close reads

Succession’s Sincerity Conundrum

Photo: HBO

Amid the emphatic synths and cooing scale-running in the inimitably operatic, wholly perfect pop classic “What Is Love?” by Haddaway, the singer repeats two agonized requests: One is existential (“What is love?”); the other is direct (“Don’t hurt me no more”). And though Eurodance is many miles away from Nicholas Britell’s sophisticated Succession score, Haddaway’s queries come to mind while watching the Roys engage in death by a thousand cuts. Does Logan Roy (Brian Cox) love his children? Do his children Connor (Alan Ruck), Kendall (Jeremy Strong), Roman (Kieran Culkin), and Shiv (Sarah Snook) love him, or each other? And, in a world where caring for another person might mean harming your own interests, does love matter?

Succession is devoted to binaries, to navigating the tension between oppositional extremes and tracking the ways individuals adapt in response. Power and powerlessness: the race to the top set off by Logan’s season-one stroke, his would-be successors constantly plotting to push each other down the hill. Domination and submission: the endless sparring to be Logan’s second-in-command and heir apparent, even as it becomes clear the siblings’ opinions and perspectives only matter if they align with their father’s. Hope and hopelessness: the second generation’s realization that Logan’s offhand description of his relationship to his family as “love, fear, whatever” in season-two episode “Return” is heavy on the “whatever.”

The cutthroat nature of Succession rarely changes because the show hinges on the tempers and tempests of Logan Roy, and Logan Roy does not change. Everyone must respond and react to his decisions, whether in business or in life, and wins or victories are often brief. Yet in this third season, in the cracks of the series’s foundation of cynicism and selfishness, something unexpected grew: sincerity. Laced through with egocentrism and delusion, sure, because it’s rare that anyone on Succession does anything entirely altruistically. All decisions, in the end, are motivated by money. But with increasing frequency this season, Kendall, Roman, and Shiv deviated from the path of what they were expected to do and say, and did so from a place of earnestness and morality that was somewhat unexpected — but increasingly gratifying to watch.

This third season begins immediately after the second ends, with Kendall trying to gain some sort of justice for the “no real people involved” in the crimes on cruises. Still consumed with guilt over the death of waiter Andrew, for which he blames himself (a belief likely strengthened by Logan’s cover-up and ensuing blackmail), and obsessive about proving he’s not a “bad person” like his father, Kendall works to get his siblings on his side. In “Mass in Time of War,” he calls a meeting of the four Roy kids and insists, “This is our chance to pay our dues and wash our hands for absolution.” His façade of righteousness is self-serving (he undercuts unimpressed attorney Lisa Arthur by questioning whether she’s really the best in town), and his stunts are increasingly cringeworthy (crashing the stage to recite victims’ names at the shareholders’ meeting in “Retired Janitors of Idaho”). But whatever his motivations for leaking documents and collaborating with the federal government, he’s still trying to do something for other people in a way neither Shiv, handed an empty position by Logan and made to deliver inauthentic speeches about Waystar Royco’s commitment to its female employees, nor Roman, sending unsolicited snaps proving nothing comes between him and his Calvins, yet have.

Kendall has always been the rawest Roy child, an open wound who stares a little too long over the edge of the Waystar roof and slips a little too easily off his inflatable into an Italian pool. It takes longer for Shiv and Roman to care about their own complicity in the family’s moral wrongdoings, but they do get there. First is Shiv, whose increasing sidelining by her father after he promises her the top job in season-two premiere “The Summer Palace” — first for Rhea, then for Roman, now for assistant turned lover Kerry — brings forth bitterness and resentment. Perhaps those feelings inspire Shiv to throw her weight behind Representative Rick Salgado (Yul Vazquez) in “What It Takes,” in which the Roys travel to a secret Republican convention where politicians and donors meet to decide the next presidential candidate. Salgado’s promises to put Logan in jail and help make Shiv CEO, coupled with his middle-of-the-road policy positions, probably jazz her, too. (Remember when Shiv used to work for the show’s version of Bernie Sanders? A simpler time!)

