After developing its unique brand of satiric intensity in Season 1, “Succession” is leaning into its strengths in Season 2. That means more backstabbing schemes from children angling to be daddy’s No. 1 kiddo, more culture clashes as these out-of-touch 1 percenters pretend to be (or at least placate) everyday Americans, and, yes, it also means more Tom (Matthew Macfadyen) and Greg (Nicholas Braun), quibbling over chicken fingers at the kids’ table while the adults fight for dibs to every course of their banquet.
Make no mistake, you’re watching this family eat itself alive. If anyone found early episodes of Jesse Armstrong’s critique of wealth-hoarding American families to be too soft in its condemnation of the Roy’s behavior, there’s no misunderstanding now: While you’ll feel for a few of the cannibals in powerful, fleeting moments, there’s an absurd amount of joy to be found in watching the uber-rich go to war with each other, stripping their souls bloody, and only winning in the coldest, ugliest, most Trumpian sense of the word.
What’s been lost (and continues to be lost) is most often captured through Kendall (Jeremy Strong), the one-time successor whose ploy to overthrow his father would’ve succeeded if not for an ill-advised midnight run. His tragic fate from the Season 1 finale becomes a public shaming in Season 2, as he’s paraded through various Roy family gatherings like a prized buck slain by the top hunter — only he’s still living, breathing, and praising his killer. Kendall’s fall defines his arc through at least five episodes of Season 2, as his zombie-like presence shakes up every scene he’s beckoned to join; Kendall doesn’t act on his own ambitions any more, but Strong’s performance is a visceral and jarring reminder of what happens when you cross Logan (Brian Cox), and what really matters to each member of the family.
Kendall isn’t sent to the proverbial farm because business must go on — Logan keeps his seat at the head of Waystar Royco, but he’s got new goals in mind to ensure the family’s future. If you saw the trailer, you already know: He wants to become the “No. 1 media conglomerate in the world,” and to do that, the already expansive company has to get bigger. To say more cross into spoiler territory, but this basic idea necessitates many other enticing storylines: New strategy has to be discussed, appearances have to be maintained, and a successor has to be named… maybe.
Logan tried that once before, to start off the series, and one could argue another very similar false promise is made in Season 2; a promise Logan will be unable to keep no matter the circumstances. But it also asks the audience to examine the cost of that lie. Not only has Logan alienated himself from his family, keeping them clinging to his coattails only because they hope to rip it from him, but it looks to be his ultimate downfall. Logan, like most of the Roys, is chasing something that can’t be caught: absolute power. No one person can hold it, just like no one person can be infallible — and in that thin line between unquestionable command and unreasonable requests lies the patriarch’s weakness. How it catches up to him, and who else it clips, is a delicious waiting game Armstrong builds beautifully.
To be fair, he built a lot of it already. Part of what makes Season 2 fly so smoothly is how well we’ve come to know each of the characters, and how comfortably Armstrong lets us bask in their dysfunction: Roman (Kieran Culkin) believes he’s a bad person and yet still feels entitled to an empire, so Armstrong sets him on separate paths to explore each side of himself, knowing they have to converge. Connor (Alan Ruck), who’s paying Willa (Justine Lupe) to pretend to be his fiancé just to keep up his picture-perfect fantasyland, is so far gone he thinks he can run for president. Shiv (Sarah Snook) is where things get really interesting, as the capable and experienced political adviser has built a life separate from her family’s business, yet she can’t resist the urge to pop back in and counsel them, too.
The pull of power and the astonishing things it does to those who wield it creates a story both obscene and inviting. Logan and the rest of the Roys perform the most outlandish acts to flaunt their power and make themselves feel superior. In the moment, they’re hilarious. It’s only when you take a step back and look at the broader picture that the humor becomes enriched by truth. It’s always easy to believe the Roys (or people like them) would make these ridiculous, often malicious, choices. (The post-dinner game in Episode 3, “Hunting,” is an instant classic.) But only those deserving to be taken down a peg are made into the butt of the jokes. Whenever the Roys have to confront someone from outside their egocentric bubble of money, “Succession” is tragic and only tragic. These well-timed reminders of the real people suffering from their selfishness (like last year’s softball game) only fuel your contempt for these wannabe gods, and together, “Succession” becomes a biting satire, built on the back of a family drama, and made stronger by each facet.
To say “Succession” is the year’s best drama is a bit of an empty statement: For one, it’s been a notoriously weak year for the medium, with one prominent hourlong series after the next failing to live up to their pedigree. Thankfully, “Succession” breaks our cultural cold streak, but it does more that: By blending the vitriolic contempt of “Veep” with the interpersonal family drama in “Game of Thrones,” Armstrong’s series blends genres smoothly, stretching out the propulsive slew of insults found in Armando Ianucci’s political satire while trimming the fat from David Benioff and D.B. Weiss’ bloated fantasy universe. “Succession” is about one family, one company, and the very real world they’re trying to control. Its eagerness to condemn the country’s terrifying trajectory, along with its efficiency and artistry, is what makes the drama great — the fun it has doing so is what makes it one-of-kind.
“Succession” Season 2 premieres Sunday, August 11 at 9 p.m. on HBO.