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Children’s books played an unexpected part in series 3 of Succession. Image: Tina Tiller
Children’s books played an unexpected part in series 3 of Succession. Image: Tina Tiller

Pop CultureDecember 16, 2021

Kendall, Shiv, Mog and the Lion: what’s with all the children’s books in Succession?

Children’s books played an unexpected part in series 3 of Succession. Image: Tina Tiller
Children’s books played an unexpected part in series 3 of Succession. Image: Tina Tiller

Margaret Mahy, Judith Kerr and the Berenstain Bears all had unexpected cameos in the latest series of Succession. Toby Manhire watches and reads along. 

Children don’t appear much in Succession, and when they do it’s at the margins. And yet children – in the offspring rather than young-person sense of the word – are absolutely at the show’s core. Right there in its title. The king’s children vying for his throne is the central story premise. Their dependence on their dad is total. “Without you,” Shiv admits to Logan in the final scene of the latest series, “we’re fucked.” 

And they behave like children, too. Kendall, Shiv and Roman are infantile adults, their juvenile postures in aspic. In that final scene of the third series, which aired this week, Logan responds to his kids’ attempt at an ultimatum by hollering: “You’re playing toy fucking soldiers. Go on, fuck off.” Earlier in the episode the adult-children, at their mother’s wedding in Italy, play Monopoly – something that would be unforgivably on-the-nose in most shows, but works here. In the season’s second episode, ‘Mass in Time of War’, Logan’s four children gather awkwardly for a high-level summit in the bedroom of Kendall’s daughter, Sophie, squeezed into kids’ furniture.

The world of children has another place in the third series, in the form of children’s books. I counted three, which is enough for a motif, right? Episode four is titled ‘A Lion in the Meadow’, after Margaret Mahy’s classic, beguiling story. Episode seven is ‘Too Much Birthday’, a book in the Berenstain Bears series. And in the finale, episode nine, Logan reads to his grandson from Judith Kerr’s Goodbye Mog.

(It’s tempting to include also Logan’s description of Lukas Matsson, the Elon Musk-esque tech titan played by Alexander Skarsgård, as “Hans Christian Anderfuck” as a children’s story allusion, but let’s not take the piss here.)

A Lion in the Meadow

New Zealand has had a few mentions in the course of Succession. In the first series, Tom – then uncomplicatedly devoted to Shiv – blurts to her: “Let’s go and be sheep farmers in New Zealand!” In the second, Roman declares his wealth aspiration to be “owning a private army in New Zealand” rich.

But delighted though we were as a nation for these morsels, none comes close to the invocation of Margaret blimmin’ Mahy. The title of her 1969 classic A Lion in the Meadow is borrowed for the fourth episode of series three – the one with Adrien Brody, in which Kendall trudges with Logan around a barren landscape wondering whether his father is telling him the truth. 

A Lion in the Meadow, as you probably know, tells the story of a small boy who spies a lion in, well, the meadow. His mother doesn’t believe him, laughing that there is a dragon in a matchbox that will protect them. It’s one of those books – like Where the Wild Things Are, say – that hovers in the memory, a mix of majesty, domesticity and ambiguity. “I’ve always admired that children’s book,” the show’s creator and showrunner Jesse Armstrong told IndieWire this week. “It’s not that famous, but it’s a wonderful children’s book.”

Logan is the lion, I guess – the overweening chimera. Or Logan is the mother – the distracted, almost indifferent parent. More likely neither, but the mood fits. 

The ending of A Lion in the Meadow that most of us who grew up with the story know goes: “So the lion in the meadow became a house lion and lived in the broom cupboard, and when the little boy had apples, stories and a goodnight hug, the lion had apples, stories and a goodnight hug as well.”

But that wasn’t the original ending. The original ending – which Mahy changed for republication at the publisher’s request – read: “The mother never ever made up a story again.” 

Some years later, Mahy said: “Now I consider A Lion in the Meadow very cautiously, feeling the ruthlessness of the first ending still lurking under the second kinder one, and believing it to be the true ending.”

Am I suggesting any of that informed the use of the title in an HBO television programme? Absolutely not. But I thought you’d want to know. 

