- Words Louis Rabinowitz
The third season of Succession came to a shocking conclusion on Sunday night - but did this new entry live up to the massive expectations placed on it? Containing major season three spoilers.
Succession might be best known for its harshness. Over three seasons, the HBO hit has cultivated an impressively mean sense of humour, embodied by the constant exhortations of patriarch-boss Logan Roy to everyone around him to F off. It’s full of nasty characters for whom wealth has replaced morality, who live their life by the question asked by Gerri Kellman (J. Smith Cameron), “How does it serve my interests?”. But its recent third season, which just wrapped up this past week, has also made a pretty good case for Succession as the saddest, most painful show on television.
If we’re talking misery, it’s easy to turn first to Kendall Roy (Jeremy Strong), Succession‘s resident depressive. Strong’s portrayal of Kendall – his egotism, his fragility, the precipitousness of his switches in mood – has been immaculate throughout the show’s run, but it’s come in for a little scrutiny in recent times after the New Yorker released a profile of Strong that laid out the actor’s highly intense method for getting to Kendall’s emotional darkness. It was something of a storm in a teacup, really, with frenzied defences from celebrity pals like Jessica Chastain and Aaron Sorkin missing the point that the article’s criticism of Strong was mild at worst, but it provided an interesting flashpoint for what we want from our TV.
Plenty of people saw Strong’s process, involving a total refusal to break character that has obviously lead to an impressive self-seriousness about an often ridiculous character like Kendall, as excessive and egotistical, an indulgence of actorly hubris that would naturally alienate his coworkers. Plenty saw it as a blunt means to a justifiable end of capturing a character who lacks the emotional skin to survive in the brutal business world the show depicts, and who can at once be the tragic hero and the laughable idiot at its centre.
There’s likely an element of truth in both – it’s true that Succession is full of many other extraordinary performances from actors who clearly have no problem slipping out of their characters’ personas. And, let’s face it, method acting can often be as boring as hell. Remember Jared Leto and what he got up to on the set of Suicide Squad in character as the Joker? Hopefully, you don’t.
Yet it’s hard to ignore the results that Strong produces. Take the central scene in Sunday’s season finale, where Kendall finally breaks down and confesses his emotional brokenness to his siblings Roman (Kieran Culkin) and Shiv (Sarah Snook), even admitting his role in that waiter’s death from season one. It’s a total turning point for the series where the siblings, at each other’s throats all season, finally let down their emotional guardrails a little and comfort Kendall in his worst moments, and it’s a scene directly improved by Strong’s process.
Michael Schulman, the journalist who profiled Strong, noted on Twitter that the scene’s key image, where Kendall sits in a ball on the ground held tenatively by Roman and Shiv, comes from Strong’s spur-of-the-moment decision to have Kendall sit in the dusty clay of the Italian square where the scene is set to put his character in a place of total vulnerability. It’s that image of hurt and comfort that makes the scene so effective, and while Snook and Culkin’s performances are outstanding throughout, it’s that specific choice from Strong that makes it.
It’s a neat microcosm of how Succession so often uses unglamorous methods to get truly effective results. Many viewers accused this season of stalling, happily reiterating the same plot points and character dynamics rather than moving the plot forward as dynamically as season two had. The big plot developments promised by the end of the past season, like Kendall’s rebellion against his father and the FBI’s investigation of Waystar Royco, petered out in a few episodes, all forward momentum smothered by the unstoppable power of Logan Roy (Brian Cox) to keep winning.
Though it sounds like turning Succession‘s flaws into virtues, the season’s endgame did make a brilliant case that that slowness was very much the point. It’s frustrating that the central characters refuse to take opportunities to reflect and change, that the power dynamics of Waystar remain suspended around Logan’s power, but it became increasingly clear that that frustration is critical to the show’s argument.
Though they’re all loathsome in their own ways, all of Succession‘s main characters, especially the Roy children, possess the capacity for shame. They can – though rarely do – regret their actions on moral grounds. It’s that shame that makes them empathetic in spite of their cruelty, but it’s also that shame that makes them lose over and over, to hold back until it’s too late to take a way out.
Only Logan Roy escapes that cycle through his total refusal to ever apologise or accept that his actions have harsh consequences. As this season showed, he’s perpetuated a cycle of familial abuse for decades on his children, but he couldn’t care less about it – it’s just tough love. It’s a harsh and uncomfortable point, but there’s a truth to it, too. Succession spent time commenting more directly on our current political climate this season, but the most trenchant point it’s made is refusing to let Logan be a specific analogue for any real-world bad guy, be it Murdoch or Trump. He’s a reflection of them, and their collective superpower to beat shame. Logan’s world is our world.
It all came to a sensational conclusion in Sunday’s finale, where that moral hesitation proved to be the Roy siblings’ downfall. They put aside their differences and teamed up to sabotage Waystar’s acquisition by tech giant GoJo (shoutout to the terrific Alexander Skarsgard, vibing delightfully in a role that is both peripheral and crucial), but it was too late. The opportunity to change things, to see their father’s cruelty rather than enable it, had passed, and Logan was happy to take the open goal to cut his children out. What can you do about a man who thinks that, if anything, his abused kids haven’t seen enough of “the real world”?
And, of course, there’s Tom (Matthew Macfadyen), a time bomb who ticked away steadily throughout the season in what seemed to be a broadly tangential comic subplot where he fussed about the always-distant option of prison time for Waystar’s sins. Tom has taken an innumerable amount of humiliation this season, from his adornment as the “company Christmas tree” (you can hang any crime on him!) to his wife’s blatant disinterest in him, culminating in ‘fun dirty talk’ where she informs him she doesn’t love him. It all seemed to be a continuation of Tom’s status as the show’s chew toy, destined to be debased over and over again for the approval of a family who will never accept him.
Who would have thought that Tom would end up being the single most important figure in the season’s endgame? We never see Tom make that final decision to tip off Logan about the siblings’ coup, but we don’t need to – all of the groundwork had been laid beautifully beforehand. When Tom sits down and calls Greg (Nicholas Braun) “Sporus”, recalling a story from earlier in the season about the Roman emperor Nero, who killed his wife before castrating and marrying a young boy, the loop has been closed – Tom’s betrayal is totally inevitable. Macfadyen, who has been a staple of period dramas for over a decade, has been a consistently brilliant performer in a role that has allowed him to loosen up considerably while capturing the incredible emotional complexity of a character who can’t quite be defined.
Sometimes, the proof is in the final results. Succession‘s third season lacked some of the thrilling gratification of its predecessor, but its conclusion illustrated a show totally aware of what it has been building towards. We might need to wait another year and a half to see how the story continues after Logan’s betrayal – season four isn’t set to start production until next summer – but it’s pretty clear that whatever comes next will be both hard to guess and brilliant to watch.
2023, though. Ouch.