Succession review: The long-delayed third season doesn't disappoint
With the Roy family — the clan of broken billionaires at the heart of HBO's Succession — it's never just business, it's always personal. That's painfully clear in the drama's kinetic and affecting season 3, which throws the Roy children into a fight for the soul of their media company, their family, and ultimately themselves.
The long-delayed third season (premiering Oct. 17) picks up shortly after the events of the October 2019 finale: Having just publicly accused his father, Logan (Brian Cox), of knowingly covering up a cornucopia of crimes at Waystar RoyCo, Kendall (Jeremy Strong) retreats to a makeshift base of operations and begins scrambling for allies to help him oust Logan as CEO. His siblings — inscrutable only daughter Shiv (Sarah Snook), quippy weirdo Roman (Kieran Culkin), and Libertarian outlier Connor (Alan Ruck) — have no choice but to pick sides.
Part of the fun of Succession is watching the familial and financial machinations unfold, so no spoilers — but it's fair to say that the Roy children struggle to decide where their loyalties lie. For one thing, it's nearly impossible to navigate an environment where no one says what they mean. (Sample dialogue: "I'm kidding. Or am I? I'm not kidding, am I? Or am I?") More importantly, Kendall and his siblings have been trained since birth to compete in Logan's emotional coliseum, battling it out for scraps of daddy's love and approval. Competition triumphs over human connection every time. ("Is there a thing where we, like, talk to each other about stuff… normally?" Roman asked last season, only to be roundly mocked by Shiv and Kendall.)
The idea that Kendall, Shiv, Roman, and Connor are just damaged kids play-acting at adulthood is even more prominent this season, as the four siblings try to haggle, argue, and dissemble their way to common ground. In the premiere, they meet for a clandestine summit in the pink-accented bedroom of Kendall's tween daughter Sophie, debating the future of media and the American republic surrounded by twinkle lights and colorful stuffies. Later in the season, Roman and Kendall engage in a ferociously spiteful confrontation while standing in a giant replica of Kendall's childhood treehouse. It's one of the many excessive spectacles at his 40th birthday party — which also features a large-scale reproduction of his mother's birth canal.
Though it premiered in 2018, Succession didn't become a true zeitgeist hit until the following year. Post-phenomenon seasons are notoriously tricky, as creative teams balance the desire to give viewers more of what they want while avoiding the stagnation of "greatest hits syndrome." Succession mostly avoids those pitfalls in season 3. The first two episodes, written by creator Jesse Armstrong, deliver satisfying doses of fan-favorite dynamics, including the twisted sexual tension between Roman and Waystar's general counsel Gerri Kellman (J. Smith-Cameron), and the scene-stealing, co-dependent cruelty between Tom Wambsgans (Matthew Macfadyen) and hapless cousin Greg (Nicholas Braun). The inevitable showy guest stars — Adrien Brody as Josh Aaronson, a pivotal Waystar investor, and Alexander Skarsgård as Lukas Matsson, a cocky and anti-social tech guru — parachute in later for strategic, compelling appearances that genuinely move the story forward. New addition Sanaa Lathan is underutilized as Lisa Arthur, a sought-after and self-possessed NYC lawyer who has a key role in the Logan-Kendall showdown. (HBO made 7 of the season's 9 episodes available for review.)
Coming off his 2020 Emmy win, Strong continues to serve as Succession's primary source of pathos. Like all the Roy children, Kendall is a master of self-sabotage, but he's also the one Roy scion who may actually want to do "the right thing." Burdened by guilt and driven by an urgent thirst for approval, Kendall is rapidly developing into a new type of antihero: He's not a bad guy we root for, but a guy who is pathologically incapable of becoming the hero he desperately wants to be. With his hangdog mien and pained smile, Strong excels most in the quiet moments of Kendall's inner turmoil. At one point, the camera lingers on the actor's face for nearly 40 seconds as Kendall walks down a long hallway, his pleasant-conversation smile fading into a somber look of hollow devastation.
It's a season of stellar performances. Macfadyen plumbs new depths of aristocratic melancholy as Tom faces the possibility of prison time for helping to cover up Waystar RoyCo's crimes. Ruck gets a welcome increase in screen time this season; Connor is the one Roy child willing to push back on Logan, and the show can only benefit from exploring that dynamic even further. As for dear old dad himself, Cox remains a focus-pulling force of nature, even as Logan finds himself facing the headwinds of a possible takeover. The sublime range of his performance in episode 5 — in which the Waystar RoyCo shareholders' meeting devolves into a masterpiece of corporate farce — is enough to make me forgive him for those ill-conceived McDonald's ads.
In that same episode, Greg gets a stern warning from his grandfather Ewan Roy (James Cromwell, wonderfully imperious). "You are putting yourself in the service of a monstrous endeavor," he booms. "You need to take yourself seriously, kid."
Ewan's message is clear: It's time to decide what you stand for rather than running for shelter under the nearest money tree. The good news is, no one on Succession seems ready to take his advice. B+