Every TV series has to teach viewers to watch it but with some the learning curve is longer than others. Created by British TV veteran Jesse Armstrong, Succession debuted in June 2018, but it took time to pick up the loyal following it now enjoys. Some early reviews emphasized its bleakness and it's not hard to see why. It's a series populated with hard-to-like characters who spend most of their time trying to hurt each other or destroy themselves. (Sometimes both at once.) But the more time you spend with aging media patriarch Logan Roy (Brian Cox) and his family, the easier it becomes to understand the ways they talk and relate to each other — and their world of unforgiving relationships, casual backstabbing, and high-stakes business maneuvers. The apparent bleakness lifts to reveal darkly funny show with a sneaky emotional pull that invites viewers to care about the fates of some truly awful people. Critic/TV writer Andy Greenwald posted a tweet at the time that spoke for the experiences of many viewers, a chart of his changing reactions that opens with "Episodes 1-3: Eh." and closes with "Episode 7: <gets cousin greg tattoo>".
Succession's first season ended with a finale in which tensions came to a head at the wedding of Shiv Roy (Sarah Snook) and Tom Wamsgans (Matthew Macfadyen). It's better to go into Season 2 knowing as little as possible about the plot, and this review, based on the five episodes supplied by HBO to critics, will be light on spoilers, but in some ways the biggest spoiler is the one revealed within the first episode's opening moments: It begins just 48 hours after the events of the first season finale.
That means no one's had a chance to catch their breath, even those who most needed to take some time off. After watching his hostile takeover bid blow up in his face following a Chappaquiddick-inspired car accident, Kendall (Jeremy Strong) has gone to a spa to dry out. But he's soon drawn back into the family business as Logan works to contain the PR damage caused by said bid going public. Whether Waystar Royco, the family business, will be shark or minnow in the changing business climate remains an ongoing question with implications throughout the series this season, but nowhere as profoundly as the relationship between Kendall and Logan.
Cowed by his failed takeover bid, and his father's subsequent aid in squelching a potential scandal, Kendall limps into the season as a broken man trying his best to maintain some semblance of dignity without violating his unspoken agreement always to be on his dad's side. That arrangement does little to pull him back from the abyss he seemed to be on the verge of teetering into in Season 1, and Strong plays Kendall as a man always close to lashing out or breaking down, finding new shades of desperation in a character who already seemed to have found his bottom.
Developments at Waystar Royco quickly draw in others as well. Shiv and Tom find themselves too distracted to honeymoon, or to consider the implications of Shiv's wedding night revelation that she wasn't cut out for monogamy. Both quickly find their own professional careers changed as well. Shiv becomes more directly involved in family affairs than in the previous season, and consequently more twisted up in the family's tangle of personal and professional relationships. Meanwhile, Tom is plunged into the belly of ATN, the family's Fox News-like news channel/propaganda machine, with Cousin Greg (Nicholas Braun) in tow, a situation that both challenges some of Greg's heretofore unmentioned political beliefs and forces him to operate more like a member of the Roy family than ever before. As with Strong, the storylines ask more of all three cast members, all of whom rise to the challenge, revealing vulnerabilities and capabilities only glimpsed in the first season.
That's true of Kieran Culkin's work as Roman as well, even as he adds bricks to the protective wall of cynicism and depravity with which he surrounds himself. Chastened, at least up to a point, by his failed rocket launch, Roman's forced to start at the bottom rung in an attempt to learn the ins and outs of Waystar Royco, a change in status that does little to shake his character but does allow the series to pick up an extremely promising supporting characters best left as a surprise. Elsewhere, Connor's (Alan Ruck) political experiment picks up steam, and as the rest of the Roy family watches in embarrassment, his commitment to it only intensifies, a commitment Ruck plays with an almost scary lack of self-awareness.
Later episodes see the addition of high-profile guest stars Cherry Jones and Holly Hunter as members of a rival media family, and both give the series an added charge. More than ever, however, Cox's Logan serves as the dark star around which everyone else revolves. His declining health kept in check, at least for now, Logan subjects both employees and family — a line now blurrier than ever — to abuse and browbeating. He's a man for whom even love is an act of bending others to his will, a process of negotiation and manipulation that threatens to drive both Kendall and Shiv to the breaking point by midseason. Cox delivers a fierce performance that taps into the heart of the show. His Logan is terrifying but also sometimes unpredictably hilarious, as when he breaks up a fit of rage with a perfectly enunciated delivery of the word "whirlybird." He's a lion in winter, but a lion nonetheless.
Succession also, miraculously, makes it possible to feel for Logan, a man still too invested in his work and his legacy to enjoy what he's built or feel any affection for his children. And it makes us feel for his children, a collection of not-quite-grown ups scarred by their time with the family patriarch. Shiv and Kendall still live for his approval (even if Kendall has sometimes sought it by trying to take him out). Roman may be an unapologetic bastard and Connor living in a different reality, but it's not hard to see why they ended up that way. They're battered, broken people, and Succession never loses sight of that, even while refusing to soften who they are. In one telling moment, one character congratulates another on a blackmail attempt as a sign of emotional growth and a way to tighten up family ties. Sometimes, Succession seems to argue love takes twisted, ugly forms. But that doesn't mean it's not still love.
TV Guide Rating: 5/5
Succession Season 2 premieres Sunday, Aug. 11 at 9/8c on HBO.
[Full disclosure: This reviewer once worked at the same publication as Will Tracy, writer of this season's fifth episode.]