"Succession" fans shouldn't be shocked by Roman Roy. He was always this terrible of a person

He's a broken soul with a talent for tossing off incisive, creatively foul insults, but trauma is a deceiver

By Melanie McFarland

Senior Critic

Published May 20, 2023 2:00PM (EDT)

Kieran Culkin in "Succession" (Claudette Barius/HBO)
Kieran Culkin in "Succession" (Claudette Barius/HBO)

When Kendall and Roman Roy were kids, they played a game called Dog Pound. The rules were simple: Kendall locked Roman in a kennel and forced him to eat chow out of a metal bowl. Maybe Rome stayed in the kennel for a few minutes. Maybe it was an entire afternoon. Maybe there was a leash involved. But only Ken determined when Roman could come out.

Roman blurts this out in the "Prague" episode of "Succession" in Season 1 as he's crashing a secret meeting between Ken and Sandy Furness, one of Logan Roy's archenemies. Both Sandy and Ken are taken aback by Roman's squeamish memory recall, especially when Rome cites it as the reason he "went weird," causing their father to ship him off to military school. Ken thinks he's making it up.

But Connor confirms that Roman didn't imagine Dog Pound, although his recollection of the circumstances differs. By his report Roman asked Kendall to put him in the cage. And it wasn't dog food in the bowl but chocolate cake. "Dad sent you to military school because you asked to go. That's how I remember it!" Connor insists.

Later, and separately, Connor tells Kendall something similar, albeit with one detail he held back from Rome. "Dad's theory was, you got two fighting dogs, you send the weak one away. You punish the weak one. Then everyone knows the hierarchy. Then everyone's happy. So: away he went."

Were you paying sufficient attention to this early peek into the Roy family's psychosis? You might think you did, along with all the other grim mistreatment yarns that came afterward. But if you were blindsided by Roman's nihilistic sellout in the recent episode "America Decides," where he nonchalantly suggests ATN blame reports of election day violence on "Blacks and Jews," pretending to walk that back as a joke, you derived the wrong warnings about Roman from his figurative kennel clubbing.

Roman's supposed heel-turn, like that of Daenerys Stormborn in "Game of Thrones" or Walter White in "Breaking Bad," was only shocking if you didn't acknowledge the signs Jesse Armstrong and his writers erected from the show's beginning. The youngest Roy boy merely stands apart from those other infamous antagonists in that he's never pretended to be the good guy. If our estimation of Roman was softened by his tender acts, credit the scripts and Kieran Culkin's exacting portrayal of a worm yearning to be a Real Boy, and with an irrepressible determination to live up to a horrendous standard.

If you were blindsided by Roman's nihilistic sellout in "America Decides," you derived the wrong warnings about Roman from his figurative kennel clubbing.

Some of the most damaged people you will ever meet also have the greatest comedic timing. So it is with Roman, a broken soul with a talent for tossing off incisive, creatively foul insults with ease. Viewers love him for all that, arguing that the shards of truth in his jabs reveal a high emotional I.Q.; his zingers are vicious, but they're also right. Thus, as "Succession" winds down, Roman somehow became the most compassionate Roy – not a tainted angel, but supposedly not the worst of the worst either.

SuccessionKieran Culkin in "Succession" (Macall B. Polay/HBO)

Considering how formative the Dog Pound story is to Roman, one might have reconsidered that kind view a little while back. Maybe right around the time Daddy's lil fashy and far-right candidate Jeryd Mencken began playing footsie at that conservative conference's open bar in "What It Takes," and Rome pitched woo with, "Fascists are kind of cool, but . . . not really?"

Connor's thoughtless, callous summary explains Kendall and Roman's never-ending death match for dominance. At Investor Day (in "Living+") Rome has an opportunity to stand shoulder to shoulder with Ken, but senses his brother's instability and leaves him on his own, expecting he'll fail. Instead, Ken becomes the star of the Logan Roy spinoff, killing his solo presentation.

Election night, while not a do-over, offers Rome a second chance to substantially shake up the hierarchy. With Kendall paralyzed at a crucial moment, and Shiv bungling an attempt to steer the remnants of her oldest brother's frail conscience to serve the greater good, Roman is the sibling promising a sure thing: a tyrant the brothers could do business with. That made him the one holding the leash for once. The dominant one.

Without factoring in Connor – and why should we, since not even Logan did – Roman is doubly cursed as both the middle child and the youngest son. While the Roy paterfamilias never took Pinky seriously, and at various times groomed Kendall for leadership, Roman never entirely outgrew deserving to be beaten for ordering lobster, proven when Logan knocks out his tooth in the second season episode "Argestes."

Roman simply shrugs off this violence by assuring everyone who sees it that it's just a tooth: "I'll get another one," he says, a nonchalance that's in keeping with his general outlook of appearing to give no f**ks while his psyche gushes scarlet.

Trauma is a nasty deceiver, both in the way it makes survivors distrust their memories and the way we, its witnesses, interpret it in the context of everything we see. Seeing more moral potential in Roman than what's actually present is almost a reflex among decent people. 

Roman's fans cite small acts of sensitivity and caring as evidence of goodness hiding inside his rotten core, struggling to escape the putrefaction. Like the fact that he was the only family member who cared enough to retrieve Kendall from a crack den, or his unwillingness to sell out his siblings, or Waystar's counsel Gerri (J. Smith-Cameron), the object of his unwanted attention/harassment, when given the opportunity by Logan.

