At the climax of the second season of Succession, Kendall Roy is forced by his father Logan to fall on his sword. He is to own the crimes of the Royco-Waystar media empire — and go to jail for them. Instead, in the final scene, Kendall rams his sword into Logan’s back, on live TV, by exposing the patriarch’s complicity.
For millions of Succession addicts, long tormented by Kendall’s layer cake of pathologies — a thick sponge of childhood emotional abuse smeared with icings of guilt and terror — his revolt felt thrilling. He grows a pair, at last.
It’s not a spoiler to reveal that Kendall does not return in the third season (now on Showmax) as a changed man; a resolute hero liberated by the discovery of his balls. You knew that wouldn’t happen. That’s not how life works, and that’s not how Succession works.
The show’s bitter thematic centre is the inadequacy of power and money as compensations for internal loss. The kind of recognition and power that the Logan siblings — Kendall, Shiv, Roman and Connor — scramble and scheme so abjectly to achieve is not the kind of recognition they unconsciously crave. In short, they haven’t had enough love to know how love works. (And neither has Logan.)
They all know how hate works, and the new season is just as rich in brutal one-liners and foul ruses as the first two. The whole situation is “snake linguini”, as Gerri puts it. To make matters worse, the department of justice is coming for everyone: “a combine harvester in a wheatfield of dicks”.
On the trail of virtuous vengeance, Kendall engages the finest lawyer in town, Lisa Arthur (Sanaa Lathan). Roman, Shiv and Gerri jostle dirtily for clout in Logan’s court. Cousin Greg is gormlessly pinballing his way between the legal shelter of the corporation and Kendall’s overtures. Tom, meanwhile, is consumed by his dread of jail, spending his free time googling penitentiaries.
On the broader stage, new power brokers barge in — Adrien Brody as a smoothly manipulative minority investor and Alexander Skarsgård as a reptilian big-tech prince.
Succession’s showrunner, Jesse Armstrong, has yet again herded his teeming cast and writing team along a thin creative tightrope. Too much naturalism, and all those complexities would become tedious; too little, and we’d stop believing.
In between is a long storm of writing and acting so precise, so considered, that everything seems unwritten and unacted, in the best sense. Every exchange, every twist feels at once random and destined — which is, of course, the texture of real life.
And Jeremy Strong, playing Kendall, is again the main source of this uncanny sensation: his occupation of Kendall’s reality is total. (It’s no surprise that Strong once worked as Daniel Day-Lewis’s personal assistant.)
Speaking to The New Yorker, Kieran Culkin, who plays Roman Roy, explained how Armstrong preserves the show’s tightrope of credibility, both in the writing room and in performance decisions made on set. He does it by saying no, says Culkin.
“If it’s just a little bit — half an inch — too far-leaning into something, he’s going to catch it,” said Culkin. “On any other show, people would be, like, ‘Oh, that’s funny, let’s do that.’ And he’ll always be the voice of reason: ‘Yes, it’s funny, yes, it’s great, but it doesn’t work.’”
Sometimes Armstrong overrules on the other side — to say yes. Succession is brutally expensive to make — all those villas and jets and swanky bashes. At times Armstrong has had to insist, for example, on the hiring of two helicopters instead of one. How else do you write the disintegration of a family into the sky?
The show’s vast production budget is not going anywhere, after all. HBO will rake in Royco-sized profits with a perennial Succession; not least because the plot is growing steadily more topical, spanning the insurgence of fascist politics in Washington and new forms of collusion between legacy media and big tech.
Most importantly, on the evidence of season three, the bitter power of the storytelling is relentless. The Roys must keep on suffering. So must we.