The first image in “Safe Room” is a surveillance shot of Kendall climbing up the emergency stairwell to access an empty floor leading to a terrace at the top of the Waystar Royco building. He’s going up there to be alone, to ponder what it might be like to hurl himself into oblivion, but the implication is this: He’s being watched. The last image of the episode places him on the same terrace again, this time surrounded by great glass partitions that would keep him from jumping, even if his despair summoned the nerve to do it. It’s a reminder that the Roy siblings are still children — bratty and tempestuous and spoiled, yes, but also vulnerable and easily wounded — and that their father (and the company) is still putting up guardrails, as all parents do, to make sure they stay safe and understand their limits.
One of the show’s running themes is how great gobs of money make personal growth nearly impossible, because there can be no consequences for your actions. Kendall has been acting out lately by stealing batteries and candy and vape fluid from convenience stores — his pathetic way of rebelling, of introducing some small measure of chaos to his now tightly managed life. He can be assured that the company will “handle” this minor misbehavior, just as it handled his impromptu restaging of Chappaquiddick during Shiv’s wedding weekend. The art of good parenting is to know when to take the guardrails away, trusting that your kids have figured out what is and isn’t acceptable, and can know intuitively where the lines are drawn. That’s how they become independent, moral beings who are ready to face the world. Otherwise, they’ll never learn.
The magic of Succession — as many have pointed out, including Vulture’s own Kathryn VanArendonk — is that the folly of the Roy children pivots between tragedy and comedy so fluidly. (And sometimes both at once, like those shots of Kendall getting chauffeured on the back of a motorcycle.) It’s possible to understand, at all times, that the Roys and the Waystar brand are actively working to make the world a worse place to their own extravagant benefit while feeling the full weight of Kendall’s fall from grace. The entire series began with Kendall in the back of a limo, pumping himself up for the company’s acquisition of Vaulter, and now the dominos have come crashing down: his failed vote of no confidence, his failed association with a “bear hug” bid from his father’s most bitter rival, and the unraveling of Vaulter itself, which was mostly just punishment for the other two betrayals. And that’s not to mention his failed marriage and absentee fatherhood or a drug addiction that continues to surge. For a man who has everything, he has nothing — not even the possibility of leading the company some day, and it’s hard not to empathize with that. Even Shiv, the most calculating and battle-hardened of them all, melts when she realizes he’s crying on her shoulder. “It ain’t gonna be me,” he says. His most important job now is to keep the father he resents alive.
The title “Safe Room” refers, in the most literal sense, to an active shooting scare that seems inspired by the bomb threat that cleared out CNN’s New York offices back in December. The sound of a single gunshot is enough to send Waystar executives scrambling to secure locations, though it’s one of the episode’s funniest bits that one safe space is a lavishly appointed panic room and the other is a stripped-down space with bottled water and a window large enough for “an attack child” to slip through it. Succession gets a situation like this exactly right: There’s speculation about an active shooter (wrong), likely connected with Antifa (wrong), and possibly targeting a member of the Roy family (wrong), which then allows for ATN to claim it’s under attack, no doubt feeding the worst fears of its endlessly aggrieved viewership. That the shot was actually the suicide of a segment producer is a perfect irony — that person wound up producing one last segment on the way out.
Amid all the hubbub, Logan and Kendall make headway with a Pierce representative named Rhea Jarrell, played by Holly Hunter, who’s given a proper introduction through a clandestine ride to the underground parking lot. Hunter’s verbal dexterity, honed in unforgettable roles like “Ed” McDunnough in Raising Arizona and Jane Craig in Broadcast News, proves ideal for the ornate filth of a typical Succession script. “On behalf of the Pierce family and the media organization that it’s privately owned for 150 years, the message would be a typically balanced, nuanced, and objective ‘fuck off’” would sound great coming out of anyone’s mouth, but Hunter has a distinct drawl that puts that extra spin on the ball. The Roys’ overture appears to be successful, or at least successful enough to bring Rhea back into the picture later.
“Safe Room” also affords the opportunity for premium Greg and Tom content. Greg has been hugely uncomfortable with his role as latte-fetcher for Tom at ATN, exacerbated this week by a human Tom employs as a footstool and a possible neo-Nazi who’s become the network’s new rising star. (“ATN. Human furniture. Verbal assaults. Physical humiliation. Nazi stuff. Shooters. I just don’t love it.”) The response Greg gets from Tom for suggesting that he move to another arm of the company is pure bruised entitlement, not because Greg is such a great friend, but because he’s the one person in Tom’s world who’s below him on the hierarchy. He only cheers up when Greg blackmails him into getting what he wants, which makes Tom feel like the teacher of a prodigious young student.
“You’re a fucking slime ball,” Tom says, beaming with pride. “Good boy.”
Sad Sack Wasp Traps
• Each of this season’s four episodes so far has been structured around a single conceit: the “winter palace,” Vaulter, the hunting trip, and now the active-shooter scare. It’s helped to hold the multiple ongoing subplots together, just like last season’s episodes around the group-therapy session at Connor’s estate, Tom’s bachelor party, and the two-parter at Shiv and Tom’s wedding.
• Amazing subplot about Ravenhead, the far-right provocateur who got married at the Nazi congregation site called Eagle’s Nest, named his dog after Hitler’s dog, and participated in a far-right conference in his early 20s. Tom’s attempt to tread lightly over Ravenhead’s past backfires in hilarious fashion when he learns that the would-be conservative broadcaster read Mein Kampf more than once (“Are there Easter eggs in there you didn’t get the first time?”, wonders Tom) and that he doesn’t count Jews among the list of European fatalities during the war.
• In an episode loaded with great looks — Tom when Greg tries to blackmail him, Shiv when she realizes Kendall is crying on her shoulder — J. Smith-Cameron’s expression when Gerri realizes Roman is getting off on her degrading insults is a lusty delight. For Roman, being called “pathetic” and “a revolting little worm” is more authentically arousing than a strained attempt at phone sex with his girlfriend.
• Roman masquerading in the theme park as Dirk Turkey has serious meme potential. (And if you’re looking for a steady stream of Succession memes on Twitter, the @nocontextroyco account is a must follow.)
• Frank on Rhea: “She could be our Coriolanus …” Logan: “Why don’t you take your library card and fuck off.”
• Connor’s appearance at Mo’s funeral is another highlight, for the “‘Mo’ Lester” revelation (“Old Mr. Fiddlesticks, Uncle Meathands. Dad wouldn’t let us in the pool with him”) and the heavily edited eulogy. (“Lester was a man. Also, Lester was an employee of the Waystar company for 40 years. And when a man dies, it is sad.”)