HBO’s Succession and the Sinister, Searing Appeal of Brian Cox
The star of HBO’s blistering family melodrama is what makes the show work.
I remember the first time that I saw the actor Brian Cox in a film. It was 2003, and I was watching X2, in which he plays the villain William Stryker, a cruel but brilliant man who has masterminded a plan to bring about the end of all mutants in the world.
From the moment he appeared on the screen, I couldn’t take my eyes off of him. There was just something, searing and intense about the way he brought this character to light. Watching him, you could believe that this was indeed a man who would put his own son’s mutant abilities to work to bring his own plan to fruition, who was willing to sacrifice that son’s life and well-being for his own designs. Though he was supposed to be the villain, there was no question that he was one of those people who, just by their presence, seems to command every eye.
A year later, I saw him in Troy, and while many found the film lacking, there was no question in my mind at least that Cox became Agamemnon for me. Full of all the bluster and pride and cunning cruelty that the role called for, Cox simply was Agamemnon. Ever since then when I think of the king of Mycenae it is Brian Cox’ s face that I see.
Fast forward 17 years, and I’ve started watching Succession, in which Cox plays Logan Roy, a megalomaniacal patriarch of a huge, sprawling media company. Through two seasons, Roy continues to pit each of his children against one another, even while having to contend with the encroaching weakness of his own body, which repeatedly threatens to undo him at every turn.
Through it all, Cox manages to imbue Logan with a visceral intensity that speaks of his training as a Shakespearean actor. Indeed, in many ways his Logan Roy is Lear for the modern age. The magic and the power of Cox’s performance is that he manages to imbue his character with just the right mix of reprehensibility and charisma. He invites us to look on Logan with disgust and dismay as he manipulates his children in his efforts to find the perfect heir to his vast empire, even as we also cannot look away from him. Every time that he enters the frame, every eye (both diegetically and otherwise, is drawn to him).
It’s sometimes said that contemporary Hollywood doesn’t have stars in the same way as it used to, but I think that Brian Cox is one of them. For one thing, he’s managed to accrue a significant number of screen credits, enough that he has come to secure a certain type for himself without being totally circumscribed or limited by it. For another, it also helps that he has been in a number of Shakespeare productions (including a turn as King Lear). As a result, he has a command of his body that few other actors have.
In fact, there is much about his body that is also layered with all sorts of meaning. His body reads as that of a man heading into his senior years, a bit thick around the middle, though he moves with an assurance that belies his girth. His slightly scarred cheeks speak of a humble background (as they do for another great actor from the British Isles, one Richard Burton). They give his face a stern visage like a weathered king, a monument from an earlier age that is determined to leave the world on his own terms.
Cox brings these formidable talents to bear as Logan Roy, who bristles with menace from the moment that he appears in Succession. He’s a man who has built his company from the ground up, ruthlessly quashing anyone who has gotten in his way (it’s strongly hinted that he did something similar to his brother Ewan, played by another great actor: James Cromwell). It might be going too far to say that Logan Roy is a psychopath, but he’s not too far away from it, either.
And yet, for all of his bluff power, there is also something incredibly sly about Logan, as there is with so many of Cox’s characters, a sense that behind that exterior there is a subtle mind full of cunning designs. (For the record, I haven’t seen Manhunter, in which he plays none other than Hannibal Lecter). Thus, throughout the series we see the way that he manipulates all around him, from the highest to the lowest, all in an effort to make sure that he can hand his company into someone that both deserves and is capable of carrying it into the next generation. The series leaves us with the impression that Logan, fo better and worse, really is the only person in the room who seems to know what’s going on.
Given how well Succession uses Cox, there are times when it does seem as if he is just blazing so brightly, as both a character and a star, that he threatens to overshadow everyone else. And yet, that is precisely the point (or one of the points) that Succession wants to make about a man like Logan Roy. His ego is so great that it is truly difficult for him to imagine that anyone, even one of his brood of children, could ever truly step into his shoes. Thus, again and again we see him raise up each of his three children by his second wife — Kendall, Shiv, and Roman — promising them power and influence in the company, only to send them plunging downward again. So powerful is his gravitational pull that is like the human embodiment of fortune’s fickle wheel.
Though I very much enjoy Succession and the various twistings and turnings of its soap opera plot, I have to admit that it’s Brian Cox that I keep coming back to see. I yearn to learn just a little bit more about this character, but each time we get a new episode there are more layers revealed. There’s still so much that we don’t know about Logan Roy, so much hidden menace that lurks beneath the surface, just waiting for the right opportunity to come bubbling up to the surface in a torrent of rage.
There is a great deal to enjoy about this new HBO show, though it is worth pointing out that, in terms of its narrative and its focus on family dynamics and squabbling, it is basically a soap opera. One can’t help but think that it’s only the fact that it appears on HBO — famous for its attempts to distance itself from the supposedly low-brow associations of “television” — that keeps it from being dubbed a soap. However, one can’t help but think that it is also due in part to Cox’s ability to elevate the material around him.
The mark of a true star, indeed.