A Look at the Rise of Billionaire Roles

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If you’ve turned on a television in 2023, there’s a good chance you’ve encountered a male tech billionaire with a penchant for breaking the rules. On “Succession,” there was Lukas Matsson (Alexander Skarsgård), the Swedish maverick who rendered the titular question moot by swallowing Waystar Royco whole. “The Morning Show” featured Paul Marks (Jon Hamm), the aerospace magnate who flirted with both Jennifer Aniston’s Alex Levy and acquiring her employer. FX’s “A Murder at the End of the World” included Andy Ronson (Clive Owen), the mysterious genius whose Icelandic retreat takes a deadly turn.

All these characters are composites, with elements of multiple real-life oligarchs with an outsized influence on world affairs. Matsson has shades of Daniel Ek, Scandinavia’s most famous entrepreneur and the fellow proprietor of a streaming service; Marks using a morning show to promote his privately run rocket launch directly invokes Michael Strahan taking a ride with Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin. As the brainchild of dreamy surrealists Brit Marling and Zal Batmanglij, Ronson feels the least connected to the news cycle, but his climate-proof bunker has shades of the New Zealand estates owned by Peter Thiel and other Silicon Valley types.

But just as the Roys of “Succession” are pseudo-Murdochs first and Trumps, Redstones or Kennedys second, there’s one ultra-wealthy industrialist in particular who looms large over these performances. Ever since Elon Musk acquired Twitter, now rechristened X, last year, the Tesla and SpaceX CEO has commanded a level of attention previously reserved for celebrities or heads of state. No wonder that ubiquity has trickled down into popular culture — even if every Elon riff is careful to wrap its social commentary in a veneer of fiction.

“Succession”

Though working from the same set of inspirations, these shows each deploy their Musk mimic in distinct ways, avoiding the lazy ripped-from-the-headlines quality that can drag down depictions of Donald Trump, the coronavirus pandemic, and other universal reference points. Lukas Matsson is a useful counterpoint to the Roys’ indolent American nepotism, while Andy Ronson casts doubt on the idea that those who profit from the status quo are equipped to change it for the greater good.

It would be a mistake to look to “The Morning Show” for piercing social insight, but Paul Marks nonetheless touches on the threat to democracy posed by powerful interests controlling once-independent media.

Each performance also explores a different angle on the capricious, mercurial men society has elevated into principal drivers of world events. Hamm rose to fame by playing an avatar of mid-century masculinity whose slick surface belied a spiritual void. With Marks, Hamm has been cast as a man of another moment, though there’s a similar tension at play between the actor’s undeniable visual appeal and the more unsavory qualities obscured by it. Actual billionaires are rarely so easy on the eyes, but Hamm’s presence works as an analogy for the flattering halo cast by power.

“A Murder at the End of the World”

Skarsgård, too, is a frequent heartthrob, though one who can seemingly turn his charm on and off at will. The same man who’s been repeatedly typecast as a Viking demigod is, on “Succession,” entirely believable as a borderline incel who once sent a female employee bricks of his own frozen blood. Owen is more mysterious, as he must be in an Agatha Christie-style whodunnit, yet terrifies when Andy Ronson’s mask of composure and high-minded altruism starts to crack. 

These roles feel in conversation with last year’s glut of scripted stories about the rise and fall of tech founders like Elizabeth Holmes (“The Dropout”) and Adam Neumann (“WeCrashed”). Such shows dramatized true events rather than inventing their own stories, but they share with the Elon-adjacent series an impulse to puncture the mythology of a larger-than-life figure and position their flaws as the product of ordinary human psychology. This year saw the publication of a Musk biography by journalist Walter Isaacson — but if you really want to know what makes him and his peers tick, look to the small screen. 

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