ZeroZeroZero follows a drug deal from the start to the finish, along with all the power shifts that occur. (Photo: Sky)

A zero sum game: Why we love power struggles on TV

How can one family have this much power, and why can’t we stop watching them? George Fenwick ponders ZeroZeroZero and our collective fixation on the struggles of the rich and powerful.

Right from its opening scene, ZeroZeroZero (now streaming on Neon) tells us we’re strapping in for something ambitious. There are sounds of gunshots, and a brief glimpse of Gabriel Byrne lying wounded among broken glass. His ominous voiceover tells us that inevitably, love ends and our hearts stop, and suddenly we’re on a Calabrian mountainside, where a mob family is meeting to discuss a major drug shipment. What connects these men is also what will spark the actions of the next eight episodes, with the story spanning several continents, languages, and genres.

ZeroZeroZero follows three interconnecting stories, all united by one collective interest: an enormous shipment of cocaine from America to Europe. Covering the whole supply chain from the sellers in Mexico to the brokers in America to the buyers in Italy, the series is a gripping chronicle of the international drug trade, and how it ultimately becomes dangerously muddied by power and greed. Edward Lynwood (Byrne), the patriarch of the shipping company in New Orleans, views his role in the shipment as just good business. He’s playing a dangerous game, but most importantly, it’s a profitable game. Love ends and our hearts stop, but power, money, and reputation outlive us all.

The show follows the three-way power struggle bounded by the shipment. In Italy, Don Minu La Piana (Adriano Chiaramida), boss of the ‘Ndrangheta organised crime syndicate in Calabria, finds his position of power threatened by his own grandson. In the US, Lynwood wants his son Chris (Dane DeHaan) out of the family shipping business, but his formidable daughter Emma (Andrea Riseborough) has other plans. And in Mexico, the Leyra brothers package and sell cocaine with the aid of a corrupt soldier, Manuel Contreras, but diverging agendas put their collaboration at risk. Each of these storylines almost exists in its own show: the first is a crime story of family mutiny; the second a domestic drama; the third, an action-thriller – but none exists in a vacuum, and therein lies the tension of ZeroZeroZero. Any sleight of hand or fatal error by any character will have ramifications for the others, with effects rippling quite literally across the globe. By zooming in on each story, ZeroZeroZero studies what happens when multiple parties have a vested interest in one colossal exchange of capital. With tens of millions at stake, each party becomes blinded by their own relentless pursuit of control, with inevitably explosive results.

Andrea Riseboroug stars as Emma Lynwood, the woman who runs the family’s shipping company, in ZeroZeroZero (Photo: Sky)

Over eight carefully paced episodes, ZeroZeroZero allows these power plays to be explored in all their intricacies, from preparation to execution to fallout. It’s a style and construction that acknowledges great shows before it – think of how many propel their plots with power grabs, strategies, conflict, ambition and subterfuge. To use an obvious example, Game of Thrones was essentially eight seasons of a chess game with far too many players, and though it limped towards a flimsy finish, viewers couldn’t resist watching various characters battle it out for “the throne”, despite not really knowing what that throne meant for anyone. It was all in the chase.

Perhaps a more potent example is the excellent Succession, which follows the Roy family as they battle it out for the top position as CEO of the family’s multinational media corporation. Each episode hits new highs as the Roys sink to new lows, double-crossing and blindsiding their own loved ones in pursuit of the crown. Crucially, the focus is on the pursuit, not the destination: the top spot may as well be a plastic crown. None of the four Roy siblings really need it, not for money – they’ve grown up around it and are incapable of imagining life outside it – nor for the work itself, except, perhaps, Shiv, apparently the only person in the family capable of doing a good job. The title of CEO aside, all any of the Roy siblings really want ultimately is power, which largely lies in the approval of their father Logan (Brian Cox). As much as they pretend they’re driven by strategy and logic, the Roys are primarily driven by emotion and feeling in their pursuit of the one thing their father never gave them growing up: love.

Nicole Kidman has made a career out of episodic explorations of power games; Big Little Lies found her in an abusive marriage, playing a once-powerful and independent Californian woman now held hostage by her controlling and violent husband. Much of the catharsis of that show was following Celeste on her journey to regain the voice that had been taken away from her. Later, on a different coast with a different wig, The Undoing stars Kidman as a wealthy New York therapist whose shiny life is thrown into disarray when her family is implicated in a murder case. This time, her character Grace starts out with power, with a handsome husband, successful job, and wealthy father, whose donations secure her position on the parents’ committee at her son’s school. But when that perfect life is sent into free fall by a shocking event, Grace’s journey is a crash course in the way wealth and power is often a thin veil for evil and corruption. 

Bryan Cranston as Walter White in one of the best TV shows of all time: Breaking Bad (Photo: Supplied)

But why do we return to stories of ordinary people doing awful things in pursuit of power, again and again? Bryan Cranston’s career is a strong case study. He charted the corresponding trajectories of moral decline and ascendance to power in one of the defining shows of the peak TV era, Breaking Bad, which captured a timely post-financial crisis American milieu in its depiction of an ordinary man who begins producing and distributing crystal meth as a way to secure his family’s financial future. At the beginning, Walter White is an ordinary man who the audience can project themselves onto; a down-on-his-luck guy just trying to get through this day and the next. Watching him gradually gather extraordinary wealth and power while simultaneously shedding his morality over five seasons was unbelievably addictive, perhaps because it spoke to a secret desire many of us harbour but don’t acknowledge. There’s something faintly sexy in the idea of walking away from your desk job tomorrow and beginning a life of wealth and thrills, but shows like Breaking Bad double as cautionary tales. Walter White is fun to root for, but the further he descends into dangerous madness, the less aspirational his life becomes, and the more the experience of watching turns into schadenfreude.

More recently, Cranston led the mini-series Your Honour, in which he plays a New Orleans judge who will stop at nothing to protect his son, who accidentally kills another youth in a hit-and-run. Perhaps what makes this story so compelling is more cut-and-dry: we love watching the corrupt get their just deserts. As Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan told The New York Times, “I like to believe there is some comeuppance, that karma kicks in at some point, even if it takes years or decades to happen.” It’s the reason the courtroom drama is so immortal: watching justice get served is a dopamine rush.

But in ZeroZeroZero, “justice” is a fraught concept, particularly when no one is acting justly in the first place. Three families are locked in a battle for power, but the path to the top is marked with blood. For them, it’s a dangerous game, with no one to trust and nowhere to hide. For us, it’s relentlessly entertaining.

You can watch ZeroZeroZero and all the other shows mentioned in this article on Neon.

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