Last week, Barstool Sports founder David Portnoy threatened to fire “on the spot” any Barstool employee who sought information on unionizing, which, as our sister site Splinter points out, would be a direct violation of labor law. Coinciding with Portnoy’s rant was the successful unionization of sports and culture site The Ringer, who, like G/O Media’s editorial staff, linked up with Writers Guild of America, East. Suffice to say, the tenuous state of modern media and the need for writers to unionize is in the air, which is partly why last night’s episode of Succession hit as hard as it did.
In it, Kendall (Jeremy Strong) is ordered by his father to dissect the business practices of Vaulter, a multi-pronged culture site acquired last season. Though Kendall believes in the site and how it could shape the future of his dad’s conglomerate, Waystar Royco, he also has a combative relationship with its founder, Lawrence (Rob Yang). Still, he stands in front of the massive staff of writers, editors, and artists, praising the company while simultaneously telling them, “It would be a mistake for you to unionize.”
“We will get you a really fucking punchy independent arbitration panel. We’ll get you a pay bump,” he promises. “I know a lot of you are flirting with the Guild, and I’m just asking you to consider putting that on ice. Let’s try and figure this out inside. Let’s keep it in the Waystar family.”
Those are familiar words that no shortage of hopeful unionizers have heard from the suits up top. What follows, however, is perhaps even more familiar. Kendall’s brother, Roman (Kieran Culkin), wants to “shutter the fucker” and his dad, Logan (Brian Cox), agrees. And it’s not long before Kendall tells the 476 employees who he called the future of the company that they’re all fired. He hires an editor and five interns to handle “food and weed,” the only two verticals driving revenue. The rest of the content will be user-generated. Vaulter is toast.
As editorial staffers who recently unionized, this storyline hit us hard. As such, we figured it’d be worth it to discuss what it’s like to see your worst career fears play out onscreen.
Obviously, there’s much to unpack here, but what I can’t shake is Roman’s own disbelief at having had a hand in gutting a company. “They’re actually doing the thing I said,” he tells his girlfriend. Her response: “You did a thing. Mazel tov.”
“You did a thing.” I shivered at that line.
Erik, Danette: What are your takeaways from the episode?
Congratulations to the members of The Ringer’s bargaining unit, who were not only recognized in a timely fashion (that’s how you do it, Jonah Peretti) but who also received that recognition just as one of their favorite shows (and ours!) of 2018 was about to address the topic of labor organization in digital media.
And it’s that thought, and that thought alone, that prevented me from watching “Vautler” in anything but a seasick haze. I was a latecomer to Succession, partially because I wasn’t all that impressed by the handful of episodes HBO sent out prior to the series premiere, and partially because even its most acridly comedic moments only serve to remind me of things I spend most of my days trying not to think about. (I’ve been trying to get the sound of Connor telling little Isla that “someday water’s going to be more precious than gold” out of my head for months.) The characterizations and performances eventually develop enough gravity to ground stuff like that, but that old queasiness came flooding back right around the moment Roman—strapped for ideas and time—lobbed this weak-ass pitch at Gerri: “One idea? Pivot to video?”
I’ve watched “Vaulter” twice now, and all the Cousin Greg punchlines in the world couldn’t make it feel any less like an exercise in masochism—and Nicholas Braun does an excellent, stammering, physical job of keeping things light in this episode. In some ways, it’s flattering that an Emmy-nominated HBO drama thinks a website’s tug-of-war against its well-insulated benefactors is worth an hour of Sunday-night primetime. (And that feels like a good place to note that Will Tracy, the former editor in chief of The Onion, is a writer and producer on season two of Succession.) But Jesus fucking Christ was it gutting to watch Kendall channel his off-the-wagon numbness into his dismissal of the entire Vaulter staff. It’s difficult, anxious viewing because of the way Strong delivers Kendall’s boilerplate farewell and how the editors cut from him to the confused, angry, incredulous staffers. (One of whom bears a striking resemblance to our departed colleague Clayton Purdom.) But it’s doubly so stacked up against the memory of a recent afternoon I spent hunkered down in the A.V. Club conference room, as I and the rest of the staff nervously waited to hear if G/O Media still had jobs for us. To put it in the context of the last HBO show we watched this closely, there were plenty of times a Game Of Thrones character stood stridently before someone (or a group of someones) they’d just stabbed in the back, but there’s no episode where it felt like Littlefinger was staring into my eyes and saying, “Food and weed can stay—nobody reads about TV anymore.”
Which raises a bigger question about “Vaulter”: Is anybody outside of media circles going to care? Smarter people than I have pegged Succession as the new show that the press pays a disproportionate amount of attention to, relative to the size of its audience. (See also: Mad Men, Girls.) I can’t help but think that the level of “I feel seen” projected by this episode is going to change that. But I also suggested this roundtable to Randall in the first place, so who’s really guilty of navel-gazing?
By design, Succession’s skewering of the 1% mostly takes place in their boardrooms, bedrooms, and summer palaces. “Vaulter” is the rare look at the mere mortals who are often the collateral damage of the Roys’ temper tantrums, gambits, and fits of insecurity. And as you both have noted, Randall and Erik, this trip down from the Mt. Olympus of the Roys hits close to home. The beleaguered Vaulter employees trying to hold strong in a shifting digital media landscape by unionizing, the mixed messages from corporate interests, the Clayton Purdom doppelgänger—all elements that contributed to the sense of déjà vu I got from “Vaulter.”
I come from the world of alt-weeklies, though, which went through a similar “sink or swim” situation over a decade ago, so maybe this is an echo of the déjà vu I experienced a couple of years ago when the revolving door of ownership first started spinning on media outlets that embraced the internet earlier on. Perhaps it’s because all of this has happened before that the gutting of Vaulter seemed inevitable from the start, just like Kendall’s decision to give up on having any vision of his own in order to help his father enact his. The suggestion that users will generate any content that isn’t food- or weed-related recalls the direction that some local dailies tried to take five or six years ago with their decision to lay off photojournalists and rely on crowdsourced images for COVER STORIES. That doesn’t make things sting any less for the Vaulter employees, who were taken in by Kendall’s plea for a leap of faith, though I certainly hope that real-life analogues don’t work out that way. “Vaulter” resonates for reasons beyond that hellscape—Logan telling Shiv she’s ready but not ready ready to take over Waystar will sound familiar to any woman who’s been up for a promotion, only to get bogged down in corporate politics. If anyone can overcome those politics, though, it’s Shiv.
One question I would like to ask the two of you is if “you gotta burn to turn” is the new “can’t cut your way to growth”?
It would be nice, wouldn’t it, to consider the concept of long-term growth and investment in talent? But then I think about Roman’s twisted passion for firing people, or Tom getting stars in his eyes when Greg told him digitization could allow him to lose up to 50 “skulls.” And that’s, I think, where even those outside the digital-media bubble could relate to “Vaulter.” Ours is not a stable economy. Recession is looming. Firing people is easy. And the biggest company in the world is just as anti-union as someone like Portnoy.
I like Succession because it makes the mega-wealthy look ridiculous. I like it because it feels more timely than just about anything else on TV, representing economic imbalance and monopolization through a fresh lens that isn’t overly sentimental or pandering. You’d like to think the people making decisions that affect millions have clear plans and strategies, but then Roman starts talking. “I mean, I could be right,” he says. “I might not be, but I could be. Maybe I’m smart.” If there’s anything about Succession that keeps me up at night, it’s the simmering terror of realizing my livelihood could very well be in the hands of someone like that.