It is very nearly an understatement to say that Succession is currently the best thing on TV at the moment. After a ridiculously strong late-season run last year, which ended with a series-defining finale, the capitalism-run-amok family drama from Jesse Armstrong cemented its place as the new must-watch series on television, and the most promising thing to happen to HBO since Jon Snow took the black.
The story of the Roy family, its billion-dollar media empire, and, more entertainingly, the awful, broken lives of those who actually are family and those who may as well consider themselves as such has a lot to live up to at the start of its second season. The season 1 finale took a Chappaquiddick-like turn off a bridge, derailing Kendall Roy’s (Jeremy Strong) latest attempt to take over the company his father started, Waystar Royco, putting him firmly back under his father’s malevolent thumb. An ending of that sort creates significant expectations, one the season’s premiere, ‘The Summer Palace,’ practically vaults over in with a disorienting opening sequence that finds a seemingly shellshocked Kendall soaking aways his worries at a wellness retreat, only to be called back into the Roy family fray to dispel trade gossip about how Waystar Royco narrowly avoided the hostile takeover he was to have been a part of.
Kendall went off the rails long before the season 1 finale, and Armstrong makes it clear he’s psychologically unfit to do nearly any job, let alone help his father acquire another news agency, to become the largest media conglomerate in the world. More so than in season 1, Succession feels locked-in on a particular place and time that's easily recognizable to those watching. That sense of being in and about the current political climate, particularly with regard to the inordinate influence billionaires have over policies and especially the ways in which information is not only disseminated to an audience but processed by it, adds to the general scope of the series, amplifying the family drama beyond the painful invective lavished upon the children of Brian Cox’s Logan Roy.
By grounding the series in the present, Succession has an opportunity to view the world at large through a very specific lens. And though it seemed as if season 1 wanted to keep certain comparisons of the fictional Roy family to the likes of, say, most obviously, the Murdochs, season 2 is less hesitant in that regard. In fact, it takes direct aim at the family’s news interests with one of the season’s major plot threads involving the potential acquisition of one of the few remaining news organizations not directly under their control. Furthering the notion is Tom (Matthew Macfadyen) coming of his honeymoon with Shiv (Sarah Snook) to a promotion that finds him off theme parks and cruise ships and on a collision course with the head of the news division, a woman who understands what Logan Roy thinks the news should be is the only news worth reporting.
The characters hem and haw about the implications of the Roy family putting a strangle hold on the American news media, but the potentially devastating ramifications do nothing to halt Logan’s efforts to make it so. It’s in this exploration that Armstrong brings together the micro and macro worlds his series so entertainingly explores, allowing both to influence the other in fascinating ways.
For many of the Roy children, season 2 is once again about the question inherent in the show’s title. Who will take Logan’s place when he finally agrees to give up the seat as the head of the family? The series has a lot of fun with this question, particularly after its brutal demonstration of what happened to Kendall when his father took back the keys to the kingdom before his son could even see if the crown fit. That Succession has fun watching its characters scramble for any position of authority, as if competing in a particularly punishing game of musical chairs, is part of the show’s appeal. The series may be a gripping family drama, but much of its power comes from a tendency to view that familial dysfunction from an angle that magnifies the show’s darkly comedic sensibilities.
Normally that involves the lanky and seemingly inept cousin Greg (Nicholas Braun) doing things he doesn’t want to do — like eating ortolan with Tom, or shredding documents pertaining to some maritime crimes being covered up by the company. Season 2, though, seems to have set its sights on Roman (Kieran Culkin), and his erroneous belief that by being the last man standing he’s automatically dad’s number one (read: only) choice to head up the company. The series finds a great deal of humor in proving Roman wrong, and in lining up Shiv to be either the future of the company or another patsy like her drug-addled brother.
Beyond its examples of the myriad abuses of power by the inordinately wealthy, as well as the expletive-laden insults hurled at family members (and a many more) by family members, Succession delivers a compelling look inside a deeply dysfunctional clan, and the the profoundly felt but largely unspoken emotional pull of their father and the unfulfilled promise of his approval that keeps the Roy children coming back time and again, despite knowing that particular well ran dry long ago. In the end, the series is a richly rewarding watch, one that, in season 2, greatly exceeds the expectations of what was established in season 1.
Succession season 2 premieres Sunday, August 12 @9pm on HBO.