The Unexpected Tenderness of Succession

What a night inside the world’s saddest karaoke room revealed about the Roys

Kieran Culkin as Roman Roy in a karaoke room
Macall B. Polay / HBO

This story contains spoilers through the second episode of Succession Season 4.

The Roys of Succession tend to go out of their way to prove they’re not delicate people. They reject any opportunity to talk about their feelings. They’d rather drop f-bombs than share hugs and kisses. And they relish their daily boardroom showdowns: Reneging on deals, jousting in bidding wars, and tearing apart competitors is, for them, a way of life.

So when the patriarch of the show’s central, fractured family stumbles over his words, something’s clearly gone wrong—or perhaps, finally, right. In the second episode of the HBO drama’s final season, Logan (played by Brian Cox) meets with Kendall (Jeremy Strong), Shiv (Sarah Snook), and Roman (Kieran Culkin) for the first time since he stopped them from taking over his company. But although much of the anger emanating from the younger Roys feels familiar, the summit is bizarre. For one thing, it takes place in a garishly lit karaoke room rather than a glass-walled office. For another, Logan is unusually hesitant and deferential. When his children press him to apologize, he does. When they ask for clarity, he appears to grant it. When he admonishes them, he accompanies his criticism with an admission of love. “Look,” he eventually concedes, “I just want to get us all together.”

The emotion in his voice is striking; Logan, after all, isn’t often sentimental. As a result, the scene becomes a forceful reminder of how the show is fueled by its rare displays of tenderness. Even as the drama’s ouroboros-ian plot giddily cycles through shocking alliances and estrangements, its most powerful, gasp-inducing moments are almost always the ones in which the Roys allow themselves to be sweet, or as close to sweet as they can be.

Sure, Logan’s call for harmony could be a charade, a way to push a business deal forward. But glimpses of care exist amid the Roys’ familiar biting patter. When his half-siblings snipe at Logan, Connor (Alan Ruck) implores them to let their father finish his point. When Roman grimaces at Ken and Shiv celebrating how they drove Logan away, Ken reassures his younger brother that they’re just joking. The very fact that they’re in the world’s saddest karaoke room says something too. Roman may consider Connor’s dreary rendition of Leonard Cohen “Guantanámo-level shit,” but still: All of the siblings have gone there, together, to support their dejected oldest brother.

And as the show nears its end, these moments have come to define Succession, at least for me. The images from earlier seasons that linger in my mind are the few times the Roys have been vulnerable around one another. I picture Roman and Shiv placing their hands on Ken as he squats, defeated, on the ground. I see Shiv rubbing Ken’s back as he weeps into her shoulder. I think about Ken checking on Roman after Logan hits him. These scenes can get overshadowed by the story’s backstabbing brutality and comic dialogue, but they’re effective in part because of how infrequently they occur. As a viewer, you end up craving genuine openness the way the Roys so obviously do but can’t admit without turning such displays of affection into a joke. And most of all, they make clear the tragedy of being a Roy: They need one another deeply, but they’ve long come to believe that such need is a fundamental weakness.

The exchange in the karaoke room is heartbreaking for how the siblings fail to see a path toward reconciliation, even when the opportunity falls in their lap. That’s not entirely their fault; after being manipulated by Logan all their lives, they don’t have the language for compromise. They misunderstand the notion of family and of love itself, so over and over, they cut Logan off—a move that means Logan never approaches what they want him to do: hold himself accountable for how he’s done them wrong. They refuse to let him fully speak his mind, so he wraps their discussion up with yet another insult. “You are such fucking dopes,” he says. “You are not serious figures.”

But if Logan’s retreat to berating his children is predictable, Connor’s speech is not. As he gets ready to leave, the overlooked, eldest Roy child makes an observation that sounds logical, even incisive—an uncommon occurrence for the family’s laughingstock. “You’re all chasing after Dad saying, ‘Oooh, love me, please love me, I need love, I need attention,’” he tells his siblings. “You’re needy love sponges.” Connor could be lashing out after the gloomiest engagement party ever, but he’s right: The root of the relationship between Logan and his offspring is too rotten to overcome. The grievances from their childhood can never be fixed. The past several years of their schemes can never be erased. And yet, Ken, Shiv, and Roman try for love, while simultaneously having no idea how to give or accept it. To them, Logan’s morsel of emotion spelled trouble.

They’re proved right, but only because they rejected Logan’s olive branch. At the end of the evening, Roman visits Logan to check up on him and finds his father heartier than ever. “There’s a Night of the Long Knives coming,” Logan proclaims, evidently energized by his children’s dismissal. Roman should have known that Logan would be fine. Ruthlessness has always been easier than remorse for the Roys to express.