“Succession,” which launches its third season Oct. 17, is not a show that will back away from a challenge.
The end of the second season radically clarified the series’ vision. Though the relationship between patriarch Logan (Brian Cox) and son Kendall (Jeremy Strong) had long been a central concern, their bipolar power struggle over the future of the family company felt less reinvigorated than reimagined at season’s end. And in the first seven of nine episodes of Season 3 — perhaps the show’s most sharply observed run so far — “Succession” probes the contours of its new reality.
Kendall’s public declaration of his father’s culpability in various scandals has split the Roy family, and the show, in two. In Loganland, an unsteady titan attempts to stabilize his position. And in Kendall’s corner, instability is to be relished. Swirling around the patriarch are his other children — the obsequiously crass Roman (Kieran Culkin), the emboldened Connor (Alan Ruck) and, last and least in Logan’s affections lately, the unfortunate Siobhan (Sarah Snook). Kendall, meanwhile, receives advice from crisis publicists (Dasha Nekrasova and Jihae, both gifted and arrestingly chilly additions), who seem most interested in staying on payroll by saying yes. Kendall, having been given a chance to free himself, wishes instead for unlimited wishes.
Kendall’s fatal flaw is impulsiveness — a trait his father has learned to project as temperamental intimidation. And the son’s long-term plan goes only as far as the dopamine rush of popularity among Roy critics. Logan, too, seems unmoored, with family frequently left to guess at his intentions. Shiv sums it up when she tells Roman, early in the season, “He missteps all the time. He’s not Dad from 20 years ago — he’s now-Dad.”
This creates a state of affairs that Roy foot soldier Gerri (J. Smith-Cameron) describes as “snake linguine”: On Logan’s side, the timeline of succession apparently has shifted rapidly forward, while the person doing the deciding grows less predictable daily. This brings to the fore childhood aches and patterns: Though the season pivots as Kendall seeks familial affirmation and chemical alteration at a birthday party, Logan seems to be the only character getting older. In a small, illustrative moment deep into the season, Connor confronts Siobhan about the toy post office she used to run in the Roy household. The implication is that her role — in the firm and the family, as if they could be disentangled — was ornamental then, and remains so. Ruck and Snook show us that the line hurts, and that it was intended to.
It’s now apparent, after a first season in which the Roys felt difficult to access, that the family members are so locked into their mindsets that they merely present as unknowable. Now, liberated, Kendall doesn’t know how to act — ignoring his children until he realizes his need for them, baiting controversy until he realizes that he lacks courage, or nihilism, sufficient to wage total war. In the vacuum left by his dark-star charisma, the other Roys struggle to find their place.
This struggle extends to characters a bit lost within the show. That Greg (Nicholas Braun) and Tom (Matthew Macfadyen) are siloed in a story of their own is a potent statement about the Roy family’s treatment of perceived outsiders. It also means there’s a toxic-buddy dramedy embedded in “Succession,” one that often feels simply ancillary. More effectively drawn is Siobhan’s disaffection as, placing poor bets on her father’s sensitivity, she finds herself on the outside of an empire now defined by its rage.
Which leads to the season’s defining triumph. While Logan and Kendall both feel isolated in their solitary desire for domination, they are forced into confrontation with a richly populated world. The first two seasons left this viewer hungry for a sense not just of Waystar Royco but of the world that it has made: A vulnerable corporation attracts fresh adversaries, and a say-anything bad-boy heir draws in intriguing collaborators. Adrien Brody and Alexander Skarsgård excel as titans of industry whose interests intersect with Logan’s and Kendall’s; Sanaa Lathan is appealingly brusque as Kendall’s lawyer; the comedian Ziwe crops up, doing a fictionalized version of her Showtime chat show that lends a sense of just how notorious the Roys are. And an impending presidential election raises the question of which candidate will catch Logan’s eye, and win his embrace.
The episode dealing with the political race will, and should, generate much discussion once it airs. But does it come as any surprise that it’s Siobhan — the family member who believed that minds could be changed through the soft power of finesse — who ends up losing? This transcends the easy comparison to Ivanka Trump flunking out as a White House moderating force (though that’s certainly in there): It makes for the show’s most confrontational statement yet about what drives the powerful. Despite the motivations of Siobhan, Roman and Kendall, respectively, what matters here is not good works, material gratification or love (synthetic or real). The true elite still live for the simple thrill of killing. And much of the way through a glimmeringly brutal season, the greatest challenge “Succession” has posed for itself is, once again, pulling insight and enjoyment out of staring into the heart of darkness.
“Succession” returns to HBO Sunday, October 17 at 9 p.m. E.T.