Every week on HBO’s “Succession,” the drama surrounding the Roy family and their media conglomerate, Waystar Royco, often reduces me to fits of laughter. The Roys bumble their way through scandals, doing whatever the exorbitantly rich person’s equivalent is to slipping on a banana peel.
Whenever someone who struggled with the show’s first season wonders if it’s worth sticking it out, I always emphasize that the show is hilarious and cleverly self-aware. It mirrors real life while not directly replicating it, finding the perfect middle ground between reality and escapism. Even the most uncomfortable moments and devastating revelations are also wickedly funny, like when the Roy siblings trade lacerating insults in mocking voices, instead of actually talking about their feelings and being real humans — because they do not know how.
Sometimes, there’s nothing funny about it, like in Sunday night’s episode, “Mass in Time Of War.” “Succession” has always been about the brutality of growing up in a family in which relationships are purely transactional, and this week’s episode reminded viewers of that in each of its major developments.
Kendall (Jeremy Strong) unsuccessfully attempts to get his siblings on board his rival company, the next step in his coup against their dad Logan (Brian Cox), launched in the final moments of Season 2. (Kendall’s plans rarely, if ever, succeed, so this one was doomed to fail.) Throughout Sunday’s episode, he covertly invites Shiv (Sarah Snook), Roman (Kieran Culkin) and Connor (Alan Ruck) to his business bunker, aka his ex-wife Rava’s apartment (poor Rava, who now is apparently responsible for housing and feeding half of the show’s characters — she did not ask for this!).
When one by one, the siblings bail on the plan, Kendall unleashes a fusillade of brutal insults. He reminds Connor of how “irrelevant” he has always been in the family. Connor is the only child from Logan’s first marriage, while his younger siblings are bonded by being from Logan’s second marriage. He’s also the only Roy sibling who has not been directly involved in the family empire (like Kendall and Roman) or built an independent career (like Shiv, formerly a political operative). Instead, he dabbles in vanity projects bankrolled by Logan (decanting wine, funding his girlfriend Willa’s off-off-off-Broadway play “Sands,” running for president).
Increasing the volume each time, Kendall repeatedly tells Connor: “You are not wanted!”
Even Roman thinks Kendall might have gone too far. “Like he hasn’t heard that enough in his life,” he tells Kendall, as Connor slinks away in disappointment.
Kendall saves his most horrific tirade for Shiv, the only sibling he really wanted for his alliance, he admits. He accuses the faux progressive Shiv of being a self-interested phony (which is fair). “Is it cowardice or avarice?” he asks, before suggesting he wanted her for the alliance “only ’cause you’re a girl.”
“Girls count double now, didn’t you know?” he sneers. “It’s only your teats that give you any value!”
Many Roy family fights are brutal and uncomfortable, but ultimately still funny. This one was just flat-out mean and stomach-turning, even for “Succession.”
This week also marked the long-awaited return of Logan’s estranged third wife Marcia (Hiam Abbass), whom he cast aside and betrayed in Season 2. When Hugo (Fisher Stevens), one of Waystar’s PR executives, explains that Logan and the company leaders want Marcia to help Logan repair his image by publicly appearing by his side, Marcia reveals that she has a plan too. She lists her own financial stipulations and hints at a divorce. Marcia knows how to play the game.
There were still plenty of belly laughs in this episode. In a completely on-brand move, Cousin Greg (Nicholas Braun) — who, like almost everyone on this show, is in need of a high-powered attorney — finds a law student friend, Lia, to advise him. Poor Lia has no idea what she has gotten herself into and the severity of Greg’s legal troubles (“You want me to text my professor?” she asks Greg). Later, Grandpa Ewan (James Cromwell), Logan’s brother and one of his fiercest critics, begrudgingly helps his grandson find a lawyer.
But like every Roy, Gramps also wants something from this transaction. He enlists his personal lawyer, who wants to use Greg as “our little wedge” to take down Logan and Waystar Royco and “expose the structural contradictions of capitalism as reified in the architecture of corporate America.” (Greg the Egg is now Greg the Wedge.)
Like a lot of people, before I became a “Succession” super fan, I struggled with the first season, wondering what could be appealing about a show in which everyone is terrible. Then, I discovered that’s precisely the point. But still, it’s human to try to find someone to root for. For me, the show shifted in Episode 6 of Season 1, when Kendall’s first attempt to oust his father failed in spectacular fashion, precipitating his downward spiral for the rest of the season and into the next one. Dare I say, I sympathized with him — maybe?
However transactional and conditional they are, the bonds between the Roy siblings have always been at the core of some of the devastating moments of “Succession.” Early in Season 2, at his professional and personal nadir, Kendall asks Shiv for a hug. Confused, Shiv reaches out for an awkward, half-assed hug — before she realizes Kendall, now crying, really does need a hug. It’s sad. On Sunday night, watching Kendall unleash his vicious insults at his siblings, thus reproducing the cycle of abuse inflicted by their father, I again almost felt bad for all of them.