Television

Succession Isn’t What It Pretends to Be

Think of it as a sitcom trapped in the body of a drama.

Logan Roy, Gerri Kellman, and Hugo Baker outside a hotel.
Succession Graeme Hunter/HBO

The Roys don’t change. The much-anticipated third season of HBO’s Succession, the glitzy show about an ultrarich family vying for control of their conservative media empire, is comfortable with that. It has settled—with full awareness, and winks—into the mildly roiling stasis of which the show basically consists. This might not sound right at first glance, because the series, like its theme song, feels propulsive. The first episode of the series is a rollercoaster with huge and apparently life-changing stakes. But the stakes turn out not to be life-changing, and over the two seasons that followed, that has come to seem like the point: The Roy universe, when you really think about it, is an immutable one. Yes, there will be fights. Sure, there will be crises. But they will always take place in opulent surroundings and feature genially vicious adversaries for whom winning and losing are all that matter. The billions of dollars can make those conflicts feel epic, but they aren’t. Structurally speaking, the Roys, like all the ultrarich, never really lose. The only real stakes are emotional, flow out of paternal rejection, and can’t be fixed or changed. And so, recognizable rhythms develop. Kendall rebels against his dad. A party is horrible. Stewy turns up to torment the Roys. Shiv casually savages Tom, who tortures Greg, whose grandfather periodically taunts him with moral tests. Logan turns a loss into a win by being wildly unreasonable. Roman craves discipline and parenting and gets it mixed up with sex.

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This is, we now understand, a show that repeats. That’s not a bad thing; it’s incredibly satisfying to watch in a way that ought to feel familiar, because for all that Succession pretends to be a drama, it’s basically—and a little bit horrifyingly—a sitcom. Pieces move around in pleasing patterns but resolve inconsequentially and reset. Nothing is more ironclad than Succession’s status quo. This dramatic Mobius loop was camouflaged by the King Lear-ish gambit with which Succession opened. Logan was planning to step down, which made him seem reasonable, and he nearly died in the pilot, which made him seem vulnerable. Both these impressions fade as Logan somehow defies biology and gets confirmed as strategically and personally and politically unbeatable, over and over again. The premise of the show turns out not to be how everyone will deal with Logan’s departure, but rather how everyone deals with the fact that Logan will simply not die. And so as long as he’s in power, a sitcom Succession remains. The other pieces on the board can only move around futilely trying to dislodge him, and fail, and reset. The children are ridiculous, and the more they insist that something matters—corporate malfeasance, political messaging, a deal, a concession—the less it does. Over and over, what wins is Logan’s indifference. He’s a Lear who ignores the storm instead of screaming at it and so the storm stops.

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Season 2 ends with Kendall—who’d seemed beaten into submission and was about go to jail for his dad—desperately trying to turn the show back into the drama he thought he was in. His cognitive dissonance is beyond description: He wants to be a parricide, and he wants to impress his dad. The guy who let a staff member drown at Shiv’s wedding and let his dad cover it up wants consequences for bad actors. He wants redemption. He wants respect. So he makes a “play”: He leans into what he knows his brilliant father thinks of him—that he’s weak and contrite—fools Logan into thinking he’ll take the fall, and then betrays him. This seems like change! Is it? The season ended with a close-up of Brian Cox’s face as he watched Kendall denounce him with just the faintest hint of a smile. Was this paternal pride, even if it came at his own expense? Does Logan’s respect for a good play exceed his own self-preservation?

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The third season, which starts on Sunday, reprises the by-now-familiar struggle for control of Waystar–Royco, recycling a number of funny and familiar beats. This isn’t a criticism: Sitcoms mine comedy out of that the fact that their characters and situations don’t change. Succession has always been a better comedy than it is a drama—creator Jesse Armstrong was behind the brilliant British sitcom Peep Show, after all—and its masterful comedic control of its characters makes it a joy to watch. The dialogue is cleaner and snappier and more biting than ever. But the fight over control of the company mirrors a struggle over what genre the show will finally be. Kendall wants Succession to graduate into the tragedy he thinks it is. He wants a moral center. Roman, as usual, is pulling for farce. And Shiv, stripped of what few convictions she had, is pulling for herself.

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That all three children are forever flailing in their efforts to orbit or overthrow their father demonstrates the limits of the sitcom comparison: Most comedies aren’t rooted in parental abuse, and abuse is the Succession tentpole. The only reason we can feel sympathy for Logan’s charismatically repellent offspring is that we’ve seen how monstrously he’s treated them. They feel spoiled in the literal rather than metaphorical sense, bent into weird and grasping shapes by their unloving, narcissistic parents. This, too, however, is a recipe for stasis: Abuse produces cycles that are difficult to change.

Broadly speaking, however, the billionaire Roys will be fine—or at least the same—no matter what happens. That’s not true for the outside world, for whom things are getting scarier. The third season moves beyond economics to electoral politics, with goofball eldest Connor still mulling a presidential run, and while Logan formerly dismissed Shiv’s political consulting as a diversion, once he starts vetting potential leaders himself things turn very dark indeed. The games the Roys play for sport and ego and paternal approval are creeping closer to us—the normies, the ones for whom electing a fascist might actually, you know, matter.

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For the ultrarich, even a drama is functionally a sitcom. Nothing can touch them. This has always been Succession’s weakness, that the characters are too witty and funny for us to deplore them they way they ought to be deplored. They seduce the viewer against her will into rooting for one or the other and forget that there’s a world outside of Waystar–Royco. Because on this show, for the most part, there isn’t. No Real Person Involved.

And as interesting as it will be to see if Succession’s third season changes its absolute emphasis on the ultrarich, it’ll be even more interesting to see whether we, as viewers in love with its luxe insularity and its riffs and reprises, actually want it to.

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