‘It’s a Safe Space for Mean Humor’

The boar is on the floor. The Greggs are in the Tomelettes. And Season 3 of Succession is finally here.

Brian Cox as Logan Roy
Courtesy of HBO; Charlie Le Maignan; The Atlantic

The following contains spoilers for Succession, up to and including Season 3 Episode 1.

A full two years have passed since HBO’s billionaire-family soap opera last aired, but only moments have elapsed on the show. Kendall Roy (played by Jeremy Strong) just used a press conference to betray his father, Logan (Brian Cox). It’s war, and the Roy family’s scandal-plagued media empire could face subpoenas any minute. So returns the best show on television, and a long-anticipated return it is.

But why does a story of siblings feuding at the peak of privilege inspire Succession fans’ unique obsessiveness? Is it the show’s eminently meme-able lines? The incisive ways it depicts family, wealth, and power? Humanizing and villainizing the Roys is a balancing act that Succession’s first two seasons have managed to pull off.

Our critics discuss the show and its Season 3 premiere on our culture podcast, The Review. Listen here:

The following transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

Spencer Kornhaber: What is it about Succession that gets people so obsessed with it? And why can we not turn away? We just watched the premiere of this new season, which was delayed [by] the pandemic by maybe about a year. What were your reactions to this first episode, Hannah?

Hannah Giorgis: Oh, I’m into it. It’s giving me all the chaos that I wanted, all the things that I love from this show: the interpersonal drama, the familial drama, the tension, and, crucially, the extremely ridiculous way that they talk to each other.

Shirley Li: I watch Succession for the ridiculous ways that they speak to each other. It’s absurd, but it’s not so absurd that it takes you out of the show. One of Logan’s lackeys has a line about [a] scandal that caused me to pause the show and laugh: “This is the full Baskin-Robbins—31 flavors of fuck.” Like, who talks like this? It’s just great.

Kornhaber: I’ve written about the language on this show before. What do you think it’s trying to do?

Li: I think it’s aiming to throw you off. It makes you think about what they’re trying to say, but more so it just captures the way that these characters live in this complete alternate universe. They’re divorced from our reality, and the language that they speak to each other is aggressive and strange and metaphorically weird.

The creator of this show, Jesse Armstrong, just has a knack for language that sounds absurd but also makes sense in the context. His background is in writing some of the best British comedy shows of all time, like Peep Show. Another one of the producers is Adam McKay. These are people with a grasp of how just the rhythm of language can be funny.

Kornhaber: I’ve heard people criticize the show as having bad writing, because they will hear a line of dialogue and think, That line sucks. That line makes no sense. It sounds really pretentious but is actually nonsense. But that is the point. These people are trying to sound smart, sophisticated, and ruthless. They think they live in an Aaron Sorkin TV show or a David Mamet play. They think they’re giving a TED talk.

Li: Yeah, Sorkin has talked about how he writes dialogue in terms of music and the rhythm of it. On Succession, it’s like these people have gotten the rhythm of language, but they forgot that words mean things. Some of the best insults, if you just read them, would mean nothing, like when Shiv called Connor the “first pancake.” Like, what does that mean, Shiv? But it’s delivered so brutally. And, in the context of the Roys, it makes complete sense.

Kornhaber: I wrote down a really bad Shiv line from this episode: “I don’t want to be buried like Miss Havisham with a bonnet full of fucking stratagem.” Do you know what that means?

Li: Yeah … it’s Dickens, so it’s … smart and sophisticated? The way they drop references, there will be highbrow stuff and then, like, Logan once called Kendall “Mr. Potato Head, my plastic adversary.”

Giorgis: Well, that’s just very good.

Kornhaber: In this episode, Logan invites everyone to speak freely about who should be an interim CEO. He’s on this plane with his three white male advisers, who are just yes-men, and they’re shocked that he wants them to just brainstorm. And he says, “Let a hundred flowers bloom.”

That is a reference to Mao Zedong inviting dissent and then punishing the dissenters. That’s a historical reference. And we know that Logan actually cares about history and knows history. And so did he say that on purpose? That just cracked me up.

Li: Our colleague Sophie Gilbert did just pan the third season in her review. And I see where she’s coming from. If you hope to see these characters develop and become redeemable, so far you might feel like the show has tricked you: “Weren’t these characters going to be better?” “Ha, just kidding. It’s still a show about awful people being awful to each other.”

But I still find this show so compelling to watch, because it dissects why the powerful behave the way they do and why they hold on to power. And Kendall, even if he’s backslid, it’s more tragic because of where he’s come from. Through his arc, you see how power reveals essentially who he is. In Sophie’s review, she pointed out that Shiv is almost an unrecognizable character. But I think that’s a result of what happened last season to her, where she almost got the job that she wanted but things fell apart, and now she doesn’t really know who she is.

Read: Why Season 2 of Succession was so extraordinary

Kornhaber: It does raise that question of what is the fundamental appeal of this show? Why do you all think that we became obsessed with it in the first place?

Giorgis: I think there is something satisfying about watching terrible people be terrible to each other. And watching this underbelly of wealth. There are so many shows where to be wealthy is to be glamorous, even when bad things are happening. I really struggled with that when I watched The Undoing for that reason. But with Succession, the people on the receiving end of the worst actions, at least interpersonally, are also terrible people. We don’t see a lot on the show of the effects that the Roy-family drama has on their workers. They keep a lot of that covered up. And so we’re just experiencing it as Roy-family drama, for the most part.

