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.
It might take you a minute to get on the same wavelength as Succession, a show that presents itself as a prestige drama but often operates like a cruel satire. The camerawork is curious and intimate, the score an ominous twinkle of classical piano, and the performances deep and searching, but the material itself tends to tickle at the edges of absurdity. That’s a tough line to toe, but the approach of Jesse Armstrong, a The Thick Of It and Black Mirror veteran, serves the material. Succession, after all, is a very real, deeply human chronicle of the absurdities of wealth—the power it buys, the people it spawns, and the impact it has on those trying to snatch a piece of it. Sure, we laugh at our rich idiot president, but we fear him, too. Because he’s backed by families like the Roys, who, like the Murdoch and Redstone dynasties who no doubt inspired them, wield more power than we even realize. There’s a reason Succession keeps its president offscreen. It’s what people like Logan do that matters.
It’s both sad and sadly hilarious, then, that Succession introduces Brian Cox’s fanged patriarch as a confused old man pissing on the floor of his bedroom. Director Adam McKay (The Big Short) films it in such a manner that we feel pity for Logan, but reality sets in once we witness the climate of fear he’s cultivated at Waystar Royco. The brain behind the maneuvers of the world’s fifth largest media and entertainment conglomerate is collapsing.
The stage is then set for a successor. Enter Kendall (Jeremy Strong), psyching himself up for a meeting by rapping in the back of a limo. Though not without savvy, Kendall lacks confidence, a trait that isn’t helped by the years he spent snorting any substance in sight and, in the words of his estranged wife, Rava (Natalie Gold), getting “coke smeared all over the kids’ iPads.” Still, Kendall’s devotion to the family business seemingly sets him up for leadership better than his brother, Roman (Kieran Culkin), a sneering fuck-up who squandered his time in Waystar Royco’s film division. Connor (Alan Ruck), meanwhile, is happy on his New Mexico ranch, where he pontificates on his right-wing beliefs and prepares for the End Times (water, mark his words, will be more valuable than gold someday). And then there’s Shiv (Sarah Snook), who, despite being the sharpest Roy, fills her time outside the Waystar walls as a political consultant for left-wing candidates.
Everyone converges at Logan’s 80th birthday party, an event the family believes will culminate with the CEO announcing what roles his children will play in the company’s future. It’s a surprise, then, when, despite his ailing health, Logan announces he’s got as many as five more years in him as the head of Waystar Royco. Furthermore, he’s inserted his current wife, Marcia (Hiam Abbass), a mother to none of the Roy children, into the family trust, giving her just as much power as them. Nobody’s happy about this turn of events, least of all Kendall, who, in a pitch-perfect summation of his character, furiously tears apart the family bathroom before gingerly cleaning up his mess.
Future in flux, the behind-the-scenes politicking begins. Kendall leaks news of Logan’s health to the media; Roman convinces Logan to swap him into the spot previously occupied by loyal legal advisor Frank (Peter Friedmann); Shiv lobbies Logan for an elevated role for her eager-to-please fiancé, Tom (Matthew Macfadyen); and goofy-ass Greg (Nicholas Braun), Logan’s nephew, simply wants to get his foot in the door after crashing and burning through a number of low-level jobs. Near episode’s end, Logan himself lays out his own vision to Roman and Shiv, but, before he’s able to complete it, is struck by a brain hemorrhage. Kendall, Logan’s biggest disappointment, is the last to know.
What happens in between oscillates between character building—Tom wants to impress Logan with a gift; Roman invites a “business alchemist” to the office—and commentary, the latter of which is best exemplified in the scene that made the most waves upon Succession’s premiere. During a game of pick-up baseball—a Roy tradition—Roman offers the son of the working-class gamekeeper a million dollars if he can hit a home run. He writes the check and everything. When the kid is tagged out on third base, Roman makes a show of tearing up the very-real check in front of the kid’s face. As I wrote in my pre-air when the show debuted, “For the Roys, money is as much a toy as it is a tool. Those for whom cash is a daily concern are a novelty.” McKay punctuates this point when it’s revealed that the $10,000 watch Tom bought for Logan—a gift Logan ignored upon presentation—has been gifted to the groundskeeper. What was a toss-off for Logan, Tom, and Shiv is a life-changing amount of money for the everyday worker.
That’s a lot of table-setting. A lot of information, too. It’s nearly enough to dwarf the comedy of “Celebration,” which, from Greg’s mask vomit to Tom’s pathetic bullying, is abundant. Succession’s grey, austere aesthetic doesn’t prepare you for those laughs, though, nor do the palpable tragedies of Logan’s health or Kendall’s addiction. Like so many great series with distinct voices, Succession teaches you how to watch it as it unfolds. And its best moments are yet to come.
- “So, are we ready to fuck or what?” Kendall is trying so hard to be a badass.
- I didn’t get a chance to write about bitchy media innovator Lawrence (Rob Yang) above, but his disdain for Kendall and the Roys is telling. He’s a tried and true trailblazer, while Kendall was born into this life. Interestingly, it’s this theme that helps shape the relationship between Logan and Kendall.
- “Sometimes it is a big dick competition,” Logan tells Kendall in what’s probably one of the best portrayals of their complicated dynamic. There is nothing more clear in this series than that Logan thinks Kendall has a very, very small dick.
- Shiv summing up Logan: “My dad doesn’t really like things.”
- “The thing about me is I’m a terrible terrible prick,” Tom says, which, as we learn in future episodes, is both true and, well, not. I’ll talk about this more in future episodes, but what makes Tom so interesting is that his innate sensitivity is at odds with his desire to be feared. He is decidedly not intimidating, but, with Logan as his ideal, he believes an innate dickishness is the only way to command respect.
- Roman wanted to make a movie called Robot Olympics.