From those Apocalypse Now-style helicopters to Logan Roy (Brian Cox) roaring his intention to go “full fucking beast”, it is safe to say that Succession (HBO/Sky Atlantic) is back. Though production was delayed by the pandemic, no time has elapsed here. It drops straight into the aftermath of Kendall Roy’s (Jeremy Strong) decision to publicly eviscerate his father and the family business, Waystar Royco, at the end of season two, when he gave a press conference revealing the cover-up of the scandal for which he was supposed to take responsibility. Now that the bomb has been detonated, the fallout looks spectacularly bloody.
There was a small danger the story might have reached a climax there, from which it would be tough to move on. Much of the opening episode is taken up with frantic phone calls between potential allies or enemies, in an attempt to gather up the pieces and begin to sort them out. It is a testament to the show’s quality that this relatively static wrangling – though the characters zip all over the world, to find the safest place to settle – makes for thrilling television, and that various conversations about choosing a side are as gripping as they are. It may all be a play, but when the play is as nasty as this, it is impossible to look away.
Waystar Royco has experienced crises in the past – some of the throwaway lines about earlier scandals would provide a series’ worth of material alone – but nothing on the scale of this one. It pits father against son, sibling against sibling, the business against the state and the fictional US president known as “the raisin”, whose refusal to speak on the record with Logan indicates just how messy this could get. The pace is relentless, the scale is magnificent, and it reaches fabulous new heights of cruelty and deceit.
Yet Succession has always been more than beautifully obscene insults and backstabbing. Its character portraits are immaculate, and they even allow for a crack of light through which some viewers (though perhaps not all) can sympathise with the Roys’ plight, particularly the children. They may have power and riches, but they remain a family of lost souls, scrabbling for affection or the barest acknowledgment from unloving and unfeeling parents. Somehow, Kendall’s new role as his father’s true nemesis is even more painful than his previous attempts to please or usurp him. He is worse now than as the perpetual starved puppy, yipping at Logan’s ankles, because he has found a hero complex, and is slowly convincing himself that his power play was an act of altruism. It is as funny as it is pathetic to see him manoeuvring himself into a position of benevolence – an idea entirely alien to almost every character on this show.
For all of its high-stakes drama, Succession remains incredibly funny. It wrings out Cousin Greg (Nicholas Braun) for every last drop of buffoonery. His “No comment!” in front of a press scrum steals the scene, while his attempts to take the “cultural temperature” for Kendall, ie read Twitter and tell him what people are saying about him, is a brilliant combination of nonsensical business-ese and utter idiocy. Confusion about whether the Pope or a pope has followed him is so silly, and so funny, and it is essentially used as background noise, which shows the level of confidence in the comedy.
As for the other siblings, the dehydrated remains of an already dying marriage are rich spoils for the brief scenes between Shiv (Sarah Snook) and Tom (Matthew Macfadyen), as each tries to ruthlessly out-strategise their opponents, which may include each other. The fact that so much can be inferred without actually being said is part of what makes this such a treat. As a viewer, there is a real sense of putting your complete trust in the storytelling, believing that it will take us somewhere exciting and new, and it is always an absolute pleasure to surrender to what it serves up.
I can’t think of a contemporary series as universally well regarded as Succession, and, at its very best, it deserves every accolade. Some of its earlier episodes are already shaping up to be all-time TV classics. This opener is not Succession at its barnstorming peak; the insults are occasionally a little self-conscious, as if crafted to be admired as lines, and it is an exercise in resettling the players back into the game, rather than moving us on in a significant way. But it remains the best television around, and it is the kind of show that rewards patience; those big, shocking, operatic moments will surely come. After all, Waystar RoyCo is at war. Are you in for this fuckin’ revolution?