I am so at home in Dublin, more than any other city, that I feel it has always been familiar to me. It took me years to see through its soft charm to its bitter prickly kernel - which I quite like too.

Entering the Whirlpool


David Barnes writes: Succession’s Frank Vernon likes ‘to recite Prufrock internally while we check we’re GAAP-compliant’ (Season Two, Episode Six). He goes on to suggest others ‘use whatever method you prefer to numb the pain’. GAAP are Generally Accepted Accounting Principles – principles that Waystar Royco, the corporate behemoth whose story is chronicled in HBO’s Succession, bend to the point of breaking.

It is not the first time Frank, Waystar’s vice-chairman, has referred to TS Eliot’s first published poem (‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’ appeared in Poetry magazine in June 1915). In the second episode of the first season, he describes himself as ‘an attendant lord, here to swell a scene or two’. Frank is quoting Prufrock as Eliot’s eponymous hero declares he is not Prince Hamlet (‘nor was meant to be’), but only a courtier hovering at the edges of the stage. That Frank at this point is talking to Kendal Roy, the tormented middle son of Waystar’s CEO, Logan Roy, is significant. It marks Kendal as the vengeful child who plots to overthrow the king; not in this case, the usurping uncle but his own cruel and malicious father.

I’m late to the Succession party, and have been watching the show in great dollops, late at night, greedy for more of the late-capitalist shit-show. Frank’s Prufrockian perambulations seem to speak to Succession’s ability to seemingly say deeper things about the state of a world wrecked by a robber class who do not even seem to be enjoying it. Some suggest that is Succession’s problem; that in presenting this disdainful 1 per cent as themselves in pain, it minimises the real destruction wreaked by companies like Waystar. This, I think, misses the point; for Frank’s references to ‘Prufrock’ locate the action in an Eliotic hellscape, where the super-rich are imprisoned in and by the sins of their own making. ‘Prufrock’’s famous epigraph (‘s’io credesse …’ etc), a passage from Dante’s Inferno, consists of lines spoken to Dante by Guido da Montefeltro, a duplicitous thirteenth century military commander. In the lines Eliot quotes, Guido tells the poet that he can talk to him freely because no one has returned alive from the abyss of hell; in other words, Guido need not fear for his reputation because Dante will never escape.

In ‘Prufrock’, a poem concerned with drawing rooms and tea, flannel trousers and tiepins, Eliot’s infernal epigraph suggests that the accoutrements of civilisation mean nothing if that civilisation is doomed. We end the poem as Prufrock drowns with the mermaids; but, if the epigraph is to be taken seriously, he may already be dead. Whilst much was made of the surprise death of Logan Roy in the third episode of Succession’s final season, the show had been predicting his death since its inception.

But it is not just Logan’s death – or foreshadowed death – that is important in the series. A turning point is Kendal Roy’s responsibility for the accidental death of a young man at the end of the first season. Kendal is driving, high as a kite, the car swerves off the road into a freezing pond, the man drowns. His death hangs over Kendal for the whole of the subsequent two seasons, haunting him as the accidental killing of Polonius haunts Hamlet. Later, in the third season, Kendal himself almost drowns in a Tuscan swimming pool in an apparent suicide attempt. These drownings echo not only the subterranean world of Prufrock and his ‘sea-girls’ but the themes of Eliot’s next major poem, The Waste Land. ‘Here is your card, the drowned Phoenician sailor’, says the clairvoyant Madame Sosostris in the first part of the poem (called, appropriately, ‘The Burial of the Dead’). Eliot’s writing, in the forms of his earlier poems at least, is concerned less with the shadow of death that awaits us than with the death that is already here: ‘we who were living are now dying’ is the way he puts it in The Waste Land. Jeremy Strong himself (who plays Kendal) seems to confirm the importance of Eliot’s vision (Strong also placed Eliot’s Four Quartets on the essential reading list he gave to GQ magazine earlier this year). On HBO’s official Succession podcast, Strong reveals that it was a line from the fourth section of The Waste Land, the significantly titled ‘Death by Water’, that Jesse Armstrong sent him as he prepared to film the final episode: ‘Entering the whirlpool’.

The images of the Manhattan skyline in the Succession opening credits seem less a picture of the peaks of power (although they are that) but snapshots of the drowned, doomed world created by late-capitalism. In another allusion to Dante, Eliot famously imagines the City of London commuters walking over London Bridge – workers in the engine-room of finance – as a crowd of dead souls at the mouth of hell: ‘I had not thought death had undone so many.’ Ultimately London Bridge is ‘falling down’, the city joining a litany of ancient and ruined civilisations in The Waste Land: ‘Jerusalem Athens Alexandria Vienna’. Eliot might as well have added New York; he probably would have done, had his work at Lloyds Bank in the City not made him peculiarly alive to London’s precarious status. Critics note that one place can feel very much like another in Succession, a billionaire’s life one of interchangeable, transnational luxury in a soft-furnished underworld: ‘Alexandria/ Vienna London/ Unreal’.


David Barnes is a lecturer in modern literature at the University of Oxford and has written/broadcast for the BBC, Lithub, London Times, The Guardian, New European, Times Higher Education and Times Literary Supplement. He recently taught a six-week course on Eliot’s The Waste Land at 100 for the City Literary Institute in London.