show is pitched as a satirical drama; its performances, though, are skilful experiments in and portrayals of impression management. The documentary-style crash zooms and whip pans leave us breathless as we trace the pointed exchange of power dynamics, be it across a desk, boardroom or dining table, or even a hospital bed.
As the seasons progress, Succession’s irony is that with each pivot in every character’s presentation, their self, their familial bonds, their humanity, are all slowly eroded away. Any emotional connections the audience may once have had to a character is supplanted by a grotesque (or delicious) obsession with their next power move. All strategy, Paul Ryder notes, “inevitably deceives – and … the question of deception is merely a matter of degree” (Ryder 2021: 36). For the Roys, no measure of deception is too great. A danse macabre indeed.
Benford, Robert D. (2019). “Dramaturgy”, in J. Michael Ryan (ed.), Core Concepts in Sociology. Oxford: John Wiley & Sons Ltd, pp. 79-80.
Goffman, Erving. (1956). The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. Edinburgh: University of Edinburgh Social Sciences Research Centre.
Ryder, Paul. (2021). “Strategy and Semiosis: Insights from Operation Fortitude”, Southern Semiotic Review, 14, pp. 36-49.