Succession’s Bathrooms: Clean-Ups, Bodily Fluids, and the Impossibility of Feeling Better
This article contains a few character spoilers, but it’s safe to read if you haven’t seen the show.
We zoom in on Kendall Roy as he enters an all-white, wood-panelled bathroom. On a glass shelf above the sink stands a container of cotton swabs, a tray of paper towels and a vase of white lilies. Without acknowledging his reflection, Kendall fumbles over the objects, takes a couple of cotton swabs and snaps them. The Succession theme music enters with its dark, motoring strings; he takes a handful, breaks them all, grabs the whole box and throws it against the wall. His actions escalate: he tips a box of what looks like potpourri on the floor, stamps on it, screams into the pyjamas hanging on the back of the door, and beats a hairdryer into a chest of drawers. He rips up a pile of magazines, partly with his mouth. Then after a beat, he grabs the waste paper basket under the sink and begins to clean his mess up into it, hairdryer included. Crouching on the floor, he pauses as he finds a shred of his own Forbes magazine cover (‘The heir with the flair’), and continues cleaning. He replaces a clothes hanger on the back of the door and sweeps up the rest of the debris with a comb. Checking the room, he slips out.
Succession (HBO, 2018) is laden with scenes like this: acts of emotional offloading and reloading. The series follows the Roy family as they attempt to manage their father’s media conglomerate; its high-pressure drama is interspersed with absurd comedy, and plays out in some of the most opulent TV locations I’ve ever seen. One recurrent setting is the dining table. This functions as a lavishly decorated display of the Roys’ wealth, and as a microcosm for the company hierarchy (with patriarch Logan Roy at its head). But what interests me about Succession is its flirtation with the underbelly of the dining table: in particular, those scenes that play out in the bathroom.
A kind of liminal-zone par excellence, a room for cleaning and freshening up, the bathroom is often where the characters rehearse their corporate performances. It’s striking to see the members of this elite world ー one of glassy, gilded apartments dressed by employees ー re-adjusting their own façades within the bathroom’s mirrored walls. There’s a fruitful analogy to be drawn here between acts of personal hygiene and corporate clean-ups, which are undoubtedly one of the driving plot-points of the show. But then, the presence and visibility of the underside of façade in Succession troubles the idea of façade altogether. (In fact, the whole show is permeated with fallout: wide-shots display every reaction and the hand-held camera zooms in on every expression. Nothing is really hidden.)
For a show rooted in luxury, Succession gives a surprising amount of airtime to bodily fluids, which I see as a kind of currency of the bathroom. The whole show opens with Logan Roy peeing himself. Similar details feature throughout the series, the currency of the bathroom overflowing into the bedroom, the office. In this respect, the bathroom is quite literally the opposite of the dining table. It’s a site for the private expulsion of what’s accumulated in public. But in Succession, none of the spaces feel exclusively private, or solely public.
This feeling is deliberate. It has to do with the show’s depiction of wealth, and its conscious efforts to de-fetishise it. Production designer Stephen Carter, director Mark Mylod and writer Jesse Armstrong spoke to IndieWire about avoiding ‘wealth porn’: Succession tries to capture something of the ‘transient’ and ‘depressing’ nature of super-rich lives, with settings that are a bit bland, curated to be inoffensive to clients — all ‘a little bit like hotel rooms’. The bathroom that Kendall smashes up is in Logan’s apartment, but all its touches of hospitality (the box of cotton swabs, the pot pourri) give it the feel of a censored space, devoid of personality. This bathroom can be imminently reproduced as easily as it can be destroyed; his tantrum will be cleaned up before it’s seen.
The blurring of public and private space means that Succession’s characters can never truly relax. The show has an unstable emotional architecture — this is in part due to the demands of the family company, and the fact that any room (including the bathroom) can suddenly sub as a briefing room. The Roys are also celebrities whose private lives are open to public scrutiny. But really, this kind of hyper-exposure, and the subsequent need to have it together at all times, can be attributed to the steel at the emotional centre of the show: Logan Roy. He’s an iron fist in an occasionally velvet glove (which is also secretly iron) — he expels all manifestations of weakness, physical or mental. This influences his family’s management of their own dramatic aftereffect. The mess in the bathroom has to be frantically cleared into a waste paper basket. Emotions have no place, nowhere to go.
Logan is volatile and threatening and stays that way, even when his guard appears to be down. A bathroom scene at the end of Season 1 reveals this. Kendall delivers some bad news in a letter, finding Logan in a bathroom, half dressed. Kendall is jittery, upset by his father’s lack of corporate armour and by the defenceless setting. But Logan is unfazed. Kendall nervously lifts the letter out of a wet patch by the sink; Logan rips it up and throws it in the toilet. He resists the show placing him in vulnerable situations, in the same way that he ignores his weakening body. Season 1 shows his accumulating efforts to prove he isn’t too old to run the company, as is wagered in the first scene of the first episode.
Succession, then, is partly about living with the chaos of an unpredictable, tyrannical father figure. No-one knows what to do with his volatility, not even the viewer. Our attempts to sympathise with him are continually unsettled by his ruthless character. Raised by an obstinate patriarch like Logan, it’s unsurprising that the Roy children have a pretty broken relationship to wellness. This arises as a theme in both Season 1 and 2 — manifesting in the Roys’ comical disavowal of all things mental health (at least the ‘corporate therapist’ hired for publicity is a ‘former CFO at a Fortune 500’, we are told.) Wellness or care is also a practice of the bathroom, and one that doesn’t often get dramatic exposure on TV. But Succession shows that its characters’ failure to take care of themselves, even to look at themselves in the mirror, is key to understanding their experiences.
Unevenly managed emotional space, and the inability to be truly alone, maps the drama of Succession; it also explains why its characters turn to the bathroom. The bathroom at least appears to promise privacy (albeit falsely, as we’ve seen). In Season 2, the bathroom is where Kendall self-medicates. He’s trying, in his own way, to get well and look after himself. He’s trying, and we root for him because of that.
These bathroom scenes are few-and-far-between. But I see them as evidence of Succession’s concern with the messy intersection of private and public drama, as well as the underbelly of a company’s high-functioning façade. There could be a version of this review written for almost any character with a bathroom scene — there’s one for Roman, whose unsexy sexual escapades always occur in and around bathrooms, and one for Cousin Greg, who’s literally treated as a paper towel on a couple of occasions.
But it’s Kendall’s hurt, and his attempts to feel better, that offer us a real alternative to Logan’s emotional tyranny. In his own messes, we see a kind of template for a different emotional order, even if it’s still in pieces. Roll on Season 3.
Sylvie Field is a London-based human who is wire-fed by podcasts. She enjoys travelling and basking in the golden age of (reality) television. While finishing her degree in languages, she is developing her writing and art practice, which currently involves taking screenshots of other people’s rooms on Zoom.