HBO’s cuttingly dark upper-crust family drama carves new depths of capitalist depravity in the season premiere.
Boy, was Succession a huge surprise last year. Leading up to its premiere, its trailers seemingly promised little more than a glib portrait of yet another rich, squabbling white family, an Arrested Development that took itself a bit more seriously. And yet, faithful viewers who tuned into Jesse Armstrong‘s acid-tongued satire about the cold war being waged amongst the members of a family-run media conglomerate found intriguingly complicated characters, stellar cinematography, and a sly, profane look at the bittersweet carelessness of the idle rich. Now, Armstong’s show (executive produced by Adam McKay, whose Big Short feels like the stylistic precedent for Succession) is back for a second season, and its premiere episode, “The Summer Palace,” has a lot of loose ends to tie up.
When we last left the uber-wealthy Roy family, our ostensible protagonist, ambitious family outsider Kendall (Jeremy Strong) was faced with a terrifying choice: on the eve of announcing a hostile takeover of Waystar Royco with the aid of family nemeses Stewy (Arian Moayed) and Sandy Furness (Larry Pine), Kendall’s drug-fuelled cravings get a young caterer at sister Shiv’s (Sarah Snook) wedding killed. But foul-mouthed patriarch Logan (Brian Cox) finds out and offers Kendall a way out: renege on the “bear hug” offer and come back into the fold, and he’ll make his little bout of manslaughter go away.
“The Summer Palace” opens a mere 48 hours after Kendall takes this deal, and spends the rest of the episode watching Logan completing his total humiliation of his progeny, mining this leverage for all its worth. All last season, Kendall was a blustering, take-no-shits finance bro, driven to finally beat his father at his own game; now fully in his pocket, he’s a defeated man, Strong’s face a gaunt mask of haunted, downcast desperation.
For the entire hour, he’s dragged through a horror show of his own mistakes, shoved in front of a TV camera to parrot Logan’s talking points about the change of heart (“I saw the plan. Dad’s plan was better,” he repeats emptily throughout the episode) and even tricked into an uncomfortable one-in-one reunion with Stewy and Sandy. In Succession‘s tug of war between the two mighty Roy men, Logan clearly wins this battle, and may have enough on Kendall to win the war.
As for Logan, however, he may be thinking of getting out: after a first season in which a health scare paradoxically inspires him to dig his heels back into the family business, a chance meeting with his financial adviser (Danny Huston) forces him to consider selling his shares. His brand of media is crumbling, after all, and “what’s gonna change two to four years from now?” It’s a move his wife Marcia (Hiam Abbass) encourages; but to make sure, Logan calls the rest of the Roys — including Shiv, her new husband Tom (Matthew Macfayden), weaselly brother Roman (Kieran Culkin), adopted trust-fund weirdo Conner (Alan Ruck), et al. — to the family summer home to bend their ear about the prospect and determine the future of Waystar.
Now, we see the ways late capitalism can destroy everyone, even those who come out ostensibly on top.
The home is a stellar setting for Succession‘s side-winding political and familial maneuvering, as a family meeting is disrupted by everything from rotting raccoons in the chimney to Logan forcing his family members to come to his study one by one and speak their mind. “I fucking love money, but I’m scared of you,” Roman acerbically admits to Logan in public; it’s hard to think of a more concise description of the Roys’ combative, competitive relationship.
In season one, watching these hyperprivileged brats squirm and screw over one another was most of the fun: the Roys are as dysfunctional a family as any you’ve seen, powered by millions of dollars, political influence and the lack of scruples that only comes when you’re the .01%. Every interaction is weighed down with competing agendas; even Roman and Shiv’s warm reunion at the summer home ends with the two working each other for angles. That kind of sloppy, two-dimensional chess is part of Succession‘s perverse fun.
But in “The Summer Palace”, with fast-talking Kendall reduced to, as Stewy calls him, “a pusillanimous piece of fucking fool’s gold,” a certain amount of strange sympathy sets in. Yes, they’re an awful family to a person, with perhaps the most pitiful member of the family getting to that point through negligent manslaughter. But now, we see the ways late capitalism can destroy everyone, even those who come out ostensibly on top. As the Roys deal with a surprisingly uncertain future and a knock-down drag-out fight over Logan’s legacy, I can’t wait to see where the rest of season two takes us.
- The whole presentation of the summer house, filmed with a staff of silent, obedient workers and infected with the stink of a dead raccoon (“It smells like the cheesemonger died and left his dick in the brie!”) perfectly illustrates the rot at the center of the Roys’ family dynamic. The cutaway gag of a working-class waiter dutifully tossing hundreds of dollars of lobster and king crab in the trash, fancier food than this person could ever afford, is one of the show’s most darkly comic digs at the conspicuous consumerism of the super-rich.
- Nicholas Britell‘s score is as hauntingly Gothic and loud as ever, continuing to capture the breathless evil and unchecked power of consolidated wealth. That theme, blending perversely minor strings with slick hip-hop beats and that unpredictable piano melody, is still one of the most unconventionally listenable TV tunes in a long while.
- Logan’s one-on-ones with Roman and Shiv are lovely two-handers, especially the latter: Snook lets Shiv maintain the facade of aloof rebellion until Logan calls her bluff and she crumbles into giddy, guarded excitement. Even with all the baggage they have between each other, a Roy never shirks from the promise of more power.
- Tom’s breathlessly sycophantic ‘hear, hear’s at Logan’s speech and cornering Shiv to figure out what position he might have at a Shiv-run ATN. (Macfayden is still one of the show’s greatest assets.)
- And then there’s Greg (Nicholas Braun), Succession‘s ultimate failson, a man who understands that eighty percent of success is just showing up — which is a good thing because he’s maybe 20% as smart as the rest of the Roys. His scene with Kendall, where he only manages to score “park coke” for him, is one of the episode’s best. “If my septum falls out,” Kendall warns while lining up some rails, “I’m gonna make you eat my septum.”