I often think about Succession as Large Adult Son: The TV Show, referring to that useful phrase to describe the failsons of billionaire families like the Trumps and Murdochs (and my personal favorite, Wyatt Ingraham Koch) who are expected to carry the torch but lack the intellect and discipline to do anything but burn through their trust funds. Kendall and Roman Roy are two different flavors of Large Adult Son: One is an overmatched corporate poseur whose weaknesses are exposed and exploited on each ill-advised power play, the other a smug button-pusher who talks tough but leans on others to cover up his rank incompetence. And that’s to say nothing of their brother Conner, who’s too busy bidding for Napoleon’s penis and possibly running for president to handle the day-to-day at Waystar Royco.
We laugh at these characters every week, but one of the remarkable aspects about Succession is that it has the pull of Shakespearean tragedy, too. One thing about Large Adult Sons (and Daughters) is that we have to see them as children, too, who have never reached maturation and who are surely a constant disappointment to their fathers. Behind the bilious lava flow of Donald Trump Jr.’s Twitter feed is a naked, almost poignant yearning to please the distant father who reportedly once slapped him to the ground in his freshman dorm. The seventh episode of Succession’s first season, “Austerlitz,” which gathered the Roy children in a family therapy session with their father on Conner’s ranch, made that anguish clear. Their pain is right on the surface, just as it would be with a 5-year-old. And like 5-year-olds, if they can’t please their parents, they’ll lash out.
In season one, Kendall’s failed attempts to conspire against his ailing dad, specifically the vote of “no confidence” and the “bear hug” of a hostile takeover from a rival, were, in part, an expression of hostility and hurt. When Logan asked him why he wants to take over the company — like, what’s his vision? — he had no answers. And Shiv serving as a political consultant for a liberal candidate who explicitly threatens her father’s cable outlet makes it plainer still that the Roy children are constantly acting with him in mind, often speaking in corporate and political power plays. The therapy session in “Austerlitz” was the rare occasion when they could be direct about how they feel about him, and it was, of course, a catastrophe, shut down by his defensiveness and hostility. As ever, he asserts his dominance over them.
The pre-credits drama in “The Summer Palace,” a near-perfect kickoff to the new season, picks up a couple days after the last season ended. After getting bailed out of a Chappaquiddick-like incident at his sister’s wedding — with the additional price of withdrawing from Sandy Furness’s takeover bid — Kendall has escaped to a spa in Iceland to hide out and recuperate. At this point in his life, he has nothing but his addiction left. His father has permanent leverage over him. His siblings are furious about the deal, which influences their futures without their knowledge or consent. And, oh, by the way, he’s living with the guilt of claiming an innocent man’s life with his recklessness.
There are so many reasons to dislike Kendall, but the sight of him being dragged out of this peaceful place to commit ritual seppuku on television for his father’s benefit is crushing to witness. He has a notecard with a brief talking point (“I saw their plan. Dad’s plan is better.”) that begins to resemble the brainwashed troops talking about Raymond Shaw’s benevolence in The Manchurian Candidate. Even then, there’s so little confidence that he can get cleaned up enough to deliver the lines that his handler nearly kills the segment. Kendall’s nose bleeds from the cocaine. He looks, in Shiv’s words, “waxy, like an unshaven candle.” And yet he does the minimum to help his father fight off the still-threatening bid, even throwing in a solid line about Logan outdueling a municipal bus. Cut to Logan’s reaction in a boardroom in New York: “Ladies and gentlemen, the first fucking thing my son has ever done right in his life.”
Series creator Jesse Armstrong, who wrote the episode, makes tragicomedy out of Kendall’s predicament. There’s something both hilarious and sad about Kendall getting escorted around on his own motorcycle — a symbol of personal freedom turned into a two-wheeled stroller. It’s a small mercy that Cousin Greg turns up briefly with a bag of park cocaine just so he has someone to abuse. (“If my septum falls out, I’m going to make you eat my septum.”) Otherwise, he’s completely at Logan’s mercy as the old man tries to beat back Sandy’s overbid for Waystar. It’s with no small amount of shame, for example, that Kendall reveals all the embarrassing secrets meant to undermine faith in his father’s ability to keep running the company — his list of medications, him hitting his grandson at Thanksgiving, him pissing on the office floor. Ultimately, Kendall is exiled to making reassuring calls to shareholders and to nurse his addiction with the necessary “straighteners.”
