Critic's Notebook: 'Succession' Raises Its Game in Season 2

Succession S02E10 Still 1 - Publicity - H 2019
Graeme Hunter/HBO

[This contains spoilers for the second season of Succession, including the finale.]

Ellen DeGeneres spent much of this past week under fire — limited fire and emanating mostly from an echo chamber, if we're being perfectly honest — for her decision to watch a football game in a luxury box with former president George W. Bush. Critics claimed Ellen was using her semi-unimpeachable cloak of niceness — many also questioned the use of that cloak on behalf of Kevin Hart this winter — to shelter a man who wielded his power to undermine and damage much of what Ellen has always stood for as a public figure. Ellen argued that her mantra has always been "Be kind to everyone," a sweet and banal ethos that it's probably best not to put to the test. Underlining the entire incident, which isn't likely to impact Ellen in the slightest because she's basically immune to such things, is the latest reminder that no matter how many unconnected circles one might occupy in a Venn Diagram, overlap in the realm of economic class can often make up for myriad points of disparity.

Under the most kind of interpretations, the Ellen/Dubya kerfuffle is an illustration of two things: The curious, situationally laudable, human ability to occasionally find commonality even with people who might seem repugnant and the prodigious insularity of incredible wealth.

With that in mind…

Succession had a hell of a second season, didn't it?

Ellen spent one Sunday afternoon sitting with the middling offspring of a second-rate dynasty and probably only benefited from the experience if the luxury box nachos were good. Audiences did the same for 10 Sunday evenings and were treated to one of the best-arced tragicomic seasons in recent TV memory, an elaborately composed prelude to a death, though it was never completely clear as the season went along whether it would be a literal or metaphorical death, a murder or a sacrifice or a suicide.

One thing that was notable about the second season of Succession was how aggressively it pushed to make the Roys simultaneously more relatable on the level of individual characters and less relatable on an overall narrative level. Much more so than the first season, this run of episodes had a single-minded focus on the eponymous succession of Waystar Royco and the possibilities that a shareholder revolt might prevent that succession from occurring at all. Individual episodes concentrated more and more heavily on that insularity of wealth, nearly every hour taking place at a remote retreat, a country house or literally in the confines of a safe room. There's a common language of opulence that Ellen and George W. might speak together, but this season of Succession has emphasized how far the Roys are beyond even that tier. The finale included one scene with Logan trying to transact business on the side of a freeway outside of a strip-mall coffee shop and the most jarring aspect of the scene was seeing Logan operating down on a mortal plane, like one of those Greek myths where Zeus decides to hang out on Earth, something the god mostly did when he wanted to get laid, not that Logan wasn't also determined to screw somebody in this finale.

There was almost no point in the season in which you could find a hand-grip of relatability in the storyline, yet each character evolved this season in ways that let you find something resembling empathy or sympathy. Kendall (Jeremy Strong) slipped into the darkest of emotional abysses. And that was before he rapped. Roman (Kieran Culkin) experienced the strangest variation of "love" in his relationship with Gerri (J. Smith-Cameron) and then a confidence shattering moment of timely international intrigue in Turkey. Shiv's (Sarah Snook) roller coaster of elation and shattered confidence this season had more full inversions than anything at one of the company's theme parks. Greg (Nicholas Braun) found the gumption to demand the "ory" at the end of his first name and much more. And even Tom (Matthew Macfadyen), pathetic and vapidly eager to please, found either pride or an instinct toward self-preservation. Every evolution was grounded in layers of trauma — Logan hitting Roman, intentionally or not, and Kendall springing to his defense was a defining scene — and vicious hilarity and kinkiness.

The finale, as I hinted, was always leading to a death of some sort. The media demanded it. The shareholders demanded it. Somebody had to pay for the amorality of the company's cruise division, a synecdoche of contrition for a synecdoche of corruption.