But in the locked-door suite where Logan, Kerry, Hugo, Roman, Connor, Tom, and Shiv convene to decide whom they should endorse, the reasons that would personally benefit Shiv if Salgado were in the White House fall away. Instead, her agenda immediately pivots to stopping Roman’s pick of fascism fetishist Jeryd Mencken (Justin Kirk), an “It’s all red pill, baby!” ultra-right congressman who lovingly speaks about the ideological positions of “H”(itler). It’s clear through both Will Tracy’s prickly script and Snook’s increasingly panicked performance that Shiv’s concern is less for her own position and more a genuine worry for, as she puts it, “the American republic.” She huffs in shock, she cocks her head in befuddlement, she waves her hands around like she’s in House of Gucci. She is legitimately unnerved by how easily Logan knights the wannabe dictator, and director Mark Mylod makes us share her concern by framing Shiv in centered close-up, staring almost directly into the camera, as she delivers her final warning: “He’s fucking dangerous!”

Photo: HBO

Shiv’s then-spinelessness means she still poses with Mencken the next day, her pouty “I’ll be in the photo, but not right by him” an inarguably pathetic line in the sand. This is as far as her rebellion goes when she’s still benefiting from the gilded cage. Like Kendall, though, Shiv’s realization of her own expendability overlaps with the finally bubbling sense that something is very wrong about how Logan runs his business and his family, and there might be no one — alone — who can stop it.

This comes to the fore in season-three finale “All the Bells Say.” Kendall and Shiv have always recognized themselves in each other (“It’s you now. I’m sorry for you, Siobhan”), and now, they finally see eye to eye on their father and are able to enlighten Roman, too. The middle child, whom Succession has hinted for years as the primary target of Logan’s physical abuse (“Don’t fucking touch him!” Kendall roars in the season-two episode “Argestes” after Logan hits Roman so hard he loses a tooth), and who clearly fears his father as much as he seeks his approval, spends most of season three as Logan’s preferred child. He has the business experience Shiv lacks and the dogged loyalty Kendall threw aside when he tore up those notes at the “This Is Not for Tears” press conference; think of Roman’s puffed-up “I’m the only child you’ll ever need, you can kill the others” voice message for Logan from “Too Much Birthday.” But when faced with the evidence that Logan is cutting them out of a future at Waystar Royco — and after hearing Kendall’s tortured admission of Andrew’s death — something in Roman shifts.

It’s in Culkin’s physicality, and how Mylod, again in the director’s seat, positions Roman, Shiv, and Kendall during this evening. How small Roman looks against the dismissive Kerry, then how looming while standing over the dusty Kendall — their bodies dueling against each other — until he gets down in the dirt, seated beside the brother he’s spent the whole season accusing of patricide and who in turn accused Roman of not being “a real person.” Roman never takes off his sunglasses, but putting himself on his brother’s level is one act of sincerity, his wiping away tears when they get up to leave is another, and his head rub and subsequent pushing away of Kendall as they leave the parking lot is an affectionate moment of boys-will-be-boys solidarity. Whereas Kendall and Shiv needed to see how Logan’s actions affected people outside the family to secure their opposition, for Roman, the inciting moment is seeing how much Logan has hurt his own. Whatever boundaries that began to fall away in this scene completely topple as the siblings drive to Logan’s villa for their united coup attempt and as Culkin’s fabulously elastic face takes us from skeptical to resigned to hopeful.

They fail, of course. Logan has outsmarted them, undoing the supermajority clause their mother Caroline worked into her initial divorce settlement and essentially removing them from relevance within Waystar Royco as it sells to tech giant GoJo. Logan denies them the opportunity to step into his shoes after all — the goal he had trained them all to want. Roman, so preferred over the preceding eight episodes, has the most to lose in standing up to his father, and Culkin’s unsteady delivery of “… Love?” in response to Cox’s snarling “What have you got in your fucking hand?” is a moment of delicacy and destruction. A sense of integrity bonds the Roy children against the father who represents myriad evils, but that connectivity is not yet so formidable as to push them into victory — it is enough for Logan to scoff at, but not respect. By the time Logan has eviscerated, as he calls them, the “nosy fucking pedestrians,” Roman and Kendall’s positions from the wedding parking lot are reversed: Roman comforting a crumpled Kendall is now Kendall consoling an aghast Roman. The appeal to Logan’s human side by the children whom he loves to kick over and over to see how much they’ll take, who are demonstrably anguished in their request of “Don’t hurt me no more,” does not play, because it does not help Logan win. Love, fear, whatever.

