This past Sunday, the critically acclaimed HBO series “Succession” returned after two years for a third season. The show, if anything, has only increased its monopoly on current television discourse since quarantine. Following its red-carpet premiere on Oct. 12, as if it were a blockbuster movie, “Succession”’s return was the Super Bowl for those with HBO subscriptions.
“Succession” follows the Roy family, the owners of Waystar Royco, a media conglomerate that has drawn comparisons to the real-life Rupert Murdoch and his enterprise of conservative publications. Logan Roy (Brian Cox) is the patriarch of the family, but as his health declines, his children and colleagues compete for his spot as CEO. There’s Shiv (Sarah Snook), his only daughter, as whip-smart and vulgar as her father. There’s Roman (Kieran Culkin), even more vulgar, and a bit less smart. There’s Connor (Alan Ruck), the oldest and dumbest. And then, there’s Kendall (Jeremy Strong).
Part of the hype surrounding this coming season grew out of last season’s cliffhanger ending. Kendall holds the keys to season three, after hijacking the plot at the end of season two. Waystar Royco’s cruise line came under attack after the company was exposed for covering up sexual assaults and murders onboard. Rather than aligning with his dad like the rest of his siblings, Kendall publicly goes against him, claiming Logan was aware of the cover-ups. This isn’t exactly a noble move. Kendall wants to be CEO like everyone else, and due to his temperament and struggles with addiction, he figures he won’t be his dad’s top choice. So he throws a hail mary, and season three begins.
Those who were left anxiously pining for the show’s infamous credit song for the past two years might be slightly disappointed by this season’s premiere. Almost every scene seemed to take place either in a plane, in a car or waiting for either vehicle. The show’s characters never stopped moving, but no one really seemed to get anywhere.
In this way, “Succession” is the 2021 version of “West Wing.” Despite the deserved acclaim of both shows, they share the common feature of characters who seem to require an inordinate amount of walking. Similar in its sense of rapid movement, quick monologues and complicated power dynamics, Jesse Armstrong, the creator of “Succession,” seems to pick at the scab Aaron Sorkin was trying to heal with the sweeter, kinder, patriotic “West Wing.” The dutiful officials of the “West Wing” era have, like many officials in the Obama era, traded in their White House passes for board positions at Waystar Royco. The Monopoly Man has overthrown the president; ATN, the Fox News-like Royco network, controls the press secretary; the stock market replaces public opinion polls.
Americans don’t want to see the government try to fix anything anymore. In “House of Cards,” people get killed more than problems get solved. “Designated Survivor” is predicated on the government’s explosion. “Scandal” was more about soothing the President’s woes than the nation’s. In “Succession,” the political stakes are just as high — Waystar Royco, like Murdoch’s News Corp, has enormous control over the economy and national attitude — but there’s no presumed morality. We know the Roys have no interest in serving the public good. They’re blameless in a way presidents are not.
That is why “Succession” can be funny. The characters are decidedly more vile, more suspect, more murderous than most characters in any White House series. But because we did in some way elect them — Logan earned his money through media companies that successfully captured national attention — and because they have no official duty to the public, we can love to hate them.
“This is the full Baskin Robbins,” Logan says in an apparent non sequitur during the premiere, “thirty-one flavors of fuck right there.” It doesn’t make sense, but it doesn’t have to. He’s no Jed Bartlet. He’s a billionaire on his way to Sarajevo to escape possible extradition. He can do whatever he wants.
We can laugh as the Roys divide the country, upset the economy and kill some people to prove themselves to their father. While Bartlet’s major fault was failing to tell the nation that he had multiple sclerosis, Kendall leaves a young man to die after they crash a car while driving high on ketamine. Shiv unethically silences a sexual assault victim of the cruise scandal. Logan, in addition to creating the comically evil-sounding Waystar Royco, seems to genuinely hate some of his kids. But Bartlet, in 2000, was the one seen as unforgivable. He was censured by Congress, subject to investigations, distrusted by the public. Twenty years later, the Roys know they don’t have to ask for our forgiveness. We no longer expect apologies.