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“Money wins. Here’s to us.”
Only on HBO’s Succession could such a bald paean to capitalism register as such a sad, fractured and empty declaration.
AIR DATE Aug 11, 2019
That’s the dramatic success of one of television’s best hours, a searing, funny, painfully true look at wealth, power and family that is at its most agile when it’s able to be emotionally resonant without you expecting it to be.
The Roys, the fictitious media mogul family partly resembling the Murdochs and the Redstones in their wild, behind-the-scene machinations, were always very unlikely candidates for lovability (and lovable they are not). But perhaps the bigger surprise is that, after somewhat of a warming period fueled by intense critical acclaim, they have proved to be popular.
Succession is the drama that people thought they’d hate because in our current climate who wants to watch a story about voraciously amoral billionaires? But series creator and writer Jesse Armstrong proved that he could pull off that trick over 10 exceptionally good and constantly surprising episodes last season (earning five Emmy nominations, including one for best drama), and he’s repeated that feat over the five episodes I watched for review in the higher-stakes second season.
The idea behind the series isn’t too far-fetched — look no further than the Murdochs — as the founder of a media empire falls into ill health and his children vie for control of the company, backstabbing each other repeatedly in the process and each seemingly willing to off the old bastard him or herself if he doesn’t actually die (not a spoiler: he doesn’t).
The fuel of Succession is, to be very obvious, the succession. It puts the friction in the family. If anything, Armstrong had to find a way to make the fictional family more vile than any powerful family doing things in public (and it’s not just the Murdochs and the Redstones from which such stories could be pulled — history is filled with bad behavior among the very rich).
He succeeded by dousing the whole thing in the kind of frenetic, brutally funny comedy he practiced writing for Armando Iannucci’s British series The Thick of It, a political comedy, and Peep Show, a sketch series, among others. The biting humor leavened some of the venality and it made Succession move with real zest, but Armstrong also deftly made the show a compelling drama, a tonal tour de force that set up a split on whether it was one or the other (it was both, but a very good argument could be made that in the final three brilliant episodes of Season 1, Succession tilted heavily toward drama; for what it’s worth, the first half of the second season also feels primarily like a comedy but you’re always aware of the dramatic hangover of the first season’s emotionally tortuous conclusion).
Succession revolves around Logan Roy (Brian Cox), the domineering patriarch and business tycoon who runs the media and entertainment conglomerate Waystar Royco. He tolerates zero bullshit and always has his eye on the money, the acquisition and the increased power that comes from the combination. His family includes his eldest son, Connor (Alan Ruck), from his first marriage; then Kendall (Jeremy Strong) and Siohban, aka “Shiv” (Sarah Snook); and youngest son Roman (Kieran Culkin). With Connor into, uh, wild ideas that seem to come and go without much thought (or with too much conviction and not much thought), the path to succession in Season 1 clearly went through Kendall, who has stood in his father’s vast shadow for years and is chafing for more power and recognition (usually a very bad sign). In the early going, he’s more captain of douchebaggery than industry and a less-than-recovering drug addict with a failing marriage to boot.
It was the crowning achievement of the first season that Armstrong and Strong were able to jointly make the Kendall character truly work — he was a loathsome prick with only glimmers of humanity — and then his all-too-human spiral, which was initially wrapped in greed and excess, was expertly allowed to blossom into something else entirely; seemingly against all odds, Kendall became more likable and interesting just as a series of unfortunate events occurred in the final three episodes. Strong’s performance was magnificent and, in a cast full of strong performers and Cox’s riveting and demanding presence, that was a true accomplishment. As Armstrong crafted Kendall’s journey, you began to see the Trojan Horse of a drama emerge from what was a viciously funny sendup until then.
The series leans heavily on Culkin’s Roman as the comic foil — he’s completely unfiltered and his disdain for actual work (and the working class) mixes with the joy he finds in his own family’s incredible dysfunction and the theater it provides him; the cherry on top is that Roman is mostly clueless about how to do anything, much less run a business, but Armstrong gives him just enough actual smarts and insight to make Roman something far greater than a caricature. It’s partly tragic that what he really wants is to be anything but himself.
Snook’s Shiv is portrayed, particularly in season one, as likely the savviest of the bunch. She’s not interested in playing her father’s cutthroat business game and how he toys with Kendall and Roman, so she’s using her smarts behind the scenes in politics. Ah, but the lure of the Roy Empire is pretty great.
Without giving away what actually happens to Kendall, he’s very broken by the end of Season 1 and the second season picks up in the immediate aftermath. Dovetailing nicely with the facade of family (if you need more proof of this concept, study the opening credits in great detail), Kendall is brought back into the fold but neutered; of all people, Roman has partly outplayed him and certainly benefitted from Kendall’s fall from grace. But, not too surprisingly given the hints in the first season, it’s Shiv who appears to be the logical successor to Logan.
In Succession, most appearances are deceiving.
There’s impressive second-season growth here because Succession worked hard to expand the roles of a very large, extremely strong cast. Matthew Macfadyen’s obsequious Tom, Shiv’s fiance and sublimely perfect class-climber desperate to sell all to be a Roy, was a particular standout last season and just accelerates that this year. Nicholas Braun as cousin Greg, the doofy but at least moral insider-outsider doing Tom’s bidding, continues to mine gold. And truly blossoming in this second season is J. Smith-Cameron as Geri Killman, general counsel at the company and deft fence-sitter and survivor. The first season really let Hiam Abbass, as Logan’s third wife, Marcia, grow into an intriguing threat, but she’s mostly (and surprisingly) sidelined in the early going of the second season. But again, this cast is deep — there’s no end to the standouts and it’s clear by how Armstrong deploys them that he’s got long-term plans for most.
There are so many brutally funny jokes and wince-inducing let-them-eat-cake moments from the unruly Roys that it becomes almost like a magic trick that Armstrong uses to lure the audience away from the series’ most compelling trait — that they are so much better-drawn and more varied than first assumptions registered, and you don’t see the darker, more dramatic and emotionally powerful parts winging at your head. Making this family not only interesting beyond comic limitations but also a group of people whose hurt you’ll actually feel despite loathing them so sincerely is a real artistic accomplishment.
Over and over the audience is left to wonder, amid all the laughs and the machinations and the 1-percenter amorality and lack of empathy, how in the world that construct can be flipped over so convincingly. But it happened with aplomb in season one and halfway through the second season, despite the scathing Veep-esque laughter (no shocker that there’s a connection all the way back to The Thick of It for both shows), the emotional stakes are very clearly being raised.
Awful people have feelings, too, apparently.
Beyond that adroit feat, the thing to embrace and appreciate with Succession in this second season is just how superbly and seemingly effortlessly structured it is with its grandiose plotting; other than making us care about the Roys, that’s the next-level miracle.
The Emmys did recognize Succession but not nearly enough, by the way. This series is doing something special and the rich rewards will be coming.
Cast: Brian Cox, Jeremy Strong, Kieran Culkin, Sarah Snook, Nicholas Braun, Matthew Macfadyen, Hiam Abbass, Alan Ruck, J. Smith-Cameron, Eric Bogosian, Caitlin FitzGerald, Justine Lupe, Peter Friedman
Creator and writer: Jesse Armstrong
Executive producers: Jesse Armstrong, Adam McKay, Frank Rich, Kevin Messick, Will Ferrell, Jane Tranter and Mark Mylod
Premieres: Sunday, Aug. 11, 10 p.m., HBO
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