Succession and Sins of the Father
How should we interpret the biblical notion of the “sins of the father,” as found in Exodus 34? Over four seasons, HBO’s Succession has shed light on this question.
Succession is not the first HBO show to explore the devastating effects caused by a manipulative and domineering father (see Tywin Lannister of Game of Thrones and Tony Soprano of The Sopranos). It has, however, been the most comprehensive. The series chronicles the Roy family, headed by patriarch Logan Roy (Brian Cox), who has full control over the Waystar Royco conglomerate. A vast empire with its hands shaping every aspect of culture and politics, Waystar is spearheaded by ATN, the nation’s leading conservative news outlet.
Although Logan’s health deteriorates over the course of the series, he delays naming a successor, using the postponement to ruthlessly pit his children against one another. He manipulates their emotions and bends their desires to his will, ensuring his own dominance every step of the way. Logan’s four children—Kendall (Jeremy Strong), Siobhan (Sarah Snook), Roman (Kieran Culkin), and Connor (Alan Ruck)—are caught in their father’s tortuous whirlwind. From failed marriages to crumpled self-esteem to deviant sexual disorders, there isn’t an area of their lives that hasn’t been damaged by Logan’s cold-hearted influence. It’s a portrayal of the “family curse” in Exodus 34 as the result of neglect and abuse.
Logan’s eldest son, Kendall, has repeatedly endured the brunt of his father’s condemnation. His deeply ingrained insecurities have caused him to cycle in and out of drug and alcohol rehabilitation, ruined his marriage, and rendered him a distant father to his own children. At the start of a recent episode in Season 4, Kendall meets his ex-wife, Rava (Natalie Gold), to discuss a situation with their daughter. When the conversation turns ugly, she tells Kendall that he is an absentee father. The shaky handheld camera zooms in on Kendall as he seethes in response: “What kind of parent do you think I am? You have no idea the things I'm doing. . . . I'm breaking my back, and it's all for [my family].” The opening credits roll and Succession’s wildly intoxicating and ominous theme song plays. It’s chilling. We harken back to an episode in Season 1 when the Roy family are in a group therapy session and Logan egregiously claims, “Everything I’ve done in my life, I’ve done for my children.” The family “curse” continues.
Succession is a portrayal of the “family curse” in Exodus 34.
We’ve seen similar family dynamics play out in the Old Testament, especially in the life and legacy of King David. We know of King David’s humble beginnings and his courageous slaying of Goliath when he was merely a shepherd boy. We learn of his meteoric rise to kingship, as someone after God’s own heart. Yet David was no saint, as evidenced by his rape of Bathsheba and his murder of her husband Uriah. What’s more, such brokenness trickled down through David’s family; succession in his house is its own miserable tale of sibling rivalry and familial heartbreak. Amnon, David’s first son, was killed by Absalom, his third son. Absalom was then killed after a failed attempt to usurp David’s throne, which uncoincidentally was also the same manner of death for his fourth son, Adonijah. In short, there is no happily-ever-after for David’s family. The parallels to Succession are nearly identical. Like the Roy children, David’s successors inherited a ruthlessness from their father that destroys. It’s a predictable pattern.
Succession has hit a nerve with audiences; paternal heartache is a common denominator across demographics. A friend of mine, also a Korean-American pastor in his mid-40s, cannot watch the show, confessing that Logan Roy reminds him too much of his own narcissistic-workaholic father. “I tried watching the first season but couldn’t get through it. It was just too painful,” he told me.
But there is plenty of space for the gospel to fill the vacuum left by a distant father. I recall Marc Maron, on his podcast WTF with Marc Maron, saying it took him a long time to recover from the parental abuse he suffered as a child, eventually realizing that his parents were “just two [expletives] who decided to have children.” Maron speaks to our total depravity, a depravity which decentralizes the massive hold over our lives by our earthly fathers. If we can realize that our fathers are broken men—who have likely been broken, in part, by their own fathers—an avenue opens. We see that God remedies us through his own succession plan: Jesus Christ, God’s own son, who “did not consider equality with God something to be grasped.”
Chris is the incarnate reversal of the Exodus 34 curse. There, we are told that the iniquity of the father will be visited to the “the children and their children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation.” A Christological reading of this passage points to Jesus, the descendant of David who relinquished his own succession rights so that they are instead imputed to us beyond the third and fourth generations . . . in perpetuity. Amidst the depravity of our earthly fathers, through Christ as vicar we hear the decree of God, our father in heaven, saying: “This is my son, this is my daughter. Everything I’ve done, I’ve done for them.”
More chills—only this time, chills of affirmation and comfort.