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‘Succession’ Returns, As Bleak and Brilliant As You Remember

At last, after an extended production delay, Season 3 delves into the brutal aftermath of Kendall Roy’s betrayal of his father

Getty Images/HBO/Ringer illustration

You don’t get to be the best show on TV without containing multitudes. From the start, HBO’s Succession has operated on several levels: the intimate scale of family, and the global one of corporate warfare; the savage comedy of satire, and the deep sadness of Shakespearean tragedy. But starting this Sunday, the show shifts into yet another mode. In its long-awaited third season, Succession is essentially an extended horror movie—the story of a man haunted by familial ghosts, trapped in an emotional Trump Tower of terror he can’t escape. Happy Halloween!

The series’ second season ended with a dramatic cliffhanger, one that lingered for an extra year on account of a global pandemic. All that time has let the endorphin rush of the final scene, and the Emmy near-sweep that followed, overshadow the 20 hours of cringe comedy that preceded it. This is not the kind of show to sustain a triumphant note for long, a fact easy to forget in a euphoric haze. Yes, Kendall Roy has defied his father in an act of public whistleblowing, car-related kompromat be damned. But on a practical level, ending Logan’s reign is easier said into a press-conference microphone than done. And on a deeper, psychological one, Kendall may not be as ready to cut ties with his father or siblings as his grand gesture may suggest. After all, it was supposed to be Kendall taking the hit on behalf of his dad—and people will say a lot of things to avoid going to prison.

To use a bit of corporate jargon that would make Waystar Royco proud, Season 3 has the audience drinking straight from the firehose. We begin mere moments after Kendall’s big bomb drop, with his family still floating on a yacht somewhere in the Mediterranean. Everyone instantly scrambles to assess the new hierarchy and their place within it. There’s Siobhan, soul freshly sold and marriage on ice; Roman, one half of an unlikely alliance in business and pleasure; and Logan, blindsided by a chutzpah he didn’t think was there. Still, the time for grudging respect was that last shot of the Season 2 finale. Season 3 is for rallying the troops and making sure no one joins Kendall’s mutiny enabled by the Department of Justice. Or as the patriarch himself puts it more succinctly: “It’s war. Fuck off!”

I’m not allowed to tell you who ends up on which side of the rift, lest some goons from the Succession version of Black Cube darken my doorstep. (Though the HBO marketing department did have some fun with the posters, which feature different combinations of characters in each of the Kendall-Logan camps.) What I am allowed to focus on is Kendall himself, who’s emerged from the spiritual coma where he spent most of last season. But shaking off the torpor that settled in after his initial coup attempt ended in manslaughter is less than half the battle. To complete his transformation, Kendall has to strike outward and look inward, neither of which he proves all that willing to do.

Having forcibly exited the nest, Kendall sets about recruiting new allies, including a publicist (Dasha Nekrasova, of the podcast Red Scare) and a lawyer (Sanaa Lathan). After last season’s stints from Cherry Jones and Holly Hunter, Season 3 only further ups the ante when it comes to guest stars, needed infusions of fresh blood into Waystar’s incestuous inner circle. New cast members run the gamut from Oscar winners (Adrien Brody) to beloved character actors (Stephen Root) to Swedish sex symbols (Alexander Skarsgard). On a lesser show, these famous faces might burst the fictional bubble, distracting viewers from the actual story. On Succession, they fit right in. No show on TV is more unfazed by glamour or glitz; no show on TV has more distinctive lingo, subordinating its component parts to the all-important business at hand. And with a federal probe, a turncoat, and a still-active takeover attempt by outside investors, that business has never felt more at risk of total collapse.

If this season of Succession has a weakness, it’s a fuzziness about Kendall’s position vis-à-vis Waystar and his family—a redundant distinction, since they’re one and the same. Does he want to destroy the company, or save it for himself? Is he trying to sever his relationships or salvage them? Even as he snitches on Waystar, he’s still a shareholder and board member, so where does that leave him in terms of his incentives?

Of course, this is Succession we’re talking about, and over the seven episodes provided to critics, this seeming weakness turns out to be the crux of the show. In the wake of his climactic pivot, Kendall attempts to rebrand himself as a righteous crusader—a billionaire playboy speaking up for survivors, like a Bruce Wayne for the #MeToo era. But for all the talk of seeing the light and coming clean, Kendall has no intention of disclosing the biggest skeleton in his closet. That would require giving up his new image as a truth-teller, a myth Kendall himself buys into more than anyone. If he can’t have his father’s approval, he can at least have the public’s. Never mind that the desperate need for validation is what hinders Kendall in the first place. He hasn’t told the truth that would fully set him free, but that won’t stop him from taking an undeserved victory lap.

As all this angst suggests, Kendall has resumed his place at the center of Succession’s ensemble, a position temporarily ceded to Shiv while her older brother licked his wounds. Perhaps as a result, Season 3 is Succession’s darkest yet, even as the humor stays guillotine sharp. (At one point in the premiere, Cousin Greg compares their escape from the press conference to the O.J. Simpson Bronco chase, if O.J. had never killed anyone. The look on Jeremy Strong’s face single-handedly justifies his Emmy.) There’s also more of an emphasis on the main plot, with fewer episodic diversions like Tom Wambsgans’s bachelor party or the Pierce family retreat. When those side ventures do arrive, it’s much later in the season—long after the existential despair has firmly set in.

The fewer reprieves Succession offers from its central story line, the more claustrophobia constricts its characters. With Kendall’s superficial attempt at breaking out, Succession becomes a show about the fortress of family, impenetrable from the outside and imprisoning from within. It’s hard enough to break a family’s toxic cycle when life events—birthdays, weddings—keep putting you in the same room as your triggers. But when your closest personal relationships are also your professional ones, every motivation is muddled, every move magnified with extra repercussions. If there’s a line that sums up this dynamic in all its bleak absurdity, it’s this casual aside from a midseason episode: “Is it possible to sue someone in an affectionate way?”

In an era defined by the binge watch, much has been made of the increasingly rare experience of watching shows like Succession week to week. (Including by the show itself; in Season 3, the show’s metacommentary on the media industry finally extends to the Streaming Wars. The result is as painfully insightful as the Vaulter saga.) But as much as the space between episodes gives time to analyze twists and screenshot jokes, it isn’t just convenient—it’s practically necessary. In a season when an already brutal, nihilistic show is more brutal and nihilistic than ever, Succession all at once might be too much to take. While watching the season for this review, I made the mistake of playing two episodes back-to-back; I could barely sleep that night. That’s just the toll it takes to visit the Roys’ fictional world. Imagine what it’s like to live in it.