The Best Show on TV Is Stuck

In its third season, HBO’s award-winning series Succession needs to remember the dramatic stakes that made it great.

The Roy family in Season 3 of 'Succession'
Courtesy HBO

Watching Succession’s second season, which to my mind is one of the most dexterous and enthralling seasons of television in recent history, was like an immersion in all the different ways tension can manifest on-screen: a loaded conversation between two people, a fraught family event, a hunting excursion during which executives literally scuffle to bring home the bacon. You perhaps remember less about the specifics of each scene than the visceral feeling of watching them. A four-minute conversation in the sixth episode, “Argestes,” between Shiv, one scion of the wealthy Roy family (played by Sarah Snook), and the fixer Rhea Jarrell (Holly Hunter) was almost incidental in terms of plot, and yet the palpable hostility between the two women conveyed infinitely more than was in the script. The setting of Succession is 21st-century Extreme Wealth Island, but the mood is ancient Greece. Brutality and fate and ritualistic violence are never far from the surface.

Some—or much—of this is missing in Season 3. The coronavirus pandemic delayed production of the newest nine episodes, seven of which were made available for review, but it seems to have constricted ambitions, too. The second season worked so well because the Roys were repeatedly shoved into the pressure cooker of isolated, unknown environments: a hunting lodge, a safe room, the family estate of a liberal-media doyenne, a mountainside symposium. Each episode functioned almost as a one-act play, marching inevitably toward implosion. Season 3, though, is more like a redo of the show’s debut, wherein the children of Logan Roy (Brian Cox) scratch and claw as they try yet again to commandeer his empire. Mired in the safe spaces of penthouses and hotel suites and private jets, it all feels snippily familiar.

Maybe it’s churlish to complain about a series that’s still consistently better written and more refreshingly caustic than anything else on TV. But for me, Season 3 reveals some wear in a concept that once felt rousingly original. There’s little animating tension in scenes that have essentially played out before. At the first episode’s opening, Kendall (Jeremy Strong) and Greg (Nicholas Braun) are in New York, having just publicly exposed Waystar Royco and Logan’s various crimes in a press conference. The rest of the family, whose yacht vacation is unfortunately truncated, tries to decide how to respond, and which country without an extradition treaty to abscond to. (“I’m looking forward to seeing more of the Balkans,” says Logan’s ever-diplomatic COO, Frank, played by Peter Friedman.)

Almost everything that follows comes across as wheel-spinning, with a few exceptions. Kendall, beloved on the internet outside the world of the show as a chocolate-clad tragic princeling, becomes fixated within it on his new online reputation as a whistleblower, shouting, “Fuck the patriarchy,” to photographers on the steps outside a gala while his family derides him as “Woke-ahontas.” A late-night TV host played by the comedian Ziwe gives him a cleverer title: Oedipussy. (Even Sophocles might find all the incest jokes this season a little much.) Shiv, unleashed from any principles she had last season as she strove to become Logan’s successor, is so calculating and emotionally detached that she hardly feels real. Roman (Kieran Culkin), trying anew to win daddy’s favor, becomes nastier and less perceptibly vulnerable the more wins he accrues.

Jesse Armstrong, Succession’s creator, supposedly has a particular goal for the show: to tell a story about how humanity can be corrupted by the confluence of power and family. The Season 3 episode “What It Takes,” which sees the Roys decamp to a conservative conference in Virginia to essentially pick the next president, makes an unsubtle point about the consequences for everyone when familial squabbling has global repercussions. But something is lost when the Roys go so far that we can’t connect with them as humans. The question of whether TV characters should be likable is, at this point, as tired as day-old guacamole. But without being able to occasionally feel something for the characters on a show, I don’t see much point in watching—especially when the glorious schadenfreude of watching horrible people suffer is undermined by the emphatic weight of knowing how their suffering will reverberate out to others.

With Kendall benched on the absurd sidelines, modeling himself after Jesus and constructing a 40th birthday party out of the most bruised parts of his psyche, the figures to feel for this season are Greg, routinely abused by everyone, and Shiv’s husband, Tom (Matthew Macfadyen), who becomes mournfully and histrionically obsessed with the question of which federal prison he’d best be able to endure. But the show’s running-in-place vibe this season makes other patchier parts more obvious, particularly with regard to its female characters. Logan’s enigmatic wife, Marcia (Hiam Abbass), has always contained much more than she’s given the opportunity to say, and Connor’s girlfriend, Willa (Justine Lupe), serves as comic relief whose playwriting career is the only reliably cheerful thing in the show. But Kendall’s new love interest, Naomi (Annabelle Dexter-Jones), whose chemically dependent pairing with him last season seemed to be a harbinger of doom, is little more than window dressing this season, while new characters played by Sanaa Lathan and Jihae Kim are cameo roles at best. Adrien Brody and Alexander Skarsgård, as a billionaire investor and a tech CEO, respectively, at least embody slightly more fleshed-out characters, even if their qualities begin and end with “entitled” and “fuckwitted.”

Unreviewed episodes later in the season, particularly one set in Italy, might herald a return to what Succession does best: an eruption of poisonous hostilities set against the backdrop of a Condé Nast Traveler pictorial. Until then, it’s a waiting game. The first seven episodes seem to allude to an event that could thrillingly disrupt the show’s status quo, if it happens. A truly propulsive ending could position the show for a revelatory fourth season, in which the mordant jokes and ludicrous excess are paired with something else: a sense that there really are dramatic stakes to keep watching for.