Succession returns this week for one last season of luxury yachts, betrayal, and virtuoso swearing. Throughout season three, critical discussion of Succession often circled around the question of character development: why was it that the Roys rarely seemed to follow any kind of discernible character arc? Every week, Shiv made some marginal gain and promptly lost it by saying the wrong thing. Roman would appear to be maturing into a sophisticated business negotiator and then accidentally send his dad a dick pic. Any time Kendall looked to have achieved some sliver of independence from the family, it soon turned out to be another desperate attempt to earn his father’s approval.
Was Jesse Armstrong defaulting to the conventions of the sitcom genre, where characters traditionally revolve around a static set of circumstances, moving in and out of jobs or relationships but always returning to their sofa in the café / bar / living room in time for the next episode? Or was this Succession giving us a more accurate representation of human behaviour, showing us a realistic picture of the way people tend to remain trapped in the ruts of their personality?
The recursive loops of the sitcom are a generic convention, but so is the progression of a character arc. As the narrator of Ian McEwan’s Black Dogs observes:
Turning points are the inventions of storytellers and dramatists, a necessary mechanism when a life is reduced to, traduced by a plot, when a morality must be distilled from a sequence of actions, when an audience must be sent home with something unforgettable to mark a character’s growth…
Real lives are not punctuated by turning points. We do not expect the people around us to swoop along a character arc. But we want our fictional characters to change because, in the words of George Saunders:
The short story is about change. This is not a short story: “Once upon a time, an asshole stayed an asshole.” In real life, sure, that narrative (“Asshole remains asshole”) abounds. But a story wants change and should be set within a window during which a change might reasonably be expected to occur.
Character arcs are like conflict: in fiction we look for them as eagerly as we avoid them in real life. A changing character is interesting to observe, and it presents no threat to us.1 But because our own identity is defined by our relationships with real people, we have a good reason to prefer stasis: any time a friend or relative moves off in an unexpected direction, we are compelled to slightly recalibrate our own sense of self. As such, we often cling to a fixed conception of who someone is, and find reasons to dismiss any evidence that they might have changed. Our fossilised version, we tell ourselves, is the true encapsulation of their identity, and any manifestations of change are false, inauthentic, temporary phases.