Can you feel bad for billionaires? 'Succession' fans and 'empathy scholars' weigh in
HBO's "Succession" is centered on an aging media mogul who is deciding which of his four (but practically speaking, three) offspring will inherit his billion-dollar media empire.
Throughout its three and a half seasons, the show has meandered through a number of morally dubious situations in which only the ultra-rich could find themselves.
The list of deplorable acts carried out by the Roy family is lengthy: blackmailing, covering up sexual assaults, murder. Most of them face zero consequences outside their own shame or guilt.
With what we know about the Roy family and the people who orbit them, one might find it hard to muster any compassion for these characters. But fans and experts say the show can, in fact, inspire some empathy.
Brian Cox, who plays Logan Roy, says he has some understanding for the privileged yet tortured family. "I have empathy, but not sympathy," he told the New York Times.
'There is this pathetic powerlessness about them'
Rachel Godsil is a professor at Rutgers Law School and the co-founder of the Perception Institute, a research lab that focuses on how to use empathy to decrease discrimination. To her, the Roys' socioeconomic status adds a layer of irony to their struggle.
"There is this pathetic powerlessness about them, despite their wealth," she says. "They are often disrespected within their units. They are these weirdly powerless anti-heroes, but they have lots of money and power."
Raymond A. Mar, a psychology professor at York University, studies how fictional characters affect real-world cognition and emotions. To him, their socioeconomic class is totally irrelevant. "In some ways, you can say the setting isn't that important, aside from it being exotic," he says.
In some ways, you can say the setting isn't that important, aside from it being exotic.Raymond Marpsychology professor at York University
You may empathize with Kendall or Roman in the same way you empathize with "fantasy characters like dwarves or elves," he says.
He doesn't believe the show will inspire empathy for the ultra-wealthy, but it could for some of the struggles the Roy family has.
"It's possible that somebody could have more empathy for people who have really toxic family dynamics," he says. "Maybe you know someone and they complain about their family all the time and you think they are overblowing it and then you watch 'Succession,' and you say, 'Oh yeah, that would mess you up.'"
"That seems more likely than having empathy for a category of people who are so rare and despicable in obvious ways," he says.
'I shouldn't have empathy for them, but I feel like do'
For "Succession" fans, the Roys' wealth is a mental hurdle, but not an insurmountable one. "I always feel like I shouldn't have empathy for them, but I feel like I do," says Chase Shiflet, 30, who watches from St. Louis, Missouri.
The cage match-like family dynamic injects some humanity into the character's more unforgivable decisions.
"To me, they are all as empathetic as each other," Shiflet says. "I can see where their anger at the world and their inability to be happy and satisfied with anything is possible because of their relationship with both their parents, actually."
But understanding the Roys, Shiflet says, doesn't make them any more likable to him. "I think two things can be true: Characters can have bad pasts and those bad pasts can inform the people they are now, and the people they are now can be abysmal."
I can see where their anger at the world and their inability to be happy and satisfied with anything is possible because of their relationship with both their parents.Chase Shiflet'Succession' fan
Mandy Weiss, 34, can conjure empathy for all the characters, including some of the more peripheral ones.
"Even Connor's wife Willa, I have empathy for getting into a transactional relationship in order to have that support to pursue her dream or a better life," says Weiss, who watches from Brooklyn, New York.
The key player who she feels deserves the most empathy, though, is Roman.
"On the surface, Roman comes off as the most dishonorable, with his nude photos to Geri and his all round crass comments, but I actually think he holds the strongest moral compass," she says. "His pursuits are the least selfish of the siblings. To me, that makes anything that happens to Roman more tragic, despite his extreme privilege in life."
Her sentiment is seemingly common among viewers: "Clearly there are a lot of unresolved parent, daddy issues," Shiflet says.
Emily Kling, 29, who watches from New York City, has felt empathy for most characters since the beginning of the show. That doesn't diminish her ability to laugh at them, though.
"Connor, by showing the ways in which he has become a punchline within his family because he is the only child that has managed to psychologically separate from the toxicity in his family and that separation could only happen because he accepted his father doesn't love him. That's heart-wrenching," Kling says. "But is it funny when someone like Connor is yelling, 'The butter is not spreadable!?' Yes."
Viewers don't necessarily feel bad for all the characters, though.
"I don't feel a profound amount of empathy for Greg," Kling says. "I feel like finding empathy for Greg is an exercise in finding empathy." You really have to try.
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