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Cancel culture isn’t real if you’re rich enough, as ‘Succession’ makes clear

The show’s most overtly political episode yet offers insight into how upper-echelon conservatives have nothing to fear from the ‘woke mob.’

Cancel culture isn’t real if you’re rich enough, as ‘Succession’ makes clear
Justine Lupe and Alan Ruck in ‘Succession’ Season 3. [Photo: Macall B. Polay/HBO]

“Ms. Libtard, how do you like spelunking in the elephant’s asshole?”

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So asks Roman (Kieran Culkin), the youngest scion of Succession‘s Murdoch-inspired Roy clan. He addresses this query to his sister, Shiv (Sarah Snook), the family’s sole quasi-lefty, as she enters a pachydermal aperture of conservative power brokers and power seekers. The bulk of the recent episode “What It Takes” unfolds within this sinister conclave, taking viewers spelunking alongside Shiv through the dark heart of modern politics, revealing—among other things—what elites truly think of cancel culture.

The elephant’s a-hole is actually the Future Freedom Summit, a fictional gathering in Virginia where shady forces will choose the next GOP presidential candidate. Although the decision may be partly informed by overall attendee vibes, it will be decided by Logan Roy (Brian Cox), embattled head of the show’s News Corp-like media empire, and mega-donor Ron Petkus (Stephen Root), who founded the event.

As Shiv’s husband Tom Wambsgans (Matthew Macfadyen) notes, this is “a nice safe space where you don’t have to pretend to like Hamilton.” Something is amiss with this description, though, beyond the fact that people stopped pretending to like Hamilton years ago. It’s the universal truth that if one is insulated by enough money and power, just about any space is safe. Petkus demonstrates this dynamic by brazenly hitting on Willa (Justine Lupe), reluctant partner of the dullest Roy kid, Connor (Alan Ruck), right in front of Connor.

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First, Petkus compliments Willa’s beauty and brains, before adding that he probably shouldn’t say such things. What with the climate and all. “Will I be canceled?” he wonders aloud with a grin. Willa assures him, uncomfortably, that he will not. When Petkus then invites her to his Westchester estate a moment later, and refers to her as a gorgeous creature, Connor, who is seeking a favor, calls back Petkus’ earlier joke. He points toward the wealthy lech, reflecting his knowing grin, and pronounces him cancelled.

Hardy har!

The constant drumbeat from Ted Cruz and Donald Trump Jr. about the imminent threat of cancel culture often feels like just as much a winking in-joke, in the guise of fearmongering. Unfortunately, 64% of Americans take it dead seriously.

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Part of the reason Succession’s portrait of cancel culture panic has bite is because one of its main characters has pivoted, this season, into social-justice warrior territory. Roy family black sheep Kendall (Jeremy Strong) is a stark example of the disingenuous empty vessel many conservatives suspect all libs embody. Kendall is briefly conferenced into the Future Freedom Summit, where he is not invited, and takes verbal shots at his sister, Shiv, for compromising her supposed values by attending. His smarm is paradoxical. Woke Kendall may have a rainbow coalition of hyper-competent women on his staff, while the thought of anyone but a straight white male president is not for one second considered by the ghouls at the Summit, but that doesn’t make him a better person. He’s just wearing a new set of values like a costume. His virtue signaling, though, is the ideological mirror of anyone pretending that the gravest threat to America is cancel culture.

Kendall is far from the only hypocrite on hand. Everyone on the show is a hypocrite, in one way or another. Dave Boyer (Reed Birney), the Vice President hoping to weasel his way into a Logan endorsement, declares the GOP the party of the working class. “The Democrats and Tech hold all the wealth,” he says, with zero trace of irony, while standing in a dragon’s den of unimaginable capital.

Tom, meanwhile, turns out to be more of a lib caricature in private than he lets on with his Hamilton-hating public persona. He and Shiv are revealed, in this episode, as nascent vineyard owners. In their scant downtime, they try to snob out with a mini-wine tasting—all dainty swirls and sniffs—but the fruit of their non-labor turns out to be too gross to properly compliment.

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Perhaps the most fascinating hypocrite in this episode, though, is Jeryd Mencken (Justin Kirk). One of the potential presidential candidates on hand, Mencken is, as Shiv describes him, a “YouTube provocateur” and “aristo-populist” who talks about “burning Korans and licensing press credentials.” He represents the kind of person libs actually would like to deplatform/keep out of power/warn people about, which is what cancelling generally amounts to, rather than the conservative interpretation, essentially a death sentence. In a rather unsubtle note, his name is borrowed from early-20th century journalist H.L. Mencken, who once wrote, “The most dangerous man to any government is the man who is able to think things out for himself, without regard to the prevailing superstitions and taboos.”

By this definition, or any other, Mencken is a very dangerous man.

At the Freedom Summit, he immediately hits it off with Roman (Kieran Culkin), the most unapologetically gross Roy sibling. Roman rolls with Mencken’s joke about sending people to the gulags. (“Well, isn’t this nice,” he says. “A couple cool guys having some disgusting fun.”) But he can only flick at Mencken’s actual beliefs in public—even if it is, as Tom Wambsgans said, a safe space.

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Later, though, within the luxe Roy family private suite, Roman floats Mencken as the horse to back. Predictably, Shiv is the only one in the room left aghast by the idea. She worries aloud about Mencken “whispering swastikas” in her father’s ear, which Roman immediately pounces on. If there’s one thing morally neutral people hate, it’s when Chicken Littles defame budding fascists by pointing out where that track historically leads. (“Route one,” he calls it, with an eye roll.)

The climax of the episode is a charged tête-à-tête between Roman and Mencken in the bathroom of Logan’s suite. Finally alone, the simpatico pair breaks cancel culture “kayfabe,” getting down to the particulars of Mencken’s beliefs.

“Fascists are kind of cool, but not really,” Roman says. “So, is that, like, a problem?”

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In another unsubtle touch, he starts deep-scrubbing his hands at the start of the conversation, and remains doing so for its duration.

As it turns out, Mencken is a Tucker Carlson-style white nationalist, the kind who is merely worried that integrating “new elements” into the American bloodstream too fast will “fundamentally alter its composition.” He also admits he is willing to borrow ideas from absolutely anyone, including Travis Bickle, the fictional vigilante Robert De Niro portrays in Taxi Driver, or, more troublingly, “H.”

Even in this ultimate safe space within a safe space, Mencken still feels the need to partially self-censor. He leaves himself the tiniest fig leaf of plausible deniability around whether he just quietly endorsed Hitler, lest it rub Roman the wrong way. He needn’t have bothered, though.

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This is the show’s death blow to the cancel culture conversation. Although Shiv ended up being right about Mencken’s proximity to Nazism—her “Chicken Little-ing” that Roman dismissed proven utterly valid—it doesn’t matter. Those concerns are rendered moot by the pull of business. Rather than withdraw any potential support for Mencken upon proof of his racism, the Roy family instead anoint him as Logan’s presidential pick.

Things tend to work out this way in real life too. How are we even having a protracted conversation about cancel culture when Tucker Carlson is on TV every night, talking Great Replacement Theory right out in the open to one of the world’s largest audiences, and Donald Trump remained president for his entire term? Although the average citizen might still end up in trouble for being too fascist/sexist/whatever-ist too loudly, with enough money and media support, anyone can be just as insulated from so-called cancellation as Logan, Petkus, or Mencken.

Anyone who says otherwise is just Chicken Little-ing.

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