tv review

Succession Returns, Nastier Than Ever

Photo: David M. Russell/HBO

The season-two finale of Succession ended with the detonation of a bomb within the deeply dysfunctional, impossibly wealthy Roy family. Instead of taking the fall for a massive scandal in the cruises division of Waystar RoyCo, the family business, Kendall Roy (Jeremy Strong) appears at a press conference where he places the blame for the misdeeds and cover-up on his father, CEO Logan Roy (Brian Cox). It’s a surprise maneuver that announces the gloves have really come off this time for this vaguely Murdoch-esque clan, but the finale ends before any punches can be thrown.

Two years after that episode aired, Succession is finally back for a third season on HBO, starting Sunday, October 17, and the punches, jabs, and kicks to the groin come from every direction in the gloriously nasty first seven episodes made available to critics. (There will be nine total this season.) Creator Jesse Armstrong and his team have drawn a stark line within the Roy family: You’re either Team Logan or Team Kendall. Although, given the shifty nature of everyone orbiting the Roys and their multimedia conglomerate, it’s more accurate to say that a number of people are announcing their loyalties while continuing to whisper with the perceived enemy, just in case.

Succession has always been an acidly observant, ferociously acted study of the ruthless world occupied by a privileged, self-important group of siblings whose power has been sculpted out of nepotism. This season, though, the writing drips with more poison, and the cast seems to relish more than ever the opportunity to disseminate its toxins. Perhaps Succession’s extended absence due to the pandemic has for them, as it has for many of us, made the heart grow fonder. And yet it’s important to note that it takes a little time for the new season to fully ignite: The first two episodes, while reasonably compelling, spend a fair amount of time spinning wheels via numerous scenes of phone calls about who’s on whose side and who should become interim CEO if Logan takes a temporary step back. The dialogue is rife with lines like “I need to know where everyone is and what they’re doing” and “Keep Gerri close,” Gerri being the Waystar RoyCo general counsel, played by J. Smith-Cameron.

Things really start to click and move in episode three, written by Veep alumni Ted Cohen and Georgia Pritchett and directed by Cathy Yan, as Kendall becomes more fixated on earning the public’s approval and the Department of Justice investigation into the company’s alleged crimes — including a series of sexual assaults on its cruise lines — signals it could intensify. But the stakes in every episode feel higher than ever. The sky always seems like it’s creaking and about to fall but hasn’t quite yet.

In classic Succession style, many of the episodes revolve around big events with VIPs and the glitterati — a stockholder meeting, an absolutely ridiculous, over-the-top birthday party — and while there are plenty of moments of suspense in these environs, what stands out most is how often the circumstances in this season of Succession elicit laughter. Despite the 2020 Emmy it won for Outstanding Drama Series, Succession is one of the funniest comedies on television; its humor is steeped in how well we know these characters and their cluelessness as well as the contrast between their myopic, self-inflating view of reality and what actual reality looks like. Kendall, hitting peak levels of bro-ey self-righteousness, is constantly spouting off ideas to his team of assistants while remaining convinced he can take down Waystar from the inside. This guy chugs gallon after gallon of his own Kool-Aid this season: “This is being in the conversation,” he says happily after watching the host of a late-night comedy series mock him for being completely out of touch. “This is fucking great.”

Kendall is sometimes loathsome — at one point he says to his sister, “It’s only your teats that give you any value” — sometimes cringey and pathetic, but very clearly lost in some fundamental way. Strong, already pretty intense in his portrayal of Kendall, ratchets up the tension even higher until Kendall becomes a walking guitar string tuned so tightly he threatens to snap. His pitch, always, is way too high.

As oblivious as Kendall is about how he’s perceived, his father, Logan, is equally out to a long lunch. Logan is in his twilight, and it’s apparent to just about everyone that he’s probably not the leader Waystar needs to keep moving forward in the 21st century. When confronted with an unpleasant obstacle, whether a subpoena or a challenging business negotiation, his strategy is often the same: “Tell them to fuck off.” Cox delivers those directives with his signature blend of grumpy old man and epic Shakespearean hero, another dichotomy that results in satisfying dark comedy. “I’m going to grind up his fucking bones,” Logan says in a threat he wants passed on to Kendall, “to make my bread.” This is what qualifies as a dad joke on Succession.

While there’s a lot going on with all of the characters this season, Roman (Kieran Culkin), the youngest of the Roy siblings and arguably the hungriest for his father’s approval, and Tom Wambsgans (Matthew Macfadyen), head of Waystar’s broadcast-news division and husband of Logan’s lone daughter, Shiv (Sarah Snook), stand out for having two of the most fascinating arcs. Roman, who can barely say his own name without brushing it with sarcasm, has always been willing to be brutal for the sake of business. But his desire to prove himself more competent than his sister and brothers increases this season, which gives Culkin permission to be even snakier, something he excels at, whether he’s simply trying to evade — “Can we get less question-y questions?” he asks prior to a town-hall meeting — or doing the kinds of dastardly things he starts to do in the season’s latter half. (Fans will also be pleased to know that Roman’s inappropriate flirtations with Gerri do indeed continue.)

Tom, often paired in his scenes with either Shiv or his onetime assistant–cover-up accomplice Greg (Nicholas Braun), spends much of the season in a state of obsessive worry about the possibility that he might have to serve jail time. “I am leaning toward FCI Otisville,” he tells Shiv casually while flipping through a packet of information about various prisons as though he’s deciding which Ritz-Carlton he’d like to visit. Later in the same episode, he has a meltdown when he realizes he won’t be able to have his very cold evening glass of white wine if he’s incarcerated. “How late can I read?” he wonders, panicked. Macfayden is at his jumpy, hilarious best when Tom gets worked into an extreme lather, and Tom is almost all foam in season three.

But as frothy and funny as Tom, Greg, or any of the others can be, they do not necessarily invite our sympathy. On Succession, that’s neither bug nor feature. It’s just a fact. There’s a common misconception about television, or just storytelling in general, that characters are supposed to be likable. None of the figures in Succession can be described as likable, and I can’t say I’m “rooting” for any of them. But I am fascinated and amused by them, and in season three, especially, I can’t wait to see what they’re going to do next. Rich people, or at least these particular rich people — turns out they’re nothing like us. That’s precisely what makes me want to keep watching.

Succession Returns, Nastier Than Ever