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If Squid Game is a parable of capitalist exploitation and class warfare, then Succession (Sundays, HBO/Crave) is outstandingly and obviously a tale of family warfare inside a clan of superrich profiteers.
Four episodes into this new season, Succession is ablaze with sibling-versus-sibling rivalry and hate, and all of it stoked by the continuing Lear-like premise of Logan Roy (Brian Cox) figuring out who among his children is best to succeed him in running his empire. But the mechanics of this gripping drama are askew, and look less sturdy than they were. Where once the brilliance of the series could be located in its near-claustrophobic theatricality, now there’s more movement in limousines, helicopters and private jets to punctuate the drama, and to separate the key players.
The power of the accumulating episodes in the first two seasons was in the sheer toxicity of the Roy family gathered together in set-piece situations. It could be a hospital waiting room, a boardroom or at a corporate retreat. In each closed circumstance the distinct characteristics of each character were on display. After the most recent batch of episodes, in contrast, there are too many literal journeys in these planes and choppers and too many snippety phone calls. It just isn’t the same without those uncomfortable, cramped situations in which Logan made his children and their spouses bend to his wicked will.
Succession is now cheesy, but it’s a pungent, aromatic kind of cheese. What fuels it is the dialogue, which more resembles the discharge of insult-bullets than discourse. “Woke-ahontas using the poor as a Post-it?” crowed Roman (Kieran Culkin) recently, having unearthed a certain photo. In order to damage Kendall (Jeremy Strong) he set out find a picture to prove that years before, at Kendall’s bachelor party, the pair of them had paid a homeless man to have Kendall’s initials tattooed on his forehead. (This isn’t a spoiler by the way; the kicker comes later.)
Season 3 can best be summed up as a civil war inside the Roy clan. Kendall made his move to take control of the empire and as a viewer you just know that there is absurdity in that storyline. Kendall is weak, needy and brimming with barely hidden self-loathing. He talks in buzzword nonsense phrases. “There he is, the little man who started this big war,” his sister Shiv (Sarah Snook) said to Kendall at their first meeting after he launched that war against their father. Yeah, we know.
Most of the best dialogue can’t be quoted in a newspaper. There is so much swearing and it’s all so vigorously colloquial, you feel like you’re under verbal fire from deranged people. And yet the words spoken rarely have any truth or even meaning. “I’m saying this, but I don’t believe it. I’m saying this because this is the time we’re all saying things,” Kendall said in a Season 2 episode, perfectly capturing the key idea in the series that sincerity is always faked and the main power in the language spoken is its mean-spirted force.
That aspect of the show remains emblematic of the Trump era. Language can be mangled when used by the powerful because it has no meaning outside of the speaker saying the words. Facts are not facts because there are alternative facts that can seem real if used by the powerful. And clinging to power is the most important act of all, of existence itself.
There are threads that keep us watching, and some of those threads are part of the Trump-era tine of Succession. In the most recent episode, it was easy to read Logan and Shiv’s intimidation of the TV channel they own as one of the Murdoch family instructing Fox News on how to cover Donald Trump. “We don’t get embarrassed,” Shiv said, telling a powerful TV anchor how her family operates.
Thing is, embarrassment was a powerful part of the first two seasons. The Logan kids and their partners were willing to do the most embarrassing acts if ordered by their father. And you felt a weird kind of embarrassment for them as they abased themselves. Those powerful scenes are in those episodes that brought all of the family together in those enclosed settings.
Now, it does appear that the emergence of mega-rich investor Josh (Adrien Brody), who seems intent on overthrowing the entire clan, might unite the Roys again, against a common enemy. That would be best, since Succession is at its finest when it is about the family being together – bitter, hateful and awful, but at least united in person rather than flitting around separately in planes, limos and helicopters.