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 premiere, “Pre-Nuptial,” here.
Below. you’ll find my original review of the finale from back when it aired. I stand by pretty much everything here, though there’s a few things I’d love to note here that I didn’t previously.
First off is the question of how Kendall’s relationship with his siblings will look in season two. The scene where Shiv, Roman, and Connor confront him after the bear hug is tense and gutting—it’s especially interesting to see how Shiv and Connor, two people who’ve either avoided joining the family business or, as in the case of Shiv, actively fought it, react to the possibility of Waystar no longer being in family control. To steal a phrase from Gil, Waystar isn’t a company, it’s a planet, and the siblings clearly never envisioned a reality in which it wasn’t there waiting for them. Kendall, then, is the ultimate betrayer. There’s also the question of how Stewy and Sandy will react to Kendall’s decision to nullify the takeover. By selling his soul to his dad, he’s basically alienated everyone else in his life. Except, of course, for Greg, who’s hesitant to make an enemy of anybody at this juncture of his career.
Speaking of, I totally underestimated The Egg in my first watch. Maybe it’s the exquisite awkwardness of Nicholas Braun’s performance, but it wasn’t until this watch that I realized just how calculated he’s being. He’s cautious, sure, and eager to lean into his innate innocence, but there is a quiet ruthlessness there that is slowly fermenting. I love how this show refuses to give us a truly innocent character. Everyone has an agenda. Everyone is in it for themselves. If that idealistic character did exist—and it would, if this were airing elsewhere—I can’t imagine anything more dishonest. Succession is a show about sharks.
Also, just a final note about Kendall, whose arc in this season is so gorgeously woven and movingly performed by Jeremy Strong. I overlooked his brilliance on my first watch, which, in my defense, is easy to do when you’ve got Braun, Kieran Culkin, and Brian Cox delivering such audaciously entertaining turns. Strong, though, clearly has Kendall’s arc in mind from moment one, and the way he balances his aggressive sobriety and gleeful rebellion feels so perfectly, carefully calibrated, as if one doesn’t exist without the other. “Nobody Is Ever Missing” adds even more layers: There’s something so beautiful and sad about watching his post-crash terror and anxiety dissipate as he dances with his family to Whitney Houston. To see that brief spell of catharsis wither as he’s ushered into Logan’s chambers is heartrending, but the tears he spills have been ready and waiting all season. This is someone who is not ready for anything that’s been thrown at him this season. Logan’s not wrong when he says, “the world, you’re not made for it.”
As you’ll see in the below recap, I previously felt there was no way for Kendall to remain at the forefront of the show. His arc is finished. It’s like a D’Angelo Barksdale situation. That said, I’d hate it to lose Strong as a leading man. Well, the good news is that the trailers for the new season have more or less centered around him, which makes me endlessly curious about what they’ll do with him in the new season.
We’ll get to explore it together, gang! My review of season two’s first episode goes up on Sunday night.
Anyways, read on for my original review.
Nobody wanted to like Succession. Nobody asked for a show about about the rich, white people destroying America. Nobody asked for the Roys—an amalgam of the Murdochs, Redstones, and Trumps—in an economic and cultural climate hobbled by billionaires and clueless media conglomerates. Nobody wanted to like these people, and isn’t the expectation that the show would expect us to like these people? There was a fair share of social media sniffing upon Succession’s premiere, but Jesse Armstrong’s satirical drama has won over a fair share of its haters, who’ve come to realize the show isn’t a celebration of the wealthy, but rather a blistering, angry, and hysterically funny exploration of how the interpersonal dynamics of the 1% directly impact the nation they, by virtue of their wealth and influence, help control.
Are we supposed to like Kendall, Roman, Shiv, and Tom? Armstrong doesn’t seem to care. Or, rather, he never expected you to in the first place. It’s not as if their individual journeys have sought to make them more palatable; it would be disingenuous, after all, if Kendall’s attempts at yanking Waystar-Royco from his father’s clutches were for some kind of “greater good” instead of a balm of his own ego and insecurity. Shiv’s backing of Gil Eavis, a presidential candidate in the mold of Bernie Sanders, isn’t ideological, but in her own personal interest. Sure, her father is a monster, but her willingness to aid and abet his destruction carries its own strain of cruelty.
Still, and this is the tricky part, the Roys aren’t simply vessels for satire. If they were, Succession wouldn’t be nearly as effective as it’s proven itself to be. Armstrong’s given us some gorgeous moments of humanity, whether it be in Shiv’s complicated approach to fidelity or Roman’s genuine concern for Kendall’s addiction issues. And, as we saw in tonight’s finale, the depth of Kendall’s insecurity is a tightening vice; the brief shots of him dancing with his children are so affecting because happiness is literally in his grasp, but his addiction to power is as potent as his desire for blow and he just can’t stop himself from chasing all the things that make him so deeply miserable. What’s so clear is that these kids have been shaped and molded into the monsters they are now, and while that doesn’t excuse their near-sociopathy, it certainly earns them some empathy. Armstrong doesn’t care if you like them, but he does want you to see that, apart from sweet, daffy Cousin Greg, they’re not really enjoying this. They’re acting on instinct. “Succession” carries multiple meanings, after all. Logan may describe Kendall as “curdled cream,” but it’s his poisoned blood running through his son’s veins.
