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13 August 2019

Is Succession the best thing on television?

By Rachel Cooke

Whenever I hear the Succession theme tune, at once so funereal and so jaunty, I feel as if I’m 13 years old again and about to settle down in front of Dallas. Oh, goody. Rich people behaving badly. Of course Succession (12 August, 9pm) is a thousand times cleverer, better written and better acted than Dallas; its soapiness is cut with satire and a certain kind of comedy – one that, like hot sauce, fairly clears the nasal passages. But it holds the same indulgent promise: here, dished up like so many braised kidneys on a silver platter, is venality, ruthlessness, spite and all manner of other bad behaviour. Such an all-you-can-eat buffet of mean brings with it a surprisingly high level of catharsis. Afterwards, I always feel quite indescribably good about myself. 

So, to recap. Jesse Armstrong’s masterful and inimitable series about a vaguely Murdoch-like media clan, ended its first season with Kendall Roy (Jeremy Strong) seemingly once again in grip of his father, Logan (Brian Cox) – daddy having discovered that his son had killed a man in a Chappaquiddick-like incident during the wedding of his sister, Siobhan (Sarah Snook). In return for the services of Logan’s security team, which will ensure that his son’s name will not even be connected with the drowning, Kendall is going to have to eat an awful lot of what his brother Roman (Kieran Culkin) calls “humiliation gumbo”. Sure enough, season two opened with him peeing on the floor of an Icelandic spa in sheer terror at the news that Logan required him to make a TV appearance, where he would tell the world that he no longer supported a hostile takeover bid for his father’s company. “I’m meant to have a mud treatment,” he said feebly, like the helpless baby he will henceforth always be.

“He’s like a sweaty corpse,” said Siobhan, watching Kendall on her iPad from her honeymoon yacht. “He’s like an unshaven candle,” said her new husband, Tom (Matthew Macfadyen), looking over her shoulder. Will Logan sell Waystar-Royco, or will he cling to his media conglomerate as if to a life raft? Tom, a character in whom a brown-nose and a bully have achieved a state of perfect coexistence, hopes it will be the latter. He wants a ticket out of his division of the company, parks and cruises; he has been “eating shit from the kid’s menu” for too long. And I hope so, too. If Logan’s promise is good, Siobhan and her high-waisted trousers will now return to the company. There will be blood – and also, possibly, hot office sex. Where does this leave Roman? His verdict on Kendall’s TV spot was that it was like watching “Elvis on the toilet”, but that was the complacent voice of one who believed he would soon be Chosen. He may now be the next one to lose control of his bowels.

Most episodes of Succession come with a set piece involving the entire clan: a gathering (minus the bagpipes). I love these extended scenes, in which boardroom talk and therapy-speak seem almost the same thing. This time, the family met at Logan’s Long Island estate, the Pottery Barn-ish rooms were filled with a literal as well as a metaphorical stink (someone had left a dead racoon to decay in a chimney breast). “It’s like the cheesemonger died and left his dick in the brie,” announced Logan, trying not to sniff the air. The rot, we grasp, is all around, whether we’re talking about Logan’s business (“In five years, you’ll be in the mega-toilet,” said his adviser), or Kendall’s drug habit (“I’m doing park coke?” he said disgustedly, of the stash delivered to him by his ever-willing cousin Greg). 

Who, if anyone, will save the day? I still wonder about Marcia (Hiam Abbass), Logan’s mysterious third wife. I also wonder about his eldest and stupidest son, Connor (Alan Ruck), about to be in possession of Napoleon’s penis (his dealer hawks antiquities, not meth). Will this ancient member imbue him with new power and wisdom? Or is it, like the relevant part of his brother Roman, a floppy, shrivelled thing? I can’t wait to find out. There are moments – usually when the camera jerks towards Kendall’s vacant, flummoxed face – when I believe that Succession is just about the best thing I’ve ever seen on television.

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This article appears in the 14 Aug 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The age of conspiracy