Contrast how Kendall, Roman, and Shiv behave in the finale with their noticeably absent sibling: Connor. The “eldest son,” who took Kendall and Roman into the wilderness when they were kids and whose fishing trip provides Roman with his “single, multiuse, happy-childhood memory” in “The Disruption,” has previously been quite sentimental toward his half-siblings. But throughout season three, he takes a harder edge as he feels the financial loss from Willa’s failed play and becomes more invested in his presidential run. (Now up to one percent in Republican polling, baby!) He tries to bully Shiv for a European job with Waystar Royco; he threatens to blackmail the company and speak publicly about its racist and sexist culture; he gets into Kendall’s face during the siblings’ failed intervention. Connor’s fear of his own irrelevancy turns him colder and crueler, and although the siblings clue him into their attempted coup (via Roman’s call: “Well, Con, this is me layering you in. But I can’t talk about this right now because it’s complicated and I don’t have time. And also you’re a little bit slow”), it’s not impossible to imagine a fourth season in which Connor joins Tom and Greg behind Logan — and leaves his half-siblings holding, as it were, the poop bag from that camping trip.

“All the Bells Say” takes its title, as do the finales of seasons one and two, from the 1964 John Berryman poem “Dream Song 29.” In that work, a man named Henry, who scholars agree is somewhat based on Berryman (and who I would suggest, in Succession terms, is Kendall), imagines he’s killed someone and muddles through worry and regret over his supposed action. “If he had a hundred years/& more, & weeping, sleepless, in all them time/Henry could not make good,” Berryman writes. With both “open eyes” and “blind” ones, Henry thinks he’s “too late.” But the reality is that “nobody is ever missing” — nobody but Henry himself, whose consciousness is fragmented and fractured by his self-persuasion and self-doubt. Will the fourth season of Succession take its finale title again from this same poem? Perhaps. Berryman’s other works yield choices, too: “The doomed young envy the old,” from “Dream Song 190”; “How are you? Fine, fine (I have tears unshed),” from “Dream Song 207”; “Am I a bad man? Am I a good man?” from “Dream Song 239.”

Of all these, though, a certain poem seems most appropriate when looking toward the future of the Roy children on Succession: “I am, outside. Incredible panic rules,” from “Dream Song 46.” What happens now that Kendall, Shiv, and Roman chose their consciences over Daddy and were punished for it? Does their implosion mean there’s no place for sincerity in Logan’s house — no room for acting with even the barest hint of earnestness or righteousness, and no room for the kind of acceptance they so desperately crave?

On the one hand, maybe there isn’t, since Shiv’s realist husband is the one who betrays them. But on the other, the children linking arms together feels like a long time coming. Think of Kendall’s appeal to Shiv in the season-two episode “Safe Room,” in which he rejects her assumption that Logan is still grooming him for the top seat. Instead, nearly weeping after surprising his sister by asking for a hug, Kendall quietly requests, “I would just ask that you take care of me.” That same tone is exactly what imbues Kendall’s Italian confession and his aching “Can I be with you guys?” No one but the Roy children can really understand the Roy children, and forgive my sentimentality, but I think a denouement that finally allows the siblings to see each other as, in Kendall’s term, “a real person” is as melancholy, empathetic, and humane as Succession can get. Everything they try to do to counteract Logan’s influence and puncture his impenetrability fails, but the inherent act of trying, and the effort it requires and the unity it brings, isn’t itself a failure. What is love? Maybe the Roy children can find that answer in each other.

Succession’s Sincerity Conundrum