Credit: FX/USA Today Images

A collection of old and established leaders charged with maintaining the status quo and the long-standing power structure.

A cunning clan that breaks free from the old paradigm and plots to amass power for themselves, upending the status quo as necessary.

A population that has no choice but to sit idly by and watch the machinations of these powerful factions while they carve up our options in service of their wealth and property.

These are the very broad strokes that help tell the story of Shōgun, FX and Hulu’s popular miniseries about feudal Japan and based on the novel by James Clavell.

These are also very general ways to describe the forces at work in the modern American media world.

Much like John Blackthorne trying to make sense of the unfamiliar customs and cultures of his new home, TV and streaming audiences are in a constant state of confusion over where to find their favorite programs and sports events, which services are worth signing up for, what happened to the cable bundles that used to make life simple, and what the landscape will look like 6 months from now, let alone 6 years from now.

While itself a rich text that asks Western audiences to put aside preconceived notions and attempt to understand Japanese culture on its own terms through a series of grunts, glances, and silent moments, Shōgun can also help us make sense of the modern American media world and where it might go from here.

HEAVY SPOILERS FOR SHŌGUN AHEAD. THE FINAL EPISODE IS NOW LIVE ON HULU AND PREMIERES ON FX TUESDAY EVENING!

When Shōgun begins, we find ourselves at the tail end of the feudal Japan era. Taikō, the supreme leader of the nation, has recently died. While his child heir grows up, he has entrusted the realm to five feudal lords to act as regents. These men are expected to maintain the status quo, and you can see how they represent old media companies like ESPN, Fox Sports, CBS Sports, and NBC Sports. Rich and powerful and benefitting from the longstanding system in place, they have no reason to want to see it change. In the case of Ishido, it’s the perfect opportunity to grasp more power (media rights). Tighten the stranglehold on the industry.

While Ishido maneuvers for more power, he also has to contend with Ochiba no Kata, the mother of the heir to the throne, Nakamura Yaechiyo. Ochiba is cunning and guileful and knows nothing except the naked aspirations for power and control. She is Bob Iger, David Zaslav, and Lachlan Murdoch incarnate.

Naturally, the heir, who represents untapped potential and future control over the landscape, is Shōgun’s Spulu. Exciting and new but operating within the context of the old guard controlling it.

The problem, however, is Lord Toranaga, a.k.a. streaming services. Like Apple, Netflix, and Amazon, he was born into power and understood himself to be a ruler from a very early age. He has to learn brutal tactics early on, like “seconding” your enemy when they ask you to, and it doesn’t always go smoothly. But over time, his lineage, acumen, and immense holdings make him a powerful figure. If he were to grasp power, he could make things very difficult for people like Ishido. And he does.

It also helped that Toranaga amassed a strong and loyal clan full of acolytes who would do anything to serve him. Mariko (HBO Max) is an intelligent and unwavering supporter with a strong pedigree from the old ways. She is married to Bunshido (Discovery+), who is powerful and loyal but also diminishes Mariko’s spirit and denies her the ability to reach her potential. She ultimately sacrifices herself for the greater good, or at least the greater good in the way her lord sees it.

Toranaga’s most trusted general is Toda “Iron Fist” Hiromatsu (Hulu), who has been there since the beginning and survived many changes in the world around him, though that time may be running out. While loyal, Toranaga does have to suffer the support of people like his son Nagakado (Quibi), an impulsive disruptor who dies in a sad but comical fashion.

Credit: FX

Toranaga also has to deal with Yabushige (private equity firms and venture capital), a manipulative schemer who pledges loyalty to everyone but ultimately works only to enrich himself at the cost of anything and everyone. Even though everyone seems to understand his true intentions (except maybe John Blackthorne), he constantly figures out how to escape every mess and continues conspiring.

As for Blackthorne, he is the audience surrogate in the show and represents us, the home audience and subscribers. He came into the story hardened by life and accepting of the way the world works. That is, until he was thrown into a new culture (streaming services) full of customs he doesn’t understand (streaming-exclusive NFL games) and a language he can’t seem to crack (“We’re growing out free ad-supported television to maximize both linear channels and on-demand content as an alternative to direct-to-consumer offerings…”). Just like the ship that rode the Pacific Ocean tides to this new land, he is adrift in a society where life and death seem to coexist, just like TV shows canceled too soon and movies that are never released. “The Japans” are an elusive place where his knowledge of how things are supposed to work fails him, like trying to stream a sporting event on Peacock. He also learns lessons about the value of loyalty and honor, like someone who keeps signing up for and canceling Paramount+ every few months to watch whatever random game they’re exclusively streaming.

Also, in the end, Blackthorne’s complaints might be angry and definitive and full of expletives, but the powers that be only hear what they want to hear.

BLACKTHORN: Tell Toranaga-sama that they are BEATING, his ASS!! in the quote-tweets!

MARIKO-SAMA: <…The Anjin wishes to express concern at the reception of your most recent posts.>

— The Man of Astoria (@depechejoe.bsky.social) Mar 20, 2024 at 9:33 AM

The irony of this comparison is that, on the show, we find ourselves rooting for Toranaga despite his obstinant insistence on being straight with anyone and seemingly easy ability to sacrifice those closest to him to achieve his goals. While we might scoff at having to sign up for 47 streaming services and figure out which ones have the rights to which leagues and which games, we can also appreciate the way they are moving aspects of the industry forward and causing everyone to adapt, learn, and improve.

Maybe the heir (Spulu/Hulu Sports/Whatever) will make things better but then again when you look at who is pulling his strings, does that inspire you? Not really.

We write this on the eve of Shōgun’s finale, and we haven’t read the book, so we don’t know how it all ends. But based on the historical figures these characters are based on, we can hazard a few guesses. The regents will put up a good fight but, in the end, they’ll be outfoxed by Toranaga, who has more guile, more resources, and a better understanding of the new way of the world. Blackthorne will realize that for all his complaining and confusion, he was at the mercy of forces out of his reach this whole time. As for Japan, it moves forward into a new era where things seem better, though perhaps that just depends on who is telling the story.

At least the Portuguese Christians (Rupert Murdoch, for the purposes of this metaphor) are about to take a big L.

About Sean Keeley

Along with writing for Awful Announcing and The Comeback, Sean is the Editorial Strategy Director for Comeback Media. Previously, he created the Syracuse blog Troy Nunes Is An Absolute Magician and wrote 'How To Grow An Orange: The Right Way to Brainwash Your Child Into Rooting for Syracuse.' He has also written non-Syracuse-related things for SB Nation, Curbed, and other outlets. He currently lives in Seattle where he is complaining about bagels. Send tips/comments/complaints to sean@thecomeback.com.