(NB: This is the second of three linked blogs. Part One can be found here).


In the previous blog in this series, I discussed how Succession utilises analogies to Christianity to reinforce and subvert discourses surrounding masculinities and martyrdom; that blog includes a precis of the series. In this blog I shall build upon that through religion as a sociocultural force throughout European history and how that history informs and underlies the series. Multiple characters over the course of Succession make erroneous interpretations of Classical references, e.g., in 1.6 Roy children Kendall (Jeremy Strong) and Roman (Kieran Culkin) incorrectly believe Oidipos (also spelt Oedipus) knowingly killed his own father and Tom’s (Matthew Macfadyen) belief that Nero ‘replaced’ his wife with Sporus is similarly garbled (Beattie, 2023). But Tom’s self-identification as Nero is also relevant when viewed in historical context as well as when viewed as a negotiation between the orientations of the maligned emperor and the worshipped saviour. The more obvious way this occurs is the legend of Nero playing a lyre or another similar stringed instrument during the Great Fire of Rome. While the fire began on its own and there is an argument to be made that the fire was allowed to continue for the purposes of urban renewal which was considered both positive and connected with the first Roman emperor Augustus (Siwicki, 2023),[1] there does seem a potential implication of playing a ‘fiddle’ while Rome/the world burns at the end of the series due to Waystar’s part in helping a white ethnonationalist in a contested US presidential election. More relevant to the argument, however, is that Tom is from the city of St Paul, Minnesota. Over the course of the series that city becomes a byword for conservatism, particularly with regard to sex. The historical Paul, later canonised into St Paul, was killed during the persecutions of Christians under Nero. As I noted in the previous blog, Paul’s letters are extremely homophobic. Thus, Tom self-identifying as Nero in the context of being able to express and accept his love and attraction for his cousin-by-marriage Greg (Nicholas Braun) functions within the context. By accepting Nero, here meaning Tom’s queer identity (however defined), Tom has ‘killed’ St Paul, here meaning that he has overcome that sexual conservatism/internalised homophobia and has at least begun self-acceptance as well as connecting to Alexander’s (2020) definition of queer masculinity as being a challenge to toxic/hegemonic masculinities. This interpretation further allows and encourages critique of history and ‘accepted wisdom’ (i.e., the assumption that Nero was ‘bad’ because the sources writing about him were hostile to his orientation amongst other things).[2] As Edgerton (2020) states, the way history is presented (or represented) at a given time is far more relevant than its accuracy or lack thereof; this is a prime example of that in action.

The series similarly engages with post-Classical history as well, though often more in passing or by analogy than so directly as character self-identification across multiple series. At the end of series three and throughout series four, the Roy family corporate empire, Waystar, is in the process of being sold to tech billionaire Lukas Matsson (Alexander Skarsgård). The Roy children are generally against this, particularly Kendall and Roman, who attempt repeatedly to prevent the sale. Over the course of this, Kendall recurrently analogises Matsson to a ‘Viking’ because Matsson is Swedish. This raises a number of issues, not least of which being the conflation of Scandinavian people, the majority of whom were agrarian, and the ‘Vikings’ who, amongst other things, raided coastal and riverine settlements throughout Europe. Because most extant texts on the subject come from those who were raided, the understanding of Scandinavian culture(s) during this period come from very hostile sources rendering them suspect. Viking raids were in part stopped through Christianisation (and trade) rather than themselves being pillaged (the ‘reverse-Viking’ strategy of trying to buy out the Swedish Matsson that Kendall advocates at various points). Given the seeming connections between Matsson and a slightly different iteration of toxic masculinity (e.g. he is homophobic, sexist and sends unwanted gifts of his own blood to a subordinate/former lover), one can read a further connection between the Vikings and toxic masculinity. Even Matsson’s choice of Tom as his CEO is at least in part predicated explicitly on Tom’s procreative capacity (‘Why don’t I get the guy who put the baby inside her instead of the baby lady?’ Matsson rhetorically asks while offering Tom the job). Though discursively connected within the series to Matsson’s Swedishness (i.e., being a ‘Viking’ and the perceived, though arguable historical connections to toxic masculinity, cf Raffield et al., 2017, and Price et al., 2019, on Viking women and Gade, 1986, on lack of anti-homosexuality laws in medieval Swedish secular law) this can also be tied both to the misogyny of corporate environments and to the connection between masculinity and procreative power (Beattie, 2023 on procreative power and its denial to eunuchs/queer identities).

