I had, and have, no patience for any show that “gets good around episode four.” Or, as was the case with the now Emmy-nominated HBO drama, episode six. Six!!! Who has the damn time? Even a member of the show’s Roy clan would scoff at the idea of investing in an entity so slow to return on capital—in this case, your precious hours.
In order to interview series executive producer Adam McKay and creator Jesse Armstrong prior to season one—an interview about the show’s timeliness that proved more than worth it when McKay began talking about his approach to the Dick Cheney movie, Vice—I screened the first three episodes.
While an intriguing look at dynastic wealth and power, a depressingly prescient topic in our early Trumpian years, the episodes were lethargic and almost mystifyingly boorish, with Shakespearean dialogue substituting “fuck” and “shit” for every “thou” and “doth,” only having the effect of retarding the pace even more.
But week after week, critics and colleagues whose opinions I respected kept insisting that Succession was getting good. Like, really good. Like Best-of-the-Year, Emmy-worthy good. I caved. I slogged. I conceded.
The band of ruthless, hapless weirdos won me over. The Roys tripping through Wall Street while gagging on the foot constantly lodged in their throats was a hoot. They practically crawled under the weight of guilty consciences, deliciously. They became more intriguing by the minute, as their crescendoing repugnancy reached the end of the show’s hall of mirrors, where it was no longer possible to discern which reflections were fun-house depictions of our current state and which were crystal-clear confrontations.
By the time we were chasing Kendall (Jeremy Strong) by foot through Manhattan traffic, journeying to an orgiastic bachelor party in Prague with Roman (Kieran Culkin), or cringing at the operatic explosion of Shiv (Sarah Snook) and Tom’s (Matthew Macfadyen) wedding, the series had found its clip and we were sweating with it.
The Roy family’s six-way tug-of-war for power had finally detangled from its knot of narrative throat clearing, toeing the line between absurd and darkly dramatic in ways that routinely threw audiences off balance. What had initially seemed like accidental missteps, it soon became clear, were made with great intention.
The chore of finishing season one gave way to a desperation to explore season two. Which brings us to Sunday night. (Warning: Spoilers for the end of season one and Sunday’s season two premiere follow.)
There are critics who think Succession needed the world-building bloat of that exhausting first half of season one in order to execute the exhilarating back half. Others think a very good season could have been perfect had the gateway to the good stuff been cut in half, even down to 30-minute episodes. But even if you thought there was some trepidation in getting to the point last year, there’s no question that Succession is swaggering up to season two with its dick swinging.
The premiere picks up where season one left off, which is to say at an exceptionally bleak crossroads. At Shiv and Tom’s wedding, Kendall goes on a drug binge and accidentally commits manslaughter, killing in a car accident a bus boy whom he had convinced to escort him to more drugs. He reacts in the most privileged way possible, by returning to the party and mingling as if nothing happened, like he could wish it away with a shower and clean shirt.
His father, Logan (Brian Cox), learns about the accident and assures Kendall that he can shield him from blame, so long as Kendall ceases the planned coup of the family company that the rest of the season had dramatically been building up to.
Now Kendall, who at one point had seemed like a conduit of the audience and the show’s best case for a conscience, suffers Succession’s biggest fall. However emasculated and small he was when we met him last year, he’s nothing more than a pathetic mouthpiece for daddy now.
Kendall is drafted into damage control, forced to publicly reverse his plan to take over Waystar Royco. His siblings, Roman and Shiv, unaware of the horrific circumstances behind his change of heart, revert to bullies, confused as to why they now have to deal with a traitor brother when it comes to the future of the company.
Roman’s reaction to Kendall’s backtrack is pure Succession poetry: “But Jesus, Elvis on the fucking toilet. Like he doesn’t come back from this, right? Like he just walked around the New York Stock Exchange with his severed dick in his hand asking where was good for free soup.” He giggles. “He just ate the big dog dick. Sucked that pooch bone dry.”
Later, when the siblings all finally come face-to-face at the family’s beachside manor, a reunion meant to decide the company’s fate, they are relentless. Roman: “He’s like a sex robot for dad to fuck.” Shiv: “He’s like an old, beaten dog.” Roman: “He’s both of those things, and also a piece of shit.”
We shouldn’t enjoy this dialogue so much. It should be repulsive. In every way these characters represent the Trump family, or the Murdochs, or the Redstones, or whatever one-percent-of-the-one-percent dynasty you want to project onto them, that kind of machismo should be equally unappealing in today’s climate. The series cleverly exploits the kind of testosterone-as-language we all claim to despise, then confronts us with the fact that we delight in it.
It’s this Gordon Gekko-like take on the conversation we have when it comes to shows like The Handmaid’s Tale or Years and Years, dramas that some dismiss as too-real cautionary tales that are unpleasant to watch when the truth of the world is already unbearable. We shouldn’t still find in this world of wealth and privilege the same kind of escapism we once did in pop culture, but clearly we find value in it—or at least curiosity. In its own way, a social circle where “fuck you!” is a perfectly accepted translation for “goodbye, talk soon!” seems cathartic.
And so we root for the Roys as they weigh the decision to sell the company and run away with the $10 billion they stand to get from the deal, or fight for control and attempt to survive as the final media conglomerate standing. There are brutal machinations involved, of course. The kicker to the latter plan is that Logan has to name a successor, and none of his kids are obvious fits.
You know everyone is going to be led on and screwed over a million times. You cheer when Logan tells Shiv he wants her to be the successor, but also shiver knowing what betrayal will surely come her way as they pledge to keep it a secret. Still, you’re thrilled for the fight.
Maybe the most talked-about moment from season one took place in the bachelor party episode, where Tom admits that he was (forgive me, Lord, for what I’m about to type), sucked off by a girl who let him cum in her mouth, then kissed him and made him swallow his own load. Metaphorically, he’s not the only one.
On Succession, everyone gets off at one point or another on the power move they think they’ve finally masterminded. But no sooner do they experience the release, the very move they made is shoved back down their throats. How they play off the act—grotesque or empowering—is the key.
With that, Succession is off.