After each week’s episode of Succession, we’ll be answering the question on everyone’s mind: Who is the worst person in Waystar Royco? This week, senior editor Sam Adams is joined by staff writer Heather Schwedel.
Sam Adams: Hi Heather, and thank you for joining me for the first installment of the Worst Person in Waystar Royco, a launch that I hope will go better than the one for Roman Roy’s rocket. As old-school Slate readers will know, this is a spinoff of the Worst Person in Westeros, where we spent our Sunday nights debating the highs and (mostly) lows of each week’s Game of Thrones’ goings-on, and now we’re setting our sights on Succession, a show with an even higher proportion of enormous a-holes. (Way fewer dragons, though.) So, let’s kick things off with the Season 3 opener, “Secession,” written by series creator Jesse Armstrong and directed by Game of Thrones veteran Mark Mylod. What did you think? And who is your inaugural candidate for the Worst?
Heather Schwedel: It is simply exhilarating to be back in the Roys’ company! The way Cousin Greg feels riding around Manhattan with Kendall immediately after the press conference, when he says, “This is like O.J.!”—that’s kind of all of us right now. (“Nice memes, good memeage, and so on”: us watching.) Kendall’s response to that tactless comment, however, makes him a strong candidate for Worst Person in Waystar Royco right out the gate. After Cousin Greg appends his comment with “I mean except if O.J. never killed anyone,” Kendall grins manically and says, “Who says I never killed anyone?” Because oh yeah, he definitely did! And his moral standing here is really not what he is deluding himself into thinking it is.
Sam Adams: The Juice is loose, baby! The enthusiasm with which Kendall equates himself with an alleged murderer is a great shock-laugh, but it also says so much about who these characters are. He’s riding high on a wave of self-righteousness, styling himself as the moral avenger bringing Logan to account for his complicity in covering up sexual assaults on Waystar cruises. And yet the brutal death of Nicole Brown isn’t even a punchline for him, just a morbid gag. He’s desperate to check his “cultural temperature,” and seems gratified that he’s a trending topic on Twitter—beating out even tater tots! But the way he breezes into his ex-wife’s apartment and sets up a temporary HQ without so much as a text—not to mention inviting his current girlfriend, fellow heir and addict Naomi Pierce—along for the ride, says way more about who he really is. When Kendall finally gets up the nerve to get on the phone with his father, Logan tries to force him to admit that his surprise press conference—the big bombshell that closed Season 2—was just “a play.” And it is, isn’t it? At least Logan doesn’t pretend to believe in anything but his own power. Kendall’s out here co-opting #MeToo for his own ends, which even O.J. might concede is a little low. So, is Kendall the Worst? Or do we need to consider other candidates before pinning a medal on his spindly little chest?
Schwedel: Kendall was oozing smarm in this episode for sure. I particularly enjoyed his conversation with the publicity specialists he was considering hiring to help him retcon what he did into “being part of a coherent philosophy, not just punching an old guy in the nose”—if you can call it a conversation, as he did not let them speak. His high-speed strategy brain dump that ended with how he wanted to hire some BoJack and Lampoon writers to make his Twitter “off the hook” was one of my favorite pieces of dialogue on this show, ever. Still, though, I keep coming back to the fact that Lisa Arthur, the new high-powered lawyer character (played by Sanaa Lathan) Kendall and Logan’s sides were competing to land in this episode decided to hitch her wagon to Team Kendall. God knows she’ll end up being morally complicated too, but in this episode, at least, she felt a little like a kingmaker, or at least someone who has a reputation of having the right politics in public. There’s no denying that Kendall is “on one,” as they say, but he also did do something that is kind of … good? He called out his family’s evil-doings! Even if he did it for self-interested reasons. That takes more backbone than his siblings have displayed here, no? I think you could make a strong argument that Roman or Shiv was the Worst this episode. (Not Connor, though, he barely counts.)
