After an incredible first season, many wondered if there was any room to improve for HBO’s family drama “Succession” (2018–). Following a Murdoch-like family dealing with personal and professional issues, it grabbed national and critical attention thanks to its sharp dialogue and impressive ensemble.
So far, season two has taken a similar approach to the first. After two solid but quiet episodes, the show finally went full throttle with its third episode, “Hunting,” and then somehow managed to go into a higher gear with its fourth episode, “Safe Room.”
These two episodes remind fans why every aspect of this show is brilliant. Each moment feels like its own dopamine hit. It could be something small, like a line of dialogue that stings but characters soon disregard, or a comment with such an air of wealthy naiveté that we can’t help but laugh at the characters’ ignorance. It could even be when the emotionally stunted members of the Roy family break through to show some compassion, even though we might not fully trust it.
During the last scene of the fourth episode, for example, we see two of the Roy children, Kendall (Jeremy Strong) and Shiv (Sarah Snook), share one such moment. For once, the competitive wall between them falls down. They embrace, and Kendall begins to break down, a surprise after spending this season showing little to no emotion. Kendall returns the favor by giving Shiv a compliment and some hope that she will actually be the successor to her father: “It ain’t gonna be me,” he says. It’s moving, but even in that moment we feel slightly uneasy. Could Kendall be playing Shiv to trick her and somehow get the upper hand? It’s dark and sadistic, but it would not be out of line for “Succession.“
The performances in “Succession” stand out as well. Actors inhabit their characters so seamlessly that even though we are fully aware of characters’ glaring flaws, we still love them. Take Matthew Macfadyen, playing Roy family doormat and Shiv’s husband, Tom Wambsgans. In the most recent episode, Tom becomes the victim of blackmail, although he hardly acts like one. He basks in the moment and accepts the situation, all the while with a giant smile on his face. It instantly plays for laughs, but also reveals an incredibly dark layer to Tom’s supposed innocent Midwestern persona.
The character on the other side of Tom’s blackmail, Greg the Egg (Nicholas Braun), also proves the show’s brilliance in character development and dialogue. Throughout most of the series Greg has remained the show’s avatar for fans to enter the Roy amusement park due to his lack of experience with wealth. He awkwardly stumbles through his blackmail speech to Tom, as he’s never done any of this before. But everyone else in the Roy family has. The act alone signifies that Greg has begun to cross over the line from friendly, confused egghead to Roy family savage, no matter how awkwardly he does it.
It’s hyperbolic, but if any show were to receive this kind of praise, it would be that it thrives off of keeping the dial at 11. And there’s plenty more to praise as well. There’s not a single performance that has disappointed. It’s present and timely. Despite how tuned-in fans are, few, if any, know where the season is going to go. Shiv could legitimately take over for her father at Waystar Royco, and that development would not feel unprompted. Kendall could betray one, maybe even all, of the members of his family. If “Succession” has taught us anything, it’s that everyone plays the game, and most people lose.
This constant reversal of expectations encapsulates the brilliance of “Succession.” Nowadays, when it seems like it is more obvious than ever that greed and power are synonymous, “Succession” isn’t a “Wolf of Wall Street” (2013) glorification-slash-cautionary tale. “Succession” is cynical and jaded. These are evil people, or at least complicit, and unlike most television of the 21st century, it isn’t asking you to think about that. It’s showing you that despite their wealth, they are emotionally bankrupt. Looking forward to the rest of the season, it’s almost a guarantee that “Succession” will keep up its electric, inject-it-into-my-veins dynamism.