While rather more complicated in practice than in popular representation, one of the major changes in Scandinavian culture which led to a cessation of the raids was Christianisation, particularly the benefits of doing so ‘…la christianisation du Nord, processus traditionnellement associé à la fin de l’époque viking….elle fut un processus qui contribua à l’intégration des périphéries nordiques dans l’Occident chrétien’ (Coviaux, 2019: n.p.).[3] As one of Matsson’s goals in the series is to engage with the American market in more depth and to avoid potential problems with the American government regulators (why he needs an American CEO as what he describes as a ‘front man’/’pain sponge’ in the first place), one can tie this Christianisation of the Vikings to Tom as a Christ analogue in this way as well. While, as Coviaux (2019) notes, Christianisation was vastly more complicated than simply substituting one religion for another, in the context of the series’ analogy, one can read the idea of turning away from the toxic masculinity, here associated with the Roys and Matsson, and towards a queer masculinity (in the sense of both a threat to the Roys and Matsson’s toxic/hegemonic masculinity as well as with regard to orientation) embodied by Tom in both his guises as Nero and Jesus as discussed in the previous blog.

Throughout the series it is noted that family patriarch/CEO Logan (Brian Cox) is Catholic; in 1.10 he notes his disappointment that Tom’s wedding to Logan’s daughter Shiv (Sarah Snook) was not Catholic, implying that the wedding (and, presumably Tom) is Protestant. That is relevant in two main ways. The first is through connecting medieval and later European history to the series. The surname ‘Roy’ is Norman (or Old) French for ‘king’ and Shiv’s mother is called ‘Caroline.’ This evokes the French Catholic Carolingians who were later displaced by the Germanic  Holy Roman Empire (hereafter HRE; Fichtenau, 1978) and which Protestantism eventually helped end. Both Tom and Greg have Germanic surnames (Wambsgans and Hirsch, respectively) and, thanks to the Swedish Matsson, Tom is CEO at the end of the series. The HRE had a very different, decentralised form to its predecessors, however, which seems to mimic how Waystar would be incorporated into the transnational corporate empire Matsson had amassed. It is also worth noting that the first HRE Emperor, Otto (meaning ‘possessor of wealth’ which can refer to the majority of characters in the series)[4] had as his Pontifex Pope Gregory VI.[5] At this time the pope would have been an advisor and emissary of the emperor but not officially under him in the secular hierarchy other than as a subject of the empire (Coy et al., 2010). This reinforces the argument that Greg would have been officially at least moved out and into a parallel position to Tom in order to avoid violating any corporate rules over romantic/sexual relationships with a direct subordinate. But positioning Tom’s CEOship as the HRE also connects to eldest son Connor Roy (Alan Ruck) quipping in 4.10 about the Roys being ‘neo-Hapsburgs.’ In addition to capitalism developing during the time period when the Hapsburgs were prominent and/or in control over the HRE, this also implies that the Roy family would or could regain the CEOship, presumably either through Greg and/or through Tom and Shiv’s as-of-the-final-episode-unborn child.

Tom is both discursively and intertextually connected to the HRE’s neighbouring kingdom the French Ancien Regime, however; in 4.5 he tells Matsson that he believes if Paris burns (a la the Revolution) then Americans would simply rebuild it. This statement accomplishes three separate things. First, it discursively connects both the French and American Revolutions. It can also be read as exemplifying Tom’s seemingly naive expectation that everything will work out well (he has a similar reaction in 4.8 after the election results) based upon perceived historical precedent.  Finally, it  can be read as prefiguring the end of the series in which Tom, as the only regular character not from an ultrarich background, becomes CEO.[6] That Macfadyen played the melancholy, alcoholic, broken-hearted Athos in The Three Musketeers (2011), which is what Matsson calls himself and two of his Swedish associates in 4.10 reinforces this connection and arguably subverts it, as the strongly homosocial Musketeers worked for the aristocracy. That said, Dumas’ novel does show the injustices of the Ancien Regime and the intertext may suggest potential reading(s) for Tom’s future after the series ends.

The other area of relevance between Christianity and the history of capitalism is that, in some iterations, both also connect with the idea of martyring oneself for one’s job. In addition to implying that Waystar would move away from Logan’s papal indulgences (i.e., Greg’s inflated salary referenced in 4.10), the Protestant Work Ethic (PWE) was initially proposed by Weber (2005) and has been connected to capitalism ever since. Both Giorgi and Marsh (1990) and van Hoorn and Maseland (2013) found that PWE correlates more with societal Protestantism than individual religious belief, but Furnham notes that ‘High PWE scorers… valued ambition and self-control but devalued broadmindedness, imagination, equality, pleasure and a comfortable and exciting life’ (Furnham, 1982: 277). One can see clearly how this relates to corporate culture in that it demands devotion to work, almost to the point of work becoming a pseudo-divine and/or pseudo-royal entity which aligns with the series’ metaphor of Waystar as a royal (or Roy-al) court. It also puts the onus on the individual for their success or failure, rather than examining systemic issues. This connects to toxic and dominant-hegemonic masculinity in that its individualism can be read as becoming exacerbated or exaggerated into toxic masculinity’s need for self-sufficiency to the point of isolation (Sculos, 2017). It also connects to the idea of the autocratic ‘breadwinner’ and the need to dominate (Sculos, 2017) in that ambition can turn into a need to be the best/only person left standing. In the context of the series this was most represented by Logan but after his death both Matsson and Kendall take up elements of it.

