If you have not yet watched Succession, HBO’s prestige drama that follows the Roys, a family of rich media magnates who both hate each other and use each other to feed extreme lusts for power, you’re missing out on a show that delights in making something as simple as sitting down for a meal with family — or sipping a glass of wine — an exercise in excruciation. (Season three spoilers to follow.)
For the Roys — evil patriarch Logan, petulant (yet desperate to please) children Shiv, Roman, Connor and Kendall, and even dipshit cousin Greg — eating isn’t something that feels essential to their existence, and meals are rarely acts of pleasure. They feed on intrigue and the scraps of Logan’s meticulously doled-out attention, not pastries and omelets. Instead of offering us a tie to their actual humanity — everyone has to eat, after all — Succession uses every single ortolan and tumbler of scotch to remind us just how miserable this disgustingly wealthy family actually is.
That felt especially true in Sunday night’s episode, titled “What It Takes.” Son-in-law Tom, ready to take the fall for Logan’s corporate crimes, spends much of his time fretting over whether or not he’ll like the food in prison. He even drags Greg, who could also find himself serving time depending on how the cards fall, to what looks like a perfectly suitable 24-hour diner for a glimpse at what they might eat “on the inside.”
At the diner, Tom and Greg order omelets and contemplate their futures. As Greg builds up the courage to ask Tom, who’s “probably already going” to prison, to take the full blame, the two pick at their plates like two children being forced to eat a pile of boiled spinach. Tom crudely compares the dry, rubbery omelet, which in fairness does look pretty terrible, to a “camel’s labia.”
“It won’t taste as good as this either, okay,” Tom says of white-collar prison food. “You have to take off 30 to 50 percent of the taste of that endless salty gym mat you’re eating there.”
Tom is not wrong — the food served to incarcerated people is often (literally) inedible garbage — and it’s telling that his fixation is on food as he faces incarceration. While the Roys may be able to survive purely on spite, he — a Roy only by marriage — still loves his creature comforts. It’s clear that, in the midst of a loveless marriage, a tanking career that’s tied to that marriage, and his impending imprisonment, eating luxurious, delicious food is one of the few ways that Tom Wambsgans still experiences joy.
Sitting inside his hotel suite with Shiv, Tom pops open a bottle of wine produced by a vineyard the couple owns but have probably never visited. It’s a biodynamic wine, which impresses Tom until he sees the screw-on cap. The two taste the wine, describing it as “earthy” and “agricultural,” and ultimately conclude that it’s just not very good. And again, Tom goes back to his fear that prison food will be too bland for his sophisticated palate. His food obsession even extends to the metaphor he uses to describe having sex with Shiv while she’s on birth control — “like throwing so much cake batter at a wall.”
Previously, Tom has used food as a way to assert his limited power in the Roy family. In the second season’s finale, Tom aggressively snatches away a chicken leg from Logan’s plate in an act of defiance as he debates whether or not he’d be better off without Shiv, his wife who all but openly hates him. Perhaps that’s something he learned from Logan, who has wielded a box of doughnuts as a sort of psy-op against his children before, and brazenly demanded that the vice president of the United States bring him a Coke.
Now in its third season, Succession has often relied on mealtimes to exemplify the lack of humanity in its characters. In the first season, there’s an excruciating Thanksgiving dinner that cements the family’s complex dysfunction. As the Roy family visits their summer palace in the second season, Logan commands the staff to throw out a lavish feast involving king crab legs, lobster, and caviar because it’d been “sitting around in the stink” of a dead raccoon that’d mysteriously found its way into the mansion’s chimney. Instead, they eat what looks like shitty Domino’s pizza while navigating the minefield that is this awful family dynamic.
The Roy family manages to fashion simple experiences like eating a meal with family and surprising someone with pastries into weaponry, and that works beautifully into a narrative that is deeply concerned with the trappings of power and privilege. The Roys have helicopters, vineyards, estates, and access to the world’s finest delicacies; they can get away with heinous crimes and pass the responsibility to others as if it’s the bad card in a game of Old Maid. But what is such privilege and finery worth when food is flavorless, donuts come at unthinkable strings attached, and you still don’t get a kiss from daddy?