The Voice of Bates College Since 1873

The Bates Student

The Voice of Bates College Since 1873

The Bates Student

The Voice of Bates College Since 1873

The Bates Student

OPINION | What “Succession” Teaches Us About the American Dream

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This story contains spoilers for season four of “Succession.” 

The seemingly endless slog of awards season has made me think more about the highly acclaimed HBO series “Succession,” whose final season is swallowing up the lion’s share of Emmys and Golden Globes. It has also reminded me of the well-worn cliché that art imitates life — and vice versa. Because far from being a show about sibling rivalry, family trauma and cutthroat capitalism, “Succession” is an artwork that forces us to confront our society’s deepest mythologies about social class, national character and the pursuit of the good life. 

In particular, “Succession” has much to tell us about the American Dream. If you think of America’s national identity, chances are that you’ll start with the American Dream. This is the myth of upward social mobility, equal opportunity and hard work that is central to our collective American story of who we are and why we matter. From early childhood, multiple influence peddlers and cultural products — from 19th-century author Horatio Alger’s best-selling “rags to riches” stories to the pedagogy of our primary school teachers — hammer this intoxicating mélange of material success, social climbing, proper work ethics and American exceptionalism deep into our national psyche. 

Through this cultural conditioning, we have naturalized the premises of the American Dream. It is the lens through which we view our lives and the yardstick with which we measure success. The American Dream tells us that our country is the “land of opportunity.” It is a place where the “common man” can succeed and where each generation will get richer, smarter and healthier than the previous one. If we work “hard enough,” the American Dream assures our success on both an individual and a national level.

The American Dream, however, is becoming — or maybe always has been — a bright, shining and seductive lie. The upward social mobility that it promises is increasingly unattainable for the children of the middle and lower classes. American children born into poverty are trapped in that poverty — no matter how hard they work. Far from being a limitless “land of opportunity,” our country hosts a range of structural factors — such as predatory policing, discriminatory laws, dysfunctional public schools and environmental racism — that systematically subvert the prospects of the underprivileged. Instead of empowering them and accelerating their social ascent, these barriers prevent many Americans from achieving the American Dream that they believed was their birthright.

The America of my generation does not operate according to the American Dream of Horatio Alger’s didactic stories. Instead, it feels like a nightmarish version of “Succession” brought to life. 

Loosely modeled on the family machinations of Rupert Murdoch and his children, “Succession” is the Machiavellian story of a super-rich family and its toxic pursuit of corporate power and personal enrichment. By showing us how success is really achieved and measured in today’s America, “Succession” presents a sobering counterpoint to our nationalist myth of the American Dream. 

Far from a land of equal opportunity and promise, the America of “Succession” is a place where power, income, opportunity and status are clustered at the pinnacle of an ever-growing income gap. Far from being a game of equals, “Succession” shows us that the super-rich have overwhelming advantages in the struggle for success, career advancement and material prosperity. Instead of being a Jeffersonian democracy, the America of “Succession” is an oligarchy where the rich live by their own rules and use their control of the mass media to dictate political, economic and environmental policies that benefit their bottom line and family power — often at the expense of the rest of society.

You can argue that Tom Wambsgans — who wins the battle for succession — is an embodiment of the classic American Dream. Tom, however, is not the personification of Alger’s “rags to riches” ideal. Instead, he represents the triumph of the American nightmare. Tom rises to the top of the corporate food chain through marriage ties and cronyism — not through his superior work ethic, professional competence or self-improvement. In short, Tom teaches us that normal folks actually cannot pull themselves up by their bootstraps and become CEOs of Fortune 500 companies. To follow in Tom’s footsteps, ordinary Americans need to become spineless sycophants and opportunistic backstabbers. 

Whether it’s calling the U.S. presidential election for a fascist, shaming victims of sexual harassment or rolling around on the floor and fighting for a sausage, Tom is willing to do anything to be a member of the rich elite — no matter how depraved or humiliating. The kicker is that Tom — despite his sadistic torturing of vulnerable employees — ultimately has no real power of his own. He is CEO in name only. To reap the rewards of his relentless careerism, Tom is reduced to the status of social media tycoon Lukas Mattson’s personal puppet — a nightmarish blow to the overweening pride and fragile ego of this social climber. 

Unlike the stereotypes of the American Dream, “Succession” demonstrates that the key to success is not hard work. It is being born into — or marrying into — a wealthy and privileged family. In short, “Succession” represents the death of the American Dream. While it is the antidote to Horatio Alger’s naïve myth spinning, it is also, unfortunately, the cautionary tale of the real America in which we must all try to make our way.

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About the Contributor
Lena LaPierre, Assistant Forum Editor
Lena is a sophomore from Hattiesburg, MS, majoring in History with a minor in Russian. When she is not busy writing essays or memorizing Russian grammar rules, Lena can be found reading, volunteering with College Guild and exploring Maine with her friends. Previously, Lena was a contributing writer for The Bates Student.

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