HBO’s ‘Succession’ Season 3: TV Review

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In what is possibly the year’s most anticipated small-screen premiere, Succession begins its third,
pandemic-delayed season Oct. 17. The HBO drama — or is it a comedy? — arrives almost precisely two years after the second-season finale, with Kendall Roy’s cliffhanger act of betrayal. THR’s TV critics check in with the fictional media dynasty we love to hate.

DANIEL FIENBERG: In the real world, a lot has happened since the second season of Succession aired in October of 2019, from COVID to an election booting a presumptively dynastic, assumptively wealthy family from the White House.

The Bottom Line Scathingly funny, uncomfortably tense, and still one of TV’s best shows.

Airdate: Sunday, Oct. 17

Cast: Brian Cox, Jeremy Strong, Kieran Culkin, Sarah Snook, Matthew Macfadyen, J. Smith-Cameron, David Rasche, Peter Friedman, Alan Ruck, Nicholas Braun, Adrien Brody

Creator: Jesse Armstrong

Those on the TV beat have written extensively about the rise of Performatively Nice TV in the vein of Ted Lasso, shows that offered a salve to a wounded nation rather than exposing our corrosive rot à la Succession. At the same time, Emmy voters recently filled the gap left in the HBO show’s absence by honoring a different show about backstabbing, amoral royalty, The Crown. And the summer’s most-discussed series, HBO’s The White Lotus, was nothing if not Succession if the central characters were just as self-absorbed but not quite rich enough to fully insulate themselves from the hoi polloi.

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Our attentions have moved elsewhere, but nothing has quite filled that Cousin Greg-size hole in our hearts, which is probably why the show’s return may not be the most widely anticipated premiere since Game of Thrones — basically Succession with dragons — but it’s surely the most anticipated in terms of a specific, fiercely devoted audience. If you’ve been waiting for season three, you’re probably prepared to testify against your family in a public setting to get those episodes.

Angie, on a power scale of Frank to Logan, how excited were you when the Succession screeners hit your inbox?

ANGIE HAN: Oh, I was more riled up than Logan Roy during a game of Boar on the Floor. As you said, there’s only one Succession. Season two left me ready to offer up my own blood sacrifice to find out what happens next, and having seen seven episodes now of season three, I’m satisfied to
report that it’s worth the wait.

What struck me first as I dove back in was not how thrilling or dramatic this show can be, but how laugh-out-loud funny it is. The secret weapon that sets Succession apart from so many other rich-people prestige dramas is that the Roys are fundamentally kind of stupid, or at least not nearly as smart as they think they are — they’re driven less by logic and strategy than by puffed-up egos, hurt feelings and whatever combination of illegal drugs they’ve ingested that day. The series mines that disconnect for both intense tragedy and cringeworthy comedy, as they try desperately to convince themselves and one another that they’re totally in control.

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This season, that combination plays out most potently in Kendall’s arc, where what looked like a clear-cut moment of triumph crumbles into … well, we said no spoilers, but it wouldn’t be Succession if his ascent were that clean and easy, right? What do you think of how the battle lines are drawn in season three?

FIENBERG: You’re steering right into one of my favorite peccadilloes, one that applies exclusively to Emmy voters and nobody else — namely, that Succession is absolutely and unequivocally a comedy. There’s humor to be found in Roman’s evolving perversity, the jokingly abusive (sa-bro-masochistic?) relationship between Greg and Tom, the flailing ridiculousness of Kendall, and the overall satirical approach to family. An episode this season set around a crucial shareholders’ meeting — as ever, Succession loves building episodes around isolated meetings, insular conventions and any situation in which the Roys can be forced to spend entirely too much time together — contained more laugh-out-loud dialogue than any hour of TV I’ve watched in years.
And that’s including easy-to-categorize shows like What We Do in the Shadows or Schitt’s Creek,
another of those Performatively Nice TV comedies.

At the same time, though, those family tragedy elements feel rawer and more intense than ever before, perhaps because with the way season two ended, those battle lines being drawn left no
room at all for meandering or narrative detour. This season is about a family at war, and individual family members at war with themselves, and the show’s relentless propulsion can tie you in knots. Kendall’s being psychologically torn to pieces because no character on TV is as good at snatching misery from the jaws of contentment as Kendall Roy.

