Succession's Heirs: Touch Me Gently | Under the Radar Magazine Under the Radar | Music Blog for the Indie Music Magazine
Saturday, September 30th, 2023  

Succession’s Heirs: Touch Me Gently

Body language experts evaluate the Succession kids' bizarre hugs

May 27, 2023 Photography by Macall Polay/HBO Web Exclusive
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Succession’s characters often reveal more with their body language than with anything they say. This is in part due to the privilege and trauma of billionaire news baron wannabe-heir Kendall Roy (Jeremy Strong) and his siblings Shiv (Sarah Snook) and Roman (Kieran Culkin) whose awkward movements and physical interaction are wince-worthy. That trauma stemmed from their manipulative, outburst prone father, the late Logan Roy (Brian Cox). But the ruthlessly successful businessman also endowed the squabbling siblings with enough wealth to alienate them from the comparative peasants they need to interact with.

When the siblings gingerly reach out to one another – wary of betrayal, but desperate for validation — their odd gestures convey multitudes. Their body language also draws attention when they simply speak or sit. Ken’s halting tone is a prime example of the former, while Roman’s oddball posture stands out as the latter.

Since the Roys’ eccentric and acidic behavior has turned so many viewers into armchair psychologists, we asked true experts to weigh in. Patti Wood holds an MA in body language and nonverbal communication. Woods has been called “the Babe Ruth of body language experts” by The Washington Post. She is also working on a book about body language in cinema, which includes It’s a Wonderful Life and The Godfather. Former FBI agent Joe Navarro utilized his body language expertise to catch real life crooks. He has since appeared in numerous viral videos in which he breaks down the nonverbal communication of politicians, gangsters and more. His book What Every BODY is Saying is an international best seller.

[Author’s note: spoilers follow]

In an early first season episode Wood was struck by the siblings’ cold, derisive nonverbal communication while doctors tended to their ailing father. More recently, Wood was focused on another dynamic: that infamous recent episode when Logan suddenly dies and Roman becomes uncharacteristically earnest. At one point Roman not only reaches out to his half-brother Connor (the always hilarious Alan Ruck), but lunges at him (director Mark Mylod told GQ the strange hug between Roman and Connor was not in the script, but instead happened between the actors “organically in a lovely, clumsy way).

Wood calls it “A powerful reach because the siblings, in general, are all about their power dynamics, and wresting dominance over each other. But what Roman did here is he bent his full body over, so that it looks like he’s bowing, then grabs Connor, almost as if ‘I’m holding you for comfort, but also reaching to comfort you at the same time.’ It’s so different from how they normally touch and interact with each other.”

Equally important, says Wood: “It’s very different from how we would think normal siblings would be. He’s not hugging—he’s grabbing, as if he will sink into the floor.”

To put a finer point on it, Navarro calls Roman, “The social aardvark. Because he’s such a weird amalgamation of behaviors. He gets everything wrong.” Indeed, the awkward postures that Culkin adopts as Roman have inspired chatter and even think pieces. In Navarro’s view, this isn’t just childish and attention seeking. He also says peer pressure and bullying would prompt most people to grow out of sitting hunched awkwardly, at the latest after adolescence. But not Roman. Even when he stands, Roman’s body language strikes Navarro as odd, especially when he paces and rubs his back, around the kidney area, with the back of his hands. “So he can’t even stand to touch himself!” Navarro says of the youngest Roy’s hesitant gesture.

These siblings are downright reticent to touch each other during periods of high stress. Such was the case in the season three finale, “All the Bells Say.” During a trip to Italy for their mother’s wedding, Kendall collapses to the ground and confesses to the manslaughter of a waiter during a pivotal season one episode. Roman and Shiv attempt to comfort him with jittery gestures that prompted critics, including The Ringer’s Prestige TV Podcast, to marvel at their body language, especially their tendency to pat Kendall on the head.


Wood could spend an hour discussing “the tableau of this scene,” whose dust swept images and pinpoint precise camera angles evoke a Renaissance painting as much as a TV series. Aside from the scene’s beauty, the characters’ positioning is crucial for Wood. She points out that Kendall is sitting down in the dirt, relinquishing all the power the Roys constantly jockey each other for, leaving himself completely vulnerable. His bowed head is like a “biblical” sinner, in her view. Roman and Shiv are clearly taken aback, and their tenuous patting on his head and back clearly indicate to Wood that the siblings were raised not to show vulnerability. Shiv may be patting Ken’s head, but she remains partially turned away and reaching backward to comfort him. By not facing him, Shiv is revealing to Wood her “internal tension and inability to give in fully to true emotion.”

When he saw Roman use his signature dark humor to comfort Ken, Navarro took note of how Roman used his fingertips before patting his elder brother more playfully on the head in that scene.

“This is called distal touching,” he explains. “When you’re attempting to perform a behavior but you dislike it. Like when your boss comes around to tell you you did a good job, and plants a palm on your shoulder it feels good.” But if your boss only hesitantly used his fingertips for that back patting? Ewww!”

Awkward as the younger siblings’ body language may be, Navarro says Kendall doesn’t fare any better. This isn’t so much true of what the elder Roy says (though his mix of corporate jargon and hip-hop slang has inspired numerous memes) but how he says it.

“There’s nothing that Kendall says that is ever smooth. No one would ever invest with him, because what you look for in those situations is someone who speaks freely, without so much hesitation and reservation,” he says.

Despite all that, Roman’s body language and nonverbal communication is by far the oddest in Navarro’s view. “It’s funny because there’s an executive side to his brain. He’s got these quick, dagger-like comebacks and is constantly attacking. That’s high order cognition. But look at how anti-social he is,” Navarro says, both of the content in Roman’s words and the way he carries himself. “He has the traits of psychopathy, especially his indifference to the feelings of others, and the inappropriate things he says to women.”

That last point is especially striking, given how sensitive Roman can be. Says Navarro: “Did you have ever notice how often he doubles over? Almost as if he’s in pain or agony, because he can’t deal with things.”

There are plenty of details for a body language expert to delve into while watching Succession’s awkward characters scheme and console one another. As Navarro puts it: “In the FBI I did over 13,000 interviews. And you certainly run into a lot of people doing that. But I never saw anyone as odd as Roman Roy.”


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