‘Succession’ Season 2 Is the Vicious Family Reunion You Don’t Want to Miss
HBO’s second season of “Succession” feels like entering a vipers’ nest posing as a family reunion. When it first premiered last year, the show was part of a TV trend in profiles of the American aristocracy. In an era of economic and political uncertainty fascination with the debauched ways of the elite class are in vogue. But “Succession” stood out as a savage, refined drama, both deep and acidly funny. Now it returns with a new season even more relevant and sharp. Egos are even more dangerously fragile and power is coveted by the rich kids with paranoid intensity.
Picking up where last season left off Kendall Roy (Jeremy Strong) returns to the fold after waging a fruitless war to wrest control of Waystar Royco from his father, the ruthless patriarch Logan Roy (Brian Cox). But Kendall is a battered shell, forced to ask his father for protection after killing a kid with his car. Major corporate rivals are still trying to take over Waystar and so Logan decides it is time to name a successor. This inspires a new drive to impress from the Roy siblings, including the rather demented Roman (Kieran Culkin) and ambitious Shiv (Sarah Snook). The other Roys are distracted by less violent pursuits, like Connor (Alan Ruck) who is still hatching a plan to run for president despite having no political experience. Gathering the clan together, Roy secretly taps Shiv as his potential successor but keeps Kendall as his right-hand, planning to plow ahead with a major takeover of a rival news corporation. But as the Roys’ ambitions for power grow, their own inner circle is full of seething jealousies and suspicions that can explode out in the open.
Now that we have fully met and gotten to know the Roy family amid all the backstabbing and intrigue of last season, “Succession” is now free to focus entirely on the perverse dysfunction. Writer/creator Jesse Armstrong is more astute about his subject than other showrunners attempting to tackle similar themes. The deals, corporate lingo and archaic talk about figures, market value, etc., are decoration for a drama about living in slick surfaces, being so used to money you can’t even remember how regular people live and being so shallow you believe your own legend. Connor seriously believes he can be president, to the point of recording an absurd YouTube message announcing he will go to jail instead of paying his taxes. Roman is taunted by Logan at a family gathering for not knowing the price of a gallon of milk, and is dutifully enrolled in a training program for the family theme park. It’s almost a sadistic joy to see him take pictures in a turkey costume with park visitors, then cheerfully offending them. Yet the family is assembled for what amounts to war. If the previous season was about civil war instigated by Kendall, this second chapter is about the Roys taking on the world, even as they are their own worst enemies.
Kendall’s return, he now reduced to being a quiet, nearly vegetative drone, is just one of the key character developments. His shared secret with his father turns him into a loyal foot soldier, even as he endures the relentless taunting from Roman and business associates wondering if the hatchet has truly been buried. Beware of the lurking beast inside however. When Logan sends Kendall to shut down one of Waystar’s channels he does so with cold brutality, staring at an employee who spits in his face and utters, “is that all you’ve got?” The dimensions of this season become Shakespearean, as Kendall quietly regains Logan’s favor while Shiv slowly grows cockier when daddy taps her as successor. Power makes everyone go slowly insane. As a first consolation prize Shiv’s ditz of a husband Tom (Matthew Macfadyen) is appointed head of a major, right-slanting channel, Waystar’s version of Fox News. Basking in his newfound glory he verbally smacks the staff around, duels with the channel’s chief and uses Greg (Nicholas Braun) as his coffee boy and all around lackey. The show has fun referencing the real world when Greg hires a right-wing commentator to host a show and it turns out the guy is a fan of Hitler, which provokes Antifa protests outside the offices. Eventually there’s even an active shooter scare.
Every character is finely drawn as a portrait of elegant debauchery. Sitting down for dinner with the Roys is what it must feel like to dine with Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner, or with ancient Roman patricians. When Logan announces he wants to buy out a major rival, Pierce Media Group, he senses dissent among the family, especially after someone speaks with a reporter snooping around to write an autobiography (something Logan definitely doesn’t want). In one of the season’s most extraordinary scenes, among baroque halls, Logan smokes out the doubters by forcing everyone to play a cruel game where some of the men are made to crawl on the floor, oink like pigs and eat sausages. Earlier when an old friend tries to toast Logan the patriarch snarls back a savage insult. Shiv can’t even be sure she’s actually the successor as her father seems all too keen in delaying the announcement. Like many a den of oligarchs, beneath the silk sheets hide many unresolved issues. Roman can’t have normal sex with his trophy wife, because he prefers to masturbate to Gerri (J. Smith-Cameron) bad mouthing him from the other side of the bathroom door. Shiv likes to throw mean verbal darts at Greg and then infantilize him when he gets upset. Whether they notice it or not all the Roys have a little of their overbearing father in them. Only Connor with his hilariously idiotic plan to run for office seems slightly saner, even when he delivers the worst funeral eulogy for an old family friend.
Just how savage are the Roys becomes evident in the season’s fifth episode when Logan takes everyone on a trip to the estate of the Pierce family, after a tense meeting with its CEO, Rhea Jarrell (brilliant and cunningly played by Holly Hunter), to try and close a deal. Next to the Roys the Pierces are the definition of elitist snobs or poseur intellectuals. They throw around quotes from figures like Whitman like candy, show off their grasp of the news and bestseller lists, only inspiring smirks from Roman who simply invents a book title to claim he reads. A meltdown during dinner ensues in a juicy and perversely funny fashion as the various Roys start snapping at each other with the more civilized Pierces looking on. Amid all this insanity Kendall seems to find some deliverance from a fellow coke-user among the Pierces, Naomi (Annabelle Dexter-Jones) who pulls him away from the others to discuss their shared habits.
There are many more layers and side stories in this gripping season of “Succession.” Whether the Roys manage to buy out the Pierces and block their enemies becomes almost background noise. What is captivating is the family itself. Even in moments that border on satire there is a sense this is how corridors of power operate. It is the small and large human follies, obsessions, abuses and furies in the Roys that make them riveting to watch. We can linger on them scheming for hours, against others and themselves. “Succession” at its best is about human nature, and how lots of money just makes it even more dangerous.
“Succession” season two premieres Aug. 11 and airs Sundays at 9 p.m. ET on HBO.