For all those who miss Game of Thrones—either because you loved or hated Season Eight—the realpolitik of Waystar Royco should act as a worthy substitute. HBO’s Succession, from creator Jesse Armstrong (Peep Show, The Thick of It) is dressed up as a prestige drama, but it’s actually one of TV’s most acid comedies. Once you embrace that, Succession unlocks as a never-ending battle of power and prestige with medieval royal overtones that is also wonderfully aware of how absurd that kind of story is. As one observer of the Roy family comments, “watching you people melt down is the most deeply satisfying activity on planet Earth.”
Succession’s first season kicked off with its monarch, Logan Roy (Brian Cox) suffering a stroke that put into question who would run his global media empire. The squabbles and power grabs began immediately: Would it be conspiracy-theorist Connor (Alan Ruck) with his escort girlfriend? Colossal asshole Kendall (Jeremy Strong) and his substance abuse problems? Conniving Shiv (Sarah Snook) and her bumbling social-climber husband Tom (Matthew Macfadyen)? Or perhaps the cavalier, uber sarcastic, and deeply neurotic Roman (Kieran Culkin)? Would Logan’s most recent wife, Marcia (Hiam Abbas), make a play for the money? And what of “you Ichabod Crane motherfucker,” the innocent Cousin Greg (Nicholas Braun)?
In Season Two, Logan is back in full health and full power, having survived and subverted Kendall’s late-season attempts at a coup—incidentally, one of TV’s most horrifically sad sequences of events. It left Kendall completely broken, a dead-eyed robot who now lives in service to his father’s wishes. But all of the spoiled siblings are cowed (except for Connor, still deludedly considering a Presidential bid) with Logan’s return. He’s a bully, frightening even his oldest friends, yet knows exactly how to emotionally manipulate everyone back into his thrall. They may complain and privately plot against him, but no one dares speak a word to disfavor them in his presence. It all plays out with specific monstrosity during a dinner scene at a retreat, where Logan bellows for certain attendees to sequester themselves across the room to play “boar on the floor.” What is this game? Suffice it to say it quickly becomes steeped in abject humiliation.
The lengths people are willing to go to to stay in power and to keep money and prestige is at the heart of Succession’s dark consideration of the One Percent. Tom is an excellent and flamboyantly hilarious example of this (what Matthew Macfadyen is doing with this character is Galaxy Brain stuff. There’s never been another performance like this). He is willing to suffer whatever Logan throws at him so long as he continues to rise within the company. He allows an open marriage of sorts with his wife because he’s so desperate to hold onto her—not because he loves her unconditionally, really, but because he loves what he can accomplish and have access to because of her. Shiv is using him, too, which is a common theme in the series. But then there’s the way that Tom uses Greg, keeping him close and belittling him, bullying him, taking out everything that has been put onto him with huge laughs and a big smile that is one of the series most key relationships. It’s a clumsy imitation of Logan’s power (with its own kind of love), but Greg is not evidently as desperate as Tom to allow it to continue forever.
The new season throws us back into the family’s primary problem, which is who will take over the company once Logan decides to leave it, and for the first three episodes that continual jockeying is the main thrust of the action. But in the two subsequent episodes, things begin to change somewhat, breathing new life into what was just about to become an old formula. In doing so, it also leans in to Succession being one of television’s tensest and most cringe-filled offerings. You can’t like the Roys; they’re all fully ridiculous, spoiled, and without any kind of ethical or moral compass. And yet, it’s a testament to the extraordinary cast that you do care what happens to them, and how.
In Season One, I was almost made ill from stress over the scene where Kendall tried his first boardroom takeover, but became stuck in traffic and couldn’t make the meeting in person. One by one, his allies fell, leaving him alone as a traitor to twist in the wind of his father’s wrath. That season finale, and Kendall’s nightmarish drug-fueled journey ending in a preventable death, was a new augmentation of that same tension. Now, Kendall—deadened by his recent experiences—is somehow still one of the series’ most compelling characters. The ex-heir apparent is being handled with kid gloves, and is off on his own journey of redemption, one he can’t seem to ever quite grasp. It’s in stark contrast to the buttoned-up togetherness of Shiv as well as the nervous snark coming from Roman. In fact, the truest thing written about Kendall comes from critic Matthew Zoller Seitz, who Tweeted: “Poor Kendall Roy. A Byronic schlump. Nutless Heathcliff wandering the moors, sniffling.”
For all of its gloriously inspired and profane put-downs, Succession is exactly the kind of show that inspires this kind of poetry. Carried along by Nicholas Britell’s twinkling, crashing score, it lampoons the wealthy in casually caustic ways. As Greg says at one point, “I can’t believe I’m on a private jet. I feel like I’m in a band. A very white, very rich band. I feel like I’m in U2!” You chuckle at someone else, and then Roman says of a dinner party, “yeah yeah, metro poser bullshit. Napkins and chit-chat. Ooo race relations. Kale.” And then maybe you’ve been there. The shaky camera work, with zooms and pans and quit cuts, are crucial to creating the show’s winking tone as well as the off-putting sense of never knowing where any of the characters really stand. Or perhaps where any of us do.
The series is frighteningly good at melding these disparate tones together, especially in its marriage of parody with reality. An episodic plot about a Buzzfeed-like media company called Vaulter starts off talking about the company’s honey bee colony, and features a headline in the background: “5 Reasons Why Drinking Milk on the Toilet Is Kind of a Game-changer.” But then they start throwing around discussions of SEO and analytics and traffic in ways that will have everyone who works in media clutching our collective pearls. It’s funny, then it’s dark because it’s also true.
Succession is not made to be binge watched. It’s engrossing, as a world that’s easy to immerse oneself in, but there is a kind of shadowy, icky feeling that follows you when you’ve consumed too much. That’s not the show’s fault; it’s easy to laugh at Tom getting upset that he’s “not in the right panic room!” when he discovers Shiv is in a more posh stronghold, but seeing Waystar encourage a dotcom to not unionize before gutting them, or how even a supposedly ethical organization might well sell out to partisan interests when there’s enough money is just depressingly real. Succession is a combination of Tom’s exclamation “what a weird family!” and Logan’s “Money wins. Here’s to us.” And it has us fully in its thrall.
Succession Season Two premieres Sunday, June 11 on HBO.
Allison Keene is the TV Editor of Paste Magazine. For more television talk, pop culture chat and general japery, you can follow her @keeneTV