Critic's Notebook: HBO's 'Succession' Gets Bigger, Better and More Nuanced in Season 2

It's a pretty easy argument to say that HBO's Succession is one of the best dramas on television — and not in that vague, Top-20 kind of way, but very securely in the small handful of dramas that continue to surprise and confound in creative, impressive ways.

There might be no area where Succession succeeds more than in how it makes mostly unlikable family members open to fleeting stretches of viewer compassion, a particularly keen feat because they treat each other and virtually all the people they meet so shabbily. The more you watch, the more inconceivable this trick seems. Just when you want one member of the Roy family to extend the brief interludes of their best but faintest qualities (kindness, smarts, loyalty — whatever it may be) they invariably self-immolate and let you down.

Ah, but the greatness lies partly in how, when the next opportunity arises, you bite again instead of giving in to cynicism. What that means, in short, is that series creator and writer Jesse Armstrong has not only created excellent, memorable characters, but he and his writing staff are very deftly using them to defy odds with the audience.

Now, it's also true, as Succession heads into the second half of its second season, that many people may be watching just because the searing, dark humor of this 1-percenter family makes for entertaining television — or because it's good to see the ultra rich completely unhappy and awful, just as many of the rest of us hope their lives of luxury unfold, a chip in the silver spoon.

But nonetheless, the overall grand achievement is there — Succession has managed to get better in its second season after a brilliant first one. Most of this is because now we have a better connection to each character and those additional layers that they bring can allow the show to grow. 

The two obvious examples are Sarah Snook's Siobhan Roy and her husband, the hilariously weaselly Tom Wamsgans (Matthew Macfadyen). Shiv, as she's perfectly known, spent most of season one adroitly positioned outside of the bloody infighting. The series concept is that the Roys are all lined up, like bitter little spoiled kids, behind their larger-than-life father, Logan Roy (the magnificent Brian Cox), head of the Waystar Royco media and entertainment conglomerate that he runs with an iron fist and a blood-thirst for acquisitions. When Jeremy Strong's Kendall, the eldest and likely heir, makes a bold move to fast-forward the transition with a takeover, it ends very, very badly (and in the long, compelling process, Armstrong managed to make Succession a tour de force of comedy and drama). All along, it was Shiv that seemed best suited, with hints, to take over — and by the end she was jettisoning her outsider role and, like most of her siblings, ready to make a play for dad's affections and control.

What Succession has done with Shiv/Snook this year is arguably the key to the season — she leapt for the ring and we learned, and continue to learn, that she's no less voraciously hungry for power, annoyed by perceived slights to her authority, and spoiled in her demands to take over the company right now as Kendall was. Snook has superbly illustrated Shiv's baser instincts and her undoing. As mentioned above, every time you want her to be the one, to be the Roy that is somehow different, she's not. There's a strange cocktail of comeuppance, sadness — empathy, even! — and inevitability in her failures so far.

You won't find dissent here if you believe that Macfadyen — the British actor so adroit at shifting gears and not only instantly becoming a greedy upper-middle class American in desperate pursuit of more, but funny as hell in the process — is the performer who brings the most joy to the proceedings, an often necessary function as Succession gets bleaker. People should be yelling "Wamsgans!" at douchey New England preppies everywhere as they pass them on the street.

As season two progresses, we will see Macfadyen give the obsequious Tom a little more backbone and a new, infinitesimally noticeable hint of compassion may arise as the Waystar Royco company hits turbulence. Let's not forget that in all the jovial moments with Tom, the sharks in the Roy family — including his own wife, Shiv — had zero qualms about setting him up as a patsy.

Shiv's elevation — and whatever buffeting winds of Roy drama that have hit her up there since — is arguably the standout twist so far in season two, but Succession has also made a decision to focus on some major outsiders this season. And that is shaking up the show in interesting, but not always productive ways. 

Cherry Jones as Nan Pierce, the head of a rival media company that Logan wants too-desperately to buy, and Holly Hunter as her trusted advisor and peacetime consigliere Rhea Jarrell, are acclaimed actresses who are absolutely killing it in these roles. But there are some repercussions as well. More of those two, Hunter in particular, has sidelined the excellent Hiam Abbass as Marcia Roy, Logan's third wife and mysterious gatekeeper. There was far too little of her in the first half of the series but, having seen ahead, they are shifting her back into place and the results are both good and necessary. More of that would be nice. 

Succession is also suffering through some pacing issues this season and perhaps some of that has to do with expanded stories and expanded cast, which has meant less of minor but enjoyable characters like Caitlin FitzGerald as Roman's ignored girlfriend and Arian Moayed as Stewy, Kendall's smug and sarcastic friend turned nemesis from season one. Add in Eric Bogosian's abrupt departure from the story and the barely seen James Cromwell as Logan's brother and grandfather of Greg "Gregory" Hirsch (played by Nicholas Braun as the bumbling, ignored cousin who might be the only relative with a heart or conscience) and you can start to see where there's not enough work to go around. 

It's a good problem, though, as it seems like the series is mostly being smartly selective in elevating storylines. Giving the wonderful J. Smith-Cameron more to do as Gerri, the in-house counsel, has panned out well because she's taken Kieran Culkin's machine-gun icy sarcasm as Roman and found a weird heart inside a character who plays everything with protective shields up (a necessity in the Roy family, though he is often the instigator). Having this unexpectedly oddball-but-affectionate relationship slow-play over this season adds hues that weren't there before.

It will be interesting to see if Succession can stick the landing, as it did so surprisingly and effectively in season one. Having seen a number of episodes ahead, I can say with assurance that Succession has lost nothing of its excellence but is rattling a little bit in intensity as it comes in hot toward an ending where both Waystar Royco and the Roy family are in crisis. The plot is moving faster now and the stakes, for both family and series, are raised.