For a show concerned only with power and cruelty, Succession engendered a surprising amount of genuine affection during its first season. The HBO drama, which follows the Roys, a family-owned media dynasty worth billions and their constant jockeying for power, was one of the most critically acclaimed new shows to premiere in 2018. In its relentless documentation of what it’s like to be rich and utterly delusional it provides no audience surrogates; instead of rooting for a character to succeed or find happiness, you pick a favorite to simply see them get more screen-time and watch their insecurities play out in real time. The predation is the point. Its first season initially played out less as a caustic melodrama and more as a morbid curiosity, difficult to look away if not inherently compelling. Then the series found its footing and deployed a considerable weapons-grade wit in a series of bottle episodes that won it a dedicated following. Its Sunday night premiere required no retraining. Even better, the show wasted no time in getting back to fifth gear.
Logan Roy, Succession‘s gruff and exacting patriarch, spent much of the last season in recovery after suffering a stroke. His attack, and subsequent instability, served as the catalyst for three of his four children — Kendall, Roman and Siobhan, a.k.a. “Shiv” — sniping for power over Waystar Royco, the empire their father built with from the ground up. (Connor, the eldest, isn’t much of a contender; he’s too busy preparing for his announced Presidential run.) Apparently groomed as his heir apparent, Kendall made a play for CEO. When he was rebuffed, Logan’s son engineered a hostile takeover of the company, allying with one of his father’s many enemies to attempt to wrest control for himself. It didn’t work.
The second season premiere, titled “The Summer Palace,” opens about a day and a half after the events of last season’s finale. Kendall is dazed and deadened. He’s back in rehab after a bender that resulted in the death of a young man, and capitulating to his father’s every demand in order to cover it up. The first 10 minutes almost feel like a dream sequence — the characters are very rarely alone, which lends Kendall’s opening journey a sense of unreality — as he’s roused from a Scandinavian spa. The powers that work for the powers that be ask him to go on TV and defend his father from his own engineered coup. It’s never discussed when he’ll return to recovery; there’s a job to do.
“Dad’s plan was better” is the talking point Kendall is drilled to say, and he says it convincingly at first. (“That’s the first fucking thing my son’s ever done right,” Logan says after watching his television appearance.) Never mind that there is, and has never been, a contingency plan for the Roys. This is a self-sustaining success story. Like a man clinging to a life raft, Kendall continues to repeat that plan over and over again throughout the episode — “Dad’s plan was better” — even when no one asks. “Come on fuckbag, fight back,” is Roman’s response when the talking point gets trotted out once again after his younger brother taunts him. Another character calls him a “pusillanimous piece of fool’s gold.” Neither insult elicits a reaction. Kendall is a shell of a man now, and his father enjoys toying with him because of it. It’s not long before he recruits Cousin Greg, the hapless star of the show, to get him cocaine. “It’s from a connection. In the park,” the kid says.
Meanwhile, the two siblings still vying for power have been destabilized by Kendall’s attempted takeover and quick about-face. Life is a farce for Roman, so he quickly returns to his base level of impudence. Shiv, however, is supposed to be on her honeymoon with her new husband Tom, a loveless partnership in a constant state of negotiation over how much can be faked. Over the course of the episode, she’ll also realize how much she truly does care about succeeding her father. Though “Pinky,” as her father affectionately calls her, has long abdicated official involvement with the company, she’s steered Tom’s career in the family business and is easily the smartest of the four siblings. (It’s a low bar.) When it seems like Logan may sell the company, she cuts the honeymoon short. Her ambitious, eager-beaver spouse doesn’t seem to mind.
The family ultimately convenes for a meeting to decide what to do with the company. Logan, in an uncharacteristic bout of good faith, professes to be genuinely unsure of whether to sell or to fight, a sure indicator that there’s a bigger game afoot. The Roys alight to their new winter home — the show’s interchangeable use of lavish sets, and the characters’ continued indifference to them, is one of the marked steps up from last season — to plot their future. A sale would net the family about 10 billion dollars, but never truly seems like an option on the table. Instead, Dad begins calling in the siblings one by one, to see what they plan to do.
His move is to offer the position of CEO to Shiv, in an emotionally tense scene that sees the mercurial patriarch begin to shift into something kinder and more encouraging than ever before. None of the Roy children are capable of standing up to their authoritarian father — but this scene shows why none of them can resist whenever he dangles a carrot. Of course, Shiv’s appointment must remain a secret. Of course, she must be trained up before they can announce. Of course, Logan likely has another plan he’s not telling anyone. But Shiv — played to perfection by Sarah Snook — can’t stop her eyes from glimmering at the thought of being given what she likely always wanted. It’s affecting, even as you wait for another shoe to drop. In turn, she lies to her new husband about the meeting, framing it as a promotion for him. He’ll find out she’s going to be his boss in due time. The wheels never, ever stop spinning.