Then again, after Logan dies and Roman becomes co-CEO, one of his first moves is to fire the woman who heads Waystar Studios, simply because he said it out loud. When Gerri protests, he tells her she's fired — although later he pretends that he was only kidding. The incels do love their jokes!. (She takes him at his word, and lets him know she'll be demanding "eye-watering sums" of exit compensation.)

SuccessionKieran Culkin and J Smith Cameron in "Succession" (Graeme Hunter/HBO)

"Roman Roy Has Always Been Succession's Most Empathetic Character," Time magazine argued a few weeks ago. My Salon colleague Alison Stine posited that Roman "knows he's messed up, unlike his family members who continue blithely on, hurting others until they do or don't figure it out. Roman has self-knowledge. He seems like he could or would go to therapy." That was her assessment back at the end of March, in real time, but only a few days ago in "Succession" chronology. People have been known to transform overnight but, you know, not that much.

Roman's entire motivation in "Succession" revolves around securing Logan's approval, not merely as the heir to the family business but as the one Daddy loves most.

When damaged people are enjoyable to be around and occasionally charitable, we make excuses for their transgressions. For instance, we discount the part of the story where Roman busily sets about securing his place in the company by, among other things, "being a dirty little pixie and whispering Swastikas into Dad's ear," as Shiv describes it. This is while Kendall was on the outskirts impotently trying to bring down their father, the man with the power to select presidents and make that choice based on principles that would serve both him and the America. But Logan tapped Mencken over Shiv's protests. And Roman is nothing if not his father's son.

"Succession" is a fictionalized send-up of several media titans and wannabes, but its main inspiration is the Murdochs. Similar to Fox's anointing of Donald Trump, boosting his late entry to the 2016 presidential race with endless fawning coverage, the Roys knight a charismatic monster who charms Roman by cooing, "If Franco, or H, or Travis Bickle had a good pitch, f**k it, I'm a man for all seasons."

The fact that Justin Kirk's aspiring autocrat had more screen time than his eventual Democratic rival should have been a hint that the show was not planning for his defeat.

Yet with all this in play, people lost their minds at seeing Roman, Mencken's biggest champion, become the most vocal fan of undermining American democracy. Why? How did you not see this coming? Kendall and Roman spend most of Season 4 struggling to live up to their emotionally distant dead father's legacy. The boys' main effort involves derailing a deal to sell the company that their father set up before he died, an acquisition their sister and the rest of Waystar's top executives want to go through.

If that means subverting the rights and safety of millions of Americans to get richer, and if it means Kendall ends up lying to his daughter Sophie when he assured her he wouldn't let Mencken win, if it is to be said, so it be – so it is. 

SuccessionKieran Culkin in "Succession" (Photograph by Macall Polay/HBO)

The Dog Pound memory is a woeful one on its surface, the tale of a little boy so twisted by his father that he can't remember whether a formative incident really happened, and the siblings who brush off that torture as a joke.

It also exhibits what a tricky toxin psychic injury can be especially when the poisoned party is a small-framed man with a deep-seated sexual dysfunction. Rome suffers from performance issues in bed but can get it up when Gerri belittles him as a "slime puppy." Power arouses him; power makes him submit. His response to being named COO is to stare down at the city from his office window in the sky and start jerking off. 

Roman's entire motivation in "Succession" revolves around securing Logan's approval, not merely as the heir to the family business but as the one Daddy loves most. Placing Mencken in the White House also serves his vision of a future ATN, one that attracts younger wingnuts by offering "deep state conspiracy hour, but with, like a f**king wink, you know?"

Nothing thrilled Daddy more than pulling off a night of good TV; nothing moved him less than the welfare of anyone who wasn't named Logan Roy.

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Acts borne out of sadness and damage are often misconstrued as sensitivity, such as stooping low to assist a humiliated woman gather the detritus of her affair splayed out on the floor while everyone else looks on in disdain.

But even in his altruistic moments, it is difficult to decouple Roman's acts of kindness from his thirst for validation. The humiliated woman was Logan's mistress, after all, the last recipient of Daddy's affections. (What information could Roman squeeze out of her to use on a rainy day?)

It explains Roman's bizarre relationship with Gerri prior to the misdirected dick pic, which was less about sexual kink or illicit emotional exchange than it was centered on having a "mommy" who turned him on while mentoring him professionally. This is what passes for caring in Roman's screwed-up brain.

Now he has a president in his pocket, just like Daddy wanted for himself. Provided Mencken's declared victory survives the inevitable legal challenges, that means Roman is continuing his father's business model of seducing presidents to fatten the corporate bottom line. By selling out Shiv, as he always does, and exploiting Kendall's insecurity that he's "not Logan," Roman has kenneled his siblings while securing a new dom in the White House.

It's everything Logan wanted for ATN, and all we should have expected of an unchained slime puppy who should never have caught us off guard.

New episodes of "Succession" air 9 p.m. Sundays on HBO.


By Melanie McFarland

Melanie McFarland is Salon's award-winning senior culture critic. Follow her on Twitter: @McTelevision

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