Li: The family drama is what pulled me in. It took a few episodes for me to get into Succession when it first aired. I thought, Okay, this is funny, but my God, everyone sucks. But as you watch, you do start to care about the siblings, at least because the way they interact is resonant with how siblings actually treat each other. This show manages to illustrate that constant sibling rivalry so well. And it is great to laugh at the rich and not just indulge in mansion porn and see how glamorous they are. It’s like watching a food fight at the Met Gala.

Giorgis: (Laughs.)

Kornhaber: It’s a safe space for mean humor. We like to say in this age that we support comedy that evolves away from making fun of people, right? But we also … still like to make fun of people.

Li: Especially if it’s punching up.

Kornhaber: And so, yes, when it’s punching up, we feel okay about it. We can do it. I think that’s a big part of why we have all of these “bad rich people” shows. Right now is not a moment where a network like HBO is going to greenlight a big punching-down show, but we can always laugh at the Murdochs or the Kardashians or the Real Housewives because they're going to be fine.

I did think Sophie was onto something with her take on the season, which I read to mean that it was just a little plot-heavy. My favorite moments of this show are when it breathes and gets weird, when the Roys go to strange places, do strange things, and have side conversations. It gets kind of psychedelic. There’s none of that this season, just plot, plot, plot. It’s “Who's going to get the kiss from daddy?” And it’s a real feast, but I think unless they change gears, we’re going to feel overfed.

Giorgis: I mean, regardless of where they end up going with the rest of the season, I’m very curious about Lisa Arthur, the lawyer played by Sanaa Lathan. I’m excited for her appearance in the first episode alone, because she put Shiv in an uncomfortable position—and I enjoy watching Shiv squirm and try to figure out how to recalculate her moves—and also because Sanaa Lathan is just great to watch, and this is a fun role to see her in.

Kornhaber: The social-justice angle that all the Roys play on this season is fascinating. Kendall thinks he’s so woke. And Shiv has, for a while, been the Democrat in the family. Is there anything to that? Does she have any principles?

Giorgis: Shiv is interesting to me because she sort of gestures at principles and she doesn’t actually go there in any meaningful way. In this scene with Lisa Arthur, this appeal to Lisa’s sense of womanly solidarity is interesting not because it reveals to us that Shiv is a real feminist resistance type.

She’s very clearly weaponizing that idea. And it’s particularly interesting to me that she does it with a character who’s a Black woman. There’s something operating there, and the calculus that she makes in that moment.

Li: It’s being woke as a tactic.

Giorgis: And it is for Kendall too, but with him, it’s more obviously put on. It’s more cartoonish. He wants to be popular-woke on Twitter, [whereas Shiv] wanted to use this interpersonal moment with a friend who is a Black woman to advance her extremely capitalist agenda.

Li: You’re a Shiv stan, aren’t you, Hannah?

Giorgis: I love Shiv. I think that Shiv is a terrible person and I love her.

Kornhaber: Who do you stan, Shirley?

Li: I do like Roman. He’s this agent of chaos because he knows he’s probably not going to win, but he still desperately wants to win. He also knows that he’s not actually as smart as Shiv, and what he knows is that he can be chaotic. And I love what they’ve done with him and Gerri. I watched an interview with J. Smith-Cameron, who plays Gerri. She said it was just something the writers picked up on that wasn’t planned for the two of them.

They were filming the two of them walking away from each other and both of them turned around to check the other’s ass. And that’s because she and Kieran Culkin, who plays Roman, have known each other for a long time and they’re playful. And then the writers picked up on that.

Kornhaber: For my Roy pick, I’ll stand up for Kendall. I’ve been obsessed with him. We know so many Kendall Roys in our society, so many hotshot dudes full of BS just spewing buzzwords, who think they know best. The show starts from that place with Kendall and then really finds the tragedy in him. The way Jeremy Strong played him throughout Season 2, when he was just broken, defeated, and basically on a leash held by his father, was unbelievable. And in last season’s finale, Logan told Kendall he didn’t think his son could run the company: “You’re not a killer.”

And so Kendall decided, Well, I’ll show you. I’ll be a killer. And now we’re seeing if he can do it, if he can hold it together, or if, as Roman says, he’ll self-destruct because it’s his favorite. That’s the ticking time bomb of the season. Will Kendall flame out spectacularly? And how much will I cry when he does?

Read: The bodily horrors of Succession

Li: When I watch this show, I feel like I’m rubbernecking to watch a weird science experiment. I’m getting schadenfreude out of it. But then I’m also feeling surprisingly empathetic. It’s such a precise mixture that no other show brings out of me.

Giorgis: For me, the writing is what makes it work, because I’m not sure all of those dynamics in any other show would work for me. I don’t enjoy watching TV through my fingers, whether it’s horror or just secondhand embarrassment. The way they talk is so absurd and fun, it finds its way into conversations that I have with friends. References just slide in. I just can’t get enough of it.

Li: This is the only show in which you can have a character talk about an “attack child” and it makes total sense.

Kornhaber: The moments that really crackle for me are the ones where you get almost a documentary-feeling look at how the world of wealth and power and government actually works and feels moment to moment, like when the Roys say completely outrageous things and the underlings have to be like, “OK, I got it,” or when Gerri is on the phone with who I presume to be the chief of staff of the president of the United States.

She’s feeling out how much trouble the government’s going to give Logan. Her questions are phrased in this way that’s not inviting accusations of bribery or quid pro quo. She’s jocular and delicate, and she says right up front, “Oh, we’re not asking for any favors. We’re just curious: What is the attorney general thinking?” And the best moment is when Gerri suggests [that the White House] could just fire her, and there’s this long pause, and the government official just says, “Ha, ha, ha,” so that on any transcript, if it ever comes out, this is played off as a joke, right? And I think that’s actually how it works.