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Succession season 3: The rise and fall of two Romans

Nothing changes in Succession till, in the novel-like last episode of the third season, everything does

Kieran Culkin in ‘Succession’
Kieran Culkin in ‘Succession’

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‘All The Bells Say’ — the final episode of the third season of Succession — feels like a novel. Words characters speak as they conspire and confess, strategise and soliloquise are devastatingly well chosen and worthy of rereading for literary interpretation, yet I’ll single out a silent beat: Roman Roy extends his hand to his father Logan to help him off a speedboat, and the father — who has just accused his son of being a pervert — ignores Roman’s proferred arm and takes that of a deckhand.

(If you haven’t seen the third season of Succession (Disney+ Hotstar), do not read ahead. I wrote at length about the start of the season, but this column is for those who have been through the entire thing.)

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Roman — who masturbates on skyscraper windows and sends his boss pictures of his penis after she forbids it — is most certainly a pervert, wearing his sexual deviance like armour, a reptile hiding behind sharp, ugly scales to keep from being touched. In this series written with barbed wire, he traditionally has the prickliest insults, but this season Roman’s retorts aren’t withering, his samurai put-downs replaced by childish impressions, repeating and mocking other people’s words instead of minting originally cruel lines.

In the final episode, his father’s secretary bests Roman with a kids-menu jibe, and Greg, his unsure and under-confident cousin, holds his own in front of a princess. In an earlier episode, his deluded elder brother Connor hears a Roman line and replies, warily but indulgently, “That’s good. That’s funny.” Roman tamely says “Thanks.” The detached clown prince of Succession — played with a terrific, twitchy energy by Kieran Culkin — is out of his depth.

This season, Roman wormed his way closest to his father, thinking on the fly to strike bathroom deals with tech-giants and far-right politicians, but he knows he is playacting at power instead of reaching for it. In the first episode he talked himself out of the top job, and later could not side with his sister Siobhan as she sent out a humiliating letter about their brother Kendall, saying it “makes him feel unwell.” He may be the softest sibling pretending to be the roughest, and this year his digs to his sister have been more gross than clever. He doesn’t know what to do with himself.

Until he does. In an extraordinary nine-minute dialogue scene where Kendall — played with heartbreaking frailty by Jeremy Strong — confesses to manslaughter and says he isn’t a good person, Roman realises his callousness is needed. A sobbing Kendall sits in the sand and begs Roman to stop making light of his heaviest sin, but this is where Roman’s relentlessness pays off. The death of a waiter, he says, makes him the real victim. “I waited three quarters of an hour for a gin and tonic.” Kendall giggles.

Created by British writer Jesse Armstrong, Succession is a tragicomic morality tale that started off like King Lear and has become Hamlet meets Game Of Thrones meets — oddly enough — Seinfeld. The idea that nothing changes in Succession, despite the first two seasons ending on narrative bombshells, felt blatant in Season Three as the show kept circling its status quo: sibling-vs-sibling, child-vs-father all warring for a decaying, corrosive media empire. Nothing appeared to have storytelling consequence — from a dick shown to a father to a drugged tycoon imagining dead cats under his chair — so we found pleasures in the fascinating interplay of characters and the lyrical profanity, even if the story didn’t appear to move.

I have written about Logan Roy having a very Kramer moment, and later — in an outrageous scene — when Logan sees a picture of Roman’s penis on his phone, he furiously slides the phone face down across a boardroom table, like an old man sending back soup in a deli. Yet sitcoms change shape. The Thick Of It, the masterful political satire Armstrong worked on, gave us politician protagonists we got used to before swapping them around for newly elected characters. Nothing changes in Succession till, in the last episode, everything does.

Even the gormless Greg — a flawlessly fumbly Nicholas Braun — grows into a Greenpeace-hater, leveraging the one girl who smiles at him into a “date ladder” and harbouring dreams of perhaps becoming the King of Luxembourg.

Royalty brings us to that other Roman, the murderous emperor Nero, more famous for fiddling than wife-killing. When Tom Wambsgans brings him up, Greg is justly confused: “Nero and Sporus? This is not IP I’m familiar with.” Wambsgans is playing a long game. The man who was so revolted at the thought of prison in season two that he defiantly — and unforgettably — ate chicken right from Logan’s plate, now volunteers for jail-time in order to tether his boat to the biggest, most unbeatable Roy.

Matthew Macfadyen is marvellous as Tom, and the loveliest bit of the season, for me, has him wistfully telling his wife how, after a long day, cold white wine feels incomparably perfect on an empty stomach, simultaneously realising how addicted he has become to luxury, and, by extension, to power. “There are no fine wines in prison,” he wails. His wife Siobhan, played by a frighteningly good Sarah Snook, is too preoccupied with corporate catastrophes to address Tom’s fears, and once she savagely tears into him under guise of foreplay, his climactic betrayal of the siblings — which may bind them together tighter — is unsurprising.

The show ends with a visual echo of the long scene where the siblings surrounded Kendall, only Roman is the one on the floor with Kendall bending to console him. Roman is the one who visibly flinches when his father gets close, the one who grew up bullied by his siblings (and was once caged by Kendall like a dog), the one who remembers being thrashed by Logan after a water pistol incident in Bali. Brian Cox is astonishing as the patriarch, but Succession has to inevitably unseat Logan, and — if the show continues its march through Shakespeare’s greatest hits — Roman could be the one to bury Caesar. He’s done with praising him.

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Streaming Tip Of The Week:

Sushmita Sen returns in Aarya (Disney+ Hotstar) but while the first season was an impressive story of a woman and mother finding her strength, a sluggish second season renders her mostly weak and indecisive. Best avoided.

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’.

@rajasen

 

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