October 18, 2021

Television

Ties that bind: ‘Succession’ season three

By Luke McCarthy

Jeremy Strong as Kendall Roy in HBO’s Succession season 3. Photograph by David Russell/HBO

Jeremy Strong’s performance in the HBO drama’s third season is masterful

What makes a family function? There is always love, yes, but that is never all. For many, family feels less like a warm, supportive blanket than a noxious web of unspoken history, all guilt and hurt and pity. These emotions tend to reverberate, embedding themselves so deeply into one’s relationships that they can come to feel foundational. So why do we still remain attached? This is a question that every member of the Roy family must ask themselves in Succession’s deliciously tense – and equally funny – third season.

With a blunt-force elegance, the show very quickly teases out the implications of season two’s proverbial mic drop of a finale. In the new season’s opening moments, we see helicopters traversing the sky like corporate warplanes, with Logan (Brian Cox) and the rest of the Roy family aboard. Waystar Royco is on the defensive, attempting to claw its way out of the public mess that Kendall’s shock announcement has created (all while avoiding an impending buy-out). A shot has been fired against their company, their family, and now they must regroup.

This scene is intercut with shots of a lone Kendall Roy (Jeremy Strong). He is overwhelmed, reeling in a motel bathroom, mere minutes after making public his father’s role in the concealment of persistent, systemic sexual abuse within Waystar Royco. He acts as the family’s opposition, utterly determined to take over and rearrange the company from the inside. This sequence, one that wordlessly establishes the stakes of season three, is also representative of one of Succession’s greatest strengths: its intermingling of the minute details of familial drama with the high-stakes tension of a corporate thriller. Drama and melodrama, working in tandem. Throughout this sequence – and season three more generally – a key question remains: will anyone within the Roy family help Kendall?

This conflict is a rich vein for drama in Succession, which has always thrived on its complex mix of family and capital. The show’s creators have a keen sense of how to articulate these particular conflicts, building several episodes around single-location meetings, corporate events or personal celebrations. These moments tend to trap the characters together, allowing the writers to tease out pathos through tense moments of forced communication (anchored by the show’s pleasing screwball sensibility and now-trademark pithy dialogue). In these moments, as each member of the Roy family attempts to situate themselves in the wake of public scandal, they must also ask themselves: why am I still on my family’s side?

For each richly drawn character one will find a different answer, for this is a show suffused with the tortuous details of family dysfunction. It gnaws at them like an ulcer in the stomach, nauseating and disruptive. One senses that the Roys both hate and love the pain that they inflict upon each other, as if the knowledge that you can hurt those close to you is proof that they care. With every seemingly cold, calculated move on the corporate chessboard, we remain acutely aware of the personal damage it is supposed to inflict. This is a pain that all the corporate doublespeak of Waystar Royco cannot hide, even if for a moment it may act as a shield. It is much easier to claim that your personal cowardice is a matter of good business, or that your loyalty is simply transactional, not borne from a love that pride does not allow you to admit to.

As the personal and political intertwine, and as the internecine drama of the Roy family guiding their company’s response to very serious allegations unfolds, one also grasps a critique that sits at the very core of the series. Succession is not the story of a few greedy, amoral capitalists who by chance happen to find themselves sitting atop the corporate pyramid (though the show is populated with them). It is a show that very explicitly works to illustrate that the structure itself is rotten.

This is a world where morality holds no sway. The men and women whose lives Waystar Royco has destroyed are merely pawns in the game for this dysfunctional family to play against one another. The corporate boardroom can only conceive of sexual abuse as a PR disaster. Union-busting is a matter of bad press, not of grinding exploitation. The characters never ask: should we do this? But rather, what do our investors think? And if this amorality is so deeply embedded within the corporate hierarchy, then one also wonders why Kendall Roy thinks that he can fix it.

That question permeates much of Kendall’s arc throughout season three. On the red carpet, surrounded by a fawning press, he screams “fuck the patriarchy” with hands raised – righteous and self-satisfied. Is this merely an ego trip for him? A way to prove that he is truly the smartest in the family? Perhaps, but one also senses in Strong’s performance a rich, complicated pathos. Kendall Roy is a man who wants to be good, yet a man who in many ways does not know how to be good.

It is with this third season that Strong’s performance as Kendall Roy truly situates itself among the all-time greats, in conversation with James Gandolfini, Jon Hamm and Michael K. Williams. Kendall is full of deep-seated contradictions, and yet Strong somehow never fails to make them make sense. He is quite clearly a broken man, and if somewhere in the world there is an answer to this brokenness then one senses it is not to be found in the halls of Waystar Royco. The tragedy of Kendall Roy is that this is a truth he simply will not allow himself to see. It may be impossible to fix a fundamentally broken system from within. And it may be impossible to fix a family whose history is tainted by a legacy of guilt, hurt and pity. But when, like Kendall Roy, one does not see any other way out, it is painfully human to try.

Luke McCarthy

Luke McCarthy is a filmmaker, writer and critic living in Naarm / Melbourne. He has written for The Guardian, ABC and The Big Issue, among other publications.

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