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‘Succession’ Recap, S2E2: Media Matters

Succession is a show about family. But the HBO series is also very much a show about business: money, power, influence, ego, and the machinations of corporate America.

As such, it’s the perfect show for us at Fortune to recap as the saga of the Roy family and their Waystar Royco media empire unfolds over the weeks to come. In the second episode of the new season: muesli pits, gift Boeings, and Dick Morris. (You can read last week’s recap here.)

How does a free press, more than ever beholden to corporate interests and bottom lines, survive in 2019? I’m afraid you probably won’t find the answer here, but last night’s episode did offer a meditation on the forces that dictate what you see on the news, and where you get that news from.

Tom Wambsgans, the freshly appointed head of Waystar Royco’s global news operations, strolls into Fox News doppelganger ATN thinking he knows how it all works. Not only does Logan Roy happen to own a major cable news network, but said network just happens to broadcast “exactly what he thinks” on a daily basis. 

Not so, he’s informed by ATN network head Cyd Peach (Jeannie Berlin). “This isn’t mind control,” Cyd shoots back. The journalists at ATN aren’t taking orders from any corporate overlords; they want to work there, and they serve a demographic of intelligent American viewers “tired of being patronized elsewhere by latte-sipping douchebags with $100 dollar haircuts.”

Tom, sipping from his own coffee cup, doesn’t appreciate this rather brusque lay of the land as he seeks to assert authority over his new domain. Nor is it entirely corroborated by the way we’ve seen the Roy family wield the power of their mass media mouthpiece (notably, Shiv pressuring ATN to bury that unflattering story about her old candidate Joyce Miller’s husband last season). And it’s highly unlikely Logan Roy sees things this way as well. After all, Stewy Hosseini’s appearance on a rival network—where he talks trash about Logan’s leadership of Waystar, in an effort to bolster his hostile takeover of the company—is clearly a hatchet job by those “disingenuous Pulitzer pricks,” Logan notes.

The truth is probably somewhere in between, and Tom tries to tell cousin Greg as much when he floats his reservations about working at ATN as Tom’s right-hand punching bag. ATN may very well be a “toxic element in the culture,” as Greg puts it, but this isn’t a Charles Dickens novel, and one certainly doesn’t “go around talking about principles” in their line of business. Tom ends up sending Greg on a mission to find the fat at ATN—the “extraneous danish” or the “mail guy who walks slow”—for Tom to trim, so as to impress Logan. 

Logan himself, meanwhile, plays his sons against each other the way only he can. Vaulter is underperforming (“Facebook changed their algorithm,” as Vaulter head Lawrence Yee tells Kendall) and whoever can find a way to fix the digital media operation “gets a cookie.” Partly because the acquisition of Vaulter was Kendall’s baby, and partly because he has little else in the way of a life at the moment, Kendall pours himself into the startup’s books to find a way to get the business back on track. 

“You gotta burn to turn,” Ken reminds his dad at their showdown meeting, recommending that a little investment and some “adults in the room” can turn Vaulter around. Roman, of course, has done a fraction of Kendall’s work, and as Gerri informs him, “pivot to video” isn’t exactly a novel concept in digital media anymore. But in his trademark “dumb but smart” way, he pitches convincingly on burning the business down as a means to cut costs and show the board that Logan means business. 

“They’re fakes; beehives, almond milk, and ‘Take another week on that report, Matilda,’” Roman skewers Vaulter. It’s not a body pit, as his brother put it—it’s a “muesli pit,” and those entitled digital media brats represent exactly the kind of waste that Waystar needs to rid itself of. Roman may not have hit the books like Ken, but he did get a couple Vaulter staffers drunk enough to spill the beans on their unionization plans—and Brian Cox’s priceless reaction tells us exactly what Logan thinks about that.

So Vaulter must go the way of Gawker. Mercilessly, it’s Ken who has to wield the hatchet, and he does so most ruthlessly. For a company like Waystar Royco, the quality, relevance, and impact of one’s content is moot when you can simply silo the profitable verticals, and hire an editor and five interns to do the work of 476 Vaulter staffers.

Juicy Morsels

  • Chief of Staff of the President of the United States sounds like a nice gig and all, but Shiv has bigger plans in the works. She’s succeeded in compromising Gil Eavis, who is now more than happy to fly private because one doesn’t just “look a gift Boeing in the teeth,” and she’s not going to let Gil lecture her on her patronizing jokes about the everyman on the street. She already had one foot out the door with plans to “Dick Morris” things from behind the scenes; now, her ascension to the Waystar Royco throne (so we’re led to believe) can fully proceed.
  • Logan can’t help himself while pouring over research for a more diverse board of directors—making light of the importance of having more women and minorities on the Waystar board. “You’re a real beacon of hope, dad,” Shiv tells him.
  • On a related note, Shiv rightly senses that her gender has something to do with the fact that Logan wants her to go through a “management training program” as part of their succession planning. As she points out, manchild Roman is running around as chief operating officer.
  • Cousin Greg 1, Manhattan Condo Developers 0. As Kendall notes, the city’s luxury residential market is awash with supply at the moment, which has depressed prices and slowed down sales. Kendall swoops in and picks up five units at a trendy new lower Manhattan condo building, and is letting Greg crash at one for the time being. (Hopefully those “techno Gatsby” parties aren’t too frequent an occurrence, for Greg’s sake.)
  • “I’ve got enough spies after me without Bezos in here, too.” Chances are that Logan Roy trusts Alexa as much as your folks do.

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