Somebody check in on HBO and see if it needs a hug. The network’s recent slate of original shows has been unrelentingly bleak. There was the final, dark-to-the-point-of-indecipherable season of Game Of Thrones. The disturbing and increasingly less comic sophomore run of Barry. The premiere of the “kids are all on drugs and having indiscriminate sex” show Euphoria. And, of course, the relatively uplifting toxic-waste docudrama Chernobyl.
These are grim (and often great!) shows for a grim time marked by climate change, rising white nationalism, and political gridlock. But the bleakest depiction of modern life to come out of HBO in 2019 — at least until Watchmen comes out — might in fact be in Succession, which returns Sunday for a second season. More than any other prestige drama on the network (or, really, on any other platform) Succession tries to take on the full scope of how America’s core institutions are rotting from the inside. The first five episodes previewed for critics include references to collapsing media companies, the mainstreaming of fascist-sympathizers, the reactionary growth of Antifa, the insurmountable divide between and left and right-wing ideologues, the pernicious indifference of the one percent to widespread public suffering and … my goodness, who wants a drink?
It’s to Succession‘s credit that it never feels preachy or heavy-handed, even with the copious references to Shakespeare (along with outright quotes). Succession‘s no-holds-barred, bitingly savage take on the battling Roy family — a stand-in for Rupert Murdoch’s media-conquering clan, with a stronger dash of the Trumps freshly added for the new season — is spiked with a cutting wit that leaves bitter laughs stuck in your throat. It’s an absorbing, captivating watch, though the bruises it leaves behind are more painful than ever.
In the first season, Succession was like Billions meets Veep, a soap-y, quotable takedown of the ultra-rich with rapid-fire patter that veered toward the vulgar and gleefully cruel. Even with those aforementioned furrowed-brow Shakespearian overtones, it was a fun summer watch. The second season, however, is both brilliant and cynical to the point of caustic. “Fun” is no longer a word that applies. “Sardonic” is better. Succession has become a requiem for capitalism, the family unit, and general human decency. It’s not just whistling past the graveyard. It’s an entertaining, New Orleans-style funeral march.
As the season opens, patriarch Logan Roy (Brian Cox) is fully re-installed at the head of Waystar Royco. At least two of his children — snarky a-hole Roman (Kieran Culkin), the family’s Fredo Corleone, and Shiv (Sarah Snook), the closest equivalent of a Michael — are angling to be his replacement. But Logan’s one-time prodigal son Kendall (Jeremy Strong) is also back in the fold, after being brought to heel by a failed coup and a tragic car accident that Logan helped to cover up. Meanwhile the last Roy offspring, Connor (Alan Ruck), is pondering a presidential bid as a Trump-like rich guy preaching self-serving libertarianism.
The first half of Succession‘s debut season was hamstrung by Logan’s medical incapacitation, which temporarily put the vulnerable, drug-addicted Kendall in the company’s catbird seat. But with Logan now firmly entrenched as the antagonist, the show’s central idea — the toxic influence of a bad father on his broken, emotionally stunted adult children — is finally allowed to fully blossom.
What drives the action on Succession is the need for the Roy kids to make their dad love them. But that love has not, and probably never will, materialize. It’s not for lack of effort on the part of the children, who all make sacrifices to please Logan. (The queasiest of these actions, at least for people who work in the media, involves Kendall’s brutal play against his pet project, a hip, Vice-like internet company, acquired by Waystar in season one.)
This lack of familial love is hinted at in the first season, but the worthlessness it stills in the Roy children now manifests in a number of grotesque ways. Shiv cruelly mocks her husband, the oafish Tom (Matthew Mcfayden), in front of other people, and then sleeps with other men behind his back, violating the rules of their “open” relationship. Roman can’t even bring himself to have sex with his girlfriend, and instead has sadomasochistic phone sex with an unlikely subordinate. Kendall has killed his own marriage, estranging him from his kids. Only Connor, who is in a relationship of convenience with a prostitute, seems relatively happy.
The depiction of the moral vacuum that’s created when extreme wealth removes the need for accountability is absolutely unsparing. Even goofy cousin Greg (Nicholas Braun) is fetching cocaine for Kendall after being seduced by luxury lofts and private jets. (He also has the best line of the early episodes, likening the experience of flying around with very rich white people to being in U2.) Ultimately, nobody on Succession is redeemable. Everybody is detestable. It’s The Hateful Eight set in Manhattan.
Sometimes Succession is a little too hopeless. I watched the first five episodes with a rotten pit in my stomach. Gradually, I could feel my knees inching toward my chest, affecting a fetal position. A great show, yes. But, again, not exactly fun.
I kept thinking about Billions, a show that Succession doesn’t much resemble anymore. Succession is darker and more ruthless than its bombastic and often hilarious counterpart. On Billions, Bobby Axelrod (Damian Lewis) is a swashbuckling pirate who can’t help being charming no matter how horrible he acts, whereas Logan Roy is pure adulterated hatred personified, a man who just as soon say “f*ck off” than “I love you” to his own children.
This makes Succession a clearer and more decisive condemnation of capitalism. But it can also make the show feel a bit oppressive at times. There is no Taylor Mason or Bryan Connerty, a character navigating a venal and greedy world but who is, deep down, fundamentally good. The problem with Succession is not that there isn’t anyone to cheer for, it’s that there isn’t a control agent that throws the evil into stark relief. It’s just a never-ending parade of awful people doing awful things, until they eventually destroy themselves.
What’s truly sickening is the suspicion that the people who are like this in real life will destroy the rest of us first.
The second season of HBO’s ‘Succession’ premieres on Sunday, August 11.