Is “Succession” Jewish?

The story of “Succession” seems like Shakespeare. Or, like Greek tragedy. And a little Bible as well.

OK. Is everyone caught up with “Succession?” Has everyone seen the final episode?

Good. Because I am warning you: there will be spoilers here. 

After four seasons on HBO (now Max), in what some call one of the greatest series in the history of television, “Succession” has come to an end, and with it, the story of the media mogul family, the Roys, and their internecine battles.

The dramatic question all along had been: which of the children of Logan Roy would ultimately succeed him as head of Waystar Royco?

Actually (wait for it): none of them.

Tom, Shiv’s husband, becomes the new CEO, as the board of directors votes to sell the company to the Swedish tech billionaire, Lukas Matsson.

Killer line: Matsson to Tom —  “I need a pain sponge.” That’s what Tom does — absorb pain, and deny his own pain, and outsource that pain by abusing his talentless protege, Greg Hirsch.

“Succession” is Shakespeare. “Succession” is Greek tragedy.

And, also biblical.

Let’s go back to the book of Genesis. The story is simultaneously simple and complex.

The Jewish people began, as the story of a family.

In every generation, there is a question: which son would inherit the covenant with God?

First generation: it’s not the older son, Ishmael, who inherits the covenant. No — Ishmael has the misfortune of being born of Abraham’s liaison with the handmaiden, Hagar. Ishmael and Hagar are cast out, refugees of the covenant. Isaac “wins.”

Second generation: it’s not the elder son, Esau, who inherits the covenant. No — Esau has the misfortune of being a hunter who surrenders himself to his appetites, and willingly sells his birthright. While Esau is not exactly cast out (rather, Jacob becomes a refugee from Esau’s homicidal wrath). Jacob “wins.” When it was time for Jacob to choose a wife, while he loves Rachel, his wily uncle and father-in-law, Laban, switches Leah — as a deliberate dig against Jacob: “It is not the custom in our place to marry off the the younger before the older” (Genesis 29:26).

Third generation: it’s not the oldest, Reuben, who inherits the covenant. No — Reuben has the misfortune to surrender to a different kind of appetite — a sexual tryst with Bilhah, one of his father, Jacob’s, handmaidens. 

Neither would it be the second and third born, Simeon and Levi, who inherit the covenant. They surrender to yet another kind of hunger — the hunger for a murderous species of revenge, when their sister, Dinah (who would have been next in the birth order) is raped or seduced by Shechem, a Canaanite prince.

That brings us to Judah, the fourth child of Jacob. Judah is an ambiguous hero. He has an unknowing murky tryst with his daughter in law, Tamar. He is all too willing to sell his younger brother, Joseph, into slavery. But, ultimately, he does teshuvah in the matter of Tamar, and he ultimately steps up and takes leadership among the sons of Jacob.

And that, friends, is how we became Jews. We are the descendants of Judah — yes, a morally ambiguous hero. Judah is the progenitor of the tribe of Judah; and then, the southern kingdom of Judah, whose citizens are deported to Babylon, who will become the Jews.

(What about Joseph? He is the dominant character of the last quarter of the book of Genesis, and he rescues Egypt and the rest of the ancient Middle East from famine. Surely, this deserves a consolation prize — which he gets posthumously, as his two sons become the progenitors of the northern kingdom of Israel).

That’s a lot of family trauma, you might be saying to yourselves. You would be right. We Jews should talk about how we, over the generations, have inherited a whopping case of PTSD over these family dynamics. 

So, let’s get back to “Succession.” Shouldn’t the heir have been Connor, Logan’s oldest child from his first marriage?

Or, if we’re not going there: then surely the oldest son of Logan’s second wife, which would have been Kendall (and he knows it)?

Ah, that’s the lesson of Genesis.

The oldest does not automatically inherit. It’s inevitably the younger one. That insistence on not insisting on primogeniture was an effective way to screw up that whole traditional system, and to demonstrate its ultimate irrelevance (though Laban, in switching the older Leah for the younger Rachel, insists on the traditional system).

Recall what happens at the end of Jacob’s life. Joseph brings his children, Ephraim and Menasseh, to the aged patriarch for a blessing. The old man deliberately switches his hands, blessing the “wrong” child as the oldest. He is saying: the whole system of the first one getting the blessing is over.

But. if you’re really looking for the ultimate biblical story of “succession,” go to the end of the story of King David, to First Kings, chapter 1.

King David was the greatest of the Israelite kings, as well as being one of the most complicated characters in the entire Bible. He was a warrior, romantic figure, musician, poet — a man of deep emotions, a man who had loved and lost.

It is easy to see Logan Roy as David — especially when you realize that Roy, in addition to being a Scottish surname, also means “king.”

At the end of the story, David is dying, and it’s not pretty. The warrior-king is so feeble that he is now lying in bed, unable to get warm.

The “ladies’ man” who once had no trouble finding his own women; the man who loved (a short list) Michal, Abigail, and Batsheva — now needs for someone else to find him a woman.

Except, they don’t bring him a woman. They bring him a young girl, Abishag, whose only responsibility is to keep the old king warm — and that’s all. There will be no funny business.

(Though, in the case of Logan Roy, there clearly was with Kerry, as there had been with the mistress in the previous marriage, Sally Anne. In her eulogy, Shiv states that her father was “hard on women.” So was King David, by the way.)

From there, the story of “succession” really begins. David’s son, Solomon, was to have succeeded his father.

However, David’s obnoxious younger son, Adonijah, runs around and starts boasting that he will be king (We’re looking at you, Roman Roy).

He gets Joab, the commander of David’s forces, and Abiathar, the priest who had been his father’s life long friend, on his side. Adonijah throws a huge feast, but does not invite Nathan the prophet, nor his half-brother Solomon.

Nathan tells David’s wife, Batsheva, that her son Solomon was to have been king. Batsheva tells the dying David that if Adonijah is proclaimed king, she and her son Solomon will be killed as traitors.

David agrees with her, and ultimately Solomon is proclaimed king.

Thus, two biblical stories of complicated successions.

“Succession” ends with the possibility of Jeryd Mencken, a white supremacist with fascist tendencies, as the president of the United States. Tom had called the election, effectively anointing Mencken as president — just as the Roy siblings anoint their brother, Kendall, as the new head of the company — with swill from a blender replacing the traditional biblical anointing oil.  

“Succession” ends with Kendall losing. As he walks in Battery Park, staring into the water (we can imagine the water calling his name, beckoning him), his late father’s security guard hovers nearby.

The last great message of “Succession:” We never really escape the shadow of our parents. Those shadows are always there.

Ask Judah about Jacob. Ask Solomon about David. 

Ask any of us about our own parents. 

As the sages said: “The acts of the ancestors become a pattern for their descendants.”

I will miss “Succession.” On to my next binging adventure. 

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