Creator Jesse Armstrong is a master at servicing what has become an ever-expanding ensemble, and almost on an episode-by-episode basis, your sense of whose arc is most central to the season can shift. Always the Roy torn most clearly between external forces, Shiv feels the least certain of her place after the Kendall-induced Waystar Royco earthquake, or maybe I’m just conscious of how doggedly Sarah Snook is pursuing that Emmy that Julia Garner snatched away from her in 2020.

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Whose season is this for you?

HAN: Much like Logan, I’m loath to pick a favorite. In some ways, this feels like another Kendall season, as Jeremy Strong and the writers seize the opportunity to remind us that the only thing worse than Kendall in the depths of despair is Kendall on top of the world. He’s unbelievably, hilariously obnoxious this season as he rides a tidal wave of arrogance into his war against Dad — only to prove yet again that he’s still, deep down, that wounded little boy desperate for approval, and probably always will be.

But not even Kendall outdoes his younger brother for arrogance this season, as a couple of wins inflate Roman’s ego to perilous proportions. Shiv, as you point out, looks the most unsure of her
position — which only makes her more willing to fight dirty, having given up all but the faintest pretense of the principles she once claimed were important to her.

Naturally, all this family squabbling attracts attention from outsiders who might be impacted by the fallout in some way or other. And while none of the new characters so far seem as central to the storyline as Rhea (Holly Hunter) or Nan (Cherry Jones) were in season two, the most intriguing to me is Adrien Brody as Josh Aaronson, a shareholder with a significant stake in the company. His quieter, more insidious brand of power stands as a stark contrast to the bluster that has become the Roy family’s signature — and it’s not the Roys who come out looking sturdier in that comparison.

What do you make of the season’s new players and new elements? Are there any in particular that stand out to you?

FIENBERG: Because he won his Oscar for a performance grounded in misery, people tend to cast Brody in the glummest parts imaginable — I’m looking at you, Chapelwaite — and it’s always fun to remember how wonderfully he plays the cocky jackass, which makes him a perfect fit for this ensemble. Really, the show’s casting is reliably impeccable, whether the actors being brought in are known quantities (Alexander Skarsgard, as a seemingly introverted tech mogul) or relatively fresh faces (podcaster-turned-writer/director Dasha Nekrasova as a PR consultant named, of all things, “Comfry”). Who’s going to be surprised when Hope Davis or Justin Kirk meshes perfectly with this ensemble? Nobody, that’s who.

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But I feel we’d be remiss, from a reviewing standpoint, if we had no reservations at all. And I’m a bit less enamored with this season’s increased interest in politics. Alan Ruck’s Connor, if readers will recall, was mounting an unlikely presidential run and steering headlong into the dysfunction of the post-Trump discourse. That element of the Roys’ story comes across, at times, as a little more on-the-nose than my preferred version of Succession. The show thrives when it’s bathing in Trump-adjacent waters. The soulless enclaves of privilege, the polluted fringes of the media and the easily manipulatable systems give real-life families like the Roys terrifying (and comical) impunity. And when they’re throwing the most lavish and unbearable parties imaginable, Succession clicks. But every second we’re talking directly about politics is a second we aren’t making fun of Kendall for forgetting about his children.

As we’re wrapping up, did any parts of the show play differently for you after the rocky sea change of the past couple of years?

HAN: The politics stuff, definitely. Like you, I don’t think it totally works. The discussions the characters have on the show feel a bit behind the times, like they’re only now coming around to the lessons that we in the real world have been grappling with for four or five years already. Succession is an inherently political show, but — Conheads jokes notwithstanding — I think it fares better at digging into the rotten systems that the Roys are already entrenched in.

That, of course, includes the cycles of abuse and neglect that the Roy family can’t seem to escape. It’s been clear from the earliest episode that these are people who’ve never healed from the scars of their upbringing, and by virtue of the family’s wealth and status, their damage has a way of breaking everything and everyone around them in turn. Season three makes that characterization more explicit than ever in my favorite episode of the season, centered on the tackiest birthday party of all time. God, it looks miserable — and God, am I glad to be back, raising a glass once again to the best worst family on TV right now.

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