Succession season 3, episode 5: trauma response and the Roy kids

Pay attention to who says “uh-huh” on Succession. Those are the weightiest two syllables in the entire show.

That might sound a bit silly, but “uh-huh” functions as a kind of stealth reflection of Succession’s power dynamics. Logan Roy (Brian Cox) says those two syllables all the time as a way to fill space in conversations where literally anything more loquacious might go, and Cox’s very specific cadence in how he says “uh-huh” ripples throughout the rest of the cast. The more loyal a character is to Logan Roy, the more likely they are to say “uh-huh” in that specific cadence as a conversation stopgap.

Succession’s third season has been particularly illustrative in terms of how the show deploys “uh-huh.” The more Kendall (Jeremy Strong) has fallen out of his father’s orbit, the less he’s said “uh-huh.” And the more Shiv (Sarah Snook), Roman (Kieran Culkin), and Gerri (J. Smith-Cameron) vie for Logan’s attention, the more they say “uh-huh.” The more someone has Logan on their mind, the more they speak like him.

“Uh-huh” is also notable as a way to give a response without actually saying anything. Taken as a unit, “uh-huh” can mean “sure” or “okay” or “yes,” but it doesn’t carry much weight beyond that. It allows someone to speak without speaking, to smooth over what might be difficult but necessary to say. The more the Roy family doesn’t talk about its demons — many of them propagated by Logan — the more it falls back on “uh-huh.”

Logan Roy exerts a gravitational pull on all of the characters in Succession. I’ve argued in the past that this pull is rooted in the show’s portrayal of abusive family dynamics, with Logan as the baddest dad of them all. And in season three, the show is finding new, more potent territory to explore within those abusive dynamics. The result can be as simple as a character saying “uh-huh,” or it can be as fascinating and as savvy as the way “Retired Janitors of Idaho,” the fifth episode of season three, portrays extremely common responses to abuse.

The four F’s of trauma and stress responses — flight, fight, freeze, fawn — and the four Roy kids

Several characters listen to Logan rant.

Logan’s outbursts are always something the characters of Succession will have to deal with.
HBO

You have surely heard of the “fight or flight” instinct. The idea is that humans are the same as any other animal and will either lash out or take off if we find ourselves in a situation where we feel threatened. For people who struggle with PTSD, these fight or flight instincts can sometimes become essentially hard-coded as responses to the world at large, triggered by seemingly mundane events. (A famous example: the war veteran who curls into a defensive crouch when they hear fireworks.)

But beyond “fight” and “flight,” two other major responses to triggering events exist: freeze and fawn. Freeze is hopefully self-explanatory — someone encounters a perceived threat, and instead of fighting back or running away, they simply freeze up, as if hoping they won’t be noticed. Fawn is harder to immediately understand, but once you learn that it typically emerges as a response to childhood trauma, usually abuse, it makes more sense. The “fawn” response manifests in an attempt by someone who feels threatened to placate the threat in question; this response often arises in situations with abusive parents.

“Fight, flight, freeze, and fawn” are sometimes called the four F’s of trauma or stress responses. What’s fascinating about this breakdown in Succession terms is that there are also four Roy siblings, and each one of them corresponds to a different F almost exactly. You can trace the siblings’ individual F responses across the run of the show, but they’re especially visible in “Retired Janitors of Idaho.”

Succession is fond of using wide shots to focus on a couple of characters exchanging dialogue in the foreground, while other characters are doing something else in the background.

For instance, here’s a blurry Roman Roy, hanging out in the background of a scene that is focused on something else:

The Waystar-Royco team celebrates their deal as Roman lurks.

Roman is in the extreme background by the window. (Also, in the episode, Shiv crosses from talking to Roman in order to talk to her dad, which draws your eye to Roman’s position subtly.)
HBO

Why is Roman there? Well, when Logan yells at Shiv, who just closed a deal to keep Waystar-Royco in the Roy family’s clutches but had to go over the head of her ill and incapacitated father to do so, we can see Roman do this:

Logan dresses down Shiv.

Roman freezes up as Logan dresses down Shiv. Note that earlier, he was looking at the action, and now he’s looking down and away.
HBO

Then there’s Roman. Again, he’s out of focus in the background, so it might be easy to miss, but you can see him freezing up, looking anywhere but at the action, hoping not to draw any attention to himself, even though he’s standing some distance from his father and sister. And if you go looking for Roman freezing up, deer in the headlights, when somebody else is bearing the brunt of Logan’s ire, you’ll find plenty of other examples throughout the run of the show — including in this very episode:

Roman makes a cringey face.

Roman cringes after his dad has an outburst about an imaginary dead cat. (Trust me; it makes sense in the moment.) This scene is played more for comedy than the other scene discussed here, but Roman’s reaction is similar.
HBO

There he is, in the foreground, looking like he’s trying to be as inconspicuous as possible, after one of Logan’s outbursts.

The more you notice Roman freezing up in the face of his father’s temper, the more you’ll start to notice his siblings exemplifying the other F’s. The eldest Roy sibling Connor (Alan Ruck) is not a character we know very well, but that might be because he’s always got some reason or another (a presidential campaign, a Broadway show, etc.) to just not be around, as if he’s in flight. Even when he advocates for himself to become the head of Waystar’s European cable division — a role he then lands because Logan mostly wants him out of the way — that “promotion” acts as an example of Connor leaving the scene.

