‘It’s barely started and I’m already terrified’: my crash course in Succession

Blackmail! Backstabbing! Boar on the Floor! I binged seasons one and two of the dazzling drama about a dysfunctional, super-rich family. Bring on season three!

My to-be-watched pile is worse than my to-be-read pile, but at least all the prestige shows I need to watch have ended. I will get to them, but there is no urgency. Not so with Succession, another award-laden entity, urged upon me by critics and friends. Two series have passed me by and now the third season of the epic tale of media baron Logan Roy and his clan is almost upon us. It is time to go in.

Season one, episode one

It has barely started and I’m already terrified. It takes me a while to realise that it is the music that is scaring me. What I call the “sinister plinky-plink” – but a more musical and educated friend of mine advises is better termed “the sinuous chromaticism of the melody” – is the most unnerving thing I have ever heard.

It makes it hard to concentrate, but I think I have the main figures and events sorted. Logan, the 80-year-old paterfamilias (Brian Cox), is refusing to step down from his Waystar Royco empire, and pass the CEO-ship to the assumed heir apparent, Kendall (Jeremy Strong). When he has a stroke, everyone starts jockeying for position, including his youngest son, Roman (Kieran Culkin), and only daughter, Shiv (Sarah Snook). She’s ostensibly a liberal, but I suspect most like Daddy at heart.

Also floating around are flaky eldest child Connor (Alan Ruck), and Greg (Nicholas Braun), a nervy, unsophisticated distant cousin who turns up hoping to bag a job from Grandpa.

The dynamics, the moves, the countermoves, the overt and covert motivations … everything is dizzying and the script is dazzling. These are characters everyone remotely associated with the show clearly knows inside out. I thought I would be a tougher mark but I am hooked.

Season one, episode two

Episode two is called Shit Show at the Fuck Factory, and seems as good a point as any at which to remark that although I had absorbed the basics of the Succession setup by cultural osmosis, I had not had the slightest clue that it is a comedy. I mean, it’s not – even at this early stage you can virtually palpate the growing swellings of tragedy – but it is so, so funny. I don’t know why I’m startled that a series created by Jesse Armstrong of Peep Show is as witty as it is clever and compelling, and structurally sound and all that good stuff.

Main event: the Logan-kraken wakes and everyone is cowed and terrified once more, including me.

Season one, episode three

With Waystar’s stock plunging to dangerous lows, Kendall, left, is confronted with a major crisis involving a secret bank debt.
With Waystar’s stock plunging to dangerous lows, Kendall, left, is confronted with a major crisis involving a secret bank debt. Photograph: HBO

Kendall secures $4bn from college friend-cum-private-equity-investor Stewy to avert disaster after learning that the company is quietly $3bn in debt. Daddy ain’t happy with his decision. And when Daddy ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy.

Roman has ejaculated on to the window of his office. I don’t know if this is peculiar to him or something all rich people do. If I find one, I’ll ask.

I haven’t mentioned one main character yet because my hatred of the walking bundle of mewling, puking neuroses, neediness and moral failings that is Shiv’s fiance, Tom Wambsgans (Matthew Macfadyen) weakens me so much I can’t type. Greg is now his assistant and metaphorical (so far) punching bag.

Season one, episodes four to six

Crikey! The game’s afoot all right. Wamblefool – all weaselly instinct and fretful childishness – has embroiled Greg in covering up a long-running sex’n’deaths scandal in his department. Greg has made copies of several documents he was asked to shred. Kendall is plotting to launch a vote of no confidence against his father and I fall to my knees imploring him not to.

We are not, I suspect, meant to feel as sorry for Kendall as I do. But so far, the particular genius of the show seems to be to keep all these people – members of the 0.00001% – recognisably and defiantly human, and it has worked on me too well. Kendall is every emotionally damaged little boy you have ever met. Father-son issues play out round a conference rather than a dinner table, but they are the same as in any other family, and they are eternal. Kendall wants to be CEO because to his dad he has never been anything. It’s killing me. The entire cast is superlative, but Jeremy Strong’s haunted intensity is something else.

Oh. He did it. Or rather – he didn’t do it. The vote failed. Kendall shot at the king and missed. No good can come of this.

Greg has been forced to eat ortolan by Tom. I did not see this sentence coming.

Season one, episode seven

The Roys convene for a family therapy session at Connor’s ranch. It goes about as well as you would expect, and Kendall goes back on drugs. Fair enough.

Season one, episodes eight and nine

When Shiv, right, marries Tom Wambsgans in England, we meet Caroline, far left, played by Harriet Walter, mother to Shiv, Kendall and Roman.
When Shiv, right, marries Tom Wambsgans in England, we meet Caroline, far left, played by Harriet Walter, mother to Shiv, Kendall and Roman. Photograph: Landmark Media/Alamy

Pathetic Wambsgans’s pathetic bachelor party is followed by a trip to England for his wedding to Shiv. Harriet Walter plays Shiv, Kendall and Roman’s gloriously icy and self-centred mother Caroline, explaining all the toxic bits of the Roy offspring that Logan does not.

Kendall – oh God, Kendall, why, why? – is now putting together a hostile takeover. I’m hiding behind the sofa as if I were eight again and this were Doctor Who.

Season one, episode 10

Kendall serves the takeover papers on Logan at the wedding, then gets high with a waiter and ends up Chappaquiddicking him in the local river. Logan offers to take care of it – of him – if he calls off the takeover. Kendall agrees and Logan takes his broken son in his arms as he cries. Maybe that is all each of them ever wanted, these strange, corrupted souls.

