- Share this article on Facebook
- Share this article on Twitter
- Share this article on Flipboard
- Share this article on Email
- Show additional share options
- Share this article on Linkedin
- Share this article on Pinit
- Share this article on Reddit
- Share this article on Tumblr
- Share this article on Whatsapp
- Share this article on Print
- Share this article on Comment
[This article contains spoilers for the April 9 episode of Succession.]
“You are what you do, Logan. In the end, you’re just what you do.”
Those words represent the cruelest thing Frank (Peter Friedman) can think to say to Brian Cox’s Logan Roy in the pilot for HBO’s Succession. Logan has just told Frank that, after 35 years of service, he’s being pushed into a secondary role, in part because Logan is considering which of his reprobate children will be taking over his corporate empire.
In the end, you’re just what you do.
Frank’s job was saved because, of course, the Succession pilot ends with Logan experiencing a brain hemorrhage on one of the family’s private helicopters — one of several times in the show’s run that Logan’s demise was approached asymptotically but never reached.
Death, though, is not an asymptote. Sunday night’s Succession was a shocking gut-punch of an episode, but it was simultaneously unexpected and wholly inevitable. The chances of Logan Roy ending Succession alive were close to nil. The show has always existed in a pre-nostalgic haze, the vicious realities of life in the Roy family preceded by the fragmented opening credit sequence that turns their lives into snapshots from a context-free family album. Logan’s children have spent three-plus years pre-grieving him and plotting their next steps in his absence and, at various points, they’ve all seemed almost eager to rush into that orphaned unknown. Heck, at times the inevitability has seemed to be that one child or another might directly or indirectly contribute to Logan’s death.
Instead, Logan died surrounded not by his children (whereas the stroke in the pilot took place with three of the four, minus only Kendall, present), but by much of the Old Guard — not surrounded by blood, but by Frank, Karl, Karolina and Tom (who is blood-adjacent, but definitely doesn’t count, as Logan would surely tell him).
Great TV shows handle death on their own terms and with their individual vernaculars.
Game of Thrones delivered one shocker after another, and no show handled the mechanics of sudden death as effectively, but Westeros was always a realm in which death was too matter-of-fact to cut deep, at least for me. Deaths were different from each other because of their degrees on a baroque scale — a Red Wedding here, a toilet patricide there — more than the grief experienced by any single character. Death produced power vacuums, and that’s what characters dealt with instead of mortality.
I’m more interested, personally, in shows that force their characters to grapple with death on personal levels (rather, even, than on the omnibus conceptual level that Six Feet Under achieved).
It’s why “The Body,” from Buffy the Vampire Slayer, is a landmark episode. Buffy was, by destiny, surrounded by death and, at one point, her own death was the key to saving the universe. At any point, the show could have killed Joyce, Buffy’s mother, in a manipulative fashion tied to a Big Bad. It could have been a pinnacle of evil for a pinnacle-of-evil character. Instead, the reason Joyce’s passing hits home is because of its normalcy, its naturalness in a show grounded in the supernatural. It hurts because every character on the show can process a vampire or a giant lizard killing innocent people. Nobody can process natural causes.
Processing is hard to depict, and part of why so many of the broadcast shows that aimed for This Is Us-style tear-wringing landed on unrelenting mawkishness. The crescendo of grief is never just one thing, and it’s never a smooth arc. If you don’t honor that, if you pump up the unrelenting musical score or stick the camera in the face of a blubbering actor and assume audiences will follow, it’s Pavlovian. The thoroughly earned tears wrung from shows like The Leftovers, Sorry for Your Loss or Halt and Catch Fire, a series that can make me cry through memories alone, almost never came at a conventional climax, because their creators know that’s not how grief works.
“Connor’s Wedding,” written by Succession creator Jesse Armstrong and helmed by the show’s directing MVP Mark Mylod, did a remarkable job of landing on the chaos of death and how we react to it, nailing how the confirmation and finality of death run counter to the human response to it. What we know on an intellectual level to be inevitable isn’t something we can easily talk our hearts into comprehending.
I said that great shows confront death on the terms of their own greatness, but Armstrong upended that, because if ever there were a series in which characters could talk their hearts into believing something, it would be Succession. Succession is a show of rigorously constructed dialogue, characters having the most potent responses imaginable to every circumstance. Nobody knows how to hurt you like the people who know you best. I’m willing to bet that no character on Succession could tell you what any other character’s favorite food is or what movies make them laugh, but they’re all Rhodes scholars when it comes to each other’s weaknesses.
