This Succession review contains spoilers.
Succession Season 2 Episode 2
Ahead of “Vaulter,” the latest episode of HBO’s acclaimed series Succession, critics who had seen the screener but weren’t yet allowed to talk about its contents just couldn’t help themselves on social media. They all hinted that the second entry in the show’s second season was taking on digital media and journalism in a way that most other fictional programs or films hadn’t quite captured. And they were right.
“Vaulter” concerns the Gawker-esque website of the same name that Waystar Royco’s Logan Roy (Brian Cox) acquired last season in his bid to create and bolster his new media empire. Specifically, the episode concerns Logan’s belief that the news website needs to be “fixed” and his decision to send his warring sons, Kendall (Jeremy Strong) and Roman (Kieran Culkin) to do the fixing. “The one who fixes it gets a cookie,” he tells them without a hint of seriousness.
As amazing (and disconcerting) as Succession’s brief portrait of the current digital media landscape is, though, it’s Strong’s increasingly disheartening performance as the near-comatose Kendall that sells the episode’s A plot — as well as its B, C and D plots. In my season 2 review, I noted that show creator Jesse Armstrong and his team had finally (and thankfully) cracked the show’s biggest problem from season 1, which was how to properly blend the black comedy with the maddeningly realistic portrayals of elitist depravity. “Vaulter” is when this turn really happens, and it happens, in large part, thanks to Strong’s Kendall.
Before the digital media shenanigans are fully underway, the episode begins with many of the Roys enjoying a crowd-free tour of one of their company-owned theme parks. On the one hand, it looks like a big publicity ploy for Connor Roy (Alan Ruck), Logan’s oldest son whose disinterest in the family business has been replaced by his political ambitions. On the other hand, the trip serves as a birthday celebration for Kendall’s daughter Sophie. She even tries to thank him for the trip with a big, loving embrace, but the recovering rebel turned manslaughterer can’t even reciprocate the hug with any discernible emotions.
“Thank you for closing down the park for us,” he tells his father. “Sophie’s having a great birthday.”
It’s a brief moment of emotional existence between Kendall and Logan, but the latter’s attempts to quickly brush it off send his son right back to where he started. It also primes him for yet another sadistic layup by his younger brother Roman. “Look at you, you broken robot. Can’t even hug your own kids,” he quips. “Yeah, I saw that, you freak.”
It’s moments — nay, entire sequences — like these that not only feature bits and pieces of what critics and audiences love about Succession, but also expertly combine them all into something as beautiful as it is heartbreaking. Yes, the Roys are largely a despicable group. Yes, Kendall killed a guy. Yet in the face of his father’s continuously soulless stare and his brother’s unrepentant pestering, the most broken of the Roy children manages to pull at the viewers’ heartstrings and make them feel something for his soullessness.
Of course, all of this transpires in the first five minutes of “Vaulter,” before the show’s practically iconic opening credits music begins to play.
There’s plenty more in Succession’s latest episode that makes it one of the season’s (and the show’s) best ever. Like when its B and C plots intermingle in the dinner party Roman hosts at his girlfriend Tabitha’s (Caitlin FitzGerald) suggestion. Perhaps the most loquacious and sardonic of Logan’s would-be successors, Roman is almost incapable of taking or doing anything seriously. As the guests, his sister Shiv (Sarah Snook) and her husband Tom (Matthew Macfadyen), arrive, he simultaneously pokes fun at himself, the evening at hand and everyone who agreed to endure it.
It’s “classic Roman” in the purest sense, but it’s also not. Like when the higher pitched version of Logan confides in his sister that he thinks he’s going to be named their father’s successor at Waystar Royco. “If dad announces tomorrow, he announces me. Has to. There’s no other option,” he says with his characteristic sense of humility. “It’s f*cking insane but I am the best he’s got.” Roman seems to think that Logan will pick him instead of Kendall, whose season 1 attempt to launch a hostile takeover exploded in his face, or Tom, Shiv’s overly eager husband. Sure, his words are about as humble as a presidential tweetstorm, but at least he’s being honest.
Which sucks for Roman, because Logan already asked Shiv to take over the family business at the end of the season 2 premiere. Though this is Logan Roy we’re talking about. When it comes to the head of Waystar Royco, nothing is guaranteed — except for expletive-filled tirades directed at just about everyone within earshot. Shiv seems to think that her initial acceptance of her father’s succession offer is a “play,” and one of many at her disposal. She’s also working for the presidential hopeful Gil Eavis (Eric Bogosian), the Bernie Sanders-like politician whose public face hides plenty of Succession-worthy duplicities.
The problem is, by the time “Vaulter” grinds to a halt, Shiv has spent her supposed trump cards and realizes she’s standing on about as much sturdy ground as her siblings. Well, Roman. Both her and her brother find themselves back on the lower rungs of the company ladder at the end of the episode, for Kendall’s mostly morose approach to life ultimately works in his favor. He plays the “good cop” throughout his and Roman’s meetings with the Vaulter management, but his brother is so distracted by this that he successfully steals what he needs and guts the rest, earning him a place back at Logan’s table.
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