In the first scene of the Season 2 finale of HBO’s “Succession,” Cousin Greg, like a page boy or lanky messenger shyly stalking to center stage, enters a Senate hearing to testify about systemic sex crimes and coverups in the cruise division of Waystar Royco, his employer. Upon being sworn in, Greg stumbles, even more clumsily than usual, into awkward formality. His tongue ties itself in knots in an attempt to achieve silvery diction, and Senator Gil Eavis asks Greg if he is O.K., and not suffering a dysphasic meltdown. Greg says, “Yes. I merely wish to answer in the affirmative fashion.” Eavis replies, “You can speak to us normally.” Can he, though?
In this column I’ve stated my admiration for how Jesse Armstrong, the show’s creator, constructs a carnivorous idiom of power for the Waystar Royco patriarch, Logan Roy, and also his brood and their élite competitors, in the war of all against all. This episode, titled “This Is Not for Tears,” deconstructs their ways of speaking power into existence. In a bravura scene where the characters nominate one another for the symbolic sacrifice of getting fired, they mostly attend to the question of how each hypothetical firing “would play” in the court of investor opinion. It’s a cross between a drawing-room comedy and a Hobbesian parlor game, such as Assassin or Secret Hitler.
The show is always good for a resonant Shakespeare citation. Last night, in a scene where Logan’s advisers counselled him on whether to take the company private, the characters achieved an awareness of themselves as courtiers or rude mechanicals. “Good night, sweet ladies,” Jamie, Logan’s banker, says, lifting his sign-off from Ophelia. The energy of the episode was degenerative—the end-of-empire vibe of a fatally troubled family business and media behemoth at risk of sinking into the sea, like Venice. The main set was a yacht recently redecorated with a tackiness that, rare for the Roys, glares with the golden ugliness of unchecked wealth. Given the entropy and agony of the story, maybe Jamie was also thinking about “The Waste Land.”
There is an actual human family at the center of this family business. Maybe. Against the scalpel-cold, cutthroat maneuvering, there were moments of emotional warmth, as when Kendall and Roman and Shiv anxiously bask in the sun, on the deck of the yacht. They’re waiting for their father to descend from the heavens in his helicopter, and also longing, forever and ambiently, for the love of their absent mother. Roman has been reunited with his sibling rivals after an ill-fated attempt to take the company private with the aid of an Azerbaijani sovereign wealth fund, during which Roman and his colleagues were briefly taken hostage. As part of his maturation into a real businessman and viable human being, he asks, with all the sincerity that his cynic’s heart can muster, “Is there a thing where we, like, talk to each other about stuff? Normally?” At which point Shiv and Kendall, regressive and cutely avoidant, as if retreating to the safety of a nursery, mock the question by answering it in comically squeaky voices. “We don’t have any feelings,” Shiv, sounding like a radioactive chipmunk, says. “What’re you talking about?”
No, the children cannot talk normally. When they try, they find that their powers of communication have reached their limit. Logan and Kendall, in a last-ditch effort to retain control of the company, fly off to meet Stewie—Kendall’s former partner in a botched hostile takeover of Waystar Royco—who almost immediately rejects the deal that they offer. Offended, Kendall defaults to his money-bro trash-talk style of emasculatory invective: “I will cut your fuckin’ dick off.” But Stewie finishes the thought in a way that empties it out:
“I will cut your fuckin’ dick off, and then push it up your cunt” until poo poo pops out of my nosehole. Dude, it doesn’t matter—it doesn’t mean anything. You can threaten to stuff a million severed dicks into my ball bag, but the actual fact is we’re persuading more and more shareholders every day that we offer them just a sightly better chance for them to make a little bit more money on their fucking dollar, and that’s all that this is.
The whole empire of signs is reduced to a greater-than symbol, the mouth of an impassive alligator eating someone’s lunch.
The first season of the show ended after a long and mostly silent sequence: the mute nightmare of Kendall wriggling from a sinking car, one with a dying human being inside it, and scrambling into the grasp of his omniscient father and his fixers. The second season ended with an inversion of that dynamic: Logan tells his son that he “is not a killer,” and Kendall rises to complete the bit of attempted patricide that previously went off the road. At Logan’s instruction, he appears at a press conference, in order to take the fall for the cruises scandal. Instead, Kendall identifies his father as the author of these corporate misdeeds. The manic flurry of news-camera flashbulbs illuminates an envelope of incriminating documents held by Greg, as if he’s a courier who has attained the role of lieutenant in a rebel army. The statement is explosive—an unscheduled fireworks display above a sovereign palace. The glowing embers of the pyrotechnics singe the roofs of the estate. Watching this on television, with his daughter curled into a prepubescent posture on the sofa beside him, Logan smiles, to the degree that the granite crags of his person allow, because his boy has exhibited the spirit of a killer in speaking up for himself.