Spoiler alert: This article discusses details of Succession season 4, episode 8.
There are moments when it’s not clear where the truth ends and pop culture begins. Such was the case with Gerald Ford’s struggles with stairs that gave way to Saturday Night Live’s merciless mockery of him as a klutz, the same show’s devastating derision of Sarah Palin’s stint as the Republican Party’s nominee for the vice presidency as a half-wit, or even current President Joe Biden’s struggles with his age.
Once the thesis is imprinted on a culture, it’s tough to scrub it. By the end of the 2008 campaign, it mattered not one blip that Palin never actually said she could see Russia from her house; it will invariably be among the first paragraphs of her obituary many years hence.
Which is why the most recent episode of HBO’s Succession, called “America Decides,” hit way too close to home for those of us steeped in the 2016 and 2020 elections.
Set in a fictionalized Fox News media environment on election night, the conservative elements in the fictional network’s ownership and leadership rushed to help the bid of a far-right presidential candidate promising them favorable regulation by declaring him the winner of Wisconsin while the outcome remained in doubt. With that swing state under his belt, the neo-fascist-lite candidate was able to soon claim victory after winning Arizona. Put plainly: Once the Chyron is loaded, not much else matters.
If all of this sounds vaguely familiar, good. Trump, after all, did something similar during his 2020 campaign. “We don’t want them to find any ballots at 4 o’clock in the morning and add them to the list,” Trump told supporters the morning after Election Day. In the fictionalized world of HBO, that was also the argument being put forward by the stand-in Trumpist, a figure who inspired alleged violence, whose victory speech sounded a whole lot like one we heard before, and whose support of autocracy flies in the face of every post-World War II instinct.
The appointment-viewing hour blended the real-world realpolitik inside the executives’ communications at Fox News—now known, thanks to legal filing that showed the network’s brass are often at odds with its most popular personalities—with the minority desire in the ranks of the newsroom brass to play it straight. All the while, the network watched its power fade and clout grow dull while rising brands to the right claimed their ownership of the new Republican Party.
It’s not always clear when art imitates life, or vice versa. It may not even matter, especially if it’s a race to the bottom, as was the case as Veep chased more outrageous stories only to be topped by the real-world Trump era. What is often missed in these fictionalized moments, though, is this: the symbiotic relationship between the two often brings out the worst in each.
The United States remains a deeply polarized nation, so much so that the script for Succession has no trouble turning a discussion of the potentially criminal torching of ballots in Wisconsin into a partisan shouting match. That the outcome of the next election turning on such vagaries feels plausible is part of what made the episode feel like an hour-long anxiety attack for many. The right and wrong matter less than the blame.
But readers would do well to realize this is a hyper-fictionalized portrayal that ignores how the real world works. A single network calling a race wouldn’t mean much if the rest of the media establishment insisted it was too soon to call, just as Fox News’ infamously early call of Arizona for Joe Biden in 2020 was not celebrated by Democrats until other outlets echoed that sentiment. (Nowhere I’ve ever worked would turn aside millions of dollars in sophisticated data modeling, polling, and shoe-leather reporting based on a billionaire heir’s whims.)
Succession has always been the perfect approximation of the Sunday Scaries, one last HBO-scripted freak-out before a new week begins and the escapism to the fictionalized lives of America’s top 1% of the One Percenters set. The characters lack moral compasses, but that’s not to say they’re immoral.
Rather, they are more amoral—much like a former President who views the world in a transactional light rather than one of rights and wrongs, and who refuses to exit the stage. In that cultural familiarity, deep anxiety finds its feeding.