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‘Succession’ Is the Most Deeply Satisfying Tragedy on Planet Earth

You don't need to love the Roys to love HBO's satirical drama, even as the latest episode evoked pity for nearly every family member.

Succession Season 2 Jeremy Strong Sarah Snook

Jeremy Strong and Sarah Snook in “Succession”

Peter Kramer/HBO

[Editor’s Note: The following review contains spoilers for “Succession” Season 2, Episode 5, “Tern Haven,” including the ending.]

Objectively speaking, the ending of “Tern Haven” is a win for the Roys. The deal they sought from a weekend stay with the “weird” Pierce family is done — it cost a little more than their first offer, but Logan (Brian Cox) was ready to up the ante, so long as the bet was on his terms. And right there is where things take a turn: What ends up being good for the business is bad for the people running it.

“Succession” has always offered a rather brilliant blend of success and failure, fortune and tragedy, positive and negative. Jesse Armstrong’s HBO drama never ignores the reality of the world we’re all living in — where the mega-rich entrench themselves in the power seat, destroying little things like journalism and integrity in so doing — but it also allows audiences to bask in the abject humiliation of each individual one-percenter.

Any success in “Succession,” be it Waystar Royco or a specific Roy family member, is objectively bad. But subjectively, it’s difficult to avoid getting caught up in their gamesmanship, just as it’s hard not to feel for these horrible people when they’re suffering the most. Sure, they’re rich, protected, and flying around in too many “whirlybirds” to keep track of, but do you get the sense at the end of Episode 5 that anyone (other than, arguably, Logan) is happy? Do they even know what happiness is?

Armstrong navigates skillfully between big picture satire, intense competition, and individual strife, tinkering with each until you’re invested in all of it. And each element is oh so satisfying, through and through.

Kendall (Jeremy Strong), easily this season’s most tragic figure, might also be the closest to comprehending the Sisyphean trajectory of the warring Roys, but each family member is dealt a devastating personal blow this week, and each is both deserved and pitiable. Most notably: Shiv (Sarah Snook) befalls the same fate as her brother did a year ago, coming this close to being named the official heir only to have it snatched away. But was she ever really next in line? Sure, Logan told her as much, behind closed doors, to start the season, but anyone who knows Logan knows he’s not the type of man to cede power — his god complex has him refuting rationality, including his own inevitable death.

Shiv should’ve known this and acted accordingly, but that’s easier said than done. She was overeager at dinner, but before that, she was making mistakes. Her father did not care for her casual approach to the Pierce family, be it a joke about one son earning two PhDs or earlier frivolity in private — Logan knew she didn’t like the deal, and any lack of support with his decision to move forward with it only served as further discouragement for the power-hungry megalomaniac to push Shiv back down the ladder.

Succession Season 2 cast Episode 5 HBO

“Succession”

Peter Kramer/HBO

Roman (Kieran Culkin), meanwhile, should’ve known his fate was sealed when his dad combined an “‘atta boy!” with “keep quiet” — it’s great that Romulus is learning the business basics, but that hasn’t changed who he is, fundamentally. That Roman is shown quite clearly in his degenerate sexual escapades, first complaining that his girlfriend, Tabitha (Caitlin FitzGerald), isn’t mimicking the physical characteristics of a corpse, and then debasing himself in front of Gerri (J. Smith-Cameron) in order to get off. Watching the broken man masturbate into the corner of a dark bathroom, alone, is as embarrassing as it gets, even if he takes fake pride in it the following morning.

Setting aside the perpetual (hilarious) embarrassment that is Connor Roy (Alan Ruck), Kendall took the title of Most Distressing Would-Be Successor, with a key caveat. After being outed at dinner as a fellow addict, Kendall literally ran off with Naomi (Annabelle Dexter-Jones) to drown their troubles in booze, drugs, sex, and what certainly would’ve been a catastrophic helicopter ride. How the respective black sheep of their families mirror each other is as damning as it is heartbreaking; despite sitting atop the moral high ground, Nan Pierce (Cherry Jones) couldn’t keep money and privilege from corrupting her niece, Naomi, whose false promises of “getting it together” are mirrored by Kendall. The Pierces and the Roys have more in common than either want to believe, and the parallels persist with family member — Mark Linn Baker’s antagonistic politico, for instance, is just as insufferable as Connor.

But Kendall’s crushing — and fascinating — moment comes before he literally shits the bed: It’s when he’s discussing the merger with Naomi, and instead of preaching how their politics might aline or promising protection for the PGM journalists, he follows in his father’s footsteps: cutting to her core and then buying her soul. “Imagine getting out from under all this. You can take the money and go,” he says. “Then what?” she asks, expecting a non-answer. But Kendall is ready: “Then you’re free!”

It’s not a clear life path by any means, but the earnestness, excitement, and relief packed into Kendall’s words speaks volumes — and eventually proves the difference-maker. Naomi, who’s very influential within her family, advises Nan to take the deal. And she does. So the question then becomes: Was Kendall speaking from the heart, negotiating like a mother fucker, or a little bit of both?

Succession Season 2 Brian Cox Kieran Culkin

Brian Cox and Kieran Culkin in “Succession”

Peter Kramer/HBO

Answering that question illustrates the beauty of “Succession”; its high emotional intelligence shaded into biting and blunt satire of the white and wealthy. If Kendall is speaking from the heart, then this is pure Shakespearean tragedy: He’ll never get out from under the weight of his father’s success. To do so would require upending what was instilled in him last season, when he tried to escape and had to come crawling back instead. He’s spent the first half of Season 2 cow-towing to his father; doing whatever horrible thing his dad wants him to do, whether it’s sweat through his suit on national television or get spat on by his former Vaulter employees.

However, if Kendall was negotiating — if he used booze, drugs, and sex to get closer to Naomi and make her believe him — then he did his daddy’s bidding once more, further deepening his entrenchment under a growing Roy empire, yes, but doing so with a purpose. Perhaps this is part of his plan to get out. Perhaps Kendall is cooking up something on his own, while dispersing his dad’s medication and pretending to play the good, beaten down son.

Either way, it’s tragic. We’ve seen what happens when anyone schemes against Logan, and even if Kendall wins, the Roy media empire will still be controlled by an ignorant douchebag. By asking you to invest in the game over the people, not unlike Logan has done all his life, “Succession” finds pleasure in pain. You can enjoy hating the Roys and still get caught up in their priorities. How did you feel at the end of the episode, when Logan shouted out in victory? Be honest: You felt good. You want to see what happens next as the deal progresses, not what happens when the Roys go back to business as usual.

But soon after, how did you feel when Shiv watched her father walk away without a word? Did you feel sorry for her? That’s OK, too. Our pity is instinctual, and a reminder of the good within us, the viewers; the same values missing from those onscreen. The inevitability of the family’s triumph makes choosing the lesser of many evils feel as important as rooting for the purest protagonist in a classic drama. Yet Armstrong refuses to let his audience forget the personal toll these business decisions have on the individual — and it cuts both ways, for the Roys and against them.

Mega-corporations don’t fall. They only grow. America doesn’t punish the rich. They only get richer. But who will be crushed by their own opulence? It’s OK to be curious. “Succession” won’t let you forget what matters.

Grade: A

“Succession” premieres new episodes Sundays at 9 p.m. ET on HBO.

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