If the fall of the American empire is someday defined by one piece of visual art, let it be Succession. Jesse Armstrong’s epic aristocratic vision is a portrait of late capitalist hell by way of Shakespearean tragedy. When it’s not busy delivering a dark-hearted power struggle for the ages, it’s working overtime to become the sharpest-tongued satire you’ve ever seen.
Succession’s long-awaited third season is thrumming with unbridled energy. It’s dizzyingly witty, and with key characters constantly shifting allegiance, it’s also more engrossing than ever.
“Our company is a declining empire inside a declining empire,” Kendall Roy (Jeremy Strong) insists early on. As with everything else that comes out of his mouth, it’s unclear whether this is the truth or a pitch borne of desperation. When we last left the Roys, Kendall had just publicly thrown his father, Logan (Brian Cox), to the wolves.
As Season 3 of Succession unfolds, the rift between kingpin Logan and prodigal son Kendall becomes a fault line. Each character must choose to stand on crumbling ground, or leap, superstitiously, over the crack in the family.
Whether Kendall is full of shit or not, it’s true that the series’ version of America is changing. The most marked difference between Succession’s first two seasons and its third is each characters’ awareness of public sentiment. They’re still billionaire babies playing in a sandbox, sure, but they also know the tide is turning. Kendall’s press conference let the corruption cat out of the bag, and Waystar Royco will never be the same.
The family responds to crisis in fractured, typically dysfunctional ways. While one Roy sibling poses as a social justice warrior, another gets in bed with a neo-fascist politician. Each, in turn, talks around the dark deeds of the company’s past. It’s hard to tell whether they’re bothered by the depths of Logan’s amorality, or simply by their own dented reputations.
They also perceive Shiv (Sarah Snook) with a new, explosive edge of misogyny. When put under pressure, the Roys bleed gross, self-aware bigotry that stains their starch-white suit-shirts. The Roys are imminently watchable and entertaining, but this season, most of them are also easier to hate.
The overarching plot of Succession is layered with spikes of intrigue, like well-placed caltrops designed to cause maximum surprise and destruction at any moment. There’s Roman’s (Kieran Culkin) well-documented but enigmatic relationship to sex, pathological, childish rudeness mixed with an undercurrent of jokey-but-real trauma. Then there’s Cousin Greg’s (Nicholas Braun) role as the serendipitous fool, a bumbler who wanders into leverage at every possible turn.
The series also has Logan’s health, Connor’s (Alan Ruck) political ambition, Shiv and Tom’s (Matthew Macfadyen) marriage, and Kendall’s deadly past all in its narrative back pocket. The Roy family is a veritable minefield waiting to detonate, and every moment of suspense in the meantime is riveting. Series newcomers with shady intentions — played by Alexander Skarsgard, Adrien Brody, and Justin Kirk — only add to the drama.
Succession is the best drama on TV, and not just because of its juicier plot elements and baked-in sense of grandeur. The series is led by powerhouse performances, with Jeremy Strong steering the ship. The guilt that overpowered Kendall Roy for much of Season 2 has now vanished, but its ghost haunts everything he does. He’s over-confident and opulent, yet when he loses even a crumb of power, it’s impossible not to feel for him. Strong flips Kendall’s emotions like a switch. When he briefly cracks, every bad thing he has ever done lives in the subtle glint of tears in his eyes.
The series’ writing and direction are both as taut as ever. Often, an episode’s biggest spoilers aren’t plot points but brilliant lines of dialogue. Political doublespeak and tersely worded power plays make up much of the season’s first few hours. By now, Succession speaks a language all its own. To the uninitiated, coded non-conversations between the Roy siblings likely seem dry. But they’ll have engaged viewers cheering like they’re watching a playoff game.
We’re deep in this world now. Scenes of black SUVs being deployed or private jets taxiing for takeoff hit us with a shot of giddy adrenaline that would make no sense outside the world of Succession. A few short years ago, we were hooked on Game of Thrones’ battle for Westeros. Now, the best battles on TV take place inside a boardroom.
Succession itself is a bit of a fantasy, too. Not the details of it; the show presents a vision of the one percent that’s in many ways bleakly realistic. No, the escapism comes from the way Succession makes us feel. The show presents a world where sickening signifiers of wealth, from prison shopping to picking the next president, seem more thrilling than disheartening.
The series is nihilistic, but its vision of cutthroat capitalism is deeply enjoyable because of its birds-eye view from the top of Mount Olympus. Clever, caustic, and cynical as hell, with Season 3, Succession remains one of the most captivating portraits of American excess ever put to screen.
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