The first time Logan Roy (Brian Cox) met the woman now set to succeed him as his company’s CEO, he made a promise. “When I say a thing will happen,” Logan growled at Rhea Jarrell (Holly Hunter), then the CEO of a media company he had a mind to acquire, “that thing will happen.” At the time, Succession gave us no reason to doubt him. Logan’s statement was many things: threatening, grandiose, even a little sexy. (He and Rhea have since heightened their professional dalliance into a personal one.) What it was not was empty.
Succession is a show about the family members and employees—two groups with little distinction and a great deal of overlap—who live in Logan’s shadow. Consequently, it’s often depicted Logan as these minions experience him, as a near-omnipotent force who bends the world to his vision by sheer force of will. Season 1 followed the undignified war for scraps after Logan showed his first sign of weakness, a stroke that hinted even a master of the universe couldn’t fend off age forever. Season 2 has indicated that Logan’s many would-be successors were mistaken in that belief. No wonder Kendall (Jeremy Strong) has replaced his ambition with a near-religious faith in his father’s judgment. Faced with a man who took his own son’s betrayal and leveraged it into a total spiritual defeat, what else would he believe?
Nor was Logan’s dominance limited to his own relatives. To finish off the attempted coup Kendall once spearheaded, Logan landed on the strategy of becoming too big to acquire by swallowing up Pierce Global Media, the sort of New York Times–MSNBC hybrid to his own media holdings’ (minor) variation on Fox News. For the first half of the season, it seemed like Logan’s master plan would succeed. Its basic premise—that whatever their pretensions to high-minded ideals, the Pierces are avaricious oligarchs at their core—was certainly validated in “Tern Haven,” when matriarch Nan (Cherry Jones) agreed to sell. “Money wins,” Logan declared at the episode’s end. And so does the man who knows how to wield it. Logan’s savvy has long served as a sort of control, throwing his counterparts’ incompetence and uncertainty into stark relief.
But recent episodes have started to find fractures in his armor. In “Argestes,” his pact with the Pierces fell apart as a brewing scandal about sexual misconduct on the Roy cruise line spooked Nan. The point about the Pierces’ fraudulent morals still stands; the cruise situation is awful, but so is much of what the Roys do and say, making a splashy magazine exposé a somewhat arbitrary line in the sand. Still, the sight of Logan, so accustomed to others’ desperation, making his own desperate plea to Nan was outright disorienting. We’ve spent so long steeped in the idol worship of Royworld that it’s become all too easy to adopt its central tenet: Whatever Logan wants, Logan gets. The next episode took something of a break from the larger plot, but also saw Logan take out his frustrations on Kendall, his punching bag of choice, by forcing him to meet the family of the young man he drove into a river. When the rest of the world defies his control, Logan reasserts his power over those he does.
This week’s “Dundee” finds Logan the most isolated and vulnerable he’s been yet. With the Pierce merger dead on arrival, the battle for Waystar is back to square one, its almighty founder forced to beg individual shareholders to vote for his continued control. The cruise scandal is about to escalate to a new level, as a former accounting executive prepares to go public not just with the abuses of a longtime executive, but the company’s high-level knowledge and repeated cover-ups of his actions. And just when he needs support most, Logan appears to have lost a key ally in his wife, Marcia (Hiam Abbass), displeased with his affair yet even more furious that she’s been left out of key decision-making. The hour crescendoes with a surprise party commemorating Logan’s half-century at the helm. The displays of fealty are as baroque as they are hollow: Kendall raps; the other kids give testimonials; a plaque is dedicated. Marcia, knowing how to hit Logan where it hurts, calls it his “shiny little gravestone.” Logan hates nothing more than reminders of his own mortality, but circumstances of late have made them unavoidable.
Throughout the episode, Logan’s older brother Ewan (James Cromwell) keeps popping up to unload a fresh torrent of vitriol. Abrupt and foreboding, Ewan’s cameos have a surreal quality to them, with Cromwell cutting a tall, gaunt figure as his character appears out of nowhere to compare his sibling to Hitler. The scenes’ oddness adds to their comedy, but also leave an impression of Ewan as an almost mystical figure, a cross between the Grim Reaper and the Ghost of Christmas future come to give Logan his due. Like the Pierces, Succession doesn’t give Ewan much in the way of moral high ground; Logan’s right when he points out he’s Ewan’s “meal ticket,” making him just as complicit in Waystar’s corruption as his feckless grandson Greg (Nicholas Braun). That doesn’t invalidate his points about Logan’s many misdeeds, or make his final prediction any less resonant. “Your empire of shit,” he sneers. “Time to pay up.” It’s finally starting to look like Logan might have to.
Making its bedrock vulnerable, or even just fallible, is a bold move for Succession, tweaking the “Logan knows best” status quo it spent all of Season 1 restoring and much of Season 2 thriving in. At first glance, having Logan’s brutality fall short threatens to neuter some of Succession’s core themes—the ones that make it such an unsparing dissection of the ultra-rich and a world that allows them to prosper. Succession has always maintained that global capitalism is an ugly thing, and that he who is most honest and unflinching about his own ugliness stands to reap the spoils. Logan’s potential downfall gives the show plenty in the way of plot and conflict, but also risks softening the series’ razor-sharp edge. A universe that no longer rewards Logan is a kinder and more just one than any of Succession’s characters deserve.
If nothing else, chipping away at Logan’s dominance is an audacious risk for Succession to take. Creator Jesse Armstrong and his writers are voluntarily shifting a scenario that’s paid enormous creative dividends, earning widespread acclaim and, last week, an Emmy. More importantly, it’s a successful move that allows Succession to go in a new direction with its foundational tenets still intact. So far nobody, from Nan to Rhea to Ewan, looks better off for Logan’s misfortune. Logan himself, however, finally seems subject to the caprice he’s long inflicted on others. Succession’s center of gravity has always been opaque, more force of nature than individual. But to be confronted with the reality that he can’t manipulate everyone the way he does his own children is to be shrunk down.
“Dundee” takes place in Logan’s hometown, though much of the episode actively rejects the idea that learning more of the mogul’s biography will make him less mysterious, or more sympathetic. “Rosebud is a dollar bill,” he snaps. “It’s whatever it took to get me the fuck out of here.” Ironically, Logan’s Rosebud seems to be his sister Rose, for whose unspecified death Logan seems to blame himself. No sooner has Succession dangled this carrot, though, than the prospect of explaining, and therefore excusing, Logan is yanked away. “That wasn’t your fault,” Ewan assures his brother in a shocking, if short-lived, display of empathy. Then he gestures at a room filled to bursting with sociopaths and sycophants. “But this? This is your fault.” Logan’s sprawling kingdom is entirely self-made. The reasons he might lose it all are too.
Disclosure: HBO is an initial investor in The Ringer.