Succession played much of its opening match with one hand tied behind its back. The inciting incident of HBO’s anti-wealth porn was also a departure from the status quo of its insular world: Immediately after backing off a longstanding plan to hand over control of his media empire to his middle son Kendall (Jeremy Strong), Murdoch-like mogul Logan Roy (Brian Cox) suffered a stroke. These two seismic events—one an assertion of Logan’s power, the other a reminder of its fragility—threw Waystar Royco and its feckless overlords into disarray before the audience got to see their amoral business as usual. Such disruption kick-started Succession’s plot, but at the expense of its centrifugal force. Until his devastating, definitive victory over Kendall in the finale, Logan spent most of the season either incapacitated or off his peak. There were echoes of Logan’s might in the deference his minions maintained as a force of habit, yet its full potential largely loomed from offscreen.
Succession is about the toxic, vicious environment Logan has created in his own image. Removing him from the chessboard so early on was therefore as bold as it was self-defeating. Many critics’ early skepticism toward the show, my own included, was rooted in a fundamental sense of haziness: How were Logan’s four children supposed to relate to one another? What, besides incomprehensible wealth and an unfamiliarity with the word “no,” had made them this way? Some of Succession’s deliberately vague details were part of its unflattering class portrait; when you experience the world from inside a skyscraper, everything outside and below fades into a blur. (Pointedly, the vast majority of Succession scenes are interiors.) But as Season 1 progressed, Logan’s increased prominence made some of the larger, character-based questions snap into place. Nothing clarified the Roy family and their hired help like watching them react to the tyrant they live to fear. And the more specific Succession’s characters became, the more the show had to say besides “billionaires bad.”
So in its second installment, Succession sets about accomplishing what less audacious series do in their first. As of Sunday’s premiere, Logan has recaptured the throne, with no obvious challengers in sight. This frees Succession to establish what Waystar Royco looks like in its natural state, i.e., a totalitarian one. Kendall, who’s lost his seeming birthright to addiction and blackmail, has returned from the brink a broken man. After committing Chappaquiddick-style manslaughter on his way to score drugs, he’s stopped even trying to combat his demons, whether internal (substance abuse) or external (the man who drove him to it). This new Kendall resembles no one as much as Reek from Game of Thrones: obedient, without ambition, and more devoted than ever to the man who subdued him. “My dad wants me to do it, I’ll do it,” he drones early in the season opener—while being yanked from much-needed recovery at an Icelandic spa, no less. It’s a far cry from the man-child who insisted he didn’t want to call his dad (“Why, do you want to call your dad?”) over a stalled deal in the pilot.
Unsurprisingly, this domesticated version of Kendall is also the only person on the show Logan has no trouble showing affection for. A Daniel Plainview for the age of fake news, Logan knows only how to love a broken thing, because that thing has been turned into an extension of his will. (“He’s taken his medicine,” Logan informs a family gathering of his over-40 son.) More intriguingly, this change also makes Kendall a more compelling presence within the show. With all due respect to Strong’s remarkable performance, Kendall’s struggle to be a better person and a more dominant businessman was never convincing enough to anchor the story, as it was meant to in Season 1. The character’s great tragedy is how the more obviously and sincerely he wants something, the less likely he is to get it; Kendall’s palpable desperation is precisely what makes him so off-putting and easy to steamroll. Now that he’s accepted his subordinate place in the company, given up on reuniting his family, and relapsed into regular drug use, Kendall is far more charismatic than he is when he’s actually trying. And the less space taken up by his uphill battles, the more there is for other members of the ensemble.
With Kendall too fragile to bully, Logan needs a new scapegoat. Inevitably, distressingly, that mantle gets taken up by Shiv (Sarah Snook), the one Roy sibling to semisuccessfully build a life independent of her last name. Ever the shrewd tactician, Shiv has always hedged her bets: She married Tom (Matthew Macfadyen), a guileless Waystar executive who serves as her proxy link to the family business, and when Kendall threatened their dynasty by backing an attempted coup, she was angrier than anyone. Rejecting the Roy legacy is well and good so long as it remains a backup plan. (Also, there’s no way her salary as a Democratic political strategist pays for her lifestyle.) Yet Shiv is also the only Roy to earn the audience’s grudging respect by gaining enough distance from her father to occasionally stand up to him. Which is why it’s devastating, and disarmingly so, to watch Logan work to grind down that fighting spirit. His all-out offensive starts as a Trojan horse, with a job offer that’s too good to refuse.
On paper, Shiv is the logical choice to assume Kendall’s place as heir apparent; in contrast to playboy Roman (Kieran Culkin) and their delusional half brother Connor (Alan Ruck), they’re the only competent members of Logan’s progeny. But no sooner has Logan waved the carrot of actual power than he’s followed it with a series of sticks: browbeating, belittlement, an insistence on absolute discretion. Before long, bringing Shiv back into the fold starts to feel like an extended campaign to prove that, deep down, she’s just as desperate for Logan’s approval as anyone else. He’s only earning her trust to break down her defenses and leave her as vulnerable to his rage as the last plaything. One gets the unsettling feeling Logan won’t let up until his cherished Pinky has met the same fate as her sibling.
The longer Succession goes on, the more obvious it becomes that Logan has bought into the myth of his own immortality. And why wouldn’t he? One of the season’s most hysterical, disturbing scenes plays out like Eyes Wide Shut meets Lord of the Flies, as Logan forces his underlings to humiliate themselves in increasingly elaborate ways in an attempt to sniff out a rat. When you’ve bent the universe so totally to your will, it’s only natural to start believing it begins and ends with you. Logan insists he wants to keep the company in the family, to fend off outside buyers; he also refuses to commit to an actual succession plan, to keep his inner circle on edge. The older Logan gets, the more likely it becomes that Waystar will collapse into chaos when he dies without a road map in place—and the more apparent it is Logan’s OK with that, because he won’t be around to witness the destruction. It’s the same logic that keeps boomer politicians on a collision course with climate change, enabled by propaganda outlets like Logan’s very own ATN.
Succession is under no illusions that Logan’s pathology is a unique one. A midseason episode brings the Roys into contact with their mirror images, a WASPy crew of blue bloods whose more civilized politics don’t make them any less noxious. The encounter almost makes you appreciate the Roys, who wear their venality and boorishness on their sleeves. Succession lives in the chasm between the smallness of its characters and the grandness of their surroundings—the base, petty instincts of these people and the elegant trappings they’ve acquired to (unsuccessfully) disguise it. Dozens of small moments emphasize this point without broadcasting it: pool water dripping onto an immaculate marble floor; throngs of servants scrambling to do work no one will acknowledge; a matriarch beatifically presenting a dish handed off by a cook just moments before.
Logan Roy, however, exists in a league of his own. A grunting, roaring beast of a man, it’s chilling to watch him put on his best person mask for the rare person he actually needs to impress. Logan’s presence on Succession works something like the Departure on The Leftovers: a world-historical force that shatters everyone around it in different, equally heartbreaking ways. A common complaint against Succession holds that there’s no one to root for. That may be true, but held up against a black hole like Logan, the Roys start to look more and more like victims of circumstance, guinea pigs in the world’s bleakest social experiment. We keep watching not to see whether they’re beyond redemption, but how, why, and by whom they came to be this way. On some level, we’re all hostage to our parents. The Roys are just in a position to inflict their dysfunction on everyone else.
Disclosure: HBO is an initial investor in The Ringer.