Kendall, meanwhile, takes and takes and takes his father’s abuse, but eventually, he gets frustrated and fights back, as he’s been doing all season. He’s the most ineffectual of his siblings in this episode, but there are still a few moments where his “fight” impulse engages: when he enters the family’s suite and tries to bully them into holding everything together, for example, or when he gets onstage to read the names of the victims of the cruise line scandal that’s plaguing the company. Kendall likes to make himself the biggest, easiest target — a fairly classic “fight” response that can also be attuned to protecting younger siblings.

That leaves Shiv, who spends all of “Retired Janitors of Idaho” working her own angles but also trying to reassure her dad that he’s just the best. She’s fawning, in other words. The outburst that provokes Roman’s out-of-focus background freeze-up is directed at Shiv, when she’s trying to tell Logan that her successful negotiations count as a win for him. (He refuses to let his children have a win, ever.) When he blows up at her, she immediately tries to play everything off as no big deal. She’s trying to deflect conflict, to placate his ego, to stay alive.

But Shiv is stuck in her father’s orbit all the same. Even as she tries to chart her own course within it, well … it’s his orbit. After all, look at what Shiv says earlier in the episode, when she is talking to her semi-estranged brother Kendall:

Shiv talks to Kendall on the phone.

Shiv also says “uh-huh” in a later scene, while talking to her dad. In that scene, you hear her say it over a shot of her dad.
HBO

No one person always relies on one of the four F’s to the exclusion of all others. You might fight back in one scenario and freeze up in another. Roman, for instance, tends to freeze up when Logan gets angry and fawn over him much of the rest of the time.

But it’s not uncommon for anyone to lean on one of these responses more frequently, and the more we look at the four Roy siblings, the more it seems like the show has tied each of them to a very specific F response to trauma.

How Succession’s love of wide shots helps it tell stories about the ways families destroy each other

Gerri walks with purpose at the shareholders meeting.

I just think this is a very beautiful shot. Look at the light!
HBO

Succession tends to pepper its episodes with more wide shots than you’d typically see on even the most prestigious TV dramas. Wide shots take time to set up, which means they can be expensive, and it’s rare for a series to use them for much more than establishing where everyone is in physical proximity to each other.

As such, most TV shows find ways to use other shots that are more actor-friendly, such as close-ups and mid-shots. To point to the example above, Kieran Culkin is one of the stars of Succession and a terrific actor, yet you can only just make out his emotional reactions in the background of those scenes. A close-up would make those reactions more prominent, more immediate. So why the wide shot?

Succession loves to pull back the camera whenever it can. It tends to alternate between wide shots and close-ups. (This is not to say that mid-shots are nonexistent on the show, but even in a medium shot, it crams as many actors into the frame as it can.) And its use of wide shots is crucial to its storytelling about abuse.

Abuse within a family never just involves any one relationship, even if it is only occurring between two family members. The emotional ramifications, the secrets, and the guilt spread outward to everybody else in the family and often others who are in close proximity to the family. So when Succession uses wide shots as it does in “Retired Janitors of Idaho,” it’s finding a way to show that toxicity spreading outward from its source.

Similar wide shots are scattered throughout the show’s run, and usually, when there’s an abusive moment, it’s captured either in a wide shot or in a close-up that immediately cuts to a wide shot, so we can see everyone’s reactions in one go. Many other TV series would cut between the actors individually, so we could see, say, Roman tense up, and Shiv offer a sly smile, and Greg look away. Succession gives us all of those reactions at once because the show’s point is that these moments aren’t discrete events, experienced in isolation. They’re events that disperse through families.

Watching Succession often brings to mind 1939’s The Rules of the Game, the classic French film by director Jean Renoir. That movie, one of the most influential ever made, dissects the intricate relationships that unwind among a group of upper-class socialites and the servants who work at the country house they’ve all gathered at. World War II is on the horizon, and none of the house’s inhabitants are all that well prepared for the coming devastation. (Though the film was made before France fell to the Nazis in 1940, The Rules of the Game seems eerily prophetic about what’s to come.)

Renoir also uses a lot of wide shots. He pulls the camera back from his actors, moving it to follow them as they enter and exit the frame. The wide shots almost resemble a stage play, but because Renoir moves his camera so often, you never think of the action as being restricted to a stage. This technique is simply the best fit for the story: All of these characters are trapped together in a world that’s going to hell, and The Rules of the Game is not about what happens to any one of them, but what happens to all of them collectively.

You can hopefully see why I find The Rules of the Game to be a useful comparison point for Succession. I think it’s also worth noting that while I find myself tracing the way that Succession’s filmmaking techniques chart its storytelling around abuse, the wide shots in both Succession and The Rules of the Game are telling stories simultaneously about wealth inequality, class disparity, and unsustainable systems within our society.

After all, Succession’s wide shots often capture the random other people who end up trapped in a room with the Roys, forced to watch them play out their elaborate psychodramas. And most of the time, those other people are nowhere near as rich as the Roys, because who possibly could be? Their reactions to what the Roys say and do serve to deepen our understanding of the family’s many dysfunctions.

But I think the most important effect of those wide shots is to convey the contagious toxicity of abuse, the way that one action will propagate others. Succession has dropped hints here and there that Logan’s childhood was terribly abusive (there’s a shot of his back in season one, and it’s covered in scars), and it has shown Logan hit both his grandchild (in a season one episode) and Roman (in a season two episode). And what sets the show apart isn’t the act of abuse itself, but the look at how this family reacts or doesn’t. Abuse is never one thing, and Succession understands that.

Every action in an ecosystem as self-contained as a family, or a major corporation’s C-suite, will ripple outward. Even positive actions will send waves sloshing back and forth. Whether those waves are as weighty as a legacy of abuse or as relatively simple as the phrase “uh-huh,” they can easily keep going until everything is flooded and there’s no easy way to clean up the mess.

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