After two long years away, “Succession” wastes no time reminding viewers that HBO’s award-winning drama is a singular television experience. Hell, even a half-scene from the Season 3 trailer quickly evokes the series’ distinct blend of thrilling apprehension and hysterical contempt. There’s Logan Roy (the always arresting Brian Cox), family leader and wounded business titan, hiding conflicting feelings of betrayal and pride — over what his son Kendall (Jeremy Strong) did to him and his company at the end of Season 2 — behind an impenetrable wall of anger. Pressured and surrounded, the furious father screams Waystar Royco’s new attack plan at his family: “We’ll fucking beast them. We’ll go full — fucking — BEAST!”
That snippet of a scene, even without the context of the episode around it, so beautifully captures “Succession” Season 3 that it’s tempting to say nothing else. Logan’s bark still makes the hair on the back of your neck stand up, just as his mere presence demands everyone in his orbit stand up, whether it’s out of respect, fear, or both. His orders carry the kind of world-turning power befitting the leader of a media conglomerate with a direct line to the United States president, even when they’re stemming from a brain ravaged by time and sickness. He is both human and inhuman; flawed and infallible; a father and a monster. Watching the loyal Roy family members try to parse each move as brilliant or bananas can ping-pong between hilarious and heartbreaking with such ferocity, neither reaction should land.
But they do. This has long been the beauty of “Succession,” but creator/showrunner Jesse Armstrong and his elite team have honed their characters, dynamics, and timing to a breathtaking pace. Season 2 promised a war between father and son, and Season 3 delivers by maintaining an incredible intensity throughout the first seven episodes. While viewers may feel the need to take a breather after each hour is up, the writers and editors know just when to let the air out of the Manhattan penthouse, using preposterous situational comedy and soul-shattering insults to keep everyone hooked. (There’s a line in Episode 5, courtesy of Cousin Greg, that made me double over laughing just remembering it.)
(Side note: Can we stop asking if “Succession” is a comedy or a drama? Not every hourlong drama has to be as entombed in self-seriousness as “The Crown,” just like half-hour comedies can include moving moments unencumbered by jokes. TV shows don’t have to be only one thing — they don’t even have to conform to each genre’s traditional runtimes — and “Succession” has been a great drama and a great comedy since it started. Just enjoy it however you want.)
What little can and should be shared about the plot is likely already known to TV junkies eagerly awaiting their long-withheld fix: Kendall, after accusing his father of having first-hand knowledge of the company’s salacious misconduct, is on the outs. Only Greg (Nicholas Braun) is by his side, damning documents in hand, but the pliable doofus is wavering like a very tall reed caught in a hurricane. To win “the public arena” (and, of course, feel better about betraying his family), Kendall takes to social media, traditional media, and every other outlet he can to shout about burning down the patriarchy and amplifying victims’ voices… without ever meeting with a victim of Waystar Royco’s cruise department or fighting any patriarch besides dear old daddy.
Still, by admonishing the capitalist mentality he represents as well as men like him, Kendall’s hypocritical virtue signaling fulfills a dual purpose. On the one hand, his superficial gestures serve as a walking, tweeting reminder that corporations never, not once, not ever, care one iota about human beings; they care about looking like they care, but the bottom line always drives decisions. Who Kendall is as a person, in reality, couldn’t be further from the (mostly) polished promotional presence he presents to the world, and he’s as close to the personification of American big business as Mitt Romney could hope for…. but the way in which Kendall highlights his allyship should also serve as an impolite reminder not to be “that guy.” Many of the phrases he hijacks are common, the type of calls to action you’ll see on girl power sticker packs from Paper Source, but they’re deployed in the reactionary, him-first ways people fall back on when they’re feeling defensive. Don’t do that — don’t use slogans from a cause to prop yourself up, and don’t feel like Kendall wants to do the right thing because, you know, it’s the right thing to do.
This kind of duality is something the show regularly displays with immaculate precision. On the other side of the boardroom, Logan, Shiv (Sarah Snook), Tom (Matthew Macfadyen), Roman (Kieran Culkin), and Connor (Alan Ruck) are trying to justify their own positions, and it often requires convincing themselves that by doing less wrong they’re actually in the right. Often, they have to fall back on a common goal: not hurting their old, conveniently enfeebled father. For as often as Logan roars, he also lets out a few whimpers — some planned, some not. Either way, they can work to extend a cycle of abuse he’s orchestrated for decades, and the ways in which the Roy family eats itself from the inside is both horrifying and, yes, humorous. No one should have to go through what these kids went through, but they’re not innocent of blame; they play daddy’s game out of greed as much as incitement, and “Succession” enjoys reminding us of their latent humanity almost as much as it relishes undercutting our sympathies by stressing their many, many actual victims (aka 99 percent of the world).
Beyond the scripts and character work (major props to Brian Cox and Sarah Snook this year, among an across-the-board excellent cast), directors including Mark Mylod, Cathy Yan, and Andrj Parekh bring exquisite style to each episode. “Succession” doesn’t acknowledge COVID (for reasons outlined here), but it was still shot during the pandemic and still managed to build scenes dense with bodies; the full ensemble is in the same space with surprising consistency (given real-life safety protocols and Kendall being scripted as persona non grata), and Manhattan always feels like it’s positively buzzing outside of the Roys’ financially insulated bubble. (Also, there’s more brilliant glass work within Waystar Royco HQ, as the gleaming city skyline can shift from an oasis amid the chaos into a panic room where the only exit is a plank.)
The good news is “Succession” remains the same show it was two years ago. The great news is it made the most of that time away to amplify all its strengths. Really, the best advice I can give is to get ready. Season 3 has gone full fucking beast.
“Succession” Season 3 premieres Sunday, October 17 at 9 p.m. ET on HBO. New episodes will be available to stream at that time via HBO Max. Seasons 1 and 2 are available now.