They’re playing those mind games together, the Roy family, and we love them for it.
The writers of HBO’s “Succession” could simply have their money-drenched characters lounge in the living room of a majestic estate yelling “Psych!” and “Kidding!” and “Not!” at one another for an hour, with comical son Roman (Kieran Culkin) filling in with zingers about “Kim Jong Pop.” We’d still enjoy scrutinizing them, deconstructing their evil ways, picking through their daddy and mommy issues. Really, the specifics of their battles — mergers, stock crashes, publicity stunts — are almost incidental; it’s their naked animus and trickster moves that thrill. Everyone is brutally conning everyone else on “Succession,” always, as the dramatic subtext pinballs breathtakingly between “Gotcha!” and “Got me.”
Actually, they don’t con one another. They “kill” one another or f-word one another, as they put it, and those particular linguistic tweaks on “Succession” make all of their clashes even more delectable. For the Roys, love and death are intimately linked, just as they are in so many gruesome horror movies. As the second-season finale approaches, on Oct. 13, we’re in the process of watching interloper Rhea Jarrell (Holly Hunter) get loved and killed — actually, “shivved” — as the Roy children, particularly Shiv (Sarah Snook), let Rhea become the new CEO so she’ll take the fall for the cruise-ship scandal. Rhea is in the coils of the boa and it is beginning to constrict.
They’re all ugly on the inside, both the Roys and the sycophants and puppets who surround them, and it turns out that moral ugliness is massively entertaining. Ever since “The Sopranos” opened TV producers’ and networks’ eyes to the fact that many viewers actually don’t want to watch good people do good things, villainy — both everyday and extraordinary — has been in. We like to watch people fight for power or, as with oligarch Logan Roy (Brian Cox), dole it out parsimoniously. And when the fight is as well-done and well-written as it is on “Succession,” it’s as much fun as it was watching the characters pull out their big guns to win the crown on “Game of Thrones.” Who will ultimately inherit the Roy empire? Whoever it is, I’m betting his or her dragons spit insults that burn.
On “Succession,” there are no Starks or Tyrions to carry the torch for loyalty and good will, of course. The only “Succession” character with some semblance of integrity, it seems, is Logan Roy’s brother, Ewan Roy (James Cromwell), a Vietnam vet who despises Logan’s conservative media outlet, ATN (which, just as the Roys resemble the Murdochs, resembles Fox News). Ewan attacks Logan for his moral bankruptcy and for “whoring for the climate change deniers,” but it rolls off Logan’s back. Indeed, those attacks roll off viewers’ backs, too; we’re not watching this drama for a lesson in decency. We’re here like we were there for “Oz,” to parse the underbelly of human nature. In the context of “Succession,” Ewan is a sniveling buzzkill. He is a bore. As he lures his grandson back to his side, threatening to cut young Greg (Nicholas Braun) out of his $250 million will if he doesn’t quit working for Logan, don’t blame us if we’re rooting hard for Uncle Fun over Grandpa Grumps.
There was a moment when Logan’s wife, Marcia (Hiam Abbass), cultivated enough mystery to possibly be a noble heroine, protecting her husband from the parasites and from his Freudian-addled children. But that moment has passed, and we can now see that she’s fierce and stinging. She didn’t just go after Rhea for sleeping with Logan; she asked her if she has any sexually transmitted diseases. And she walked out on Logan at the tribute to him (during which, by the way, he didn’t listen to the tributes to him), not for sleeping with Rhea but for naming Rhea CEO without telling her. Marcia is angry — the plaque for Logan is his “shiny little gravestone,” she hisses on her way out the door — and I’m thinking she’s going to load up her figurative pistol and join in the game sooner rather than later.
Sometimes during “Succession” I feel like I’m at the dog park, watching bouts of rough play. The pups are wrestling feverishly, some landing in the position of dominance, others in submission, until they switch and continue to romp. They bare their teeth, they bark, they bow, and they roll onto their backs, happy to be in the game. And as soon as one emits fear or weakness — paging Rhea — the others come at him or her, sometimes with a bit too much intensity. The writers throw the Roy family together every week — at different events and parties — because they know that group dynamics bring out the best in the show. The rough Roy play is mesmerizing, it’s fascinating, and, yes, it’s funny.
What really makes “Succession” work, ultimately, is the humor. The “Dallas” power-play soap opera stuff is engaging, but the jokes embedded in the script are just an endless string of little gifts. Last week’s rap by Kendall (Jeremy Strong) was a masterful piece of cringe, and all of court jester Roman’s lines kill, not least of all when he’s carrying on his BDSM-tinged connection with inner-circle member Gerri (J. Smith-Cameron). If the show is a riff on “King Lear,” it’s also fitted with a few Shakespearean buffoons, namely Greg and Tom (Matthew Macfadyen), who blunder and bluster their ways through everything. They’re both outsiders trying to insert themselves into the action. They’re on Tom and Greg’s Excellent Adventure.