Critics’ Conversation: ‘Succession’ Sets Up Its Endgame, Hilarity and Darkness Intact

DANIEL FIENBERG: It’s hard to believe we’re only a couple of months away from HBO’s Succession being done forever. After a run of 10 episodes set to conclude on May 28 — conveniently on the eve of the TV calendar’s Emmy deadline — the story of the Roys and their family-splintering quest for dynastic supremacy will exist only in memories, a full year of awards campaigning and what I can only assume will be decades of passive-aggressive debate between Jeremy Strong and Brian Cox on the merits of Method acting.

Critics have been sent the season’s first four episodes, but woe betide anybody who spoils much of anything about this run of backstabbing adventures in the realm of excess. 


The Bottom Line

[Spoilers redacted.]

Airdate: 9 p.m. Sunday, March 26 (HBO)
Cast: Brian Cox, Jeremy Strong, Kieran Culkin, Sarah Snook, Matthew Macfadyen, J. Smith-Cameron, David Rasche, Peter Friedman, Alan Ruck, Nicholas Braun
Creator: Jesse Armstrong

So what can we discuss about the start of the new Succession season? It begins with a birthday party, one that has almost nothing in common with the bash in last season’s “Too Much Birthday,” perhaps the finest TV episode to ever take its title from a Berenstain Bears book. It features nary a mention of Comfry, so if your favorite part of last season was the existence of a character named “Comfry Pellits,” you’re out of luck. 

Actually, the show is generally closing ranks. Some guest stars return from past seasons — I believe Cherry Jones has already been revealed, so nothing controversially spoiled there — but for the most part, we’re focused on the battle for Waystar RoyCo that was set in motion by last season’s finale, an internecine clash that we’ve been heading toward since the pilot. 

What do you feel comfortable spoiling, Angie?

ANGIE HAN: Like an employee of Waystar Royco’s Cruises division, my lips are sealed. What I will say is that the biggest difference this year is the knowledge that we’re in the endgame. In earlier seasons, no matter how dramatically the sands shifted, we’d be waiting to see how they’d shift again. This season, though, they’re almost out of runway, at least as far as the viewers are concerned. That raises the stakes just a bit with each passing episode.

In the meantime, though, Succession hasn’t lost any of the hilarity or darkness we’ve come to expect from it. Love the colorful insults? We’ve got some real bangers, including my personal favorite: “I’m going to take you apart like a human string cheese.” Love laughing at these pampered fools? Please enjoy the details of Connor’s wedding to Willa (Justine Lupe), which isn’t quite as over-the-top as Kendall’s 40th was, but sounds almost as obnoxious. Love that gut-punch feeling every time we’re reminded just how deeply messed-up these people are? Connor gets a few lines that are, low-key, some of the saddest things I’ve ever heard anyone say on this show.

Really, I think it’s a pretty solid season in general for Connor, the most forgotten Roy kid both on and off the show — Alan Ruck is the only one of them who’s never been nominated for an Emmy, but I would love to see that change. Are you liking any performance in particular this season, Dan? 

DF: As an ’80s kid who grew up feeling very sorry for Cameron Frye and the way he was railroaded and manipulated by the monster that is Ferris Bueller, I’ll always be in favor of recognition for Alan Ruck and I agree with you completely that he has some spectacular little moments this season. All the conversation coming out of the last Succession finale related to the three primary turncoat Roy children, and maybe a little bit to Tom’s apparent betrayal, but no leadership discussion related to Waystar RoyCo can be had without also considering the “secondary” characters — a group that starts with Connor.

But if we’re discussing the final season in Game of Thrones terms and pondering who will be sitting on the not-literal-in-this-case Iron Throne in the end, it would be myopic to ignore Gerri and her unlikely ascension or the corporate cockroaches that are Frank and Karl. I’d be remiss not to say that David Rasche had several of my favorite lines of eviscerating dialogue this season, while J. Smith-Cameron doesn’t need dialogue to kick people, especially Roman, in the psychological balls. 

That being said, you know who’s great this season? All the people who are always great. Brian Cox has an early monologue that represented a side of Logan we’ve never seen before. I think I said last season was The Season of Sarah Snook and I’d be inclined to say that again, except that it could just as easily be The Season of Kieran Culkin, and lemme tell you … even if Jeremy Strong’s process irritates Cox or whomever else, man it gets results.

I have to be a bit candid, though, what with this being a sort of review: I thought the season’s first two episodes were among the show’s weakest ever, which is to say, “Merely very good episodes of TV,” while I thought the two after that were possibly the best hours the show has ever done. Was that a split you felt?

AH: I think I more or less agree. The first couple episodes — and the first episode in particular — feel very much like the table-setting episodes they are, and not among the show’s best table-setting episodes at that. But overall this batch has reminded me, simultaneously, of how sad I’ll be to see this series go, and how happy I am that it’s getting to go out on its own terms with a definitive ending. (Well, at least until HBO gets desperate enough to greenlight a spinoff.)

There are moments in the first four episodes that feel, to me, like the series preparing to make its final remarks. “What is a person?” Logan asks a nonplussed employee at one point, before answering his own question. “It has values and aims, but it operates in a market.” A person, he insists in typically callous fashion, is just an economic unit. I do not think this is what Succession itself believes — it has too much compassion for its wretched characters for that — but I do think the entire project of Succession has been about dissecting that kind of ruthlessly capitalistic worldview, and surveying the damage left in its wake. I expect the final episodes will find a way to make that statement in a more dramatic, and probably more devastating, manner than ever.

But far be it from me to guess who’ll end up on top at the end of it all. Personally, I kinda dig the idea of one of those “corporate cockroaches” inheriting the kingdom — I think it’d be unsatisfying in a good way if none of those kids ultimately get the kiss from Daddy, and not in a bad way like when Bran “had the best story.” But with six more episodes we haven’t seen, anything could still happen. Are you pulling for anyone, Dan?

DF: I’m pulling for Comfry, obviously. Or possibly for Karolina, annual winner of the “Person who’s a regular character on Succession who I never remember is a regular character on Succession” award.

Making a guessing game out of the home stretch is a thing people will spend the next two months doing on Twitter and in blog posts and interviews with members of the creative team who haven’t been sworn to total silence by Jesse Armstrong. But it feels to me like a futile mission, especially if you approach it from a “Who deserves…” perspective. Given that the show’s message has always been about the corrosive effects of global capitalism, the person who ascends to the show’s Iron Throne will the person who fits that definition of merit, rather than “most qualified” or “most worthy of daddy’s love.” It will be the Irony Throne. 

I don’t think it’s spoiler-y to say that the uniting of the three main Roy children is something lots of viewers are probably pulling for — a more traditional show would be invested in the restoration of a more traditional family unit — but Succession starts this season by underlining Roman’s weaseliness (weasel-osity?) and Kendall’s solipsism and Shiv’s streak of cold callousness, which have never felt more blatant or more human. 

Talking more about how great Culkin, Strong and Snook are, though, takes us into spoiler territory, and instead I’ll just say, “Have you ever wanted to know what Succession character would choose Leonard Cohen as their karaoke jam?”

It’s not who you’d expect!

As a last word, Angie, what is your preferred bad-idea Succession spinoff and why is it Stewy!?

AH: Much as I’m in favor of any show that gets Arian Moayed back on our TVs on a regular basis, Dan, I’m afraid I can’t back you on this one. Not when I’m pulling for my own, much better-worse idea: a half-hour dramedy following the ups and downs of Greg’s love life. We could even bring back your beloved Comfry! Because if there’s one thing Succession has taught us, it’s that money need never get in the way of happily ever after.

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