Too Much Birthday

In The Berenstain Bears and Too Much Birthday, Sister Bear is overwhelmed by all the noise, complexity and paraphernalia of her sixth birthday party. Together, the bear family come to terms with what really matters about a birthday. In ‘Too Much Birthday’ Kendall bear is overwhelmed by all the noise, complexity and superficial bullshit of his 40th birthday party. The Roy family turn on each other and behave like absolute animals.

Childhood haunts the whole hot mess of Kendall’s party – from the entrance corridor through a birth canal, to a VIP area built as a replica of Kendall’s childhood treehouse, to the usual reversion to juvenile arseholery between the siblings, to Kendall’s sudden, desperate, hopeless search in the pile of presents for the gift from his children.

The episode is the moment that Kendall shrinks from his synthetic, ostentatious version of himself, leading all the way to his arrival in the foetal position in the series’ final episode.

Goodbye Mog

Mog and the Mogul: who would have thought? In the opening scene of the final episode of season three, before we know for sure whether Kendall has survived a drunken near-drowning in the pool, there is a rare moment of tenderness between Logan and his grandson, Iverson. It’s a contrast with Logan’s previous gruff and even violent (remember the cranberry sauce?) engagements with Kendall’s son; in truth it’s a contrast with Logan full stop. The old man is reading to the boy from the picture book Goodbye Mog. “Mog thought, ‘I want to sleep forever,'” says Logan. “And so she did.”

It may have been a bit much, so soon after Mahy’s Lion, to have Logan reading from The Tiger Who Came to Tea, but it’s perfect that Judith Kerr gets a moment. In the last of Kerr’s Mog books, the beloved tabby dies. It’s achingly melancholy. “I don’t think it was so much about killing off Mog, as rather doing something about dying,” said Kerr in 2002. “I’m coming up to 80, and you begin to think about those who are going to be left – the children, the grandchildren. I just wanted to say: Remember. Remember me. But do get on with your lives.” Kerr died in 2019. 

Is Goodbye Mog a hint at a central character’s mortality, even death? This was put to Armstrong by the Guardian. “As you know,” he deadpanned, “there are multiple readings of Goodbye Mog. You could probably list them. But this was probably more of a Marxist reading than a Freudian one.” Kendall did not die.

Goodbye Mog is also about the ways that functional families cope with sadness, change and loss, which may be why Iverson, ostensibly too old for such a book, gravitates to it. In any case, Logan soon bridles at reading a picture book and shouts to his assistant to bring a new one. “Something with some action!”

What does it all mean?

Maybe not a lot. In the case of the ‘Too Much Birthday’ episode title, for example, Armstrong said it was arrived at late in the piece. In one sense assigning kids’ book names to episodes is part of the bathos that suffuses so much of Succession – the show can skip from the gravitas of something like ‘Mass in Time of War’, the work Haydn composed in 1796 as the storm clouds of conflict stared down on Europe, to the picture book-inspired ‘Too Much Birthday’ without pausing for breath, just as it can happily straddle the worlds of drama and comedy. (To the question “is Succession a drama or a comedy”, by the way, the answer is of course: yes it is. It is the best drama on television and the best comedy on television.)

But if the writers are sprinkling kids’ books around the place, here’s a thought: they’re doing what expectant parents do. They’re nesting. There was a lot of speculation last week about whether Succession was killing off one of its main progeny, leaving Kendall floating head down in the Tuscan pool. What if the opposite is true? What if it’s preparing to give birth to a new one?

Certainly the prospect was seeded, with Logan being delivered smoothies by his assistant and presumed lover, Kerry, that have had maca root grated into them. Maca root being a supposed fertility aid – or, as Conor puts it: “He’s working on his baby batter. Dad’s putting together a more adhesive and potent gloop.”

Series four could then bring a fifth Roy child, another would-be successor on the scene. The other siblings would turn against her or him and the mother. And how about this: Logan chooses Jeryd Mencken, the alt-right would-be president he anointed at “the ATN primary” for godparent. 

Outlandish? Yes, like so much of the source material. Logan is absolutely not a straightforward clone of any one figure, but still. Rupert Murdoch had his fifth of six children, Grace, at the age of 70, with his new wife Wendy Deng. At the time his other children were aged between 28 and 38. Grace’s godfather is Tony Blair.

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