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Succession: Season 2 - First episode review

Succession

Review by Rob Carnevale

IndieLondon Rating: 5 out of 5

IF THE first season of Succession emerged as one of the best – but little known – new TV series of 2018, then its second run looks set to maintain that momentum.

The drama focuses on the Roy family and the Rupert Murdoch-inspired media empire constructed by the ruthless family patriarch Logan (Brian Cox). Its first season was largely devoted to seeing whether favourite son Kendall (Jeremy Strong), recently back from rehab for drug addiction and cruelly snubbed as successor of the company at the 11th hour, could mount a takeover of Waystar Royco, particularly as Logan had suffered a health setback.

Watching from the sidelines, meanwhile, were Kendall’s siblings – younger brother Roman (Kieran Culkin), a motor-mouthed coward, and sister Siobhan, or Shiv (Sarah Snook) – as well as Shiv’s social climbing fiancée, Tom (Matthew Macfadyen), and distant cousin Greg (Nicholas Braun) – all hoping to profit from whoever emerged victorious.

The Roy family are, almost without exception, a despicable set of human beings: ridiculously rich, pampered individuals who exist in the shadow of their father. Logan is perhaps the worst of the lot, a serial manipulator who has irreparably damaged his children and forced them to live in fear of his legacy.

Yet Ken, Shiv and Roman were little better – siblings continually at loggerheads, capable of betraying one another from one conversation to the next if they could work a situation to their advantage. And yet, for all of their scheming, they remain a fascinating set of characters to watch, with shreds of humanity fleetingly exposed to offer some form of explanation for the ‘human beings’ they’ve become.

And it’s here that series creator Jesse Armstrong excels. Succession should be a turn-off. Instead, it’s an often bitingly funny, and surprisingly poignant show, with formidable characters and a finger on the pulse of modern media trends and big money lifestyles that is grimly, yet enjoyably compelling.

Season two looks to be no exception. What’s more, where season one took time to build its characters and raise its stakes, season two has hit the ground running.

Take the opening scene, which focused on a clearly unstable Kendall as he prepared to atone for the ‘sin’ of challenging his father by appearing on television to explain why he had switched sides in the hostile takeover. Could he pull it off? Or would he fluff his lines? The scene kept you guessing as he strained to find the directed answers with a series of potentially catastrophic ‘ums’ and ‘ahs’. But then he pulled it off, delivering something of a doozy of a line to round off the interview.

His brother and sister watched on in disgust. His father merely shrugged his shoulders to his convened boardroom and declared: “And that’s the first fucking thing he’s ever done right.” Or words to that effect. It was a stinging rebuke. A faint sort of damning praise. And yet it provoked a guilty chuckle from an appreciative audience. Succession had lost none of its ability to raise tensions, or deliver a biting put-down (Armstrong has, of course, previously worked on Veep).

The main thrust of the first episode was discovering whether Logan would take the advice of his financial advisor and sell to the people seeking to takeover his company, in the knowledge that hanging on would likely trigger a lengthy, costly battle that neither side might win (especially with the spectre of tech hanging over the whole media industry). And, if Logan chose to fight, who would be named as official successor.

The answer, while obvious, came down to a single set of conversations between Logan and his children at a freshly convened media summit. Initially, there was disdain for Kendall, as well as disbelief from Roman and Shiv that he had been taken back in by Logan.

Succession

But once Logan asked them to lay their cards on the table and speak freely about what they wanted for the company, the true character (or lack thereof) of Logan’s children was exposed. It was only during one on ones that they dared to venture an opinion – Roman effectively dug his own grave, while Shiv seized the opportunity to impress and be offered the opportunity to succeed.

The dynamics at play within these scenes were fascinating. Going into the meeting, Shiv advised Logan to sell the media arm of the business and concentrate on the theme parks. Post-meeting, she promptly came out and revealed that her husband had been placed in charge of that media arm.

Logan, meanwhile, played the long game, setting out a plan for fighting the takeover without revealing too many of its moving parts. Can we take him for his word?

He then sent Kendall in to deliver the battle declaration to the very people he had once sided with in a scene reminiscent of Al Pacino’s famous restaurant moment in The Godfather. Here, Kendall once more found the courage and words to ‘shoot down’ his enemies, in the wake of their ‘attack’ on his father. Succession‘s homage to Coppola’s masterpiece was surely intentional.

Throughout, the performances were mesmerising: ruthless, complex, layered. Cox was formidable, yet there is a certain pain on show at him seeing what type of family he has created. Snook excelled, too, scheming and manipulating as only she knows how, yet once more hinting at a vulnerability born from an as-yet unexposed past incident. Macfadyen oozes desperation married to naivety and is by turns pathetic yet sympathetic. Strong, for his part, also wallows in low self-esteem yet shows fleeting glimpses of the man he could be. It’s a rich tapestry of characters.

Earlier on, another scene capably displayed the love-hate relationship viewers should have with these characters. Kendall’s discovery that he had effectively gotten away with the manslaughter of a servant at his sister’s wedding in Scotland provided some form of relief for the beleaguered character. But it was a momentary pause for viewers, who quickly realised the disdain this family hold for the little people who exist below them.

A man did die at the end of season one, prompting Kendall’s downfall, and giving Logan the leverage over him he needed to at least try and halt the takeover. But the real cause of his death – and Kendall’s unwitting involvement in it – has now been swept under the carpet. The everyman holds little value to the 1% depicted here. Kendall, at least, seems to be still struggling with his own sense of guilt.

But therein lies the ruthless pleasure of Succession and the insights it affords into this type of corporate family. It is chillingly good television – A-grade drama with real bite.