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Succession Obsession

An orange haze of wildfire smoke blanketed the northeast last week and turned the sun red. The phenomenon, both beautiful and harrowing, is not new; folks on the West Coast have been dealing with it for years. But it brought a brand-new set of sights, smells and coughs for those of us who live near New York City. Driving home through the smoke conjured reminders about a world undergoing really big changes. Perhaps I am oversensitive to the latest round of climate and artificial intelligence apocalypticism because I am about to experience my first Father’s Day as a dad. Then again, one of my daughter’s favorite books to look at is titled “Climate Change for Babies.” I always knew that her future would be different from my past, but I am now starting to feel it.

What sort of world is going to come next? Some of that question gets tied up in the worries and anticipations of “succession.” (And, yes, this post eventually contains references to the finale of the HBO series of the same name. I won’t be offended if you decide to stop reading!) How will institutions and their leaders handle the massive and inevitable transitions around the corner? This is certainly the case for the Catholic Church. Any community or diocese awaiting the assignment of a new pastor knows a special brand of worry about change. With hope and God willing, Pope Francis will already be discharged from his latest visit to the hospital by the time anyone reads this blog post. According to all the reports I have seen, the Holy Father’s abdominal surgery went well and he will continue to make a steady recovery. Yet around the time he was hospitalized—on the same day wildfires in Canada choked my neighborhood—a good friend of mine raised a smart concern linking the future of the synod to the future of Francis. In a transnational and hierarchical organization like the Church, succession matters greatly. We need time in order for synodality to stick beyond the reign of Pope Francis. Given the fractured communication of our moment, we all still need more practice.

But I probably have “succession” on the brain thanks to the TV show. As I watched the series finale, I could not help but think about the show’s complexly Catholic sensibility, beyond the use of a church where I used to be a parishioner as a set piece. Let’s be clear: the über rich characters are not saintly heroes. But the finale displayed a gravitational pull of grace in a scene of raw, joyful and childlike play. I think it asks a hard question as to whether anyone stands fully outside the bounds of redemptive possibility, even those directly responsible for our world on fire. I’m not entirely sure the show’s creators or the show’s characters would agree with me. After each episode, there would be a behind the scenes piece with interviews and commentary that continually identified the genre of “Succession” as “tragedy.” Goals have been frustrated. Few get what they want.

As a scholar, I work on the intersection of drama and theology. The show’s absurdly dark and theatrical writing and scale are what drew me to like it so much. There are, of course, a number of interpretations of Jesus’ passion that see it as a tragedy redeemed with a happy ending: crucifixion leads to resurrection. As Dante understood so well, the genre of the Christian story is ultimately a comedy. “Succession’s” off-color humor does not, in and of itself, make its ending a happy one nor does it suggest resurrection. But I think “Succession” presents a terribly good understanding of the way grace sometimes surprises by delivering us from the evil we want to choose. That is, the loss of power might lead to something different. It might lead to more of the playful turning of expired detritus into a gross meal fit for a king. Such tragicomic communion is laughter rather than more consumption.

In the end, it’s not forgiving the wretchedness of the Roys and other billionaire sycophants (or the dispositions of a soul that enjoys such marvelously crass entertainment) that matters theologically. Atonement cannot pretend to be an erasure of wrongdoing or some hall pass to go and do wrong again. Succession means the project continues. The promise of reconciliation includes the commitment to go and sin no more. And if “Succession” succeeds in displaying something Catholic, it is in a relentless human freedom to change and play things otherwise than they have been, no matter how far gone the world seems to be or how entrenched our expectations.

Charles A. Gillespie is an assistant professor in the department of Catholic Studies and director of Pioneer Journey at Sacred Heart University.


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