Sometimes the stomach boils just a little, like a cauldron over an almost-dead flame. Whatever’s in there feels like a putrid brew, a concoction made of battery acid and flat Coke, something inactive yet vindictive. Bitter leftovers. If that shallow pool of bile were a person, it would be one of the Roys, the family at the center of “Succession.” Jesse Armstrong’s acerbic, tense, deceptively funny marvel returns to HBO for a second season in top form, with Shiv, Kendall, Roman, and Connor moving from a simmer to a rolling boil, growing fouler and hotter and more unstable with every moment of exposure to heat. They’re grotesque, hapless yet harmful—but imagine how much more dangerous that pool of bile would be if it had a bottomless bank account and an unbelievably fragile ego. Ulcers would be the least of your problems.
There’s this bit of justice, however: The Roys might be giving the world ulcers, burning money and trashing lives with abandon, but they’re giving each other ulcers as well. The second season picks up not long after the end of the first, with Shiv (Sarah Snook) and Tom (Matthew Macfadyen) on their honeymoon, Roman (Kieran Culkin) snaking his way through life at Waystar Royco under the watchful eye of Gerri (J. Smith-Cameron), Connor (Alan Ruck) still stuck on the idea of running for President, and Kendall (Jeremy Strong) an absolute mess, silently spiraling and unable to tell anyone why. (Reminder: He killed someone with his car and surrendered every chip he had in asking his father for help.) None of that may sound very funny—and it must be said that, as Nicholas Brittel’s exemplary score suggests, the scope of the whole thing is grand indeed for the people living inside it—but somehow, it is. The house is burning down, and the Roys are slipping on banana peels as they race for the doors.
And then there’s Logan Roy (Brian Cox), the formidable patriarch of the family, whose illness at the beginning of the first season sets the winds of chaos to blowing. (I have not forgotten Nicholas Braun’s Cousin Greg, who is as different as it is possible to be from Logan in terms of power and experience. Greg is a series standout, but he’s a family parentheses.) Logan remains mercurial (at best) and of questionable health, but the events at the end of season one have starkly shifted the balance of power. That’s bad news for the Roy children—to say nothing of the employees of the companies in and near the Roy portfolio, whose jobs hang in the balance—but good news for viewers. It makes “Succession” more surprising and mordant, its characters more foolish and more dangerous. The chaos and instability has off-centered them all, and so they grovel, plot, storm, and flail with predictable unpredictability.
Logan may be the top dog again, but he still needs to name a successor, and the family’s attempts to outmaneuver one another drive much of the action in the five episodes provided to critics for review. Armstrong and the show’s writers allow that tension and uncertainty to percolate under the surface at even the characters’ most confident moments, particularly in the case of Snook’s Shiv, whose scenes with Cox are among the season’s most layered and compelling. Culkin’s Roman continues to trap his lively mind behind a petulant, profane persona and a neurotic, fragile psyche; he’s somehow at his most incompetent when he’s really putting in the effort to be otherwise. And Macfadyen and Braun remain one of TV’s most entertaining, demented, and surprisingly subtle double-acts, playing Tom and Greg as two striving outsiders desperate to keep a foot in the door even as it swings hard on their toes over and over again. Macfadyen in particular dazzles, but both are invaluable.
Still, somehow, it’s Jeremy Strong’s performance as Kendall that’s the hinge on which this season swings. He opens the season like a past-date vegetable oozing forgotten in the back of a fridge, only the fridge is a remote spa and he’s snatched away from the isolation and the mud treatments the instant that daddy crooks his finger. That’s Kendall’s life now—he’s there to follow orders and look pathetic. Yet the most fascinating thing about this new normal, and Strong’s performance of it, is that Kendall’s total lack of options makes him an incredible threat to his siblings and all of Waystar Royco’s perceived enemies. He has no choice but to use his considerable intellect. expensive education, and most importantly his hapless, defeated, wet paper bag energy to his father’s advantage. When is Kendall just the “sack of shit” Roman sees? When is he playing that up to his advantage? Can even Kendall tell the difference? Can we?
There’s precious little gentleness in “Succession,” but Armstrong and company deploy it with razor-like precision. Everyone’s furious with Kendall, so the tiniest moment of compassion hits even harder. Tom’s pleasure at being able to punch down at someone makes his relationship with Greg comically upsetting, which in turn makes the brief flashes of real affection and tenderness all the more potent. It’s all about contrast and frequency, an emotional tactic echoed in the terrific pairing of Brittell’s score and the absurd profanities of the Roy lexicon. (A particular highlight: Greg is an “Ichabod Crane motherfucker.”) The music screams King Lear one moment, the next, Roman titters “He just walked around the New York Stock Exchange with his severed dick in his hand, asking where was good for free soup; he just ate the big dog dick, sucked that pooch bone-dry.”
“Succession” has plenty to say about the corrupting influence of power and money, the lingering effects of shitty parenting, the danger of fragile egos, the list goes on. But read that sentence of Roman’s one more time. This is a show of substance, an excellent story for a troubling moment in history, but it’s also just a very good time. The Roys are terrible people, but they make for excellent guests—on the screen in one’s living room, if nowhere else.
Five episodes of season two watched for review.