Sam Brooks reviews the second season premiere of Succession, the dark-as-tar family drama from one of the minds behind The Thick of It.
There’s one scene in the first season finale of Succession that sums up the family-slash-business drama in a few brutal, bleak moments. The wedding reception of Shiv (Sarah Snook), the only daughter of the billionaire, power-brokering Roy family, has become a hotbed of deals, petty squabbles and infighting between both the company and the family. Power doesn’t wait for social niceties, after all.
Roman (Kieran Culkin), the youngest and most hateable son of patriarch Logan Roy (Brian Cox), steps away into the bathroom to watch the literal launch of his vanity project: a satellite launch that he’s specifically moved up a day early for ego-related reasons. He sees the rocket explode right after taking off, in a grainy video on his phone screen, and has no visible reaction to it. He instead puts his phone away, washes his hands, and goes back into the wedding.
On one hand, it’s a very literal metaphor for the Roy family and their approach to the world. They’re untouchable, and any kind of real fall they experience is purely in terms of ego and reputation. No matter how much of a dressing down Shiv, Roman, and Kendall (Jeremy Strong) get from their belligerent father, they’re still never going to want for any money or comfort in their life. And on the other hand, it’s a brilliant distillation of the show’s perfect balance on the tonal tightrope. If you didn’t laugh at the darkness, you’d have to turn the damn thing off.
It’s a tightrope that creator Jesse Armstrong knows how to walk well. He’s done it before as a writer on The Thick Of It, arguably the darkest comedy of the 00s. Succession take a different approach: rather than a dark comedy, its the funniest drama on television right now. When the Roy family rip into each other, they’re not just putting each other down, they’re burying them six feet under. Here’s Roman on his older brother, recently (metaphorically) castrated by a business deal gone wrong: “He just walked around the New York Stock Exchange with a severed dick in his hand, asking if it was good for free soup.”
This all makes Succession sound like a bit of a drag, I know. After all, it breaks one of the main rules of fiction: the audience has to like someone – ideally the protagonist, but anyone will do. On Succession, as you might have guessed by now, no one is likeable. Everybody is a monster of privilege: even hapless grand-nephew Greg (Nicholas Braun), our original introduction to this privileged world, turns into a snake by the end of season one. What gets the show over the line is that everything else – the production values, the intricate plotting, the acting – is so outrageously appealing that audiences are hooked into the show as a whole. We don’t care who wins, we just want the game to keep going.
If season one was the slow burn – setting up the chess board and sending out the first pawns to be sacrificed – then season two is when the real players start getting dirty. Some bishops, rooks and knights are going to be knocked off the board here. The first season of Succession followed the frankly pathetic Kendall in his attempt to usurp his ailing father Logan for control of the family company, and ended with a catastrophic mistake that cut both Kendall and his coup attempt off at the knees.
As season two begins, he’s so broken down – meekly sticking to the line Logan gave him (“I saw their plan. Dad’s plan is better”) – that when the siblings gather for a session of barb-throwing, they rip into him simply for being broken. When Kendall tries to say sorry for acting out at Shiv’s wedding, her response is “Don’t you dare apologise to me.” It’s not Kendall’s mistakes that matter here, it’s that a proud Roy has been reduced to apologising at all.
It’s Shiv who represents the most exciting evolution for Succession’s second season. In the premiere’s most loaded scene, Logan carefully draws out an important question: What if Shiv wanted to take charge of the company? She’s a new challenger for the succession that until now has been bandied between two incompetent sons, one so navel-gazing he needs a physiotherapist, the other with Daddy Issues so profound they make him ignore his own child.
Sarah Snook is excellent in this moment. For a whole season she’s kept Shiv’s real feelings behind a facade of external over-achievement and internal boredom, but here we get to see a lifetime’s worth of neglect, ambition and most importantly need. As sharp as her namesake weapon, she responds: “Why didn’t you ask me, Dad? I would kill this, I would fucking destroy this.”
She even has to confirm it for herself: “This is real.” For the first time in a show in which the main characters’ fortunes change scene by scene but nothing has ever truly hurt them, we get some real emotional stakes. The Roy family is untouchable from the outside, but from the inside? They’re as vulnerable and easy to tear down as any of us peasants.
The first season of Succession was brutal in the same way a teeth-cleaning is: it’s uncomfortable in the moment, but you get over it on the car ride home. The second season? It promises to be a tooth-by-tooth removal, until you’re left with barely enough gums to hold onto the end of a cigarette. And I’ll be there, tissues in mouth, for every bloody moment.
New episodes of Succession drop each Monday on Sky’s SoHo channel and on its streaming service NEON.