‘Succession’: The Ties That Bind Get Broken in a Scorching Third Season

How cursed is the Roy family. They have power, wealth, and access to the corridors of those with supposedly even greater influence. Yet here they are in the third season of HBO’s “Succession,” nearly tearing each other apart. Of course for us viewers it is deliciously absorbing to watch. As coldly intelligent as its characters, this great drama still delivers by not losing sight of the fact that the characters are the real draw. It is the personas at play who matter, swimming around each other like sharks. An important component is that almost everyone in this show is smart. It’s not about who is likeable. The question is who is smart enough to win?

The season begins with the continuing fallout of Kendall (Jeremy Strong) turning on patriarch Logan Roy (Brian Cox), after the latter almost sacrificed him to save face for Waystar Royco, the family entertainment conglomerate, in the wake of major scandals. Now in open rebellion, Kendall is attempting to divide the family into camps. As far as he’s concerned, Logan’s time is up and he should resign, so new, younger blood can take over. But the fierce tycoon is not going to simply surrender. Kendall starts making moves, trying to lure over siblings like the ambitious Shiv (Sarah Snook) and gleefully debauched Roman (Kieran Culkin). But everyone has cards to play. For every statement Kendall can make denouncing the company’s negligence and tolerance of sexual harassment, Logan’s side can bring out his own flawed past. The open warfare threatens to get even wider once the government becomes involved in investigating the company and major investors start to get jittery. As Kendall tries to form a base and make inroads with the media and other public outlets, Logan starts making his own appointments and moves to cage in the wayward son.

It’s been two years since the last season of “Succession,” so there is no wasted time in hurtling forward in the narrative. Creator Jesse Armstrong is still in charge, making sure the series has lost none of what makes it work so well. Season three feels like a culmination of all the themes and storylines that began to boil in the last round. This is a show that never feels static, so instead of recycling narrative choices, Armstrong keeps it flowing as if this were some nonfiction series where developments actually take place instead of old plot twists. Kendall began last season as a recovering addict, now he’s back to a slightly weaker version of his first season self, speeding around town, trying to build alliances with a cutthroat attitude. He gets so worked up he can step into some potholes like thinking it’s wise to appear on a satirical show known for shredding him. But it’s the twisted family tree that matters and Logan knows this. Sometimes the suspense builds from the way the characters channel their anxiety over what the patriarch will decree. He decides to name a new CEO to deflect some of the pressure from the cruise ship scandal that has rocked the company. Naturally, Roman and Shiv are convinced it’s going to be one of them. Kendall also calls them in to try and get them to switch over to his side. The result is a game of mental chess in a conversation that is both funny and biting.

Still filmed in its grainy hand held style, “Succession” thrives as a drama driven by moments where a character’s personal arc becomes as important as the FBI raiding Waystar’s offices. Its morbid fascination comes from the sensation of us standing by as witnesses to the moral rot of the Roys. Everyone gets just enough space to be compelling. It’s the smaller details that can make a difference as well. Roman hints at his softer side a bit more this season in his ongoing flirtations with Gerri (J. Smith-Cameron), who gets elevated to a higher post by Logan. Shiv, ever so obsessed with the top chair, has to settle once again for some position whipped up by dad, refusing to acknowledge she’s also just not a likeable boss. Yet there’s also a new sense of the vulnerabilities of these characters. Shiv’s hard exterior cracks when she has to face what all-out war with a determined sibling entails. Kendall thoroughly embarrasses her by sabotaging a public event meant to address the recent scandals, setting up speakers to interrupt Shiv’s speech with Nirvana’s “Rape Me” blasting at full volume. Shiv’s tragically sidelined husband Tom (Matthew Macfadyen), can easily bark at underlings, but around Shiv shrivels over the prospect he could go to prison, obsessing over which is the best jail and how prisoners make their own wine. Still aloof as ever is Roy half-sibling Greg (Nicholas Braun), who doesn’t seem to get why anyone would be angry that he seems to side with Kendall. In his simpleton ways he might also be the wiser one in terms of surviving, since he’s happy to accept a post a Waystar theme park in exchange for his loyalty.

The force of nature that has always dominated “Succession” is Brian Cox. His Logan has been one of the most entertainingly ruthless TV patriarchs in years. Confident, shrewd, diabolical, splashing racist jokes and bullying others into submission, he embodies all that is frightening and alluring about the American power player. But this season is the one where for the first time, we truly sense some fear in the tycoon. One of his own offspring is in open rebellion and doesn’t want to back down. When Kendall decides he might just stroll into his old office, Roy panics and when the FBI itself shows up, he has to be told to his face that this isn’t something you just tell “to fuck off.” Still, the warhorse may be wounded but never considering exits. He flexes real political muscle this year, using his leverage against the president of the United States, anything to get Waystar back in the clear. When he meets with a powerful stockholder, played by Adrien Brody in a great cameo, Logan is willing to at least feign affection for Kendall to ease any worries. Last season he was making others grovel like pigs at retreats, this season he’s in battle mode.

“Succession” proves there can still be great TV driven by characters and their personalities. The narrative about the scandal engulfing Waystar and who will get to run the empire is engaging in itself, but what continues to make this drama an absorbing experience is the sharp writing, the energetic acting and the way opulent wealth feels more like a blunt tool than sensuous pleasure. It’s like an antidote for all these other shows that peddle what’s often called “wealth porn,” where the lavishness overtakes the human story. In “Succession” everyone is very human and very flawed and still yearning for acceptance. They have the manners of the well-bred yet infused with vicious instinct. It’s a mirror vision of power we can’t look away from.

Succession” season three premieres Oct. 17 and airs Sundays at 9 p.m. ET on HBO.