Succession, the family business drama set in a media conglomerate, returned to HBO on Sunday, Aug. 11. Every Monday, Felix Salmon and Emily Peck of Slate Money will be joined by a guest from business or media to discuss the previous night’s episode in a recap podcast. For the Season 2 premiere they were joined by Edmund Lee, who covers the media industry for the New York Times. What follows is an edited transcript of that episode. Download a new episode of Slate Money: Succession every Monday.
Felix Salmon: Who are these characters? Everyone obviously sees Murdochs. There are two sons who are rivals, there’s the daughter who’s kind of out of it but kind of not out of it.
There’s the patriarch.
Edmund Lee: There’s the older son who’s not really involved in the family. That’s Prudence. But there’s overlap with the Redstones, too, the family that controls CBS and Viacom, where there had been a succession battle for so long. It doesn’t quite line up in terms of the structure with the kids, because Shari Redstone is the only biological heir-apparent. There was an older son, Brent; basically Sumner bought him out. He lives in Colorado on a ranch.
Salmon: So that’s Connor?
Lee: It’s a very smart mélange of all the big, powerful families.
Emily Peck: The patriarch, Logan Roy, runs Waystar Royco.
Salmon: Which is clearly the function of a merger between Royco, which is Logan Roy’s company, the media company, and Waystar, which is some kind of telecom. One of the great subplots of the first season is they put the fuck-up son, Roman, in charge of a satellite launch.
Lee: There was definitely an Armando Iannucci flavor to that scene. Jesse Armstrong, the showrunner, worked with Armando on The Thick of It and In the Loop, these clever British satirical takes on power and government and how things. … And Iannucci did Veep, for which Jesse was a writer.
Salmon: The name of the show is Succession. In the opening episode of the first season, Logan Roy has a stroke. Which of his kids is going to take over from him? And then, weirdly, that entire plotline gets resolved in Episode 4 of Season 1. Then it starts getting interesting. That was one of the things I loved about Season 1: that the thing you thought would be the big driving plotline for the whole season, the intense infighting between the kids, did not actually become that driving plotline.
You get this wonderful MacGuffin introduced at the very beginning of Season 2, where Logan Roy is like, “If I’m going to fight back, I’m going to have to name a successor.” No one ever explains why he needs to name a successor in order to fight back, but I have a feeling that this is also going to be one of those things that gets resolved by about Season 7.
Lee: I think the idea of Logan Roy dangling succession throughout the season is a key driving force for all the drama that takes place. In last night’s episode, what was really smartly done was that whole setup around, “Are you going to sell? The tech companies are coming after you.” It really captures what’s been happening in the real world, what happened with Rupert Murdoch’s company, 21st Century Fox, where he sold to Disney. With all these other mergers that are happening, it’s because of Big Tech coming in and stealing your thunder.
Salmon: “Tech has its hand around your throat,” says the banker to the patriarch. Can you explain what that means? Why is tech an existential risk to media companies?
Lee: If you’re a big media company, you own movie studios and cable networks and maybe some broadcast networks. Maybe some newspapers. We know what’s happening to newspapers, right? No one is reading print. That’s dying. TV, people are still watching, but not the way they used to. There are fewer people paying a cable bill now; that cuts into 21st Century Fox and Disney, to some degree, and a bunch of these other media guys.
Why is that happening? Because everyone is on Facebook and Instagram and TikTok. In terms of entertainment, where your distractions are, cable is losing, movie theaters are losing, despite a few outliers like Marvel, and that whole media infrastructure is dying. It’s dying a slow death, that’s what makes it frustrating. It’s not a clear break, it’s just that every quarter there are fewer people paying for television, fewer people going to movie theaters. So Rupert Murdoch selling out, as surprising as that was for a lot of Murdoch-watchers, from a rational perspective it made complete sense.
Salmon: And that was actually almost directly referenced in this episode when Logan Roy gets his family around the table and says, “We can sell … ” His great adversary, Sandy, is overpaying for Waystar Royco. “We will get $10 billion if we sell right now.” That’s clearly setting up that that has go to zero at some point.
Lee: But what was the resolution? “Screw it, we’re going to stick with this.” It departs from reality in that really specific moment.
Salmon: Honestly, if he just decides to sell at the end of Episode 1, there is no season.
Lee: That’s it. It’s a clear departure from what’s happened in real life, but it’s done in a smart way where they acknowledge what’s going on in the world.
Salmon: I need to geek out just a little bit about this episode on the very, very small stock price subplot. In Season 1, there was a whole bunch of people worrying about the share price and worrying that it was going to go too low. And if it went below a certain level that would cause a whole bunch of chaos to the capital stack and the balance sheet and blah blah blah, the loans that Logan took out against his stock, and all of this stuff. So people worried about the share price being too low. You come in Season 2, Episode 1, and everyone is worried about the stock price for the opposite reason. They’re worried that it’s too high. Logan actually goes up to Kendall, his son, and gives him an instruction to, “Pour me some buckets of cold shit on the bid.”
The point, of course, is that the bid he’s fighting off is at a high price, so if the share price goes up toward the bid price, that means people think the bid is going to happen. If the share price falls down below the bid price, that means they think Logan Roy is going to win. We’re in this weird bizarro world where everyone in the company wants the share price to be low.
Lee: What’s great also is that they never explain it. They never get into, “Here’s why … ” Mostly, when you see a movie or TV show, there’s all this exposition. Here they’re not going to explain it. All you have to do is read the emotions on their faces.
Salmon: On some level, if you’re Logan Roy, you know that the sensible thing to do is to sell. But you’re Logan Roy, so you can’t sell, and also you have an entire season to fill, so you can’t sell. He is in full possession of all of his faculties at the beginning of the season. He is very smart, he’s in control of everything, and he knows that Siobhan, of all of his children, is the only one who can credibly take over the company.
Lee: And she’s believable that way too, because the way she talks about the business, she really knows what she’s talking about. In fact, in that scene, where he asks her, “What would you do?” and she lays it all out, it’s exactly right. If you were in that real business, those are the steps you would take.
Salmon: And the big difference between what she wants to do and what Roman wants to do is that she wants to get rid of the news operation. She says it’s a distraction, it’s noise, it’s a pain in the ass. “Let’s just kill news, go big on theme parks and blockbusters, kill indie films and everything that isn’t massive.”
Lee: That’s exactly right. Right now, that’s what you should.
Salmon: But Roman, meanwhile, when he comes in, is like, “We double down on news because that’s where all of our political power comes from.” Logan, ultimately, is going to want to be an important player, and therefore he’s going to want to keep the news operation.
Lee: That’s very Murdoch.
Salmon: Murdoch talks to Trump every day on the phone, and the reason he talks to Trump every day on the phone is not because he’s a media billionaire. It’s because he owns Fox News.
Lee: What’s interesting is that Murdoch, if you look closely, he’s actually very unsentimental. He’s a very rigorous business mind. The only time he becomes sentimental is when it comes to news. He can’t not own that. That’s the one thing that he’ll pay for. He’ll own it and eat it …
Salmon: He’ll pay $5 billion to the Wall Street Journal …
Lee: And then write off half of it a year later, or he’ll continue to fund the New York Post at a $40 million annual loss.
Peck: It’s not clear how far that parallel is going to go. Sell news or keep news? It’s not clear which side Logan will be on.
To hear the full episode, click the player below.