Sunday’s episode was masterfully inarticulate at moments, because Shiv, Kendall and Roman aren’t trying to hurt each other, which would be something they understand. They’re just hurt, which makes no sense. As they’re getting updates from the WayStar RoyCo principals on the private plane after Logan collapses in the bathroom, they can’t process anything. They refuse to believe this thing that they’ve each imagined and fantasized about. The passing around of that cellphone, the last tether or umbilical cord connecting them to their primary tormentor and their primary paternal figure, is a horrifyingly lurching and realistic dance. Each Roy knows that the minute they hang up, the second they hand the phone to somebody else, they’re alone with their own thoughts, even if they’re surrounded by a garish party. The phone becomes a life preserver in the most literal sense.
In vintage Succession fashion, it’s all set against an embarrassingly opulent backdrop, a private yacht taking them to Connor’s wedding — a day of bittersweet joy to begin with, what with both the season’s family estrangement and the always tenuous “romance” between Connor and Willa. Kendall was the last to find out about the stroke in the pilot, but Connor is the last to find out about the death here, and his reaction was my emotional trigger. “I never got the chance to make him proud of me,” says Connor, whose hopes for earning that paternal pride were hinging on marrying a former escort or getting 1 percent in a presidential election. The show has always been a Shakespearean tragedy, but the past two weeks have really underlined the strange ways that Connor could end up being its most tragic figure — and therefore possibly the most likely heir (in contrast to Kendall, the presumptive heir in the pilot).
Often treated as a punchline through the show’s run, Alan Ruck has been killing it with melancholy moments, one after another, and we’ll need to stage some sort of revolt if this year doesn’t end his streak as the show’s only major and recurring Emmy snub. Add Justine Lupe into that award-worthy mix, because Connor and Willa’s conversation on the nature of their relationship — “I’m not gonna walk. Not today, anyway.” — was beautiful and human; if it turns out that Connor is the series’ hero and that Connor and Willa are its least toxic love story, it would serve us all right.
But everybody was spectacular in this episode. Shiv’s sputtering incomprehension, Roman’s looming descent into a breakdown, Kendall’s trademark ability to over-calculate everything (“We’ll get a funeral off the rack. We can do Reagan’s with tweaks,” was one of several lines, even in this tragic episode, that had me in stitches) — each character choice brought out the best in Sarah Snook, Kieran Culkin and Jeremy Strong. That awkward final hug with the three siblings? Gracious.
I loved J. Smith-Cameron’s simmering rage as she was put into the same position here as Frank was in the pilot, her job spared by tragedy. I loved Matthew Macfadyen’s balance between Tom’s inept attempts at kindness toward Shiv and his much more effective eviscerations of Greg — more a sign of necessary venting than enmity in this rare instance.
Credit Mylod for tying everything together expertly. The camera is as unable to come to terms with the realities of Logan’s death as his children are. We don’t see him fall. We barely see doctors attending to him. We’re kept on the outside, looking for answers and looking for truth in a way that we wouldn’t have been if we’d seen an EKG flatline or if Nicholas Britell’s score had reached a decisive crescendo. There’s almost no music for much of the episode, and the audio often feels like it’s coming from inside a fish bowl or a vault as the luxury yacht becomes a floating panic room.
Perhaps the only member of the Succession team who didn’t have a series peak in this episode was Brian Cox, but last week’s episode was full of great Logan moments, from his regal speech in the newsroom to his pained efforts at manipulative karaoke reconciliation. He’d had his moments. Last week we saw Logan in his element, a glimpse at the titan.
This week, though, he was what he did. What he did, was die. His presence was tearing his kids apart. But was it also the only thing keeping them civilized?
This week we marveled at Succession, an all-time great show in peak form. Next week, we’ll mourn Logan Roy. Then the claws can come out. Nah. As Logan would say, “Fuck off.” Expect no respite before the arrival of the claws.
Sign up for THR news straight to your inbox every day
More from The Hollywood Reporter
The Full Monty
‘The Full Monty’ Star Hugo Speer Says He Was Dropped From Disney+ Spinoff After Runner Saw Him Naked in Trailer
Neil Patrick Harris Says Filming for ‘Uncoupled’ Season 2 Is “on Pause” Due to Writers Strike
Writers Guild Members Get Candid About What Makes This Writers Strike Different Than Previous Ones: “We’re Mad”
The Good Fight
Script to Scene: ‘The Good Fight’ Scribes Detail the Paramount+ Drama’s Final Moments
The Good Wife
Hollywood Flashback: ‘The Good Wife’ Won Showrunners Robert and Michelle King Their First Case