HBO’s Succession is about power, greed, family, and conscience. One of them, family, is wielded like a weapon, while power and conscience are used as defense mechanisms when the going gets tough. The first season shows us who these characters really are deep down, not only as a commentary on the rich and powerful, but how flawed and human they can be when the whole world can be watching and, if the game is played right, at their fingertips.
At the head of the family is Logan Roy (Brian Cox), an aging head of a media conglomerate who we meet as he wakes up in the middle of the night, wandering into his massive walk-in closet and urinating on the floor. Something is definitely off about Logan, as his family notices during his birthday party. His children, Kendall (Jeremy Strong), Roman (Kieran Culkin), Siobhan “Shiv” (Sarah Snook), and Connor (Alan Ruck), all have a stake at play, and the pilot lets you know that while the dialogue is colorful and the characters are full of, well, character, these are not good people deep down.
Kendall, who serves as the protagonist, has his dream job just in reach, only for it to be taken away at the last moment. He feels he is owed this, as though it’s something he deserves, even if his actions and those around him perceive it a little differently. When emergency strikes the family, he appears distraught and focused on the situation, until he is offered that job once more. Then, the family is seen as nothing but a hindrance. But even with this selfishness, his character is given the most drive, even if it is shortsighted and self-destructive.
Cox plays Logan like a great grumbling bear, his outbursts full of genius lines and hurtful insults. Our first major read on Roman comes as he offers a nearby young kid a million-dollar check if he manages to hit a home run at the family baseball game. The kid is dumbfounded, asking if this is real. Roman writes out the check and holds it firmly, promising it is as real as it gets. The kid hits the ball, and runs as fast as he can… only to strike out at third base. Roman laughs, ripping up the check-in front of him and giving him a sliver of it, showing his absolute love in watching a normal person lose out on possible success, even when a child. He is treated as a joke, his bark much tougher than his bite, and while he does try to prove himself, his arc plays out as opportunistic, just like the rest. Shiv, at various points during the season, has her political career and family loyalties tested, even using her fiance Tom (Matthew Macfadyen) as a prop to leverage a political situation. The love for her family is large, but it does appear to have an endpoint. Connor is obsessive over his call girl “girlfriend,” refusing to ever take sides while taking sides. While not as present, he is usually used for laughs and provides those bountifully.
Cousin Greg (Nicholas Braun) is my favorite character of the bunch, an unsure but savvy newcomer to the family who had been on the periphery before now. He is unbelievably gullible and prone to taking a lot of Tom’s goading in the beginning but soon finds a path where his star slowly but surely rises. He provides most of the best lines, his naiveté, and pure bafflement at the world of the rich so much fun with how Braun plays it. His pairing with Tom throughout the season is comedy gold, with Braun playing shocked and confused to perfection.
Kendall’s first major company move in the third episode, “Lifeboats,” proves to be a monumental misjudgment, as Cousin Greg notes when, as usual, sees something he shouldn’t. Each episode adds a layer to the power struggle, usually leading to a tipping point in the scales and a resetting of the table. The relationship between Kendall and Logan is one of walking on eggshells, power moves made under the radar and an uneasy quiet, at least at first, playing between them face to face. Actions are spoken louder in the dark; when in the light, the results bubble to the top. This is a running theme, as characters are fueled by resentment and infighting, so many years of building entitlement and anger leading to this explosion throughout the season.
The show is about tragic opportunists, where success is all they see ahead of them and a single failure can be endlessly catastrophic when playing the game on a board with so many consequences. The show does this with unique story choices, where it gives its characters exactly what they want, but it is a version of what they want that is a personal hell worse than their previous predicament. Even at their lowest, characters can still trample on each other, as evidenced in the finale, “Nobody Is Ever Missing.”
The finale is a step above the others, where final moves are made and their outcomes come to fruition. But how the finale plays out is exceptional in its impact, as it takes a route near the end that is both shocking and defines the characters it involves as succinctly as the entire season tried before it. It also provides Strong, already the best part of the season, a standout episode, equal parts impressive and devastating.
Another strong aspect of the series is its great bench of secondary and recurring characters. Peter Friedman as Frank, a confidant of the family, is equal parts loyal and unpredictable. J. Smith-Cameron (coming off a great role on SundanceTV’s Rectify) as Gerri, legal counsel to the company, plays her role with a helping kindness that can shift to cutthroat when the situation isn’t playing the intended way. James Cromwell appears in two episodes as Ewan Roy, Logan’s estranged brother, whose dismissal and disregard for the family and especially his grandson Greg brings a lot of fun to the scenes.
The show is shot in an almost quick-blink-and-you’ll-miss-it sort of fashion, nearly skirting toward a documentary style filmmaking in how it frames and captures scenes with crash zooms to punctuate a beat. It is a style that Adam McKay used well in The Big Short and seems to have perfected here (having directed the pilot), and emulated wonderfully by the directors who follow in the episodes after his own.
Succession may not be for everyone. The barrier of entry is watching the supremely upper-class toss money around without abandon, seeing awful people do awful things to each other for personal gain, and taking a decent clip to introduce empathy to any of them along the way. But once that all sets in—and it did relatively quickly for me—it’s a fantastic show providing absurd and dry humor, a Shakespearean father/son story, and a different take than a lot of dramas on television today. With a second season ahead, it will be fascinating to see how things progress from here. But for now, it’s delivered one of the greats of 2018.
Succession airs on HBO. Its finale aired on August 5th. It returns for its second season on August 11th.