Why Season 2 of Succession Was So Extraordinary
The HBO show had teased a “blood sacrifice” in its thrilling season finale, and it didn’t disappoint.
This article contains spoilers through the finale of Succession Season 2.
Water is never a good omen on Succession. In the Season 1 episode “Austerlitz,” the ill-fated infinity pool in the New Mexico desert led to a tweedy psychotherapist losing his front teeth; at the close of the episode, as Logan Roy (played by Brian Cox) swam a few laps, viewers were able to see for a moment the scars that cover his back. In the Season 1 finale, “Nobody Is Ever Missing,” a chipper cater-waiter trying to facilitate a drug buy for Kendall (Jeremy Strong) drowned in a lake on the way back to Shiv’s wedding. And in “This Is Not for Tears,” last night’s conclusion to the show’s superlative second season, the Roy family and its associates basked in the azure incandescence of the Mediterranean before being led, one by one, to try on the metaphorical noose Logan was readying for a scapegoat.
Harbingers aside, “This Is Not for Tears” was, thanks to its aquatic setting, the most gorgeous episode Succession has had to date. Directed by Mark Mylod (Game of Thrones), it had the visual poetry and the psychosexual familial tension of a late Bertolucci movie, or one by Luca Guadagnino. A disconsolate Roman (Kieran Culkin) lounged in a blue linen shirt against a pile of turquoise pillows. Shiv (Sarah Snook) insulated herself from the sun with a giant straw hat and a pair of aviators. Kendall floated on his back in the yacht’s plunge pool, shot from overhead to contrast against the darker blue ocean. His bobbing body, with arms splayed, looked for a moment like a corpse, or like Christ on the cross. In retrospect, it makes sense—Succession has been readying him to be the sacrificial lamb since he was dragged, dripping, from the Icelandic rehab center’s pool at the beginning of the season.
Succession is a show about business empires, and about family, and especially about the peculiar toxicity and dysfunction that occur when the two intersect. Since the show debuted, it has presented a question: Which one of these three children (with apologies to Connor, but let’s be real) will inherit Logan’s kingdom? But there are also other kinds of bequests in the ether, as the scars on Logan’s back—paid forward as psychological wounds to his children and grandchildren—made clear. And so the question gets an extra dimension: Which of his children is Logan’s emotional heir, hungry and empty enough inside to meet his standards for an acceptable successor?
In Season 1, the obvious candidate was Kendall, with his Forbes covers, his desperate need to prove himself, and his multiple boardroom-coup efforts against his father. “I’m just concerned you might be soft,” Logan told Kendall early on, noting that business was essentially “a big-dick competition”; his son, cosseted by luxury his entire life, couldn’t measure up. “The only way he’ll respect you is if you try to destroy him,” Roman told Kendall midway through the first season. “Because, in your position, that is exactly what he’d try to do.” That same episode, a frustrated Logan physically lashed out at Kendall’s son, as if to remind Kendall that aspiring to be more like his father would come with obvious costs. In the end, Kendall’s own frailty gave his father a winning hand, and led to Kendall trudging wearily in Logan’s wake for most of Season 2.
At the same time, Shiv’s stock was rising. There’s no doubt at this point that Shiv is the Roy child most closely akin to her father—the most ambitious sibling, the most manipulative, and the least troubled by the little things, like empathy or guilt. (“This class-war shit—don’t you find it a little jejune?” is up there with “Let them eat cake” as a succinct encapsulation of personal callousness.) “My philosophy is, I literally don’t give a fuck,” Shiv told Nate (Ashley Zukerman) in bed while he was browsing his wedding registry; the personal motto applies to table napkins and china patterns, but also to the world at large. In Season 1, Shiv conspired with a senator who wanted to burn her father’s news empire to the ground. In Season 2, as Logan dangled the throne in front of her like a cat toy, Shiv was made newly vulnerable by the prospect of getting something she actually really wanted. Initially thrown off course, she was back at Logan’s side by “Dundee.” There, Shiv set up Rhea (Holly Hunter) to fail in a way that would facilitate Shiv’s path to the top job, and sweet-talked a woman victimized by Waystar into backing down.
Last night, on board the Roy yacht, a craft as sharp and black as a kitchen knife, Logan let his children and consiglieres fight it out to see which one should suffer the sins of the company. It was a classic Roy reunion—there were no actual shouts of “Boar on the floor,” but the internecine conflicts and poisonous power struggles were the same. Roman, newly chastened by his brush with political kidnapping, couldn’t begin to compete: Having recently pleaded with his siblings to “talk to each other? Normally?” and opened up about how frightened he was in Turkey, he was far too tenderhearted to do more than defend Gerri (J. Smith-Cameron) and implicate Tom. Shiv, Tom’s own wife, agreed that Tom was a logical choice, leading him to lambaste her as they lay sunbathing in a private cove. “If I think about it, a lot of the time I’m pretty unhappy,” Tom said. “I wonder if the sad I’d be without you would be less than the sad I get from being with you.”
That equation, when applied to Logan, has always seemed simple. When Kendall was offered half a billion dollars by Stewy (Arian Moayed) for his Waystar stock in Season 1, I yearned for him to just take it and escape this life, these people. Naomi Pierce (Annabelle Dexter-Jones), as she was evicted off Logan’s yacht last night, similarly asked Kendall to come with her and abandon the life he’d been piecing together so carefully that he couldn’t see its cracks. But Kendall stayed, and as the episode proceeded, it became more and more obvious that he was being readied for slaughter. Shiv, who only episodes ago had been momentarily stunned by the sight of her broken brother weeping, told her father to save Tom and sacrifice Kendall—further anointing herself as Logan’s true successor. Logan, cheered by a family member bold enough to go right for the heart, agreed. “It hurts,” he told Shiv, “but it plays.”
That the backstabbing and betrayal played out against such an idyllic backdrop seemed fitting. One of the things that have made Season 2 of Succession so strong is its constant shift in locations—a mountain resort for billionaires here, a Hungarian hunting ground there. At home, the family members find comfort in familiar settings and coping mechanisms: the boardroom for Logan, politics for Shiv, irony for Roman, drugs for Kendall. But in new spaces, they’re forced into closer proximity with one another while their armor is taken away, making their damage harder to disguise. These are the kinds of situational setups that lead to riveting television, but also to glimpses of the characters as vulnerable human beings rather than comic archetypes. Tom, for example, is infinitely more compelling when he’s baring his soul to his wife than he is embracing plutocracy by eating songbirds and actual gold.
And Kendall, tragic prince that he is, has always been Succession’s heart. Having clung to the fragments of his father he could hero-worship for much of Season 2, Kendall was spurred by Logan’s betrayal to save himself. He gave his father a Corleone kiss. He agreed to take the fall. And then he turned on Logan in a stunning press conference volte-face, armed with Greg’s Chekhovian cruise documents and his own legitimate anger. “The truth is that my father is a malignant presence, a bully and a liar,” he said. My colleague Megan Garber has written about pestilence on Succession and how, despite themselves, the Roys can’t escape the symbolic manifestations of the corruption they sow in the world. In calling out his father as a cancer, Kendall was taking the first steps toward recovery. It was the closest thing to a happy ending anyone could have expected Succession to offer.