One More Thought on Succession’s Ridiculous Banter

“I’m saying this, but I don’t believe it.” Kendall Roy, in the Season 2 finale, summed up what makes the show such brilliant satire.

Brian Cox and Jeremy Strong in 'Succession.'
This drama, the characters realize, is stuff of the Greeks and Shakespeare but also of Mamet and Sorkin. (Graeme Hunter / HBO)

This article contains spoilers throughout Season 2 of Succession.

All he had to do was say yes. But when a congressional hearing opened with a softball question to Gregory Hirsch (Nicholas Braun)—asking whether he is the executive assistant to Tom Wambsgans (Matthew Macfadyen)—he went beyond “yes,” adding, “if it is to be said. If it is to be said, so it is.” Senator Gil Eavis (Eric Bogosian), concerned by the strange answer, asked if he was all right. Greg: “I merely wish to answer in the affirmative fashion.”

Greg’s wordiness on the stand made for a comedic appetizer before the tense feast of Succession’s second season finale. But it also pointed at what makes the show such brilliant satire. Greg, the awkward cousin attached to a billionaire media-mogul clan, is a creature of effortful mimicry. In this latest case, he poorly matched the decorousness of Congress. At other times he’s blathered and quipped and attempted blackmail in imitation of the Roy family members.  Like so many real-life strivers—think Caroline Calloway, or T.I., or Pete Buttigieg—Greg realizes that the powerful mark themselves apart not only with what they wear and where they vacation, but also with how they talk.

It’s a cliché by now to note that Succession lives between comedy and drama. What’s harder to talk about is the way that the tonal specificity of the show is maintained through the serious-silly dialogue. The characters themselves are highly aware of their lives as drama. It’s a heavy situation they’re in, after all: battling for control of a global organization so powerful that it has a body count, led by a man who would sacrifice his own son. This drama, the characters realize, is stuff of the Greeks and Shakespeare but also of Mamet and Sorkin. They’ve read the myths; they’ve absorbed their rhetoric; they’ve put their spin on it.

But within the world of the show, these characters are not poetic heroes created by accomplished writers. They are just pretentious humans with foot fungus. They are dorks who yell things such as, “The early bird gets the best cabin!” (Connor, played by Alan Ruck) or, “Did you, like, build a glider out of a Caesar salad?” (Tom). Succession’s weird realism comes from the halfway-profundities and failed jokes and borrowed small talk of characters who don’t know exactly what they’re trying to say and who are terrified of revealing their true natures. The finale crystallized the show’s acidic insights about how and why people natter.

Most obviously and perhaps most surprisingly, Roman (Kieran Culkin) emerged as a critic of empty snark and pomposity. When he arrived at the family yacht after being held hostage in Turkey, the rest of the Waystar Royco clan greeted him with bratty, amoral sarcasm very much in Roman’s typical style. Kendall (Jeremy Strong) asked who he gave oral sex to in order to escape; Tom made the Caesar salad comment. The only apt barb came from Gerri (J. Smith-Cameron): “That would have been really traumatizing if you weren’t already so fucked up!” Roman didn’t play along with the roast. “It was actually fucking scary and we thought that they might kill us,” he deadpanned.

Soon after that, he floated the idea to his brother and sister that they should communicate about their feelings more. They immediately mocked that proposal with silly voices, the universal language of sibling hatred and emotional deflection. When it came time for Roman to report to his father, Logan (Brian Cox), about the vital financial negotiations in Turkey, Roman delivered some difficult straight talk: Even though he’d secured verbal assurances from financiers, he didn’t trust the deal.

Honesty of that sort, from a Roy kid to his father, is hard to come by on Succession. In the riveting meal scene during which Logan made his team debate who among them would be the “blood sacrifice” to potentially go to jail, Kendall offered this telling line: “I’m saying this, but I don’t believe it. I’m saying it because this is the time we’re all saying things.” Of course, what underlaid each participant’s case for throwing someone else to the jackals wasn’t tactics, or truth, but personal prerogatives. At one point, Logan asked why Roman was defending Gerri, and he replied that he was just giving his “opinion.” Viewers know he’s personally entangled with Gerri, and they may assume that’s why he spoke up. But then he came up with a decent strategic rationale: Crucifying a woman to deal with a sexual-harassment problem isn’t a good look. His saying that may have been spin, but it was also true.

Shiv (Sarah Snook) pulled a ghoulish inverse of that same maneuver. At the family meal, she listed reasons why Tom, her own husband, would make a good patsy—even though behind the scenes she’d lobbied Logan to offer up her brother Kendall. Her going after Tom clearly pushed him to the brink, and now, worryingly for Shiv, he may no longer be submissive to her or her father. So why’d she do it? One theory: Because Shiv thinks she’s supposed to perform tough talk, even while she’s supposed to protect her husband.

It’s typical Shiv confusion. Even after trying to prove she could be Logan’s successor all season, she still hasn’t decided if she’s an antihero or not. As my colleague Sophie Gilbert notes, deep down her slogan appears to be, “I literally don’t give a fuck.” But in her one-on-one with Logan, she refused to outright say who she thinks the sacrifice should be—even though she’d already pushed for Kendall, and even though she’d pleaded that it not be Tom. When Logan pressed her, “So what do you think?,” in the middle of a discussion of her thoughts, it was a request for clarity. She nevertheless evaded giving a final answer.

Kendall, meanwhile, has crafted a persona around the appearance—and only appearance—of straight talk. Management textbooks and Wall Street patter course through his speech patterns, but his old frenemy Stewy (Arian Moayed) exposed the worthlessness of his Gordon Gekko shtick. “You need to fucking make it work, or I will personally fucking destroy you,” Kendall said when Stewy refused to cut a deal. “I will come to you at night with a fucking razor blade and I will cut your—”

Stewy finished the threat: “… dick off, and then push it up your cunt until poo poo pops out of my nose hole. It doesn’t matter. It doesn’t mean anything!”

He’s right. Money, not operatic nastiness, will drive this negotiation. But Kendall blusters this way because he has misinterpreted the lesson that his father reiterated in this episode: “You have to be a killer.” Kendall’s version of business ruthlessness has been, to this point, in vulgar words rather than deed.

That changes now, though. In the gasp-worthy final moments of the season, Logan sent Kendall to go on TV and claim culpability for Waystar Royco’s misdeeds, and Kendall used the opportunity to instead pin blame on his dad. This betrayal was a display of moral clarity aligned with self-interest: the work of a man who’s been broken down into nothing and realizes he can reconstruct himself into the killer he’s always wanted to be. The statement that Kendall read was tellingly brisk and cogent, though it did contain a few fun bits of excessive rhetoric. “The notion that [Logan] would have allowed millions of dollars in settlements and compensations to be paid without his explicit approval,” Kendall said, “is utterly fanciful.”