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It's Kendall's first day on the job in an on-the-nose Succession

Photo: Peter Kramer (HBO)
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In advance of the second season of HBO’s Succession, we’ve decided to revisit the first season episode-by-episode. Yes, we shared some thoughts ahead of its season one premiere and also wrote up the finale, but we’re big fans of Jesse Armstrong’s wickedly funny exploration of the ultra-rich and want to dig a bit deeper as we gear up for the new season’s August 11 premiere. Expect new reviews on Tuesdays and Fridays. See a review of the second episode, “Shit Show At The Fuck Factory,” here.

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If the first two episodes were primarily about how the Roys operate as a family, “Lifeboats” is about how they function in the world at large. “Lifeboats” is vital because it finally offers us a look at how Waystar Royco is run, from the tenor of the meetings and layout of its offices to, most importantly, the ways in which Kendall (Jeremy Strong) and Roman (Kieran Culkin)—the newly appointed CEO and COO in the absence of Logan (Brian Cox)—preside over a company in turmoil. We’ve seen Kendall sweet-talk his colleagues and swing his dick at uneasy collaborators like Vaulter’s Lawrence (Rob Yang), but we haven’t seen him wheel, deal, or, well, lead. It turns out his style involves leavening that sweet-talk and dick-swinging with a healthy dose of motivational huffing (“shake the tree!”) and forward-thinking buzzwords—I must confess, as someone who works in digital media, I can’t help but shudder every time I hear shit like “monopolistic disrupters,” not to mention a besuited, out-of-touch billionaire tossing off words like “interactive,” “franchisable IP,”and “new, original multi-platform content.”

Kendall doesn’t seem like a horrible leader, nor does he seem like all that gifted of one. Granted, he and Waystar are, as he puts it to Shiv, “on the brink of total corporate collapse”—her response: “That figures”—what with the stock rapidly dropping and the need to pay back $3.25 billion of Logan’s debt looming on the horizon. Faced with an imposing phone call, Kendall fails at trying to emulate his father—“My dad’s a bastard,” he tells Gerri, “they need to know I’m a bastard, too”—with a curt “fuck off” directed at the bank’s agent. After that fails, he goes his own way, meeting up with old, coke-snorting college pal Stewy (Arian Moayed), a private equity shark who’s happy to pony up $4 billion for a sizable stake in the company. Kendall loves the optics of it: “Shit hot new CEO has some hot shit new money for investment. New generation. I keep the debt out of the news. Fuckin’ sisters doing it for themselves.” God, what a goon.

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Roman, meanwhile, is painted with the broadest of strokes in this episode. He spends meetings bemoaning his personal trainer and calling the internet “a fuckin’ game changer,” then responds to news of mass firings with a hearty, “Yes! Blood!” His view of the COO, after all, involves “being an agent of change and fuckin’ firing people.” It culminates in an eerie, on-the-nose scene where he jerks off against the window of his office, spewing literal jizz over the city in which he’s been granted so much power. The emails on his unattended computer, meanwhile, continue pouring in. Roman takes on more dimension in later episodes, but here we get only the stereotype—the entitled, born-into-this rich kid obsessed with frying ants with his magnifying glass. Succession doesn’t ask us to like its characters, but it does want us to see them as flesh-and-blood humans. Roman, unfortunately, still doesn’t feel like one. Not yet, at least.

Marcia (Hiam Abbass) can sometimes feel the same way, if only because she remains such an enigma. As the Roy children yearn to see their father, she blocks them at every turn, saying that Logan “doesn’t like you all to see him when he’s not himself.” A distrusting Shiv (Sarah Snook) calls upon an old colleague (and lover), Nate (Ashley Zukerman), to run a background check on her dad’s current wife. What he digs up is a marriage to a successful businessman in the Middle East, one known for entertaining both politicians and arms dealers. Marcia’s life before that, however, remains a mystery. She, Connor (Alan Ruck), and fiancé Tom (Matthew Macfadyen) assume the worst. Shiv does, eventually, talk her way into her dad’s room, where, in a state of drugged confusion, he tells her he loves her before pulling her hand towards his crotch. Shiv, disturbed, leaves, and the audience is left wondering if such bleariness is what Marcia was warning Shiv about, or if there’s a darkness to their past that’s as yet unexplored. It’s all complicated that much more when Marcia, a touch of subtle menace to her voice, implies that she’s aware of the background check. “If you want to know anything about me, just ask,” she says as Logan’s bodyguard roams in their periphery.

