This article original published October 4th, 2021.
In some ways, HBO’s Succession is America’s version of The Crown. Focusing on the lavish, petty corporate overlords of a rotten cabal, the show’s machinations are both fully present and menacingly medieval. Unlike The Crown, Jesse Armstrong’s show doesn’t venerate its billionaire royal family, The Roys—it lampoons them, and exposes them as actually being as vain and stupid as they believe the bulk of America to be. In its bombastic second season, the show rose to both comedic and dramatic heights, from “Boar on the Floor” to Kendall’s season-ending mic drop that promised an explosive third outing. But Season 3 is actually more subdued, and occasionally a little too stuck in the endless tread of the Roy siblings’ backstabbing and creatively vile behavior towards one other to gain power and, most importantly, Daddy’s affection.
The first arc of the season does focus primarily on Kendall (Jeremy Strong) vs Logan (Brian Cox), as the former heir apparent has promised to sink his father’s captainship of Waystar Royco. He invites his siblings—Shiv (Sarah Snook), Roman (Kieran Culkin), and Connor (Alan Ruck)—to join forces with him, and in an extremely tense and talky episode they “game out” what that could look like. But Succession’s primary tension always comes from the siblings not trusting anyone but their father; and it’s not just them: Logan’s long-time staff of Gerri (J. Smith-Cameron), Karl (David Rasche), and Frank (Peter Friedman) would also throw anyone under the bus to stay in the King’s good graces. An early scene between Roman and Shiv, regarding Kendall’s offer to take them in, encapsulates the pervasive insecurity and absurdity of that atmosphere as they trade the question “what are you thinking?” back and forth, over and over again.
The essential guessing game of Succession is “what is Logan thinking?” followed by what is everyone else thinking in response to that. It creates an air of extreme anxiety, both for those involved and for viewers, because even though there are no heroes here, we want to champion someone. Even if you want to support Kendall and his genuinely good ideas about cleaning up the company if he were in power, you can’t trust him because he’s arrogant, insecure, and unstable. Along with his siblings, he’s a master of self-sabotage. The actors are all exceptional in conveying these tenuous moments when the various factions meet and clash—as the camera flits from face to face, you can see their shifting alliances even when they would never, ever admit to any of them.
That constant uncertainty, of what people are thinking or doing or thinking of doing, creates an ever-increasing crescendo that—seven episodes into a nine-episode season—has not yet had any release. In many ways, it’s excruciating. In others, it’s just tiring. The endless meaningless talking and pointed, acidic meanness can start to feel hollow and overwhelming, much like Logan’s own brand of bullying.
But peppered throughout, Succession remains a gloriously wry show, particularly in the form of ever-beleaguered Cousin Greg (Nicholas Braun). Many of his best scenes play out in the background and with brief asides while the others plot and sharpen their knives. But Greg also has a weight tied to him regarding the documents he stole, the choosing of sides, and the legal consequences of that. It’s shared somewhat by Tom (Matthew MacFadyen), his bosom friend and aggressor, who is numb through most of the season over the potential prospect of being used as a scapegoat for jail time—if Kendall’s plan to have the Department of Justice investigate Waystar goes that way. (It’s sad at first to see him so broken, but MacFadyen plays Tom’s new morose demeanor and macabre obsessions so pitch-perfectly that when he starts to perk up I found myself slightly disappointed).
And thus, like in previous seasons, we see Waystar battling not just the DOJ but shareholders, as well as negotiating their way through acquisitions and even trying to pick the next President of the United States. Politics plays a much bigger role in Season 3, but it’s not as sharply rendered as the show’s spiritual cousin Veep when it comes to the personalities at play (although there is a decent recurring gag about the current, off screen, Trump-like President being referred to only as “the raisin.”)
The show always shines brightest when it’s in the corporate sphere, its characters spouting off an unimaginable amount of nonsense buzzwords. (My favorite: the constant use of the phrase “temperature check,” which is essentially every interaction on the show. “Just want to check the temperature here….”) It also understands so well the ostentation and petulance of the Roys as the wealthiest one percent: they have the private jets, the best hotels, and the availability to go anywhere and do anything without sweating any of the details, and yet they complain and throw fits constantly about nothing. They have enough money to never have to worry about anything, but they spend all of their time mercilessly trying to make more of it as a way to maintain this freedom. The lifestyle even corrupts sweet Cousin Greg, who at one point announces his plans to sue the environmental non-profit Greenpeace.
It is in this way that Succession continues to be one of the best shows about royal in-fighting on TV. It’s the Wars of the Roses, it’s Machiavelli, it’s the last days of Rome. It’s addictive, but it’s also depressing. Because even in its most grandiose comedic moments, there is truth to Succession’s cynical world that makes us realize yes, these idiots are absolutely in charge of our world and no, there’s not really anything we can do about it.
In the end, it’s always Logan who looms largest. “When is your dad going to die?” a tech bro asks Roman. Roman, always the Logan loyalist, silently brushes it off even as he’s pressed again: “less than year? Five years?” Roman knows, as do we, that no one is ready to take over—not really. It would send a shockwave through the world, and the race for control of Waystar Royco is still wide open. Fallen “Number One Boy” Kendall, still a contender, goes so far as to earnestly suggest early in the season, “but what if I am the best person in the world?” Greg gamely suggests it’s possible, as long as he hasn’t killed anyone. Kendall just laughs: “what if I did kill someone?”
Bring out the guillotines! Or, maybe we just get a temperature check on what the memes are saying….
Succession Season 3 premieres Sunday, October 17th on HBO and will stream on HBO Max.
Allison Keene is the TV Editor of Paste Magazine. For more television talk, pop culture chat and general japery, you can follow her @keeneTV
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