With season three of Succession now in the books, Vulture is returning to where it all began with weekly recaps of season one. Rewatch along with us and check back every Sunday night for the next pair of episodes.
“Are we ready to fuck or what?”
This is how Kendall Roy (Jeremy Strong) opens a meeting in “Celebration,” the first episode of Succession. Before he arrives at this meeting, we see him psyching himself up in the back seat of a chauffeured sedan, listening to the Beasties Boys’ “An Open Letter to NYC” as he punches at the passenger-side headrest like a speed bag. When he emerges from the car, he takes one drag from a cigarette before discarding it and strolling into the corporate headquarters of Waystar Royco, a family business of immense global reach. His confidence is conspicuous and weirdly contrived, as if he’s impressing some invisible cameras following him around — or, perhaps more accurately, trying to suppress the insecurity that burbles just below the surface.
Kendall can open a meeting with “Are we ready to fuck or what?” for two reasons: One, he’s the No. 1 son of the company’s CEO, Logan Roy (Brian Cox), and nobody will tell him “no.” Two, he imagines himself as a cool executive, not the crusty old head of a lumbering media firm, but a hip dude who can see the future and speak in the brash lingo of the younger, more desirable demographic. Today, he feels he’s going to need that language to speak to Lawrence (Rob Yang), the actually cool head of a Vice- or Buzzfeed-like digital entity called Vaulter, which has opened itself up to corporate backing. “I think Vaulter is the shizz,” says Kendall, unaware that time has elapsed on “shizz” as a popular slang term and, more damningly still, unaware of how cringeworthy a word like that would sound coming out of his mouth. After all, his chauffeur just called him “the man” downstairs.
Kendall is also a species of human that’s always been around but seized the spotlight during the Trump administration: the failson. Later, we’ll meet Logan’s other two failsons, Roman (Kieran Culkin) and Connor (Alan Ruck), and his faildaughter, Shiv (Sarah Snook), most of whom will be vying for the CEO spot at Waystar, but none of whom would be qualified for an entry-level position at any other firm. Lawrence knows this well, and he’s the only one in the room with the freedom to speak his mind, which he does so deliciously. He tells Kendall that he’s not going to let “you Neanderthals” raid the company, and he reminds him that he built an exciting new media brand from scratch while Kendall was etching track marks on his arms. It isn’t often that outsiders have the access to odious billionaires to tell them what they really think, and Lawrence takes advantage.
The lesson of “Celebration” is that it doesn’t matter: When you have that much money and power, anything is possible — at least, on matters where your soul isn’t at stake. Because the other lesson of “Celebration” is that money doesn’t buy happiness, especially in a family like the Roys, where the greed is corrosive and business rivalries poison every relationship. This is one reason why they are immediately so much fun to watch, especially in an immensely confident first episode where the show’s creator, Jesse Armstrong, gives them so many colorfully nasty things to say.
In the opening scene of the episode, the King Lear of this scenario, Logan, stumbles out of bed and, in a state of exhaustion and disorientation, urinates in the closet. It is a sign that the golden lion of Waystar may finally have to retire, and we meet his child-successors in short order after that: Kendall at his Vaulter meeting, desperate to secure any deal, no matter how terrible, to impress his dad; Roman, a shit-talker who failed in his executive tutelage under 30-year company veteran Frank (Peter Friedman) in L.A., but can still swoop in at any time; Shiv, who’s dabbling in political consulting while her fiancé Tom (Matthew Macfadyen) tries to ingratiate himself to his future father-in-law; and Connor, who is the firstborn but seemingly content in his life as a rich, eccentric layabout. Not exactly a sterling list of candidates.
Logan’s “surprise” birthday party also yields a potential wild card in the mix: Cousin Greg (Nicholas Braun), a lanky, amiable doofus who loses his latest job at Waystar after puking through the eyeholes of a mascot costume at one of the company’s amusement parks. At his mother’s encouragement, Greg cleans up and squeezes his way into the party, with the hope that his great-uncle Logan, a man estranged from Greg’s grandfather, will make a call and put him back on the management track. It doesn’t matter to Greg that Logan calls him “Cousin Craig” — he answers to both names.
The distance between the Roys and the lives of ordinary human beings becomes clearest in a family softball game that seems like something the Kennedys might have done on the compound — on a modest, helicopter-accessible field, with catering and a customized scoreboard. When the Vaulter deal takes Kendall out of the game, Roman summons a boy of clearly humble stock to pick up a bat and raises the stakes by offering him a million dollars if he hits a home run. The boy is tagged out at third base, and Roman, in a show of such flagrant monstrousness that even his father is embarrassed, rips the million-dollar check up in front of him. He gives the boy a piece as a joke: “Take this back to your life. It’s a quarter-million.”
What happens next is part of a subtle running theme of the episode. A company man quietly approaches the boy’s parents with a nondisclosure agreement and surely a money offering of some kind to keep Roman’s behavior from leaking to the press. He’s cleaning up after them. Earlier in the hour, director Adam McKay makes certain the viewers see a housekeeper scrubbing the spot on the rug where Logan urinated, and we suspect that Kendall’s violent temper tantrum in a bathroom will be part of the job later. The Roys always have someone cleaning up their messes. And they’ll never know who that person is.
•Nicholas Britell’s score is instantly one of the great scores in television, preceded so beautifully here by the lead-up to Kendall’s big meeting. It’s music suited to contemporary American royalty, but with appropriately disquieting notes.
• Waystar’s corporate slogan could use a polish. Block whatever metaphor this is supposed to be: “Working together to provide a net that can hold the world or catapult it forward to the next adventure.”
• Tom’s description of what he wants a birthday gift to Logan to say is perhaps the most efficient (and certainly funniest) character introduction of all: “It needs to say that I respect you but I’m not awed by you, and that I like you but I need you to like me before I can love you.” (Shiv’s response: “Everything you get him will mean an equal amount of nothing, so make sure it’s 10 or 15 grand worth and you’ll be fine.”) Tom gets him a watch, which Logan treats with the precise amount of indifference as Shiv had warned.
• Connor giving his dad sourdough starter — or “bread goo” — is also a character-revealing gift, as well as an indicator of where a lifetime of giving unappreciated gifts might lead.
• Three years clearly isn’t long enough to shake Kendall’s reputation as a drug fiend. His ex-wife Rava (Natalie Gold), speaking of the new guy she’s dating, says she’s “just hoping this one doesn’t leave coke smeared all over the kids’ iPads.”
• The other important bit of intrigue in this episode is the trust Logan pushes on his kids, which, among other terms, grants two votes to his wife Marcia (Hiam Abbass), who isn’t close to these adult children who are not hers. That the kids sign it anyway, despite their vociferous objections to the terms, suggests that Daddy is typically going to get his way.
• Kendall ultimately makes it impossible for Lawrence to turn down Waystar’s offer, but the great gobs of money don’t soften Lawrence’s contempt for him. Immediately after being the first to tell Kendall his dad has had a brain hemorrhage, Lawrence says coldly, “You just invited me into the chicken coop and without Daddy around, I’m going to eat you all, one by one.”