What does Jesse Armstrong, the creator of Succession, want for his monsters now? As Kenneth Tynan said of John Webster: “Ideally, one feels, he would have had all his characters drowned in a sea of cold sweat.” If nothing is too good for these people – no job title, no hotel room, no private jet – nothing’s too bad for them either, or so it’s starting to seem. Succession is a Jacobean revenge tragedy with cashmere throws where there should be an arras, and stolen data in place of purloined love letters. The stench that comes off it! I’m four episodes into season three (critic’s privilege), and the smell of fear – think Black Orchid by Tom Ford layered with light top notes of piss and room-temperature ranch dressing – just will not go away.
To recap: at the end of season two, Kendall Roy (Jeremy Strong) betrayed his beast of a parent, publicly announcing that Logan (Brian Cox) had known all about the misconduct at Waystar Royco’s cruise line. This wasn’t – understatement – the plan. Kendall was supposed to have accepted responsibility for the scandal: he was to have been the family’s blood sacrifice. But, no matter. The notion of ritual slaughter hasn’t, thank God, gone away. Someone has got to get it. Will it be Logan’s slime ball son-in-law Tom (Matthew MacFadyen), or will it be his craven great-nephew, Greg (Nicholas Braun)? Then again, it’s still possible that Kendall, currently acting a bit like Tom Hanks in Big, will simply implode. Even if he gains immunity from prosecution as a corporate whistleblower, no one in the world is ever going to be able to grant him asylum from the gelid heart of his father.
You’ll want to know if this series is as good as the last. Well, the dialogue is as scabrous and funny as ever – “You’re the number one trending topic behind Tater Tots and the Pope… er, a Pope,” says Greg, asked by Kendall to monitor his media profile – and the performances are still perfection. Strong’s Ritalin kabuki, his face super-animated one minute and lifeless the next, is the most mesmerising thing on television. Sarah Snook as Shiv is hardening like ice beneath all that Max Mara, to the point where you can almost hear her creaking. Kieran Culkin as Roman resembles more and more Chucky out of Child’s Play, one hand at his floppy fringe, the other hovering ominously over his fly, where something even more flaccid may be found – except when nanny, aka Gerri Kellman (J Smith-Cameron), is around.
I love, as much as I ever did, the detail: the way, for instance, that domestic staff can only ever be found hovering at the edge of the screen, as easy to swat as flies in the eyes of their ghastly employers (in episode four, Kendall is oblivious to the humiliation of his assistant, who must wave an iPad in front of a giant pet rabbit so his children can see it).
People talk of the Roys’ venality and cruelty. But it’s their heedlessness to which Succession’s writers are most alert: the half-eaten salads, the purposeless journeys, all the things never fully enjoyed. Their transient lives, like their precariously contingent emotions, warn us to be careful what we wish for. Though in a world that grows ever more terrifyingly sententious, they also, I think, provide a furtive release for those weary of being “kind”.
Still, it has to be said: there’s something missing this time. It’s all very talky. Here are airless rooms, with people hustling in them, endlessly. There’s a circularity to each episode – who’s up and who’s down – and the nastier things get, the more I scent diminishing returns. I long for the set pieces of old: Shiv’s wedding in an English castle; the gruesome New Mexico gathering organised by Connor (Alan Ruck); the hunting trip to Hungary. I miss the particular acid of Caroline (Harriet Walter), Logan’s ex-wife, who doesn’t give a toss about Waystar Royco (though she will be back, I read).
This is not to say that I won’t take Succession over any other show; I’ve only to hear that Dallas-meets-Scott Joplin theme tune for everything else to fade to grey. But I’m anxious for it. I want its greatness to last right until the moment the stage finally fills with corpses – whether of people, or a business, or both.
[see also: Jesse Armstrong on power, politics and the return of Succession]
This article appears in the 13 Oct 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Perfect Storm