The Fun of Watching Bad People Pretend to Be Good

In every episode, Succession finds new rocks to turn over and new vermin to dissect.

A group scene with Kendall Roy and Lisa Arthur in 'Succession'
David M. Russell / HBO

This story contains spoilers for the second episode of Succession Season 3.

Before he joined Succession, the actor James Cromwell insisted that his character have some scruples. In a recent interview, Cromwell said that the show’s original scripts portrayed the stone-faced Ewan Roy as holding a personal grudge against his brother, the right-wing-media baron Logan Roy. Cromwell lobbied for Ewan’s rage to instead be rooted in a sense of social justice, and his character ended up delivering a John Oliver–style rant about how the “morally bankrupt” Logan “may well be more personally responsible for the death of this planet than any other single human being.”

In Season 3, the revolution that Ewan would seem to want has arrived. Logan’s son Kendall has turned whistleblower, threatening to expose the wrongdoings of the family’s conglomerate, Waystar Royco. As the ever-articulate Greg tells Ewan, Kendall wants to “be, like, good? Make the company nice, and so on, which, I guess, that’s kind of your thing?” But Ewan is not enthused. He dismisses Kendall as a “self-regarding popinjay” and other multisyllabic bad things. Questions of right and wrong, and principles and politics, are finally in play in Succession—and yet Ewan defaults to pettiness.

As always, Succession is a show about selfish people. But Season 3 has thus far specifically probed how selfishness survives, and disguises itself, in a society that likes to believe it is ruled by nobler forces. After a season in which Waystar Royco’s rulers faced outside challenges to their control, family squabbles have erupted into a new kind of proxy war: a PR battle waged in terms of moral virtue. In the most riveting moments of this season’s second episode, tonight’s “Mass in Time of War,” Succession showed how even the most venal people lie to themselves about why they do the things they do.

Often such people tell themselves, as Kendall tells Greg early in the episode, “You did the right thing, man.” He’s referring to Greg’s leaking incriminating documents about the company, but he’s also teeing up the episode’s big preoccupation with morality. Near the end of the hour, Kendall—who has affected unflappability since turning on his dad—will be angrily accusing his sister, Shiv, of helping destroy the planet. In between these two bookending scenes, Succession demonstrates how ethics can become a shell game while doing what the show does best: stage a deliciously screwed-up family reunion.

James Cromwell and Nicholas Braun in 'Succession'
Macall Polay / HBO

Each of the Roy kids comes to visit their wayward brother, and each invokes flimsy pretenses about protecting their dad when really they’re considering joining in the campaign to defeat him. Glorious vignettes of sibling intimacy and antipathy unfold in the cluttered bedroom of Kendall’s young daughter, where the Roys stall, deflect, and bicker. Kendall cycles through the rationale for them joining him, and his first pitch is all about reinvigorating the business. But as he gives a buzzword-laden sermon about generational change, he’s met with smirks and a great quip from Roman: “Oh, you mean us, this multi-fucking-ethnic transgender alliance of 20-something dreamers we’ve got right here?”

So Kendall moves on to a seemingly more clear-cut rationale for siding with him: It is, yes, the right thing to do. He wants to take on a man whose dealings have “basically eaten the heart out of American democracy,” and he wants to expose terrible crimes and cover-ups. Viewers get the most explicit description yet of the wrongdoings committed in the company’s cruise division (“Dancers were fucking for their jobs and … we threw fucking migrants off boats and covered it up as a matter of secret company policy,” Shiv says). We also get new clues about the Roy children’s complicity. The male siblings, at least, seem to have known what was going on at the time.

But corporate strategy and personal ethics aren’t really the point of the conversation. When Kendall invokes death camps and asks, “Do you think human beings matter?” the chat devolves into insults, and Kendall snaps that the cruise issue is just “a sidebar.” What they’re really there to discuss, it becomes clear, is power. The kids could beat their dad if they team up, everyone (except the skittish Roman) seems to agree. But if they win, who then becomes head of Waystar Royco? Kendall says he’ll lead because Shiv, who yearns to rule, is publicly seen as a “snowflake.” Roman calls up the interim CEO, Gerri, and gets the harsh truth: None of the kids will likely end up in charge if they turn on Logan.

Once the siblings have gamed out what’s to come and considered their self-interest, the question of what to do becomes easy: Stick with Dad. But neither Shiv nor Roman nor Connor spells out that succession anxieties are why they refuse Kendall’s offer—and their unwillingness to explain themselves sets him off. After all, he’s made a careful, rational, ethically grounded case, but they’ve decided to act out of “cowardice or avarice,” he says. As Kendall spews vicious insults, his new persona (termed “plastic Jesus” by Shiv) melts before the viewer’s eyes. No one acting out of a sense of decency and concern for women would shout “It’s only your teats that give you any value!” at his sister.

Few viewers, of course, will have ever bought into Kendall’s righteousness routine. He knew about the company’s crimes but did something about them only when his head was on the chopping block. What’s fascinating to ponder is whether Kendall himself believes he’s acting out of altruism—or whether he simply believes that speaking altruistically is an effective manipulation tactic. As he and his siblings swing back and forth between grandstanding and making cynical quips, the inconsistency comes to feel like the point. These characters don’t know who they are deep down. Or if they do know, they don’t often admit it to themselves.

So it goes on Succession. When Cromwell told the showrunner Jesse Armstrong that he wanted Ewan to be a do-gooder, Armstrong apparently told him that “all these people are culpable; they are all the same.” How does a show with this bleak an outlook stay entertaining? It does so with an attention to the ambiguity, the mind games, and the nonsense that people use to dress up the sort of amorality that, when combined with great wealth and power, is the source of so much evil.