Deconstructing the Succession 'uh-huh'
Whether as a power play, a marker of defeat or a way to dismiss criticism, how the Waystar Royco clan use the phrase can ensurprisingly revealing.
Sometimes, it is a big dick competition. So says Succession’s patriarch, Logan Roy. This, of course, is an understatement. In fact, the dysfunctional troop of multi-billionaires who helm the fictional right-wing media conglomerate Waystar Royco orchestrate a constant theatre of cruelty, where it is always a big dick competition — a competition that is waged with some of the most shocking, venomous, lines you'll ever hear on television.
Written by a team of British and American writers that includes Jesse Armstrong (Peep Show, Fresh Meat), Georgia Pritchett (Veep, The Thick of It), and Lucy Prebble (I Hate Suzie, Enron), Succession has been widely praised for its revolutionary blend of brutality and humour. What other show, after all, could pull off lines like, “You look like a dildo dipped in beard trimmings,” or, "I look at your face and, no offence, but I see dead babies.” But in and amongst all of this addictively savage corporate trash talk lurks another, more simplistic phrase: the simple "uh-huh".
In comparison to the show’s epic, Shakespearean taunts, a grunted “uh-huh” may seem fairly innocuous — forgettable even. And yet, uh-huhs can be found literally everywhere in the show’s dialogue. Unsurprisingly, some superfans have begun to take note. A two-minute long compilation of Succession uh-huhs has already been stitched together and uploaded to YouTube. As one fan writes on Reddit, "I have never heard this uttered so many times, by so many different characters, in my life. Is 'uh-huh' a thing in the rich and powerful world that I would not be privy to as I have never run in those circles?"
Why the fascination with the Succession “uh-huh”? On the surface, “uh-huh” is nothing more than… well… “uh-huh”. It's a vague acknowledgement — “I hear you/ got it/ understood”. But look a little deeper and the Succession “uh-huh” is far more loaded.
"The colloquial, spoken-word expression 'uh-huh' may seem like a fairly neutral and non-committal way of agreeing with or encouraging the speaker — and it is sometimes just that," Daniela Kempf, Associate Director of Barnard College's Speaking Program and Lecturer in the English department, explains. "But the dictionary definition of 'uh-huh' doesn't even begin to encapsulate the multitude of its potential meanings, depending on the context, the person uttering it and the power dynamic between the people involved in the interaction."
Unlike your everyday, run of the mill “uh-huh”, a pointed, perfectly timed Succession “uh-huh” has far more firepower than any biting metaphor or bizarre, X-rated insult Roman could ever concoct. It can discombobulate, condescend, probe, and dig, all while keeping the speaker free from self-incrimination. In the world of elite business where everyone is grappling for the spot at the top, a grunted “uh-huh” can bring you through any boardroom meeting, family therapy session, or boar on the floor showdown without committing you to anything you might later regret.
It will come as no surprise that oligarch Logan Roy is a true master of the “uh-huh”. In the show's pilot episode, he utters it no less than five times. Two of those times are in response to his son Kendall asking whether they are still good to go with the announcement that Kendall will be named as successor to the Waystar Royco empire. "Are we still good for the release?" a vulnerable Kendall asks his father over the phone. "Uh-huh," Logan retorts vaguely, disinterestedly. Of course, that announcement is never made. Logan loves to respond to questions dismissively and ambiguously. If you want something from Logan Roy and he replies with an “uh-huh”, chances are, you aren't going to get it.
Later, in the first season finale, Kendall, who has just crashed a car into water, leaving the waiter from Shiv’s wedding dead in the passenger seat, asks his dad if he knew about the death. "Uh-huh," shoots back Logan, victorious. Kendall crumbles. This “uh-huh” is enough to bring his traitorous son to his knees. In one menacing grunt, Logan tells Kendall everything. He knows the truth about last night — he cannot be beaten. He's got him. In both business and personal settings, Logan employs his uh-huhs with practised skill. With each cutting “uh-huh” he reasserts his power in the room. With one vague sound of acknowledgement, he has the power to dismiss and confound his colleagues and family members into submission without ever having to explain his true position. A Logan Roy uh-huh says, "I see you. I hear you. And I don't care. Eventually, I'll get my way." As Kempf says, "The show Succession weaves in the expression generously, deftly and richly, across all its possible usages — most notably, condescension and assertion of power, especially by Logan."
Olivia James, therapist and linguistic specialist, adds, “An 'uh-huh' in a business conversation can hide inner strategic calculations. The brain computes and analyses information and just like in a chess game, calculates the next few moves. 'Uh-huh' allows some space for that.”
While Logan is king of “uh-huh”, many of the other characters have also adopted the phrase to help them make their way across the Waystar Royco chessboard. Logan, Shiv, Tom, Gerri, and Marcia all have their fair share. (Interestingly, Roman is the only outlier. It would seem he prefers more wordy, expletive-filled comebacks, which makes sense considering his lack of measured business acumen). Kempf explains, "One needs only listen to the tone of voice and look at facial expressions, in addition to the context, to understand what was being conveyed by any individual instance of 'uh-huh' in the show."
In other words, there is always a heap of subtext going on under the surface of these grunted retorts. A condescending or a sarcastic “uh-huh” — a speciality of Shiv’s — can be undermining, a way to establish authority. A cautious, measured “uh-huh” — such as in Tom’s case — can be a sign of hesitance and growing distance in a relationship. On the other hand, an uncertain “uh-huh” can reveal that the speaker is out of their depth. In this show's viscous corporate warfare, you can simply follow the trail of uh-huhs to trace the power dynamics at play.
In the Waystar Royco family, everything is about power. And so, the family adopts the verbal patterns of the boardroom in their personal relationships. Only once does one of them attempt to break through and have a real conversation. "Is there a thing where we like… talk to each other about stuff… normally?" Roman asks his siblings in the season two finale. After a brief silence, Shiv retorts in a mocking, silly voice, "You wanna talk to each other normally?" and the moment passes. Instead of communicating openly, these characters dance around each other with their words, often too guarded to give more than a non-committal grunted “uh-huh” in reply, even to their own family members. And with every “uh-huh”, another play for power is made. As James puts it, using “uh-huh” has become a "survival strategy."
In a world where the people are so emotionally stunted and warped by a grasping need for power, a single “uh-huh” can reveal far more than a thousand words could.