“You have to be a killer.” Huddled in the private suite of his luxurious yacht, Succession’s Logan Roy spoke these words and capsized the very air. The patriarch had just revealed which member of the family would be crucified for wrongdoing at his company: Kendall, now more serf than son, who remained as pallid and pliable as he’d been all throughout the series’ second season. He kissed Logan on the cheek and accepted his fate—only to turn around at the end of the episode and not only defy his father’s direct wishes, but directly threaten him. What Logan was really thinking we may never know, but the steely smile that crept onto his face remains one of the biggest cliffhangers in recent memory. Unfortunately, the follow-up was not so impactful.
Like many satires, Succession has always defied easy categorization. Its creator Jesse Armstrong has a resume stacked with similar work, but his career-launching achievement came as a top writer on the first three seasons of The Thick of It, which poked fun at the machinations of the British government and was later adapted for American audiences as Veep. Still, Succession’s delivery veers darker than these examples in a way that has clearly captivated many: last season, episodes of the series averaged nearly 5 million viewers across all platforms. And yet as the third season progressed, it became unclear—to paraphrase some doublespeak from its merry band of misanthropes—what the “shape” of this series actually is now.
One of Succession season 3’s biggest issues is its characterization of Kendall. We’ve seen him in many phases throughout the show’s run, and each of those phases has always been defined by Logan. So, his 180-degree turn at the close of the second season felt like a refreshing change of pace, as if just maybe he’d girded himself enough to take up his slingshot and hurl a pebble at the giant’s head. But by the premiere of Succession season 3, that Kendall is gone; replaced by a bubbly adrenaline junkie not dissimilar from where he landed following a failed vote of no confidence in season one.
Jeremy Strong’s performance remains convincing, and by all accounts he goes to great lengths to ensure that, but Kendall’s arc seems to be taking an aberrant detour. He bounces between numbskull finance bro, commandeering rogue agent, sober-minded truth seeker and austere older brother seemingly at random. His shapeshifting comes across as if the writers are simply determining how Kendall can serve the episode’s span of 60 minutes, rather than charting a course for him and letting the story flow naturally around that.
This popcorn method of conflict generation applies to Logan Roy as well, whose questionable health feels less like an integral aspect of his character and more like a stick of dynamite tossed in whenever the dust begins to settle. Episode 5 reduces him to a raving lunatic, experiencing a wave of dementia brought on by an improperly medicated urinary tract infection. In the resulting panic between the principal characters, Succession flexes its most valuable asset—Armstrong’s acicular dialogue, which these actors sling around like they’re in the world’s whitest rap cypher.
The episode evokes that uncanny balance of chaos and comfort that makes the series sing, almost good enough to make you forget when Logan suffers a debilitating stroke in the very first episode and his children are debating over the course of events in an extremely similar manner. It’s a matter of record that there’s been a guillotine over Logan Roy’s head since the inception of the series. One might argue that the purpose of a second dramatic health incident is to show that Logan’s children remain ill-equipped in the event of his incapacitation, but that doesn’t seem like something that required more proof.
Succession Season 3 seems to be pushing satire to its limits.
Another critical difference in this season may be the lack of someone to root for. In the first two, no matter how acerbic the siblings became with each other, it was always clear that their father was the antagonist. If nothing else, we could pity them because we could imagine the magnitude of abuse they suffered at Logan’s palm. Succession Season 3 seems to be pushing the satire to its limits by revealing every character’s deeply ugly inner workings and making almost all of them genuinely unlikeable. This isn’t necessarily a negative, but how sustainable is it for the long run? Even Cousin Greg, once our wayman on this planet of predators, is little more than a mobius strip of incompetence and agonizing naivete.
Of course, there are other characters. Tom is more fascinating this season than ever before: As he continues to toe the line of his family-in-law’s good graces, he must also perform mental gymnastics about his place in the larger game of shark tag and come to slow, often private realizations about how profoundly alone he is. Most of this revelation is reached in the wide, maudlin eyes of Matthew Macfadyen—who is arguably this round’s strongest Emmy contender. It’s just too bad the love wasn’t really spread around.
Smith-Cameron (perhaps the show’s most underrated regular) is in the back seat for most of the season despite Gerri having been locked and loaded as one of the series’ major players. Though perhaps no one is sidelined as shockingly as Sanaa Lathan, whose power-suit clad attorney Lisa Arthur is brought in to help Kendall build his case against Waystar and then promptly dismissed from his team, and presumably thereby the show, after about three appearances and without so much as an onscreen goodbye. One does not simply write Sanaa Lathan out of a prestige role!
And yet, perhaps one does. It could be that this entire season is a tapestry of red herrings, an exhibit in futility meant to evoke the unabating game of mental peekaboo Logan has played with his children for their whole lives. His health is at risk, until it isn’t. The company might go public, until it doesn’t. Ken might have the silver bullet, until the DOJ says he “overpromised.” The season’s close finally seems to hit the gas on some of the tensions that have been boiling since the start—but one great hour alone does not make up for a handful of middling ones. Logan Roy would not approve of that exchange, either.
Succession is available to stream on HBO Max. Find out how to stream it for free here.
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