Super-rich family patriarch Logan Roy, played with great power and gravitas by Brian Cox, is not known for smiling. But in the finale of a brilliant second season of Succession he smiles. Or at least there’s the hint of a smile. It’s a near imperceptible smile, but a smile nonetheless. What’s remarkable about this moment is that Logan has just been betrayed. It’s not a time at which a normal person would smile – however, Logan is no normal man, and he heads no normal family. Most would view the smile as a badge of pride.
Logan feels for the family member who has just turned Judas, who he didn’t think had the “killer instinct” to do so. Logan could also be smiling because he knows that he has the power to eviscerate the Judas. And that’s the beauty of Succession (both seasons are now streaming on Showmax). We just don’t know.
What we do know in Season 2 is that Logan’s family business Waystar Royco is under attack from several directions. There’s a hostile takeover to fend off, a shareholder revolt to contend with, and media scrutiny into the Cruise division. The stakes couldn’t be higher for the Roy family as they jostle to impress Logan, with a view to one day replacing him as head of Waystar.
Much of the season is a race to the bottom and viewers are likely to spend much of their time wondering who is the least worst of a bad bunch.
Jeremy Strong’s portrayal of Kendall Roy is among the best across an excellent cast. Kendall is chastened and submissive due to his involvement in a tragic accident on a trip to the UK that formed part of the climax of Season 1.
His descent into substance abuse runs neatly parallel to the abuse he faces from his father, who bullies him into submission. Neither drugs nor his father are good for Kendall, but he just can’t say no to either. “I’m good, I’m good,” is Kendall’s catchphrase. The irony being he is anything but.
Then there is Siobhan or “Shiv”, played by Sarah Snook, who is an outsider on the inside of the company. But in Season 2 her ambitions within the family are laid bare and so is her hypocrisy. In some ways her sanctimony makes her the worst of the Roys, as she’s all too willing to sacrifice her progressive values and belief in social justice at the altar of her will to power.
Macfadyen’s delivery of Tom’s often stupid but sometimes endearing dialogue is a highlight of Season 2.
Her relationship with husband Tom Wambsgans (Matthew Macfadyen) is another strike against her character, as she is mean, manipulative and largely rude towards him.
That’s not to say that Tom isn’t deserving of such treatment.
Macfadyen’s delivery of Tom’s often stupid but sometimes endearing dialogue is a highlight of Season 2. The real issue with Tom, though, isn’t his silliness. Instead, it is that he is utterly spineless, and while he is smart enough to identify a problem – “I wonder if the sad I’d be without you would be less than the sad I get from being with you,” he says of his relationship with Shiv – he lacks the integrity to do anything about it.
“I once stayed at a Marriot”
If Shiv is an outsider in Waystar, Kieran Culkin’s Roman is an outsider within the whole family. The somewhat creepy and largely obnoxious black sheep in some ways has the most fascinating arc in the second season.
Amid high levels of indebtedness and external challenges, Logan tasks Roman with striking a deal to take the company private. Despite the optimism of a Waystar advisor, Roman tells his father that the deal is a no-go. It’s an astonishing scene as Roman shows maturity and self awareness that has otherwise been lacking in his persona.
What is the point of untold riches in a modern-day oligarchy when there is so much of what Tom calls “the sad” and so little joy?
In his dealmaking attempt, Roman finds himself held hostage in a hotel in Turkey. On his return to safety, he is on fire. “They raped me a little but I’m no hero. Parenthesis: I’m an incredible hero … I’ve had worse experiences, I once stayed at a Marriot,” he says, matter of factly.
Roman’s levity at this stage is a strength of Succession. There is no moralising as there might be in an Aaron Sorkin show, even though the scene in which he is held captive is clearly riffing on the Saudi Crown Prince’s crackdown on corruption, in which various members of the royal family and business leaders were held (against their will) at the Ritz-Carlton in Riyadh.
Similarly, the gunshot that turns out to be a suicide at Waystar’s offices cuts close to the bone for American audiences. Yet again there is no pontification about gun-related violence, just Tom throwing water bottles at Cousin Greg.
The absurdity of this scene is, in a way, symbolic of Succession as a whole. What is the point of untold riches in a modern-day oligarchy when there is so much of what Tom calls “the sad” and so little joy?
“The Roys are a royal family of little pleasure or sparkle,” wrote The New Yorker. And that’s why Succession is so compelling – because when the Roys fail, we might feel like we succeed.
Some might call it jealousy. Others call it the best show on TV.