Adams: Poor Connor, the Ringo Starr of the Roy family. He’s not really any better than his half-brothers and -sister, but he’s such an ineffectual dope that it’s kind of his saving grace. (I do like the bit where he suggests to his playwright girlfriend, Willa, that they try to salvage her disastrous Broadway debut by running ads with negative reviews to appeal to “the hipsters and the dipshits.”) With Logan possibly being forced to step back, the power vacuum at the top of Waystar Royco is going to bring out the Worst in everyone, and Shiv and Roman are no exception. The way Shiv remembers that she loves her husband just long enough to ask him if he’s back-channeled with Kendall is especially icky, and Roman never emanates more annoying little-brother energy than when he’s squabbling with his siblings. But he’s so clearly out of his depth when he’s trying to convince Logan to make him CEO—or maybe not, I mean, whatever you think is best—makes him too pathetic for him to be the Worst, at least this week. Give it time.
Let me make one half-serious suggestion. The worst character in “Secession” is one we don’t even see. I’m talking about “the Raisin,” the Roy family’s code word for the sitting president, who is strongly hinted at as a stand-in for Donald Trump. We only hear from him through third parties, but the fact that his first response to public allegations that Logan orchestrated a cover-up of murders and rapes is to reiterate his mutual respect, to say that he “feels for Logan at this difficult time”—it’s heavily vetted boilerplate, but it still makes your stomach turn. Is it cheating to pick a character who doesn’t even have a name? Is it even … sour grapes?
Schwedel: The Raisin! You raise an interesting possibility, one I shudder to think about, that there are even worse people lurking at the margins of the Succession universe than the ones we’ve gotten to know. You’re right that everything we hear that’s coming from within the Raisin’s camp is filtered through one or more other parties, so I think that makes it hard to get a read on just how involved with all of this he is. I don’t think he was, for example, listening over the shoulder of the phone call that his surrogate had with Gerri, the way that Logan was. I think we have to award Worst Person honors based on the facts we have rather than suggestions that haven’t yet been filled in: The Raisin may well be as globally and personally toxic as other characters on the show, especially if he’s modeled after Trump, but why speculate about the Raisin when, say, Logan Roy’s noxious raison d’être is starring right at us?
Logan Roy is a paragon of greed, corporate malfeasance, and parental neglect always, but he was in particularly fine form in this episode. I believe the first line of dialogue we see him utter in it is, after his son Roman asks if Logan wants him to join him in the van he’s sitting in, “You want to suck my dick?” (So that was a no.) It’s like, he’s not just an immoral actor, but he is also just interpersonally very unpleasant! Not only is he ultimately the one responsible for his company’s abuses, he is also more or less responsible for how traumatized all his children and professional underlings are, due to his being so awful. It’s never been clearer that all he cares about is Waystar Royco and retaining control of it. In the past, he has gestured at the idea that eventually someone will succeed him, and he might like it to be one of his children, but in this episode he dispenses with that pipe dream: He’s never leaving, and he only cares about who takes over insofar as how the optics would play. He knows exactly what he’s doing when he makes Shiv, Roman, and Gerri go off to New York so he can be left to consider successor options with Frank, Karl, and Tom, that things will get back to the other group and that it will sow chaos and hurt feelings.* In short, a monster.
Adams: It’s going to be hard work not picking Logan Roy every week (although I promise we won’t). But it’s unavoidable this time. The episode starts off as if it’s trying to generate sympathy for him, making Logan seem enfeebled to the point he can’t even remember where his phone is. But after he cries out “Action stations!“—a British military term Kendall evidently picked up from his dad—the old Logan is back, and mean as hell. Not even looming sexual assault allegations can curb his fondness for sexist language: At one point he says he doesn’t want to be seen “running like a slapped girl.” And the way he treats his children, especially Roman, reminds you that their viciousness is learned, and part of a lifelong and futile attempt to satisfy their distant and abusive father. He’s King Shit, and they’re just pretenders to the throne.
For more on Season 3, Episode 1 of Succession, listen to the hosts of Slate Money discuss the episode with special guest Janine Gibson of the Financial Times.
Correction, Oct. 19, 2021: This post originally misidentified the character Karl as Gary.