In season two, episode four of HBO’s Succession, two members of the show’s ensemble, Tom Wamsgans (Matthew Macfadyen) and Greg Hirsch (Nicholas Braun), are confined to a designated ‘safe room’ that looks to be a repurposed supply closet. They are in the headquarters of ATN News (a conservative network targeting the fearful elderly, their universe’s equivalent of Fox), an organisation of which the ambitious and cowardly Tom has recently been placed in charge, appointed by his father-in-law, Logan Roy (Brian Cox), the CEO of the multi-billion dollar media conglomerate Waystar-Royco. The building has been locked down; a gun was fired and there is wild speculation that the culprit is antifa, although it is later revealed to have been an employee committing suicide.
Over the course of the series, the lanky and simpering Greg falls upwards in the manner only available to apparently harmless fools. A cousin to Logan’s four children, he is peripheral to the show’s primary narrative engine: the troubled negotiation between these siblings and other power-players to determine who might lead the company once the elderly, sometimes ailing, sometimes formidable patriarch steps aside. But Greg—relatively unmoneyed, naïve to the machinations of the family-run megacorporation, driven by flashes of curiosity, greed and entitlement for a lifestyle he can’t quite picture—constitutes the show’s emotional core; he is its chorus, its witness. His presence facilitates the audience’s understanding of this rarified realm of power and egoism, but also exposes its cruel absurdity as, through accident and good-fortune, Greg finds himself entangled in it, suffering by it, taking advantage of it. His lack of skills and experience tend to help rather than hinder his advancement, and we are thus shown how the logic of the corporation, of money at its most immense scale, is almost entirely abstracted from the material world, unmoored from the fantasy that a person might find themselves in a powerful position because they know what they’re doing.
In Succession’s first episode, Greg is fired from one of the family company’s theme parks, employed as a minor entertainer, tasked with wandering the grounds in a dog costume, he gets stoned, becomes disoriented, and vomits through the dog-mask’s eyes, horrifying several children. Out of ideas, Greg calls his mother, who suggests that he attend his billionaire uncle’s birthday party. By the second season, he has become Tom’s corporate body man. Tom, a perpetual outsider who married into the Roy family, appreciates Greg because his presence and dependence transform Tom into a sagacious mentor in an environment where he is usually viewed as a schmuck, even by those he commands. The bond is strengthened early in their relationship, when Tom asks Greg to quietly destroy a set of records containing information with the potential to destroy the company. The first sign that Greg is blessed with an instinct for self-preservation (the only trait that ensures survival in the world of Succession) is his shrewd decision to retain a few documents that were meant for shredding, gaining precious leverage.
As Tom gets promoted (never due to competence, but rather to placate his wife, Logan’s daughter Siobhan) Greg’s wagon is hitched to his wavering star. And, in the makeshift safe room, anxious that a left-wing terrorist may be loose in the building, they are there for one another.
‘You ran pretty quick,’ Greg tells Tom.
‘You ran pretty fucking quick too,’ Tom responds.
‘I was just behind you,’ says Greg.
‘Everybody was running,’ Tom notes.
Then things change.
As a member of a couple might tentatively suggest reflecting on a relationship that has already broken down, Greg takes the lockdown as an opportunity to inquire as to whether he might move to another department, separating from Tom.
‘I’m just wondering, like, would it be maybe interesting for both of us if I go work with somebody else for a little bit?’ Greg explains that the environment at ATN, the ‘verbal assaults, physical assaults, Nazi stuff, shooters’, is a little much.
Tom, aghast, asks Greg if he’s attempting to break up with him. Greg, unintentionally evoking for Tom a moment of profound wedding night trauma from the first season, suggests that their new arrangement could resemble a ‘business open relationship’.
So the situation dissolves.
‘This is not a good feeling Greg, that you’re making me have, you know?’
Of all Succession’s ingredients—the invigorating yet haunting theme music, Brian Cox’s ferocious, embodied performance, the rivalry amongst Logan’s bitter, lonely children—the quality of the show is most beautifully caught by the dramas and nuances of cousin Greg’s face. In Tender is the Night, F. Scott Fitzgerald introduces Nicole Driver’s eyes as ‘bright, big, clear, wet, and shining’, a description I’d always thought to be an example of overwrought language awkwardly outpacing reality, until I became acquainted with the eyes of Nicholas Braun as Greg Hirsch.
These eyes are weaponised like those of a Disney princess—wide, doleful, frightened—as Tom turns on his once-trusted companion. Taking advantage of the supplies in the safe room, Tom starts wrenching water bottles from their plastic wrapping and hurling them at a cowering Greg.
Greg, in shock, cries out for a security guard, and a summoned man makes a limp attempt to defuse the situation.
‘You back off,’ Tom screams, in one of the century’s finest pieces of television writing. ‘This is executive-level business.’
‘Stop, Tom,’ Greg yelps, continuing to be pelted. ‘We’re friends, you’re one of my best friends.’
He is desperate, sincere.
Greg and Tom are indeed bound together as best friends, part of a social order where friendship is entirely reducible to currency, to commodity. They have found comfort in the relation because each suggests to the other that there may be some other value, barely understood by either man, beyond the organising principles of money and power of which they are both in thrall. The safe room gets violent when this possibility can no longer be gestured towards, when it is extinguished.
Throughout the series, Greg’s face holds the weight and contradictions of late capitalism, expressing confusion and horror, along with greed and aspiration, conveying the way in which a taste of power inevitably convinces those who experience it that they’re entitled to more. Nearly two metres tall, he often holds his body in a slight forward hunch, a gentle anticipatory smile ready to transform into whichever expression is called for if it turns out he’s misread the room. His gaze constantly seeks the person whose orders he should obey, whoever he can follow to avoid accountability.
Early in the first season, Logan is hospitalised and Greg is tasked with an errand requiring him to journey to his magnate uncle’s dark, spacious Manhattan apartment. Wandering the rooms, he finds a bell, perhaps a tchotchke, perhaps a priceless artefact, and rings it. The sound is disappointing so he taps more vigorously. The bell wobbles and falls from its perch, the clapper coming loose. As Greg scrambles to return it to its place, a servant emerges, irritated.
‘I apologise if my bell summoned you,’ Greg says. Adrift in a culture with rules he cannot internalise, he is speaking as he believes he should, as an imagined sophisticate might.
Many of Succession’s pleasures have to do with a how-the-other-half-lives voyeurism—the ranches, the summer palaces, the lavish weddings, the deranged sex parties, the lightly made decisions upon which the personal triumphs and tragedies of countless people the decision-maker will never meet depend. Greg’s presence, a human presence, still too confused to be entirely consumed by a desire to accumulate and maintain authority, drains these grandiose set pieces of their romance. When, early in their relationship Tom suggests he buy Greg dinner, Greg excitedly tells Tom about the joys of California Pizza Kitchen, only to be dragged to an obscenely priced French degustation involving a set piece in which the diners cover their heads in napkins, consuming ortolans whole. Greg, confused, reluctant, still participates.
It’s as if an audience member, unaware of the conventions, had wandered on stage during a play in order to ask whether the performers were indeed pretending. They can’t get rid of him, so he’s recruited. The actors realise they can use him. Eventually, Greg comes to understand his usefulness, and theirs.