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27 March 2023

Succession is back, with a script sharper than broken glass

Pay close attention to the first episode: it contains not just text and subtext, but a third layer – something low and grunting.

By Rachel Cooke

Play close attention to the first episode of the last series of Succession. I’ve seen the first four – like Kendall Roy, I have no will power – and all I can tell you is that everything is now happening all at once: not just text and subtext, but a third layer – something low and grunting – that exists even below both of those. It is Oedipal, and no amount of Waystar stock and Zoloft will ever be able to assuage it. In a few weeks, you’ll think back to these moments, and you’ll see that the runes were there to be read, as clear as vodka: Shiv’s drawstring trousers; Tom’s disturbing new tendency to shorten his father-in-law’s name; Kerry’s curse on her predecessor, Marcia (“she’s in Milan shopping… forever”). Here is vaulting ambition. To what monstrous degree it will o’erleap itself remains to be seen.

A lot has happened since Logan Roy (Brian Cox) split with the children he refers to as “the rats”. Kerry (Zoe Winters), his assistant/girlfriend, is now glued to his side, her fringe a piece of performance art in its own right, and so is Tom Wambsgans (Matthew Macfadyen), newly estranged from Shiv (Sarah Snook). Logan is about to sell Waystar to “the Swede”. But he is also about to buy – at last – Pierce, the New York Times-like family-owned company, at the top of which the de haut en bas Nan (Cherry Jones) sits like Jackie O at her dressing table (with less good clothes). Their mutual loathing is, at this point, the engine that purrs – no, it roars – beneath the deal. Meanwhile, in California, the rats have a new idea. It is called The Hundred, and it is “Substack meets Masterclass meets the Economist meets the New Yorker” – otherwise known as “bullshit” (this is Shiv, not me; I’d quite like to work there).

Succession’s stock in trade is the set piece – the clan gathering – and several superlative such numbers are on the way, I guarantee. But for the time being we must make do with Logan’s birthday party in his New York apartment. Around the place, people stand like waxworks, twisting their napkins violently (this is how the rich rend their garments; for them penance involves Bollinger and arse-kissing). “Meet the f***ing Munsters,” says Logan, scything through the crowd like a shark through shallow water.

Tom and cousin Greg (Nicholas Braun) refer to themselves as the Disgusting Brothers now, and they are (disgusting, I mean): in both of these outsiders, entitlement has grown like Japanese knotweed; no poison can possibly kill it now, I think. Greg arrives with a girl Kerry suspects as being from the apps (“we’re not a f***ing Shake Shack, Greg”), and Tom takes the piss out of her handbag, which is indelicately capacious (“What’s even in there? Her lunch pail?”). But Greg is not to be put off. In a bedroom, he and she have “a bit of a rummage” in each other’s pants. “Bingo, bango, hit that bangle!” he says to Tom, high-pitched with post-ejaculatory achievement. Tom promptly informs him that he has inadvertently made a sex tape for Logan, who has CCTV in every room (“He’s camera-ed up the wazzoo!”). Both these actors are so good at draining the blood from their own faces.

[See also: Review: The BBC’s new Great Expectations is so bad it should be illegal]

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The party is boring – though for us, there is high comedy in the form of Connor (Alan Ruck) and his one per cent rating in the forthcoming presidential election. Logan leaves with his bodyguard, Colin, and they share an existential few moments in a diner, Logan gazing at the menu like it’s Kierkegaard (or the Wall Street Journal). But then, all change. The rats have sniffed the Pierce deal on the wind – it’s like fine cheese, stinky and oozing, so good it doesn’t require carbs – and they’ve pivoted.

“Call your wife and tell them to get their own f***ing idea,” Logan says to Tom. This seems fair enough. Patricide is their only inspiration. Later on, once (spoiler alert) they have successfully seduced Nan with a figure plucked from thin air, Logan’s voice emanates from Shiv’s mobile, like an angry spirit at a seance. “Congratulations on saying the biggest number, you f***ing morons!” bellows our Dow Jones Lear. Again, fair enough. Shiv titters. Kendall (Jeremy Strong) gazes blankly (Strong’s performance is now so intensely committed he lets his baseball cap do most of the acting). Roman (Kieran Culkin) says he’s going home to “pull myself off quite aggressively, thank you very much”.

Anti-climax hangs heavy about their private planes and their sterile apartments. Excitement is for them a word, not a feeling. Nature abhors a vacuum, and what happens next is going to fill this strange space – the psychic pause afforded by a notional $10bn – like methamphetamine.

A neurosis, Kenneth Tynan said, is a secret you don’t know you are keeping. Any minute now, the neuroses of the Roys, vulgar and lonely, will burst out into public view all over again, and I can hardly wait. About Jesse Armstrong’s finale, I have the highest feelings of anticipation; his script, sharper than broken glass, makes me feel princely, even priestly. I do not expect redemption or grace. The air conditioning will blow on, colder than ever; stupidity and greed will again masquerade as dauntlessness. But I have the sense that when this is all over, the air will be as it is after rain: fresh and clean and memorable. I will walk out into the post-Roy world, and feel better, stronger, purer. We all want to be rich, but not like this, eh?

[See also: Ted Lasso is the most overrated show on TV]

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