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It all renders Marcia somewhat blurry, which isn’t quite like Succession. To help sustain the mystery of her intentions, she’s purposely kept at a distance from the audience, our perceptions of her being shaped almost solely by how she’s viewed by the Roy siblings. That might be necessary, but it’s also frustrating, as no other character on the series is really treated as such.

Speaking of untrustworthy characters, there’s also Sandy Furness (Larry Pine), a competitor who drops into Waystar to offer his condolences. “Your father would shoot him on sight,” Gerri tells Kendall, who can see right through Sandy’s offer of “swaps, acquisitions, cooperative interactions.” The sharks are circling, he’s told, which is what helps steer him towards Stewy. What we discover in the episode’s final moments, though, is that Stewy and Sandy are thick as thieves. The only problem? Greg’s the one who sees them, and Greg doesn’t know shit.

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What Greg (Nicholas Braun) does know is that he’s “growing weak due to a lack of sustenance” and, as such, needs to steal the complimentary cookies provided to Waystar’s employees, of which he can now count himself. His job is unclear, but that’s fine by his boss, Tom, who sees Greg as a punching bag to help him transition into his new role overseeing the theme park division. Just get the kid some non-deck shoes first.

It’s only appropriate that “Lifeboats” ends with Logan popping Kendall’s balloon. After a wild night that involves dinner and sex with ex-wife Rava (Natalie Gold), Kendall is called to Logan’s side just so his dad can call him a “fuggin’ idiot.” He’s able to persevere through the falling stock price, despite knowing it’s representative of “how much people don’t like me.” He’s able to convince himself that being CEO is enough to make Rava want him back. During sex, he tells her again and gain that “we’re not breaking up,” despite her repeated assurances that no, they’re not. What he can’t get past is a slurry insult from his father, who, it seems, hasn’t changed his mind about how he wants in charge. If solving a $3.25 billion debt crisis isn’t enough, what is?

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Stray observations

  • That shot of Kendall watching the garbageman through his limo window is telling. The working-class is right there, but the distance between them is impossibly vast.
  • “The Hulk is the incredible one, right?” Rava replies when Kendall asks if he should go “Hulk or Bruce Banner.” This whole bit’s funny, but it’s also just so pathetic. Kendall really wants to impress her and she couldn’t care less.
  • I will never get over Tom’s last name being Wamsgans.
  • It’s also hilarious that Greg would show up to the office not knowing Tom’s last name, nor what kind of job he’s being hired to do. Tom’s indifferent wave to him in the lobby as he stumbles with the receptionist is brilliant in its simplicity. Tom clearly forgot about him.
  • “They’re just bags, really,” Greg says of the green dog waste bags he’s inexplicably putting cookies in. “They don’t pre-poop them.”
  • “Does my breath smell?” “It smells of breath.”
  • Tom’s dog’s name is Mondale.
  • I love catching glimpses of the training videos Greg’s had to endure. The rote narration, bullshit values, and cheesy stock footage are so on point.
  • Sorry these were mostly about Greg and Tom. That will probably just be the case going forward. Braun and Macfadyen are magic together.
  • “Porn could be a lifeboat.”
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About the author

Randall Colburn

Randall Colburn is The A.V. Club's Internet Culture Editor. He lives in Chicago, occasionally writes plays, and was a talking head in Best Worst Movie, the documentary about Troll 2.