In the fifth episode of the new season of Succession, the scabrous Roy family find themselves at the country retreat of a liberal-media doyenne, Nan Pierce (Cherry Jones), and in the entirely unfamiliar situation of having to play nice. It’s like watching cats trying to play snooker, or Donald Trump trying to read a speech off a teleprompter without breaking into an extemporaneous brag—it can’t be done. Shiv (Sarah Snook) can’t restrain herself from mocking someone’s Ph.D. in Africana studies. Connor (Alan Ruck) spirals into antagonism when someone utters the words “Brookings Institute.” Roman (Kieran Culkin) can’t even muster, upon request, the title of a single published book. “Watching you people melt down is the most deeply satisfying activity on the planet,” Naomi Pierce (Annabelle Dexter-Jones) tells Kendall (Jeremy Strong).
This satisfaction defined what it was like to watch Season 1 of Succession, a bitter, schadenfreude-flavored tonic to help digest the oily excesses of the 0.001 percent. The offspring of the diabolical media mogul Logan Roy (Brian Cox) are nasty, grossly overprivileged rats in a gilded barrel, sniping and biting one another as they try to ascend the swarm. Winning is the only concept that can permeate their psychological crusts; winning, for the Roy children, is also almost impossible, given their avaricious, impulsive ogre of a father. To watch the first 10 episodes of the HBO show was to find bleak pleasure in awful people trying—and failing—to out-awful one another.
Something changed in the Season 1 finale, though, when Succession’s occasionally dissonant modes of verbal absurdity and caustic family drama converged into tragedy. Strong’s Kendall, the ineffectual Hamlet to his father’s more dastardly Lear, went on a drug bender that led to the drowning death of a waiter at Shiv’s wedding. Before that moment, Succession had ostensibly been a show about an ailing Logan portioning out the pieces of his kingdom—trying to decide, like a Murdoch or a Redstone (or a Trump), which of his children most deserved to inherit the empire he’d spent his life accumulating. During Season 1, Kendall helped plan a hostile takeover of his father’s company, the announcement of which infuriated Logan as much as it seemed to earn his grudging respect. But Kendall’s Chappaquiddick catastrophe gave Logan one last card to play. “A rich kid kills a boy,” he told his sobbing son. “You’d never be anything else. Or, you know, it could be what it should be: nothing at all. A sad little detail at a lovely wedding where father and son are reconciled.” The scene ended with Logan embracing Kendall, before passing him off to an associate to be taken away.
In Season 1, the Roys made for a delicious hate-watch. In Season 2, which takes the show to a level of insight and theatricality that rivals anything else on television this year, something has changed in the dynamic between characters and audience. You hate to feel it for these grasping brats, but there it is anyway: pity. Roman is as snarkily useless as ever, Shiv as untrustworthy, Matthew Macfadyen’s Tom as majestically pompous and charisma-free. Kendall spends the first five episodes being more low-energy than a post-divorce Ross Geller, as hangdog as Droopy. Once, these ghastly people made for some mordant satire. Now their damage is so suffocating that all you can do is cringe from the sidelines.
In case it’s unclear: Season 2 is extraordinary. Jesse Armstrong, the show’s creator, finds new levels of horror to mine in Succession’s autopsy of the ultrarich, but he also finds pathos, which elevates the show even further. In the first scene, Kendall is “recharging” in a plunge pool at a Scandinavian rehab resort when he’s dragged, still dripping, to a TV appearance where he has to defend abandoning his takeover bid and returning to the Roy fold. Kendall goes through the motions, but his spirit seems to have evaporated. Strong is superb portraying a man so depressed that cocaine barely animates him (instead, it renders him only slightly less catatonic). Logan has given Kendall his lines, and Kendall repeats them over and over. All those skyscrapers littering the backdrop of the Roy corporate boardroom suddenly seem like so many shiny platforms for Kendall to eventually hurl himself from.
Succession is still replete with symbolism. In the first episode, Logan summons all his progeny to a meeting at his Hamptons house, where the topiary is duly uncovered, Egyptian-cotton sheets are laundered, and lobsters are boiled for the family’s return. But the state of Roy is so rotten that a disgusting smell fills the manse. (“Open the doors!” Logan barks. “It smells like the cheesemonger died and left his dick in the Brie.”) When the source of the odor is discovered, it somehow encapsulates both the deterioration of the Roy family unit and the way Logan’s venal practices are leaching out into the wider world.
From there, things only get grimmer. It feels like a cliché at this point to call a television show timely, but Succession’s ability to weave together plot points involving fascist newscasters, Facebook algorithms, media conglomerates, and even feral hogs is uncanny. The third episode, in which yet another catastrophic Roy conference leads to the breakdown of social mores, makes for one of the tensest, most excruciating hours of television in modern memory. Logan, his youngest son says in one moment, “can do whatever the fuck he likes. He’s like human Saudi Arabia.” To watch Succession is to see what happens when absolute power and unfettered id curdle into oppression in real time. When cousin Greg (Nicholas Braun) weakly bleats that Logan isn’t obeying the rules, Logan bellows, “There are no rules.”
While it’s still fair to say that there are no heroes in Succession—although Braun’s earnest, maladroit, and comically tall Greg comes close—the show’s investment in making you occasionally feel for its characters takes it into new terrain. The most boring characters, after all, are the ones who never surprise you. Armstrong’s family, unhappy in its own unique, Tolstoyan way, is also the stuff of classical tragedy, riddled with monsters and fated for hell. “Money wins,” Logan says in one episode, raising his glass for a toast. But his face is empty of discernible emotion, a void so gaping that no amount of money or winning can fill it.