Tales of wealthy, dysfunctional families aren’t exactly new to the small screen. Selfish, corrupt parents so far removed from reality that they stand no chance of imparting any values to their offspring, who then go on to make all the same mistakes with their own kids: it’s Arrested Development, folks.
Last summer, though, Succession proved that our appetite for stories of maladjusted one-percenters is far from sated. Over 10 episodes, we got to know Logan Roy (Brian Cox), monstrous patriarch of a divided clan and head of Waystar Royco, a massive media and entertainment conglomerate with fingers in every pie and skeletons in every cupboard. His four children – eccentric Connor (Alan Ruck), product of Logan’s first marriage, and the three younger siblings, nervy Kendall (Jeremy Strong), scheming Siobhan, known, not without good reason, as Shiv (Sarah Snook), and sarcastic Roman (Kieran Culkin) are all looking to the future and keeping a wary eye on Marcia (Hiam Abbas), Logan’s third wife.
To his family’s shock, Logan announces during his eightieth-birthday celebrations that he plans to stay on as CEO indefinitely. Kendall, who’d been all set to replace him, hits the roof. Bigger trouble ensues, however, when Logan collapses with a haemorrhagic stroke. Sides are taken, rifts emerge, and the company starts to fall apart in a manner neatly summed up by the evocative title of Succession’s second episode, “The Shit Show At The Fuck Factory.” The stage is set for a battle of wills on multiple fronts.
Succession’s cast needed to be perfectly chosen. We spend a lot of time with these characters, looking over their shoulders and hovering at the boardroom door as plans are laid and trouble starts. Cox’s Logan is every bit the boardroom titan, snarling at investors and bellowing at his unsatisfactory children, yet there are hints of warmth beneath the surface, not to mention the suggestion of difficulties during his upbringing in Dundee that look set to be explored further in season two. His relationship with Marcia is nicely opaque; Abbas gracefully veils her character’s true motivations with a veneer of charm that – most often when confronted by Shiv – occasionally cracks to reveal genuine fury.
Shiv’s own partnership with her fiancé Tom Wamsgans (Matthew Macfadyen) confounds her family, especially her disapproving dad. Their big, flashy nuptials in season one’s magnificent closer, “Nobody Is Ever Missing,” might have joined them in marriage, but it’s hard to see how this fundamentally mismatched couple can flourish in the longer term. As for Tom himself – Midwestern, middle-class, utterly out of his depth and well aware of it – the lure of wealth and success in his father-in-law’s firm may not compensate for what’s squandered along the way. Snook and Macfadyen sell this unholy union with intimate scenes that show us what drew Shiv and Tom together, while never allowing us to forget what will prevent them from ever quite meeting in the middle.
At the center of the maelstrom is Kendall, a character who initially seems to be the archetypical corporate chancer, but who gradually reveals wholly unexpected layers. Strong’s superb performance is as crucial as the writing in selling this transformation. Kendall’s emotional fragility, his drug addiction, and his fraying bonds with his own wife and kids never ring false or veer towards sentimentality. This is a man who’s charted a preset course for so long that a sudden deviation can send him careering into disaster. His closeness to his perpetually cynical younger brother, Roman, is a rare point of light in the enveloping darkness of Kendall’s storyline later in the season. Culkin works wonders with a character whose air of glib amorality ought to repel, but is instead oddly endearing, largely because it’s so obviously affected. As we learn more about the competitiveness of their privileged childhood, our understanding of these obnoxious, isolated people grows.
As if the brothers’ dynamic wasn’t enough to savor, there’s Shiv’s snidely loving banter with Roman and Connor’s unwarranted self-confidence, which, combined with his distinctly concerning political views, could yet cause its own problems. The always excellent Ruck conveys all this in a wonderfully weird performance that’s given centre stage in “Austerlitz,” when the family convene for a group therapy session at his New Mexico ranch.
What we really need, though, is an outsider’s perspective to the madness, and it always helps when that peripheral figure has a backdoor pass to the main event. Enter Cousin Greg (Nicholas Braun), six-feet-seven of loping, delightful clumsiness and grandson of Logan’s sternly disapproving brother Ewan (James Cameron). We first meet Greg during his management training in one of Waystar Royco’s theme parks, high on weed and vomiting through the eyeholes of his costume as the kids who knocked him over look on.
Nothing about this scenario suggests corporate success, it must be said. It’s followed by plenty more condescension from his extended family and outright bullying by the appalling Tom as Greg struggles to maintain his place in his uncle’s company. Despite all that, if you’re a betting type, Greg’s the dark horse to back in the race to the top. Patient, long-suffering, and observant, “Greg the Egg” might just be the last one standing after his cousins have imploded, the Claudius to this bunch of Caligulas. Braun makes what could have been a gratingly one-note role into a character at once hilarious, pitiable, and quietly triumphant, in what was one of the outstanding TV performances of 2018.
Series creator Jesse Armstrong is known in the U.K. for series like Peep Show, which he co-created with Sam Bain, and for his work on The Thick Of It and its film spinoff, In The Loop. He brings with him a caustic British comic sensibility that will be pleasantly familiar to viewers who’ve encountered his previous work. With co-writers such as playwright Lucy Prebble – responsible for the lauded Enron, a play about the collapse of the eponymous company – and Adam McKay (The Big Short) as producer, the research and insight behind Succession’s corporate failures was always going to delve deep beneath the surface.
What’s remarkable, though, is the compassion. The watchful eye turned upon these characters observes their humiliations at unforgivingly close quarters, but there’s an empathy behind its gaze that mitigates the harshness, a quality not often found in more satirical work. These are entitled, arrogant, thoughtless people, but they’re people nonetheless. That said, the mockery of the corporate world is unsparing, and McKay knows exactly when to let an image speak for itself. At one point, Greg looks up from a training video that brags of the company’s diversity to see a large group of middle-aged white men emerging from a meeting. No punchline is needed.
Sometimes, the cold brutality of the Roys’ world hits us like a splash of cold water. Kendall’s horror when he learns that an employee he’s asked on a date only agreed because her female boss pressured her to make sure he had a really good time is one moment in which reductive certainties are challenged with a jolt.
Elsewhere, the sheer visual innovation dazzles. As hostilities briefly cease in the season finale during Shiv’s wedding, Logan asks Kendall whether this attempt to play happy families is like the Christmas ceasefire in the trenches during World War One. Later in the episode, as Kendall flees the scene of the most destructive mistake of his life, he scrambles through long grass, seeking the cover of darkness as celebratory fireworks burst over his head like shells.
Is he running back to the family bunker, or into hostile terrain? Where Logan Roy and his Murdoch-referencing dynasty are concerned, there’s always a catch.
Succession is a show for now that will be every bit as forceful in a few decades’ time. Now that’s a legacy.
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