In one perfect dinner table (or breakfast table) showdown — the sort of scene Succession constructed on a weekly basis with no diminishing returns, even though a lesser show might have looked at the dinner confrontation in "Tern Haven" and said "We've peaked!" — each Roy and Roy-adjacent member of the company's hierarchy made the case for whose head should roll. They threw each other under buses, they saved their own hides, they exposed animosities and insecurities. And, as will always be the sign of a well-considered parlor piece, every reaction was completely in character, whether it was Shiv's swift willingness to surrender Tom, Roman's timid-yet-sincere defense of Gerri, Connor's selflessly selfish willingness to take the fall in exchange for being presented as calculating genius or everybody's eagerness to roll on Frank. If not for that scene in "Tern Haven," the season's tipping point in terms of Logan's misguided hubris and Shiv's ill-considered impatience, I'd call this episode's finger-pointing breakfast the season's highlight.

The aftermath was equally superb, with Shiv shying away from making a tangible recommendation and Logan making it clear to Kendall that he was the fall-guy and that he never could have run the company because he isn't a killer, leaving aside the events of the first season finale. The selection of Kendall, so perpetually needy and so eternally morose, as the Roy family scapegoat was probably inevitable. Kendall's end-of-episode conversation with Shiv in the season's fourth episode, the one that culminated with "Yeah, it ain't gonna be me," was a symphony of melancholy. The season began with Kendall reduced to an almost worm-like state unable to even make eye-contact with his father and even if he had ups and downs from there — several life-changing sexual partners, one unfortunate incident of bed-shitting, the aforementioned detour into hip-hop — he seemed eager to fall on a sword, any sword. Had Kendall simply self-flagellated before the media, it would have felt like what he felt he deserved, earning a measure of respect from his siblings and, "Yeah, that was probably the right way for things to end" from viewers.

But, recalling the words of Holly Hunter's Rhea in dubbing him "Oedipus Roy," what Kendall did at the end was more thrilling, if equally inevitable, tearing up the script, indicting Logan to the media and exposing himself for the killer he probably thought he was in the pilot (with support and an assist from Cousin Greg[ory]). Far from looking slain or vanquished, Logan's reaction to watching Kendall's press conference on TV was initially dispassionate and ended with the most inscrutable of near-smiles, allowing viewers to free-interpret. Was it a smile of pride, that one of his children actually did have the killer instinct? Was it a smile of triumph, like this was all his plan, and his alone, one built on understanding that the shareholders wouldn't let him remain atop the masthead, but still wanting to avoid a public humiliation for himself that would leave him with no clear successor? Was it a smile of complicity, like in some conversation we didn't see Kendall and Logan hatched a plan and it came to fruition?

It all comes down, I suppose, to how much agency you think Kendall is entitled to. Or how much paternal love or respect you want to give Logan credit for. Or, actually, how much business acumen you want to give Logan credit for and I'm not sure we've had all that much cause for that credit to be given. Perhaps it's just Logan finally truly understanding Marcia's question, "What could you possibly kill that you love so much that would make the sun rise again?"

The son rises again.

It was a great finale full of wit ("I've had worse experiences at hotels. I once stayed at a Marriott."), silliness (Willa's spectacular shriek and iPad disposal reading reviews of her play) and breathtaking sadness ("I love you. I do. I just wonder if the sad I'd be without you would be less than the sad I get from being with you."). Oh and Tom ate chicken off of Logan's plate, which was very empowering. And everybody wore great hats. And Shiv's high-waisted yacht attire is sure to start trends.

And it capped a season in which every writer (kudos Jesse Armstrong and company), director (kudos Mark Mylod and company) and actor raised their game from the already superlative first season, all perfectly timed to the departure of Game of Thrones. Strong should be poised to move to the top of every Emmy list for a performance that curled more and more deeply internal and burst out in unexpected ways. If Game of Thrones was worthy of seven supporting performance noms, Culkin, Cox, MacFadyen, Braun, Snook and Smith-Cameron should all be nominated next year (plus Holly Hunter, once we count the number of episodes she was in to assess her category eligibility).

I can't speak for everybody whether the pleasure of watching Succession comes from rooting for the Roys to crash and burn or from the hope that some of the Roys might be redeemed or the real estate porn, yacht porn and fashion porn that lets us believe that if we had the money to sustain this sort of life, maybe we wouldn't waste our time eviscerating those closest to us?

With Succession now gone until next year, I wish I knew where I could find venal billionaires to hang out with on Sundays. I fear my NFL luxury box invite may be lost in the mail.