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Succession returns: Are the Roys the new Lannisters?

This first episode of Season 3 is a strong curtain-raiser, reminding us where all our favourite chess-pieces stand and how quickly the board can be upended

(from left) Brian Cox, Sarah Snook and Alan Ruck in ‘Succession’
(from left) Brian Cox, Sarah Snook and Alan Ruck in ‘Succession’

Kendall Roy has the scariest smile. The third season of Succession—streaming in India on Disney+ Hotstar—starts with the once-favoured scion of a media empire scrambling to assemble a team to take on his once-unassailable father. Kendall, high on cocaine and ego, believes this to be a revolution, and the underlings in the back seat of his SUV smile. Anarchy is a contact high. Greg, Kendall’s awkwardly tall cousin, is incredulous, likening the situation to O.J. Simpson on the run in his white Ford Bronco, wanted for murder. “I mean… except if OJ never killed anyone,” he corrects.

Kendall turns: “Who said I never killed someone?” Then he laughs.

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The fact that Kendall Roy—who accidentally killed a man in the first season of this grim series and spent most of season 2 squirming under his father’s thumb out of guilt and obligation for the ensuing cover-up—is now chuckling at his own manslaughter shows how unhinged the character has become. Season 2 ended with a manful declaration of war. The first episode of the new season, where he wants to hire the BoJack Horseman writers to fill his Twitter feed with “cool tweets”, shows he may not be the truth-teller audiences cheered for. Kendall blew the whistle because the whistle looked cool.

In the other corner, retreating to Sarajevo in a bid to avoid extradition, we find Logan Roy, the patriarch who appears to realise his time at the top is finally numbered. The big cheese may (or may not) be toast. For now, Logan is avoiding food, asking his team to swallow (“We’re on saliva and adrenaline here”) while they get on with it. Precisely what “it” is can be debated and Logan is so starved of actual options that he allows fools into his brain trust. The White House is dialled on speakerphone, and desperate but belligerent board members hold their breath after casually (but seriously) asking for the deputy attorney general to be fired. “Ha ha,” comes the belated, stilted response from the other end, as tentative as it is horrified.

Created by Jesse Armstrong, Succession is a beautiful morality tale about a family so malicious and vituperative it makes all of ours look swell in comparison. An all-powerful empire with amusement parks and conservative news channels, I find the Roys (and their appeal) rather similar to the Lannisters from Game Of Thrones, a clan of power-hungry and charismatic cutthroats who know their way around an insult. The second season ended two years ago and since then the tribe of Succession has only grown. How we’ve missed these swearing siblings.

This is a review of the first episode of season 3, and I intend to write at length about the entire season after we are all caught up in the profane and profound roller-coaster ride.

As father and son square off—and hurl fairy-tale metaphors at each other—siblings and staffers all make a play for the CEO throne, however accursed. Shiv, the daughter, is asked to court a powerful lawyer and dismissed after she doesn’t succeed. Roman, the younger, increasingly malevolent son, calls his father and demands the job. This move impresses Logan, who likes people speaking up. Then Roman waffles on about other possibilities, visibly more focused on his sister being denied the chair instead of getting it for himself. It’s a direct echo of a few scenes ago where Kendall can’t even hear out a PR-pitch without announcing his own ideas.

Speaking up may not be the problem. The Roys don’t know when to stop talking.

This first episode, Secession, directed by Mark Mylod, is a strong curtain-raiser, reminding us where all our favourite chess-pieces stand and how quickly the board can be upended. Brian Cox’s Logan continues to shine hardest—nobody does gruffness better—and Jeremy Strong impressively captures Kendall’s deliriousness. Matthew Macfadyen’s Tom Wambsgans still swallows everything tossed his way but doesn’t seem to like the taste any more. Kieran Culkin’s overwhelmingly popular Roman becomes more serpentine with every line he utters, and he has done well to align with J. Smith-Cameron’s fascinating Gerri Kelman, the general counsel of Waystar Royco, who has been named the new CEO.

For now, anyway.

Armstrong’s lines, as always, sing. The show boasts some of the sharpest writing on television, telling and insightful and true to character. Logan, pushed to a corner, repeatedly talks about his own helplessness in terms of women being assaulted: “What if I don’t want to pull down my panties so fast?” This, in the midst of a sexual assault scandal. Kendall, meanwhile, asks Cousin Greg to take his “cultural temperature”, to “slide the sociopolitical thermometer up the nation’s ass and take a reading” (he wants him to keep an eye on Twitter). And while most of the spotlight falls on the show’s dazzling insults, it is as Greg says: “The negative stuff does tend to stick in the mind a little just ‘cause it’s quite visceral.”

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Despite all that Succession—and its deafening popularity—has to say about society and wealth, the series hews closest to comedy. After Roman self-destructs on the phone call with his silent father, Logan hangs up and says, with complete clarity: “Roman’s out.” The reaction and its timing precisely mirrors iconic Seinfeld episode The Contest (season 4, episode 11, Netflix), where Kramer bowed out of a bet with an unambigious “I’m out,” slapping the money on the kitchen counter.

The finest line has Logan putting an underling in place: “Karl, if your hands are clean, it’s only because your whorehouse also does manicures.” Karl can only nod. Succession makes us feel dirty for laughing at something so merciless, so sickening…. So appalling, in fact, that there’s nothing to do but laugh. “Ha ha.”

Streaming tip of the week:

Director Todd Haynes has released his new documentary The Velvet Underground, about the influential 60s rock band, this week on Apple TV+. Some of the footage is magical.

Stream of Stories is a column on what to watch online. Raja Sen is a film and TV critic, screenwriter and the author of The Best Baker In The World (2017), a children’s adaptation of The Godfather.



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