The Sweet Smell of "Succession"

The family you love to hate is back for a third round on HBO

The Sweet Smell of "Succession"

The Nut Graf: “Succession” returns for a third season of corporate chicanery and family throat-cutting — but have the times passed it by?

Jeremy Strong in “Succession” (DAVID RUSSELL/HBO)

Caution: Spoilers for the Season 3 opener of “Succession” are contained herein.

Just as we’ve finished absorbing a second season of “Ted Lasso” and its complex/comical vibe of loving-kindness, here comes a third season of “Succession” on HBO, featuring the most reprehensible people on the planet. The fact that both shows are immensely popular indicates that different parts of the human brain enjoy being entertained: The caudate nucleus for “Ted Lasso,” maybe, while the dark, ironic doings of “Succession” go straight to the amygdala.

In any event, the Roys are back after a two-year hiatus, and their bitcheries and backstabbings land in a very different world than when the series debuted in 2018, deep into a Trump Era whose corporate excesses it seemed to parody. “The Rupert Murdochs at home and at play” was the guiding concept at the beginning, before the characters began to take on lives of their own and the audience began to choose up sides. But how can you take sides when everyone’s hateful? Even “The White Lotus” gave audiences a character or two to feel sorry for, whereas everyone in “Succession” is out for themselves and has no compunction about sacrificing a firstborn if it will get them in the boardroom or into Logan Roy’s charred and wizened heart. These are people, every last one of them, who would shove women and children aside to get into the lifeboats.

l. to r. Kieran Culkin, David Rasche, Peter Friedman, Fisher Stevens, Alan Ruck, J. Smith-Cameron, Matthew Macfadyen, Sarah Snook, Brian Cox (DAVID RUSSELL/HBO)

The Season 3 premiere concerned itself with the immediate fallout of Kendall’s patricidal putsch at a news conference in which he was expected to fall on his sword. The episode opened with scatter: Logan (Brian Cox) and his yes-men (Peter Friedman as sometime-COO Frank, David Rasche as Waystar RoyCo CFO Karl, and a wonderfully smarmy Fisher Stevens as comms exec Hugo) flee to the nearest country that lacks an extradition treaty with the US. Siobhan (Sarah Snook), accurately nicknamed Shiv, was dispatched to New York to woo the same lawyer (Saana Lathan) that Kendall (Jeremy Strong) was trying to hire. Youngest son Roman (Kieran Culkin) schemed and dithered – the character is that rarity, an insecure Machiavellian – and cozied up to general counsel Gerri, whose elevation to CEO suddenly seemed within reach; fine by me, since more J. Smith-Cameron is better than less. Cousin Greg (Nicholas Braun) continued to flounder; oldest son Connor (Alan Ruck) continued to not matter. Idiot son-in-law Tom (Matthew Macfadyen) appeared to grow a spine but it was unclear whose.

“Succession” isn’t a show about addiction, but it is a show about addicts, people who’ve been juiced on power for so long they no longer recognize how completely it has warped them and who view the possibility of its disappearance as a personal panic attack. We all have our favorites, the ones we love to hate and the ones we hate to love, but while I understand the attractions of Roman, the show’s resident demon imp, I’ve always been Team Kendall. In part it’s because Jeremy Strong commits so thoroughly to the role’s sense of existential annihilation – watching Kendall’s fall play out over the first two seasons was like looking over the edge of an abyss. Or maybe I’m just drawn to sadboys. In any event, I think we were all cheered by the thoroughness with which Kendall drove the limo over his father, backed up, and drove over him again in the final moments of Season 2. And we should be thankful that the writers reminded us in the Season 3 opener – with the character speed-talking past his new PR duo and his annexation of his ex-wife’s apartment – that Kendall, too, is an entitled prick, and maybe the biggest addict of them all. (You could argue that his substance abuse has always been a secondhand way to experience the rush of power he feels has been denied him.)

Brian Cox and Sarah Snook in “Succession” (GRAEME HUNTER/HBO)

HBO made the first two episodes available to the press, and while I don’t want to give anything away, I will say that the infighting and side-switching continue and that we’re still not out of the 24 hours following Kendall’s coup or the hotel suites and living rooms where the principals plot their strategies. (Although a young girl’s bedroom getting turned into a war chamber is good for a laugh and an apt metaphor for these squabbling grown children.) “Succession” is best when it expands outside its hermetically sealed chamber of wealth and reminds us that there’s a planet out there of other human beings – of us. That the people watching the show are the same people being screwed over by the Logan Roys of the world. So far the only recognizably un-awful person in Season 3 is Kendall’s ex-wife Rava (Natalie Gold), whose weary acceptance of being used once more has become a philosophy of life and a state of grace.

Or am I wrong about this? Do we secretly watch “Succession” because we fantasize about being these people – or at the very least how we’d do it better if we had that much money and power? We do love our villains, don’t we, back through Shakespeare and beyond. They remind us of what not to do – and how much fun it is to fantasize doing it.

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