UK TV review: Succession Season 2
Ivan Radford | On 20, Oct 2019Reading time: 7 mins
Warning: This contains spoilers for Season 1 and 2 of Succession. Not seen it? Read our spoiler-free review here.
It was six episodes in to Succession’s 10-episode first season that the true horror of HBO’s series became apparent: that somewhere along the way of this darkly funny drama about a horde of despicable rich people, we had all become emotionally invested. Something approaching sympathy dared to rear its head, again and again, each time knocked back into place by a hilariously acerbic display of cruelty – like a game of Whack-a-Mole played by the residents of Monopoly’s Park Lane. It was a delicately caustic masterclass in writing by Peep Show’s Jesse Armstrong, a man with experience of making horrible people addictively entertaining, and one of the best TV shows of 2018.
The prospect of a second season was thrilling, not least because Season 1 ended with such an exquisitely heartbreaking climax, as Kendall (Jeremy Strong) attempted a takeover of father Logan’s (Brian Cox) media empire, only for a lethal road incident to leave him dependent on his daddy’s help to avoid a stint in prison. Logan, being the nasty, power-hungry patriarch that he is, promptly came to Kendall’s aid, not to rescue his son but to neuter his Oedipal ambition with all the gentleness and compassion of a barbed-wire sucker punch.
Kendall, the eldest son, has always been the key to Succession’s excruciating pleasure. A man who almost wants to do the right thing, he’s hamstrung by the fact that he’s incapable of it – a painfully ironic truth that would be tragically sympathetic if a. He wasn’t such a terrible person and b. It wasn’t so funny. But if you thought Strong had milked his selfish would-be CEO for all he’s worth, Season 2 brings a whole new level of cringeworthy failure to the table, with Strong almost unrecognisably quiet and withdrawn under his father’s smug thumb. It’s the closest we’ve come yet to feeling sorry for him, and Strong is marvellously understated in his stammering, blank-faced misery.
The rest of the family are just as well-drawn, and it’s testament to Armstrong’s script that we want to spend another 10 hours in their loathsome company. Even in the first hour of its sophomore run, Succession is already looking to its secondary characters for ways to flesh them out. And so it is that Matthew Macfadyen, for it is he, gets to come to the fore as Tom, a spineless, clueless climber who married Logan’s daughter, Shiv (the always-brilliant Sarah Snook), for logic more than love – seeing the pair on their honeymoon, trying to convince themselves and each other that they’re happy, is wonderfully, impeccably awkward. (It says everything that after everything that went down during their Scottish nuptials, they still went ahead and tied the knot anyway.)
Snook, too, gets a welcome opportunity to take centre stage, as the most ruthless and perhaps the most principled of the clan – it’s surely only common sense for Logan to leave her, the offspring who tried to walk away and bring down her father’s company, in charge?
The pair get the juiciest arcs of the show, as Tom jumps at the chance to be the head of “news” at the firm, only to be pushed back into place every time he tries to do anything of consequence. And so it is that he takes advantage of Nicholas Braun’s naive Greg – a delightfully soft-spoken contrast to the cynicism on display everywhere else. Exploiting his drive to help everyone, Tom’s delightfully nasty, using him as a footstool, throwing bottles of water at him and generally bullying him at any opportunity – treatment that’s either because of Tom’s need to feel superior, or because Tom knows that Greg didn’t shred all the documents implicating Tom and the company in the severe maltreatment of staff on their yachts. Probably both.
Macfadyen and Braun are an incredible double-act, from the way that Greg runs to the sheer variety of expressions Tom gets to display, giving the Spooks, Ripper Street and Pride & Prejudice star a rare chance to show off his comic timing. By the time the company is in court for their at-sea abuse, it’s no surprise that Tom and Greg are the two best – worst – witnesses who get interrogated.
And so, as pressure in a #MeToo society builds, it becomes clear that Logan can’t delay his departure from the top job any longer. The question evolves over the course of this sophomore run from whether he’ll step down to who’ll take the fall for the company’s moral failings?
Of course, that discussion is inherently tied to the issue of who should inherit the kingdom, which has even more tension now that we’ve seen Kendall’s previous challenge to the throne. All the while in the background, Stewy and Sandy continue with their buy-out plans, while there’s the lingering suspicion that Waystar Royco, an old-fashioned media company in a digital age, may one day become worthless – Holly Hunter steals multiple scenes, if not episodes, as Rhea Jarrell, a media-savvy CEO of Pierce Media Group, who’s vital in positioning Waystar for a hopeful merger.
But any change in the status quo is regarded with caution by Logan, as it would leave him with less of chance to manipulate his kids as they squabble over who gets his wealth – and what a joy it is to see them spit the acid-sharp dialogue in each other’s faces as vehemently as ever..
A never-better Kieran Culkin continues to relish his role as the immature Roman, who goes back to business school to demonstrate his smarts and even ends up being kidnapped by a violent cartel in the midst of negotiations. And yet, the most surprising thing about Roman’s journey is that it involves a relationship with company stalwart Gerri (the deliciously stern J. Smith-Cameron), which goes vaguely inappropriate even as it makes a worrying amount of sense.
Underneath it all, like the rotting badgers in the family chimney, Succession’s careful engine of human horror keeps powering on, ensuring that the smallest actions build into catastrophic consequences, and that the most straight-forward people have hidden anterior motives. That’s the gripping, fascinating truth at the heart of the series: that nobody can ever be taken at face value, especially when they’re being honest. After all, half the time, the characters themselves don’t know what they want or why they’re behaving the way they do.
And so it is that Season 2’s finale delivers a masterstroke in character development. Because just as Roman is named CEO, pushing Shiv back into the wings – Sarah Snook’s ethical dilemma, as to whether she should have tried to become her father’s successor or not, remains wonderfully complex – another shift in the situation throws it all into the long grass once more: Kendall, who is named the scape goat for all the problems (even after he shut down an entire company wing “because his father told him to”), stops being the blind idiot he seemed to be: bolstered, perhaps, by his surprising romance, he grows a spine and stands up to his dad once and for all. On live TV, he announces that Logan is all to blame and knew all the bad things that were going on.
It’s a bravura move, one that leaves everything uncertain once again. And yet, while it seems like Kendall has stepped up to find redemption, Succession knows that, deep down, it’s also a twisted display of love on his part: after Logan told Kendall that he wasn’t killer enough to take the top job, Kendall goes right out to collect a scalp and prove otherwise, just the latest in a long line of actions designed to win his father’s approval. Even when sticking the knife in, Kendall’s waiting for a pat on the head and a “well done” – after all, he didn’t get one for the excruciating rap he performed at a tribute evening for his dad.
It’s a phenomenal bit of writing and acting, opening up the stage for Season 3 – and asking the question whether Logan actually planned for this to happen all along. What a fantastic piece of television this is – a classily shot, farcically brutal, gorgeously glossy hall of mirrors, in which everyone is just a pale reflection of what a human is meant to be.
Photo: Craig Blankenhorn/HBO