In order to assure stockholders of Waystar’s future under the Roys, however, Logan has to choose a successor. That means summoning the family to “the summer palace” of the title, where workers hastily prepare the linens and lobsters but can’t remove the horrible stench that’s emanating through the place. As a metaphor for the rotting elites, a bag full of raccoon carcasses stuffed into the chimney may be a little on the nose, but it’s also comically apropos. (Think about the estate of a Florida timeshare mogul in the documentary The Queen of Versailles, which fills with dog shit after the economy turns and there’s no staff around to clean up the mess.)
Logan wants to leave his company with one of his children. And process of elimination alone will tell you there’s always been only one choice: Shiv, whose nickname already suggests an important tool of the trade. As much as she’s drifted into the political arena, Shiv cares enough about Waystar and her father to put her honeymoon on hold—and then cancel it altogether. Logan takes an obligatory meeting with Roman to hear his pitch, which is a hilariously profane and incoherent bid to cast him and his father as corporate raiders (“We’ll Scooby-Doo it, Dad, dress up as ghosts in a theme park”), but the meeting with Shiv is the only relevant one. When he tells her she’s his only choice to run Waystar or else he’ll sell the company, there’s reason to believe he’s serious. And it turns out this is what Shiv has always wanted, despite her constant challenges to his authority.
When the dust settles in “The Summer Palace,” Logan has decided to fight Sandy & Co. to the bitter end, but he’s still holding his cards close to the vest. News of Shiv’s future ascendancy is under wraps for now, which means it’s not really a sure thing at all. He may be committed to running Waystar as a family business, but he’s not confident about his Large Adult Sons and Daughter, at least insofar as he’s still keen to manipulate them as he pleases. As LBJ once said of J. Edgar Hoover, “It’s better to have him inside the tent pissing out than outside the tent pissing in.” This move brings Shiv inside the tent for now. It’s still not her tent yet.
Sad Sack Wasp Traps
• An episode full of absolutely poisonous Roman lines. On his brother’s cable appearance: “He’s Elvis on the fucking toilet. He doesn’t come back from this, right? Like he just walked around the New York Stock Exchange with his severed dick in his hand, asking whether it’s good for free soup. He just ate the big dog’s dick, sucked the pooch bone dry.” On the smell in the house: “Dead kids’ shallow grave somewhere?” On Connor’s auction for Napoleon’s penis: “What are you gonna do, get that and Hitler’s nutsack and blend it together in a take-over-Europe smoothie?”
• Some colorful language from Logan tonight, too, including a fine evocation of the palace stench (“It smells like the cheesemonger died and left his dick in the brie”) and a poetic description of the historic moment when he asks Shiv in earnest to be his successor (“Remember this, this slant of light”).
• Roman’s impulse to slip a clever little bon mot into a sober press conference about the satellite explosion is delightfully sociopathic. (“On that point, I’m not a rocket scientist.”)
• I used the phrase “near perfect” to describe this episode because of its woeful lack of Cousin Greg content. But his one scene with Kendall is a treat, especially when he has to walk back his compliment over the penthouse. “It could be way better,” he says. “I just don’t … know how.”
• The new opening credits are a minor tweak on season one, keeping Nicholas Britell’s extraordinary piano theme while slightly modifying the back-and-forth between Roy home-movie footage and the sleek cityscape they partially rule. The credits in both seasons recall David Fincher’s The Game, another story about children of wealth who are trying to wriggle away from their father’s toxic, tragic legacy. The Roy kids are less equipped to do it.
• Killer exchange to end the episode. Kendall: “He will send men to kill your pets and fuck your wives and it will never be over.” Sandy, unshaken: “Good. Then let’s move ahead with that process, shall we?” Game on.