‘It Hurts, But It Plays’: How ‘Succession’ Executed a Near-Perfect Season 2
You always love the ones you hurt.
History will tell whether Succession is a genuinely great, canon-worthy HBO show or merely the most compelling flaming-Maybach-wreck-in-progress on TV right now. But there are a few things we can more or less agree on. Jesse Armstrong’s lifestyles-of-the-rich-and-toxic drama started slow in Season One and eventually built to a strong finish. Its second season was leagues better, finally discovering the show it wanted to be; it was less a course correction than locating the proper curve of the Roys’ collective instability and leaning in to it. And, now that Round 2 is said and done, this sophomore season may not be remembered primarily for “boar on the floor!,” the L to O.G. rap (viva Ken.W.A!), the art-imitates-life-imitates-headlines of the Vaulter dismantling, hyperdecanting, or even an iPad angrily tossed into the sea. It may come down to a single word, uttered with such emphasis you can practically see the italics, in the finale. It ends not with a bang but with a “But…”.
[Spoilers. Spoilers. Spoilers.]
Succession kicked off Season 2 with Kendall Roy making a zombified TV appearance, pushed in front of a camera and blankly mouthing soundbites his handlers have provided him, all the better to calm the stockholders. “Dad’s plan was better,” he intoned, almost able to muster a weak smile as a few more ounces of his soul leaked out. It concludes with “Ken Doll” once again staring into a lens, once again given a script to read, once again trying to assure the board that everything is going to be fine. And then, the No. 1 Boy announces that though he’s been picked to be the fall guy, everything from the cover-up of cruise-ship deaths to the corporate malfeasance — it’s all Logan’s fault. For someone who micromanages every aspect of his company, the notion that the patriarch behind it all not be aware of these crimes is ludicrous, Kendall suggests. “My father’s reign ends today,” he says. Dad’s plan, apparently, was not better this time.
Whether you believe this whole turn of events was part of Logan’s ultimate plan or not, however, depends on just how Machiavellian and omnipotent you think this media titan is. This whole season has revolved largely around the paterfamilias engaging in his favorite pastime, i.e. gathering together his children, their significant others and various key lackeys in a location (a Hungarian hunting lodge, the Roys’ summer home, a pre-celebration toast in Scotland) and letting them tear each other apart. The sheer viciousness of the backbiting, not to mention the choice one-liners — “You can’t make a Tomelette without breaking some Gregs”; the writing team has outdone themselves this season — have kept these Darwinian set pieces from becoming nothing but humiliate, blame, grovel, repeat. In the finale, the battle royale octagon of choice is a yacht in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea; no word on whether they’re anchored in international waters, but Logan’s Law rules regardless.
Everyone knows heads are going to roll after that disastrous hearing, in which numerous folks shat various beds. After a helicopter drops Logan off at the boat, he announces that everyone should have a great time tonight. Tomorrow, they’ll get together “and have a chat” about what happens now. (The fact that judgment regarding who’s going to take the blame for deaths on a cruise ship will be rendered on a gigantic floating playground is a nice touch.) Attempts to go private have failed. The shareholders have already suggested that Logan resigning is the only solution they 100-percent approve of. The next morning, he casually introduces the idea and gets the requisite “no way,” “we need the appearance of stability,” etc. So whose head gets put on the spike?, Logan asks. And then the screaming starts.
The round robin of finger-pointing that follows is fairly predictable. Family members suggest Gerri, Francis and Karl — longtime loyalists but not blood relations. The idea of a bundled sacrifice is floated; maybe Gerri and Tom, “with some Greg sprinkles”? Still not “a big enough skull” for the bloodthirsty board. Each of the Roys, including Connor, put themselves forward as the one to go and then methodically walk their own suggestion back, looking at Dad to make sure he notices their willingness to take the hit. Shiv suggests Tom, which proves to be the final nail in the already hammered-down coffin that is their marriage. (Side note to the couple’s ongoing matrimonial death rattle: We hope the sales of Sally Rooney novels will go through the roof.) There’s a lot of “I fucking love you, man, but…” preambles before a new sacrificial lamb is prepped for slaughter.
There’s a part of you, the viewer, that just inherently knows whose head will eventually be on the chopping block — the same one we saw floating, almost disembodied, out of an Icelandic hot spring way back in the season premiere. “It hurts, but it plays,” Logan admits when Shiv mentions the family fuck-up is a prime candidate for a killing. A broken, mumbling man-shaped ruin, Kendall has spent nine episodes wallowing in guilt over accidentally killing a civilian, relapsing, wooing an actress (then thoughtlessly wrecking her career), dismissing his new girlfriend whenever Logan casts a disapproving look and generally skulking about. Season One was about him trying unsuccessfully to grab what he felt was rightfully his, by hook, crook or hostile takeover. Season Two appeared, on the surface, to be about his penance while everybody else took their shot. His siblings played the game of thrones. He opted to sit on the bench.
So when Shiv silently whispers something to Tom after meeting with her father, then pivots toward her brother, we see where this is going. Sorry, lad, says Logan. It’s got to be you. I deserve this, Kendall replies, then asks: But could I have been a good head honcho? Pops hems and haws. Then he focuses his gaze on his son: “You’re not a killer.” Kendall nods. He embraces Dad. Then, one Fredo kiss later, he leaves to fulfill his duties and his destiny. I would fall on my sword for my family. But… .
Which brings us back to Logan’s endgame, and whether, by telling Kendall that he had no killer instinct, he’s inherently gifted him with one. If you go back and view the episode again, knowing where everything is headed, you can see how Armstrong and Co. have laid the groundwork. And should you rewatch what has been a near-perfect second season of a show, which we highly recommend, what strikes you is how everything really does seem to have been leading up to that shot of Kendall staring, Big Brother-like, from a flat screen; that one loaded conjunction; and the tiny smile that curls on Logan’s lips. The past 10 episodes have been an abundance of beautiful bitchery and 1-percent-behaving-badly — not just the “boar on the floor” incident, but the Oedipal dirty talk, the Conn-head memes, every single scene in which Holly Hunter spits venom through a lockjaw grin. They’ve also reminded you that it doesn’t matter whether the Roys are avatars for the Murdochs, the Redstones or our current first family; the rich are unlike you and me, but they are the same type of bastards. Whoever wins, we all lose…including the Roys. (Older shows about the rich and powerful acted as escapism. Never mind the fancy estates and luxury excursions; Succession makes being part of the modern aristocracy look fucking miserable.)
Yet to see that smile break across Logan’s face introduces a whole level of complexity into the second season — the idea that he was not looking for a successor so much as the perfect executioner. He maneuvered Kendall, or perhaps backed him into a corner, to the point where patricide was the only path forward. For a show about legacy, it makes complete sense — and turns this second season from the sum of its gleefully ghoulish parts into one thrilling whole. The No. 1 Boy has become the No. 1 Roy. Whatever happens next, we’ve leveled up to an entirely new category of Prestige TV shitshow.
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