In mid-August of 2018, I was sitting at my desk at the cushy full-time magazine job that I — in my short-sighted narcissism, had grown to profoundly resent — when I got word that my father had had a major heart attack. That night, I booked a flight to Wilmington, North Carolina, where my mom and I spent much of the next three weeks at the hospital, visiting my dad in the intensive care unit three times a day, every day.
During that strange time in which my dad was intubated, sedated, and hooked up to various machines — the names of which became so familiar, but that I can’t remember now — my mom and I spent our days just kind of wandering around the hospital, having lunch every day in the cafeteria or at Pret A Manger (this hospital had a Pret), and generally trying to find ways to kill the hours between the numbingly repetitive visits to the ICU.
Early on, I had this intense urge to rewatch the second episode of Succession. The HBO show had just wrapped its first season and hadn’t quite become the phenomenon it would later. But I had been assigned to cover it for the magazine where I worked and had seen early screeners of the first few episodes before they aired months prior.
It’s odd to say that I sought comfort in this viciously cynical show, but somehow rewatching that second episode — in which the Roy family’s lives grind to a halt while their media mogul patriarch Logan (Brian Cox) is hospitalized after having a stroke — helped make sense of what I was experiencing. Like me, Roy’s children were sort of stuck, forced into a kind of limbo, waiting around while medical professionals did their mysterious, inscrutable work behind the scenes. They were reduced to bystanders, and for all their wealth and influence, they were largely powerless in the face of death. Like I was.
Of course, I am not the son of a ruthless billionaire media mogul, and my life bears exactly zero resemblance to the lives of the characters on Succession. But watching this one television episode (over and over) and seeing these ridiculous characters going through something similar to what I was, seeing it turned into drama and satire, relieved some of the grinding anxiety and gnawing fear I was experiencing.
Maybe it was something of a dissociative response, imagining my own real-life tragedy in terms of narrative drama. But isn’t that part of how art is supposed to function? It reflects real life back to us, reshaping it to give it meaning, making the randomness of existence bearable by lacing it with humor, pathos, and glamor. That’s how I got through some of those interminable days, by recasting myself not as someone whom catastrophe had befallen, but as a player in a family drama.
For better or worse, whenever I think of those weeks spent visiting my dad in the hospital, where he eventually died, I think of that episode of Succession. On Sunday night, the show once again reflected back to me something that I recognized from those weeks spent essentially waiting for my father to die.
I think I speak for most fans of Succession when I say that Cox’s character, Logan Roy, was widely expected to die in the show’s fourth and final season. The season’s first two episodes basically telegraphed that inevitability. Still, coming as it did so early in the season — in Episode 3, “Connor’s Wedding” — it’s safe to say that Logan’s exit was shocking, and made for one of the series’ best, most gut-wrenching episodes.
As its title suggests, the episode finds the Roy siblings attending their brother’s wedding, as Logan and his top brass fly to Sweden to negotiate the sale of his company to Lukas Matsson (Alexander Skarsgård). In the midst of the festivities, Kendall (Jeremy Strong), Shiv (Sarah Snook), and Roman (Kieran Culkin), who have been estranged from Logan since the end of Season 3, receive word that their father has had a heart attack midflight, and that the flight’s crew are performing chest compressions on him.
What follows is a devastating 45 minutes of television in which the siblings grapple with their extremely complicated feelings about their father while confronted with the certainty of his loss. On the flight, Shiv’s estranged husband Tom (Matthew Macfadyen) holds his phone next to the unconscious Logan’s ear so that each panicked sibling can attempt to say their blundering, conflicted goodbyes.
Most TV, film, and books show us idealized moments of reckoning; deathbed confessions, heartfelt goodbyes, in which characters know exactly what to say and how to say it. My sense is that that kind of thing is rare, if not mostly fictional. Succession opted instead for something messier, scarier, and appropriately unsatisfying.
Strong, Culkin, and Snook deliver bravura performances in these scenes, as their characters struggle to reconcile a lifetime of pain, resentment, and disappointment with an avalanche of grief; to say what is true, what they need their father to hear, as well as what is human and kind. Their rambling, fumbling, inaccurate, and insufficient words hit hard, and I found myself wondering if this episode would be especially resonant for queer audiences.
It certainly took me back to my own father’s hospital bedside. I remember looking at him drifting in and out of consciousness, a tube down his throat, unable to speak, eyes wide, trying to communicate I can’t think what, other than pure love. In that moment, I was utterly paralyzed, unable to say a single word myself.
My relationship with my father was nowhere near as contentious or complicated as that of the fictional Roy siblings. But it was complicated, as I would hazard to guess is true of many, if not most, fathers and their children, and particularly gay sons and their fathers.
Over the past three seasons of Succession, Logan communicated in a myriad of ways, both spoken and unspoken, that his children could never measure up in his estimation. Similarly, I think it’s safe to say that most queer people grow up with at least some sense that we are not the children our parents expected, that deep down, they consider us a complication, perhaps even a disappointment, and that sense creates a gulf between us, a wound we spend our entire lives trying to heal. But maybe I’m just speaking for myself, or for my generation and the generations that came before me.
My father loved me; I knew this. But I wondered more than once whether he would have liked me if I was not his son. There were things left unsaid between us, areas of avoidance, suspicions; all the depressingly common and also very specific things that distance fathers, and maybe all parents, from their adult children. All the things we try to avoid until it’s too late, and then, when death approaches, we find ourselves at a loss, unable to put it all into the right words, defeated by the profundity of the moment.
How do you heal that primal wound, bridge that gulf before it’s too late? How do you say the difficult things when there’s no time to reach common ground? How do you say to your dying father everything you need him to know: You hurt me. You loved me. I’ve never been quite sure how much I can trust that love. I don’t want you gone, but I will be more fully myself when you are.
The three Roy siblings let it all come tumbling out. In their attempts to say everything they essentially said nothing:
Roman: “You’re a good dad. You did a good job… Nope!”
Kendall: “I love you, dad. I do, I love you, ok? And it’s ok. I can’t forgive you, but… it’s ok.”
Shiv: “I love you…there’s no excuses for the…But…”
In my case, I literally said nothing, simply staring stone-faced at my dying father, unable even to say a simple, “I love you,” which was true, but also somehow not enough, not the whole truth. And isn’t the whole truth what we long for?
Watching Succession last night, and again today, I’m wondering if the torrent of conflicting sentiments coming out of Roman and Kendall and Shiv come closer to that whole truth, as messy and imprecise and contradictory as it is.