Season 2 had found octogenarian paterfamilias Logan (Brian Cox) hellbent on expanding Waystar Royco, his media and entertainment empire, by acquiring a prestigious, blue-blooded rival, leaving him blindsided by a headline-grabbing scandal about mysterious deaths and systemic sexual misconduct on the company’s cruise line. Logan, whose parental inspiration seems to be the progeny-eating Greek god Saturn, decided to make his beaten-down middle son, Kendall (Jeremy Strong), the fall guy — a plan the grasping heir goes along with until he doesn’t. In the last seconds of the 2019 finale, Kendall calls his dad “a malignant presence” at a news conference and intones, “This is the day his reign ends.”
Kendall under Logan’s thumb was a broken man, a hollow-eyed replicant who could only bear his chosen soullessness through self-medication. But there’s probably no putting him back together again; after freeing himself from his father, he becomes a prisoner to his narcissism and desperate need for approval. Ever lacking self-awareness, Kendall celebrates his emancipation by yelling — inside a town car owned by his father — “The Juice is loose, baby!”
At the start of Season 3, Kendall attempts to bring his siblings Shiv (Sarah Snook) and Roman (Kieran Culkin) to Team Topple Dad. But Kendall’s hapless schemes aren’t as interesting as the ways his revolt somehow poisons the family well even further, resulting in story lines that push the Emmy-sweeping drama’s signature polarities of grimness and farce into even greater extremes.
Like “Veep,” “Succession” has often felt like a show that rebuffs character development — it’s about a father who wants his stunted scion to become worthy of his throne and about grown children who wish their corporate-despot dad would transform into the kind of leader humble and farseeing enough to step aside and make room for the next generation. (What none of the Roys can admit to themselves is that Logan’s iron grip on Waystar practically ensures dynastic decline.) But that also means a certain amount of purgatorial stuck-ness is built into the show’s architecture, which is why it’s a relief that Season 3, which deals with the fallout from Kendall’s self-saving betrayal, resets much of the foundation while heightening the stakes.
There’s a grand melee at the start of the season, with Logan and Kendall vying to recruit the other family members to their side. But as Kendall’s new lawyer (Sanaa Lathan) cautions him, it’s gonna take masterful maneuvering to take down Waystar just enough to depose Logan but retain sufficient value that the family conglomerate is still worth running by the end. No wonder, then, that Kendall chooses to distract himself with congratulatory tweets and his 15 minutes of grudging goodwill from outside observers, temporarily replacing his coke highs with dopamine rushes of social-media sanctimony.
If the remaining Roy siblings had any sympathy left for their sheet-soiling, kicked puppy of a brother, it dissipates quickly, with Kendall’s proclamations of Logan’s misdeeds leaving Waystar unusually vulnerable to both federal prosecution and consumer discontent — hence the round-the-clock temperature checks. Shiv, especially, is lost, her usual leftward ethical concerns usurped by Kendall and keenly unwelcome at GOP functions where the political consensus seems to be forever cartwheeling to the right. The sole Roy daughter had always seemed like the only one of Logan’s children who could’ve thrived outside of Waystar, and it’s heartbreaking — and utterly compelling — to see Shiv finally brought into the inner circle and realizing disastrously slowly that she’s not cut out to run the business at all.
“Succession” isn’t exactly about the Murdochs and Fox News, but upcoming episodes do make pointed references to Rupert et al.’s truce with Donald Trump, while convincingly dramatizing how a conservative cable news network like Waystar’s ATN might arrange quid pro quos with the White House — particularly one whose Department of Justice is on the verge of investigating Logan for his role in the cruise-line scandal. But much of the uncertainty and suspense of the seven episodes screened for review (out of the season’s nine total) stem from the Roys having to contend with the messiness of democracy — electoral and otherwise — after doing all they could’ve to inject volatility into the proceedings for their own gain. (Perhaps it’s more about the Murdochs than we’ve been led to believe.)
Lathan, Ziwe Fumudoh (playing a variation on her confrontational late-night persona) and Justin Kirk (as a nihilistic presidential candidate some of the Roys take a shine to) make their presences linger, at least more than fellow guest stars Alexander Skarsgard, Hope Davis and Adrien Brody. The wit of the curlicued, take-no-prisoners insults are matched only by the pathos of Shiv’s husband Tom (Matthew Macfadyen) and the corresponding bathos of Cousin Greg (Nicholas Braun), whose attempts at attaching himself to the Roys like a barnacle gets him repeatedly cut open. But there’s no denying it’s a bleaker-than-usual season, with the siblings at each other’s throats the way only Logan used to be.
Season 3 often feels like a clenched fist: There’s a compressed, almost uncomfortably tight focus on the aftermath of Kendall’s mutiny, and it keeps punching its characters hard. Their new vulnerability refreshingly opens them up to the possibility of consequences, but it’s revealing that the only people who can mobilize a real threat to the Roys are each other. However grave their sins, however much they burn down the world and wait for things the ruins to cool, no one can truly get to them but one of their own.
The third season of Succession premieres Sunday at 9 p.m. on HBO.