Toxic, powerful families have been the stuff great dramas are made of since before Aristotle wrote Poetics. Never in human history has there been a shortage of stories to choose from exploring the lives of the outrageously wealthy and miserable, and in recent memory, the paradigm of excellence for this rich and storied lineage is without a doubt “Succession,” HBO’s accoladed drama series created by British scribe Jesse Armstrong (“Peep Show,” “The Thick of It”). Exploring the power struggles between octogenarian business magnate Logan Roy (Brian Cox) and his children against the backdrop of company Waystar Royco, the multi-billion-dollar media and entertainment conglomerate he founded, the central conflict of "Succession" is deliciously unsolvable: the Roy kids all want Logan’s love and respect, but at most can have one of the two (and more often than not have neither). So long as they follow his orders like sheep, he will never truly respect them; if they take charge and go against him, he will respond with fire and brimstone.
That still hasn’t stopped the younger Roys—the now openly mutinous Kendall (Jeremy Strong), aggressively crass but shrewder-than-he-seems Roman (Kieran Culkin), and Shiv (Sarah Snook), now fully setting aside her career as a political fixer in favor of throwing her hat in the Waystar Royco ring—from trying. Meanwhile, elder half-brother Connor (Alan Ruck), the only child from Logan’s first marriage and full-time cloudcuckoolander, continues to dance around the narrative periphery, nursing a presidential fantasy that feels tragically a lot more possible than it really should.
“Succession” has been off the air for two long years, but by five minutes into the season three premiere you feel like you never left—partly because the new season picks up moments after where the previous ended, but mostly because it’s just as good as you remember it, if not better. It’s the sort of show that’s so impeccably character-driven in its writing that it ages like a fine wine, the more time these writers and impeccably cast performers have to spend diving into these characters, the more mesmerizing it becomes. It’s amazing how many scenes from the series—and the new season in particular—boil down to different subsets of a rather small core group of characters discussing the same handful of topics, with Nicholas Britell’s insanely catchy score woven in here and there for added flourish.
The end of season two promised war, and season three delivers. Last we met the Roys, Kendall, once the heir apparent, was instead selected by Logan to play sacrificial lamb and feed himself to the wolves in a bid to mitigate the damage to Waystar Royco following a massive scandal involving Waystar’s cruise lines, a workplace with the distinction of scoring a full house on the human rights violation bingo card. Only Kendall got in front of the cameras and pointed the finger at Logan and not himself, accusing the Roy patriarch of being fully complicit in the crimes that took place.
The new season premiere, none-so-subtly titled “Secession,” sees Kendall, well, seceding; he declares all-out war on Logan, and the two men vie for the support of the remaining members of the Roy clan and their wider social network. The clash of the titans has begun.
It’s as simple as that but also far more complicated—“Succession” is a master class in duality, an object lesson on paradoxes, a narrative high-wire act on the level of Philippe Petit. Both sweepingly grandiose and deliciously petty—often at the same time—the Roys are built up big enough to earn the lofty allusions to bygone dynasties scattered generously throughout the dialogue, but “Succession” also doesn’t hesitate to make the Roys look like absolute dunces. It’s clash of the titans in one breath and attack of the clowns in the next.
The first few episodes of the new season feel like follow-through on the promises made last season, allowing the Roys to openly brawl amongst themselves, but the gloves soon come off and the real fun begins. Like most great stories, “Succession” plays with expectations, and does so with a particularly devilish glee—a literal Trojan Horse statue, for example, becomes a red herring in a situation where the actual Trojan Horse proves to be a box of donuts with a threatening aura.
Then there’s the tone of “Succession,” always subject to debate. (Is it a comedy? Is it a drama? Let’s just tick all the boxes and call it a day.) The caustic sensibilities of the series are precisely what neutralize just how absolutely awful these characters are. As the Waystar cruises scandal continues to dominate headlines, talks of values and virtue signaling grow more prevalent this season than ever before, but the extent to which these platitudes are utterly empty is also clearer than ever. Notions of guilt and culpability are wielded as weapons, claims of moral high ground or outright innocence crammed into arguments as leverage—remorse or anything like it is never even raised as a possibility, because that’s simply not on the table for the Roys.
“Succession” is a den of monstrously selfish villains, and that’s precisely what makes it such a pleasure to watch—you are invested but not attached. It’s like the joy of scrolling through the highlights of the “Everyone Sucks Here” verdict on the Am I The Asshole subreddit, only with the peerless production values of an HBO flagship series. While all the characters are tasked with picking a side in the Roy family civil war, being a viewer requires no such decision-making: just sit back and enjoy as the Olympic-level volley of insults unfolds. And yes, the dialogue is just as delightfully sharp as ever. One new personal favorite, provided with no context: “That is an imaginary cat, now could you please f*ck off?”
While Kendall is arguably still the closest thing “Succession” has to a protagonist—or perhaps, more accurately, a main character—the new season feels more of an ensemble piece than ever. Season two saw Kendall starting at a low point, pulled early out of a brief stint in rehab, in a way that made his subsequent journey the season’s natural center of gravity (the pull was also powerful enough to compel an Emmy straight into Jeremy Strong’s outstretched hand). This time around, Kendall starts on a high, nearly giddy on the rush of publicly denouncing Logan. Every character on the show is a walking bag of contradictions and Freudian complexes, but Kendall wears his on his sleeve the most obviously. A self-saboteur with a constant yearning for approval, season three sees Kendall looking for validation from the internet—particularly, Twitter—perhaps the only place less likely to scratch that itch than his father. He’s a classically tragic figure you can laugh at but also occasionally feel for, brilliantly rendered by Strong as usual.
But Kendall’s conscious uncoupling from Logan’s orbit also de-centers him in the show’s overall narrative, creating a bit more room for other key players. The character work in “Succession” is brilliant all around, but Tom Wambsgans (Matthew Macfadyen), Waystar executive and husband to Shiv, has a particularly intriguing arc this season, quickly becoming one of the most fascinating players in the Roy family power games.
Tom’s lackey and de facto work husband, fan favorite cousin Greg (Nicholas Braun), also finds himself at an interesting crossroads. He’s still playing up the affably naïve poor relation persona that has defined him for the past two seasons, but it’s a performance with a time limit, and time is running out—he’s been too deep in shady Waystar dealings for too long at this point to convincingly play the fool much longer, begging the fascinating question of what happens next for the endearingly awkward giraffe of the extended Roy family, and what new sides to his character are in store to be revealed.
There’s no shortage of starry new players in this season, but in terms of screen time even the most significant newcomers feel more or less like elevated cameos, from hotshot lawyer Lisa Arthur (Sanaa Lathan) to reclusive Waystar 4% shareholder Josh Aaronson (Adrien Brody). They have a little more screen time than, say, Gong Yoo in “Squid Game,” but not much; the spotlight remains firmly on the core cast, with fresh faces only really getting involved as much as is needed for them to serve their narrative purpose and not one line more.
“Succession” never had much fat to trim, but where season two felt like the show hitting its stride, leaning more into its delightfully Shakespearian flair for wordplay and elaborate insults, and fully embracing its taste for the darkly absurd, season three swaggers with a new level of confidence. As the series itself so thoroughly explores, staying on top is no easy feat, but this new season manages to do just that. Two years was a long wait, but the payoff is glorious.
Seven episodes screened for review. “Succession” season 3 premieres on HBO on October 17, 2021 at 9 p.m. ET.