By contrast, Tom’s seeming desire for martyrdom as discussed in part one of this series of blogs and the tension he and Greg both exhibit between ambition and pleasure also illustrate the impact that PWE has and the series itself is clearly a critique of hereditary wealth.  It also, however, acknowledges the privilege that limits the meritocracy, explicitly with regard to gender and implicitly with regard to orientation. Matsson chooses Tom over Shiv for CEO in part because he would rather a man in the role than a woman – again, tied explicitly to Tom’s procreative ability – though Tom is acknowledged by multiple characters as being very good at his job. But he is hired as a ‘pain sponge,’ or a figurehead. While this can be tied to Tom’s intercessory, liminal status as shown throughout the series and to his connection to martyrdom and masochism, it is still a subordinate position which will likely lead to an emotional breakdown similar to that seen in 3.4 which occurred under similar circumstances, a move into Benjamin’s ‘house of despair’ (Löwy, 2009: 60).

The use of history and historical parallels allows the series to ground itself further into our reality and build its preferred reading, allowing the contemporary resonance and relevance of the elements being satirised to gain prominence. It can also help engage audiences to consider the diegetic world through forensic fandom as well as encouraging a wider or deeper study of history. That all of the characters in the series have an uncertain grasp of the nuances of history may also imply that the cycle of succession crises will begin anew, in emulation of Churchill’s (1948) statement in the House of Commons that ‘those that fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it’ (International Churchill Society, 2018). Thus one can argue that this victory for queer masculinity and love may ultimately be pyrrhic, as achieving it may lead to Benjamin’s ‘house of despair;’ a house full of stress, the necessity of hiding one’s own orientation and love which potentially leads to self-destruction upon the altar of the toxically masculine corporation, its gods and/or of capitalism itself. That said, because we do not know for certain what would have happened had the series continued, there is still the hope of an ultimate happy (ish) ending. It is to that which I turn in the third and final part of this blog.


Dr Melissa Beattie is a recovering Classicist who was awarded a PhD in Theatre, Film and TV Studies from Aberystwyth University where she studied Torchwood and national identity through fan/audience research as well as textual analysis. She has published and presented several papers relating to transnational television, audience research and/or national identity. She is currently an adjunct with Southern New Hampshire University and, as of August, will join the liberal arts faculty of Al Akhawayn University, Ifrane, Morocco as an assistant professor. She is under contract with Lexington for an academic book on fictitious countries and Palgrave for a book on Canadian crime dramas. She has previously worked at universities in the US, Korea, Pakistan, Armenia, Ethiopia and for a brief time in Cambodia. She can be contacted at tritogeneia@aol.com.



[1]     This is presumably where Classic Doctor Who serial The Romans initially developed the concept of the First Doctor giving Nero the idea for the Great Fire.

[2]     Most extant, contemporaneous sources about Nero were written under the rule (and order) of Vespasian, which began the Flavian dynasty after the Year of Four Emperors (68) which immediately followed Nero’s suicide. Vespasian’s use of propaganda to denigrate the Iulio-Claudians and to invent a pseudo-religious ‘destiny’ for himself can be read in Kendall’s choice to denigrate Logan’s memory (albeit through the selected use of facts) in the later part of series four.

[3]     ‘The Christianisation of the North, a process traditionally associated with the end of the Viking epoch…was a process which contributed to the integration of the Nordic periphereies into the Christian West’ (my translation).

[4]     The name ‘Odoacer,’ the Gothic king who is generally considered to have ended the Western Roman Empire by vanquishing Romulus Augustus and become subordinate to the Eastern Empire, is from the same root. Given that Roman Roy’s given name is Romulus, this can be relevant.

[5]     It may also be relevant that Pope Gregory VI seems to have been the first to conflate Mary Magdalene with another Biblical personage called Mary who was a prostitute; Greg is the one who told Tom in 1.10 that Shiv was cheating on him.

[6]     Given that Tom and Greg refer to themselves as the ‘disgusting brothers’ in series four to hide the queer aspects of their social relationship, one can read this as also prefiguring the end of the series as ‘disgusting’ is synonymous with ‘revolting’ in the sense of a peasant revolt.



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