Succession, HBO’s series about the grotesque and grotesquely rich Roy family, is set in the modern world, but its subject, in a way, is royalty. The Roys, media moguls in the Murdoch mold, have a greater GDP and more political influence than most countries and are ruled by a king, Logan Roy (Brian Cox), a lion in winter if there ever was one. In the nervy and unnerving second season of the series, descendants, advisers, employees, the media ecosystem, and the political health of more than one nation orbit around the growling desires of a still-power-hungry octogenarian, one who would rather die, his empire in disarray, than have anyone tell him what to do. In his mind, and all of theirs, he is cannier, hungrier, more dangerous, more ruthless, more impervious, more successful than they will ever be: For him, the question at hand is not one of succession—it is one of downgrading.
That Logan’s progeny might be such downgrades is almost entirely his fault. Abusive, mercurial, and withholding, he has spent his lifetime training his children to face off for his fleeting approval, and even as adults, they can’t stop. As the season begins, Waystar-Royco, the family’s media conglomerate, is facing a hostile takeover bid that galvanizes Logan to get his house in order. Kendall Roy (Jeremy Strong), who launched that takeover bid before being coerced back into the fold, is a shell of even the shell he once was, maintaining appearances on relatively small quantities of cocaine. This leaves maneuvering room for his siblings. Shiv (Sarah Snook), who in keeping her distance from the family business had kept much of her cool, loses all of it when she begins to take a more active part. Roman (Kieran Culkin), the smart aleck whose deepest desire is to be called a sniveling piece of shit, casts about desperately for a way to teach his dad he’s serious about anything. Meanwhile, Connor (Alan Ruck), their dopey older brother, is launching a flat-tax presidential bid that, in this age of dopey presidents, just might go further than anyone thinks.
The first season of Succession took a few episodes to find its feet. The show has a singular tone, in which black comedy and heavy drama coexist without quite combining, a blizzard in which the mix-ins have not been entirely mixed. One minute, you’re eating ice cream, the next, your teeth crack on cookie grit. The new season is less funny than the first but more urgent. At the beginning of the first season, the world the Roys inhabited seemed relatively untouched by Donald Trump. That’s no longer the case. This season focuses on the Roys’ media holdings. There are storylines about a Roy property that’s reminiscent of a BuzzFeed or a Gawker, about the Roys’ attempt to buy a well-esteemed family newspaper (similar to Murdoch’s purchase of the Wall Street Journal, if the Wall Street Journal were the New York Times), and Waystar-Royco’s flagship TV channel, ATN, a Fox clone. The bright-eyed, capitalist maniac Tom Wamsgans (Matthew Macfadyen), Shiv’s now-husband, is thrilled to have become a part of ATN and pooh-poohs the concerns of his assistant, Cousin Greg (Nicholas Braun), about, you know, the lying, the ethics, the Nazi sympathizing—who cares! It’s where the power is!
But Tom doesn’t understand that the powerful family he has married into isn’t just some kind of—sure, rigged—capitalist meritocracy; it’s a straight-up aristocracy, where blood ties are all-important and cannot be forsaken. Not being a Roy, but adoring the Roys, Tom is more than capable of hideous, deranged cruelty—of pelting subordinates with water bottles, of using a guy who lost a bet as a footstool—but he is also on the make and, in his way, aligned with anyone else trying to do the same. When Cousin Greg successfully blackmails Tom, Tom responds with pride: His boy is growing up, learning the disgusting ways of power. Meanwhile, Shiv—who last season seemed like the only Roy who was even halfway humane—is to the manner born, and she keeps putting Tom in impossible positions, both politically and emotionally, expecting, like her father, that Tom will just figure out how to do her bidding. In this relationship, she’s the cannier and the crueler.
More so than in the last season, there are moments when you will toss up your hands, reach for the barf bag, and wonder, “Why the hell are any of these awful people doing this?” There will be GIFs, which are one way to laugh at these particular horrors. In order to stay within the circle of power, the aspiring moguls and high-level employees will suffer any humiliation, humiliate anyone. Indignity cascades down the line, from Logan Roy all the way to his underlings, treated like specks of sand, to be brushed off with no thought, except when they are being excessively punished for minor crimes. Moral reservations—what does it mean to be running the TV network that’s most undermined America’s understanding of the truth?—are brushed away, the earnest concerns of dupes not cynical or slavish enough to get that messages don’t really matter to the rich and powerful. Walking away, the only sensible—maybe the only ethical—thing to do, is what they won’t, what they can’t, do. They may hate their lives and sometimes their father, but they love the motorcycle chauffeur, and never having to deal with real people. They love being chosen. They love being near the king. The money isn’t just money. The power isn’t just power. It’s meaning. They won’t walk away.
Throughout this season, however, walks a ghost. In the Season 1 finale, Kendall Roy’s plans to take over Waystar-Royco were dashed when, wasted, he got into a car accident, leaving the other passenger to drown. Logan seized upon this tragedy as a strategic advantage: He would help Kendall get out of this trouble, no one the wiser, and in return Kendall would return to the fold. The new season begins as Kendall, maybe hours into his stay at a luxurious rehab center, is whisked away and put on television to thwart off the bid he helped to start. There is no rest for the wicked, or the weary, or the sad-sack son of one of the most powerful men on the planet.
Kendall has nothing. He is nothing. Shell-shocked, humiliated, guilt-ridden, he has bottomed out so far he’ll even cry in front of his sister. Having been neutralized, made into an irrelevance, Logan Roy treats Kendall with some attention and kindness. The cat who played with the mouse, and nearly tore it to pieces, now keeps it in a little room and checks up on its wounds: He doesn’t want it to kill itself or anything. Kendall, meanwhile, acquiesces completely to the power of his father, exhibiting an almost unthinking, religious faith in his father’s will. If he can’t beat him, he’ll just do exactly what he is told. Flawlessly executing a savage business maneuver that affects hundreds of people, he explains why. It’s simple: “Because my father told me to.” When nothing else is left, there’s always obedience.