The story of Abraham and Isaac has always been one of the more confounding parts of the Hebrew Bible. Even millennia later, one can scarcely imagine the doom of Isaac’s revelation, as Abraham brought the knife to his throat: “The fire and the wood are here, but where’s the lamb for the burnt offering?” The sudden appearance of a ram and the merciful angel that spared Isaac’s life, may have provided short shrift. One imagines Isaac shattered and dissociative, wracked with questions as they walked back to Beersheba.
Many great thinkers have sought to make sense of Abraham’s deranged vision – Kierkegaard, Kafka, Derrida — and the sort of God that could have sanctioned it. For Kierkegaard, the absurdity of a father trying to kill his own son can only be grasped in its own terms. By some flavour of supreme logic, in the terrible clarity of God’s command, Kierkegaard surmised, Abraham must have expected a deliverance: if not the return of his son, at least a “substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen”. By trusting in the absurd, his faith was commended.
Succession reveals a different element of the parable. As we approach its season finale, its Shakespearean themes of corruption, trauma and power are clear. Yet until its penultimate episode, “Church and State”, its Christian themes were left more subtle.
The funeral of Logan, the Roy’s patriarch, is held in the ornately painted and cavernous halls of a church in New York. The hypocrisy of the ultra-rich and far-Right sat in pews is not lost on his second eldest son Kendall, bipolar and drug-addicted and proud of his “ambition”, who whispers of “money changers in the temple” while plotting before the service. Younger brother, Roman, intends his eulogy as a Mark Antony-esque pitch for the crown. But after his prior claims that he had “pre-grieved”, Roman quickly breaks down. The boy — for he is a boy at heart — can scarcely believe his father has really died: death would surely only be another obstacle for his Titan Father to surmount. “Is he… is he… is he in there?” Roman pleads on the altar steps. “Well, can we get him out?”
Yet there is no hope of resurrection in Logan’s tragic arc. By the time of his death, he had consciously and unconsciously sacrificed all of his children on the altar of personal ambition. Paranoid and depressed, his absurd trust in “things unseen” — the empty promise of Satanic power — would never travel beyond the emptiness before his eyes. “You’re my pal, my best pal,” he told his bodyguard, before consoling himself with the empty Gospel of Adam Smith. “People are economic units. I’m a hundred feet tall. These people are pygmies.”
For the Christian, the coming to earth of God’s son completes the template forged by Abraham and Isaac. Having first set creation free, God knows the inability of humans to overcome the patterns of their lives. So God sends his son to bear man’s sin himself, plunging down to Hell, before the resurrection reveals the limitless power of goodness: an absurd event none of the disciples seemed quite to understand.
Logan, meanwhile, perishes in a perfect and absurd parody of heaven: in the toilet of a private jet. How did our invincible Caesar Logan die? Not through a theatrical stabbing by close friends — but for having not put on his compression socks.
Sin is always built on lies, the Christian understands. That’s what Satan is: “a liar and the father of lies.” The Roys indulge in a similar lie, believing their success to be the fruit of ceaseless business acumen. Their wealth really comes, however, from a happenstance of particular social and economic arrangements, and the fortune of technological advances. Their “business first” approach is a lie, too: the show continually reveals that decisions are not made through an unblinkered process of calculation, but self-regard, pettiness and a lust for control.
The most explicitly Christian moment, however, comes with Kendall’s funeral speech: a tour de force case for the appeal of Evil and the Nietzschean will to power. “He was comfortable with this world. And he knew it. He knew it and he liked it,” Kendall says, shaking but articulate, still afraid of his father. “The will to be, and to be seen, and to do. And now people might want to tend and prune the memory of him to denigrate that force. That magnificent, awful force of him, but my God, I hope it’s in me.”
“Evil” has disappeared from much of contemporary vocabulary. It is typically ascribed to “forces” of history, institutions and the unfolding of individual lives. But the Christian believes “evil” to be an entirely real and different kind of force: what David Bentley Hart called “an ontological wasting disease”, whose lies avoid annihilation by sucking on the tendrils of open hearts and truth.
The Roys can see how the evil of power destroys their family and themselves, yet they cannot help it. It “comes over them”: a possession that still finds resonance in old understandings of demons. While a trauma-based understanding of Succession has a certain merit, one doubts how our Roy children could ever be “saved” by enough psychotherapy while being so close to power. It is not the innocent child who is the true undeserving victim of evil, but the creature, who, once corrupted, neglects to admit their creaturehood.
Logan failed to be redeemed, and we can expect a similar failure for our Roy children. Hopes were raised when they found one other as siblings at the start of the final series, as well as with several of Kendall’s rock bottoms. But true “sacrificial love” — the highest form — was always eclipsed by “mutual love”. Evolution, the post-religious seat of how ethics are said to have emerged, may encourage “altruism”, but only in a reciprocal sense. “You know, Hugo, life isn’t nice”, Kendall tells his sickly PR gofer, Hugo. “It’s contingent. People who say they love you also fuck you…You’ll be my dog. But the scraps from the table will be millions.”
Even if the Roys retain power, the family cannot last. It will exhaust itself, as evil and lies always do. And while Kendall is right to endorse “bloody, complicated life”, the answer is not a Nietzschean embrace of such a world. One answer is what Reinhold Niebuhr called “Christian Realism”: the cliche of being “in the world, but not of it”. It is to accept the realities of power, and that things do matter — which Roman could scarcely believe after helping a fascist become President from his skyscraping New York office. But it also holds the “foolish” hope that the story will complete.
As Kierkegaard suggested, perhaps we each have a choice, an “Either/Or”: we either trust in the Loganesque absurdity of self-worship, that the human can solve the human problem, or we don’t. The choice is ours.