“We’re not going to let it spoil anything,” Greg tells Kendall after it’s revealed that a waiter at Shiv and Tom’s wedding died in a car accident the night before. Greg says this is the “family line,” and it may as well be the show’s, too. Logan, Kendall, Roman, Tom, and the rest of Waystar Royco are responsible for the livelihoods (and, in many instances, the actual lives) of hundreds of thousands, and we’ve spent this entire season watching them discuss networks, jobs, scandals, and tragedies as if they were inanimate chess pieces, with their own personal squabbles serving to directly impact decisions that will roll indefinitely downward. Empathy is bad for business, as is personal responsibility. Logan can divorce himself from those things; it’s why he’s successful. What we’re left wondering in the finale is whether or not his kids can do the same.
Because the party is spoiled by the tragedies that befell Roman and Kendall, though their individual responses to these events speak to the intricacies of their characters. Roman’s sloppy, selfish leadership leads to a satellite being launched before it’s fully ready—“I thought it would be nice to have it on Shiv’s wedding day, like fireworks”—and he watches the thing explode on the launch pad over a livestream, leaving him to fret as to whether he’ll be liable for “corporate manslaughter.” He tries to follow after his father, willing the event out of his head as he wanders back into the party, forcing a smile on his face and telling friends it went well. It’s eating at him, though; well, until Gerri tells him that no one died—appendages were lost, however— giving way to a burst of jubilance from Roman. “I’m not gonna ruin a party over a couple of fucking thumbs!” he screams, knowing he’ll be safe.
Kendall, who becomes indirectly responsible for the death of the waiter when he drives his car off a bridge, is similarly concerned for his own well-being, but his response speaks to a more existential terror. He tries to cover his tracks, but fails, leaving his hotel key card at the scene of the crime. He tries to shake it off the following morning, but can’t lose the guilt. He’s called into his father’s office, where he’s forced to confront the horrible truth that, despite being a 40-year old man, he still needs daddy to bail him out. This entire season we thought the Succession was about Kendall’s “hostile takeover” of Waystar Royco, when, it turns out, Armstrong was much more interested in a character study. And, despite Kendall being a spoiled, shitty corporate suit, there is just something so goddamned sad about watching him acknowledge to his horrible fucking father that, fuck, he’s just not very good at this. “You’re my number one boy,” Logan says as Kendall sobs into his chest, knowing that he’s finally got this thorn in his side under control again.
It’s hard to imagine where Kendall’s story goes from here, as his arc this season feels complete. It’s impossible to imagine him ever trying to usurp his father again, and if Armstrong is aiming for authenticity in its upcoming second season he would be wise to relegate Kendall to the sidelines and bring Shiv, Tom, and Greg to the forefront. Their stories, it feels, are only just beginning.
Shiv’s proven she doesn’t want to play too dirty when it comes to getting Eavis elected, and there’s fertile soil in her continued efforts to get an anti-capitalist in office when she carries the weight of Waystar on her shoulders. Tom, meanwhile, continues to grapple with the remnants of his Midwestern naïveté as he eases into life as a member of the elite. It’s dispiriting, obviously, to watch someone cast off whatever goodness they still had—how sad was it a few weeks ago when Tom bailed on his old friends to go the club with Roman?—but Armstrong framing it as Tom’s march towards confidence makes it a touch more palatable. Watching him bully the handsome, smarmy Nate out of his wedding party was a scene I didn’t know I needed. Matthew Macfadyen is undeniably this show’s breakout star.
And then there’s Greg. The Ringer’s been joking that Succession will eventually reveal itself as the story of Greg’s rise from geeky intern to corporate overlord, and, based on the power play he pulls on Kendall here, that could very well be the case. In his shaky, stammering way, Greg reveals to Kendall that he was involved in Tom’s sexual harassment cover-up, and that they’d be wise to keep him on board if they didn’t want that information getting leaked. Kendall, tickled, calls him a “little Machiavellian fuck,” and I am onboard for Greg’s ascent in the Roy family ranks. It might not happen next season, but one day Greg is gonna get Tom back for all those punches in the arm. It might not be pretty.
Honestly, I’m onboard for wherever Armstrong and company want to take this story next season. I am so not done hating these people.
- Just a note here to call out all the performances. Jeremy Strong was a bit stiff for me in the early going, but his turn as Kendall took on more and more dimension with every episode. His performance in the finale is gutting; subtle, layered, and deeply vulnerable. Nicholas Braun is a revelation as Greg, asserting himself as the most accessible character in a den of vipers while still exuding a bit of ambiguity regarding his own motives. Also, shout to Sarah Snook’s turn as Shiv, who’s had some of the chewiest material in regards to her relationships with Tom and Nate. Her post-wedding chat with Tom in the bedroom was one of this episode’s best written scenes, and her and Macfadyen navigated its numerous pivots with a wonderful sense of affection, confusion, and frustration.
- Also, I didn’t get a chance to talk about Connor above, but, Jesus Christ, Alan Ruck is hilarious. When we interviewed him about the show, he said that Connor suffers from an undiagnosed “delusion disorder” and, if it weren’t clear already, it’s pretty obvious when he starts talking about running for president. “Sounds like a fun project,” Willa says when he tells her. Please, please, please let this storyline continue next season.
- “Socialism, huh? Wow. I got a big problem with you and everything you stand for, my friend,” Connor says when he corners at Eavis at the party. “I look at you and I see Weimar, I see hyper-inflation. I mean, I look at your face and, no offense, but I see dead babies.” Later, he tells Shiv that Eavis “buckled under intellectual scrutiny.” Connor is literally a MAGA Twitter reply guy. I also couldn’t get enough of his repeated talk of “my readings.”
- “I spoiled you and now you’re fucked.” Logan gets right down to it, doesn’t he?
- Tom: “Can I send him home?”