On the upside, there’s Tom’s face as Shiv bounces him into agreeing to an open marriage on their wedding night.

It’s too good – as satire, commentary on inequality, family drama, Shakespearean tragedy and corporate sitcom. Roll on …

Season two, episode one

Kendall – my Kendall – is yanked out of rehab to disavow the takeover attempt publicly. He is Logan’s beaten dog now and does just what he is told. Meanwhile, Logan secretly tells Shiv she will be his successor. You can see the gaping maw of ambition open up inside her. Tom is promoted too, goddammit.

Plans are made to turn the family empire into a legacy media behemoth – so big that it cannot help but become the last one to survive.

Season two, episode two

Shiv’s ambition awakes when Logan tells her secretly that she is his chosen successor.
Shiv’s ambition awakes when Logan tells her secretly that she is his chosen successor. Photograph: Home Box Office/HBO

Kendall’s humiliation continues, as does his drug use. Shiv resigns/is fired by her Bernie Sanders-alike boss Gil. Connor is starting to think about a presidential run, as simple a way as any of reminding us of what money does to meritocracy and just one of the many, many ways Succession finds to animate contemporary issues in the Trump/Fox era without slowing the pace or turning pedagogical. Perfect.

Season two, episode three

Nothing good ever came of gathering in a Hungarian castle, and so it proves here. On a corporate retreat to discuss buying a rival media conglomerate owned by the Pierce family, Logan unleashes the clearest demonstration yet of his personal and professional dedication to ruling through fear by making Tom, Greg and Karl root around the hall like pigs in a “game” called Boar on the Floor.

Power corrupts, and absolute power over employees trapped in eastern Europe with you corrupts absolutely.

Season two, episode four

A gunshot in the building sends the Roys to the corporate panic room with Rhea Jarrell (Holly Hunter), who is the Pierce family’s go-between but seems quite keen to insinuate herself into Logan’s good graces. Wambsgans (the glutinous perfection of this name will never leave me) and Greg are sent elsewhere, which prostrates me with glee even before Greg reveals that he copied confidential documents and blackmails Tom for a promotion.

Rhea agrees to put forward Logan’s bid to the Pierces if Royco fires their Nazi-sympathising news anchor, Mark Ravenhead. Now that Logan can put a dollar price on moral integrity, it’s buh-bye Mark.

And hello to Roman’s erection, not present in front of his girlfriends but standing proud for company exec Gerri as she humiliates him over the phone. These people could pay for therapy, but wouldn’t that be dull?

Season two, episodes five to eight

Rhea Jerrell (Holly Hunter) spends a weekend with the Roy family at the Pierce family home.
Rhea Jerrell (Holly Hunter) spends a weekend with the Roy family at the Pierce family home. Photograph: Home Box Office/HBO

A welter of back-and-forthing between the Pierces (a family so pretentious and awful that you find yourself unambiguously rooting for the unpretentiously awful Roys) and Waystar; the gathering threat of exposure around the cruises cover-up; the possible suicide (by that gunshot) of a bullied employee; Rhea’s unsettling presence and a looming Senate inquiry make this run of episodes a wildly switchbacking ride.

Through it all, Kendall’s crushing guilt and misery remains constant, aggravated by a forced visit by Logan to meet the family of the man who died in the river. In desperation he tries to confess his sins to his mother, but she won’t let him, instead preferring to talk about eggs. I don’t know how Strong manages to find 87 ways to play this mere husk of a man, but he does.

Season two, episode nine

Tom Wambsgans and the Roy’s general counsel Gerri Kellman (J Smith-Cameron) at the Senate hearing.
Tom Wambsgans and the Roy’s general counsel Gerri Kellman (J Smith-Cameron) at the Senate hearing. Photograph: HBO/Kobal/Shutterstock

And the walls come tumbling down …

The cruise scandal whistleblower goes public, Wambsgans shits his Senate-testimony bed, Kendall claws back some ground for Daddy, and Shiv dissuades the witness who would have put the final nail in the Royco coffin from appearing. Amid all this, there is a scene with the two older siblings teasing Roman (about his PTSD after being held hostage-ish in the Middle East), that helps explain why we don’t wish only bad things upon this mad, monstrous family – they do, at some fundamental level, love each other. The money and the fear get in the way, but there is a tiny core of tenderness deep at the heart of the whole thing. It’s this, of course, that makes my own heart fill with dread as plans are laid to take the company private, but a “blood sacrifice” is needed to appease the shareholders.

Season two, episode 10

It’s Kendall. Of course it’s Kendall. He will be publicly blamed for all Royco’s sins and fired. He kisses his father when he hears his fate and steps in front of the cameras to do his duty and his penance and save the empire.

But. But. Never in the history of family-drama-corporate-satire-Shakespearean-tragedy has so much been owed by so many to such a tiny conjunction.

But, says Kendall – his father knew all, oversaw all, signed off on all. The empire is laid waste. Kendall rises to his feet and I did, too.

On his yacht, watching, Logan smiles. Some see this as a sign that he orchestrated things to instil in Kendall the killer instinct he has so far lacked that will make him a capable CEO. I think he is just spoiling for a new fight. Let the season three games commence. That sinuous chromaticism of the melody didn’t tell the half of it.

• Series three of Succession starts on Sunday 17 October in the US and Monday 18 October in the UK on Sky Atlantic and Now


Lucy Mangan

The GuardianTramp

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