A Dramedy that at times feels like a modern retelling of a Shakespearean tragedy, HBO’s inaugural season of the Roy family power struggle fits firmly in the pantheon of television’s all-time great first seasons.
With Sunday night’s finale, HBO’s Succession concluded its inaugural season with a bang (spoilers to come). Created by writer Jesse Armstrong and executively produced by Adam McKay (of both The Big Short and Talladega Nights) and Funny or Die cohort Will Ferrell, the show follows media mogul billionaire Logan Roy and family’s oversight of global conglomerate, Waystar Royco. With dark humor that abounds, the story focuses on the family patriarch and his four power-obsessed children – Connor, Kendall, Siohban (“Shiv”), and Roman (pictured above). Each Roy child brings an interesting mix of characteristics to the table: Kendall, long tapped as the heir apparent to the throne; Shiv, lone daughter and child with professional (and oftentimes conflicting) interests outside the family operation; Roman, the prototypical silver-spoon-in-mouth screw-up who naturally assumes an executive position he is wholly unqualified for; and eldest half-brother Connor, a philandering halfwit (and possible presidential candidate to be?). When Logan Roy suffers a brain hemorrhage at the season’s outset, the cast of characters naturally jockey for power.
The evolution of the first season merges the complexities of deeply dysfunctional family dynamics with incestual corporate interests. In the same vein as The Big Short, the show runners explore complex topics like shareholder revolts and private equity stock props in a fairly ingestible and highly entertaining manner. And that they do so through the use of modern day court jesters like Tom Wamsgans and Cousin Greg (aka Greg The Egg) who provide moments of laugh-out-loud comedic relief make for all the better.
[FOREWARNING: SPOILERS SET TO COMMENCE]
The show really doesn’t hit its stride until around the mid-way point of the season. In episode 5, Kendall aligns the pieces of the Waystar shareholder (chess)board to initiate a vote of no confidence against his father. As one of my favorite TV characters of all time once said, “You come at the king, you best not miss.” It’s in this pivotal act of corporate sabotage that the emotional layers of the main cast of characters — namely Kendall and Logan, but also Roman as well — slowly began to peel back and reveal people’s true colors. As expected, Kendall’s plot fails and all hell breaks loose inside the Roy family. Logan promptly fires his son and half the shareholder board, and in doing so draws battles lines in the sand of family loyalty versus corporate interests.
In one of the most harrowing episodes of the season (“Austerlitz”), the family convenes for the first time since Kendall’s act of corporate insubordination at eldest brother Connor’s ranch in New Mexico for an explosive family therapy session. Although almost all those participating (Shiv and Roman) quickly realize Logan’s true motivation for the kumbaya get-together is PR-driven, the event instigates Kendall’s deep-dive back into the world of drugs. What starts as an unannounced arrival in New Mexico for Kendall and a pit stop at a bar culminates in him uttering the line “I am interested in becoming a meth head” in a dingy, trap house. The implosion of the Roy family takes a turn for the worst at the episode’s conclusion and formally kicks into motion the payoff of the first season’s narrative arc. Logan lashes out at Shiv’s decision to join a Presidential candidate’s (a not so subtle Bernie Sanders wannabe) campaign team, a candidate whose views directly oppose Waystar’s business interests. After an argument ensues over Shiv’s decision to get in bed with a corporate enemy, Logan goes for the jugular by questioning Shiv’s decision to marry her fiancé Tom. Logan next turns his ire towards a recently arrived and supremely high Kendall. With drug-induced bravado, Kendall challenges his father in front of the family. The standoff ends with the pair face-to-face, as father tells former prodigal son in no uncertain terms, “You are a fucking nobody.”
The beauty of Succession and what makes the show so compellingly good is the show runners’ ability to neither take its subject matter nor its characters too seriously. An emotional roller-coaster like the aforementioned “Austerlitz” is followed up with the funniest episode of the season (“Prague”) — Tom’s bachelor party. The Roy boys, Cousin Greg and soon-to-be member of the Roy family Tom find themselves partying in the NYC underground at an event Roman describes as a “sand pit for emergent behavior.” While Greg snorts an eight ball of coke so that Kendall doesn’t overdose and Tom uh . . . sexually experiments . . . shall we say, Kendall’s Wall Street buddy Stewie makes a major revelation: The backer behind his private equity firm — the same firm that bailed out Waystar earlier in the season when the company faced financial ruin — is no other than rival media tycoon and Roy family enemy No.1 Sandy Furness. Sandy offers Kendall a cool $500 mill for his share of the company. After mulling it over, Kendall counters at episode’s end by deciding that blood is not, in fact, thicker than water. He pledges to support his newfound ally’s hostile takeover of the Roy family company, wrestling away ownership from not only his father but siblings as well.
This planned takeover comes to a head in the season’s last two episodes, episodes that revolve around Tom and Shiv’s nuptials. Set in England and with an ode to the royal wedding, viewers are given a longer look behind the Roy family curtain via an introduction to a highly-entertaining Caroline, Logan’s ex-wife and mother of Kendall, Shiv, and Roman. On the eve of the wedding, Sandy and Stewie inform Kendall of their plans to accelerate the takeover of Waystar and ouster of Logan. The only problem? Kendall is to be the bearer of bad news, and the news is to come on the literal day of Shiv and Tom’s wedding. In the finale, Kendall (played by future Emmy-nominee AND award-winner Jeremy Strong, mark my words) grapples with the decision to stab his father and family in the back. With bear hug letter in hand, Kendall strides into his father’s room mere moments after wedding family pictures to deliver the news. His tough-guy facade quickly melts in the presence of his furious father, as Kendall starts to stutter into a series of almost incoherent thoughts. The dirty deed done, Logan shares the news with the three remaining Roy children. As expected, none take to it kindly.
Seemingly out from under his father’s thumb and on the cusp of the power/opportunity he’s so desperately longed for, Kendall’s act of total family betrayal evokes a desire to replace his shame with the euphoria of former demons. He goes in search of cocaine, getting so desperate as to solicit help from a member of the wedding wait staff fired hours earlier in a public dust-up with his father. When the waiter knows of someone off-site who can provide the pair cocaine, Kendall gets behind the wheel of a car to drive the two to their destination. The ensuing tragedy unfolds as expected. Seconds before the car careens off a bridge and into a pond, Kendall’s hubris foreshadows his very downfall. As he proudly boasts of his incredible wealth, the car’s headlights bring into focus a frozen deer. Kendall swerves, the road gives way, and the trajectory of our tragic hero’s life and character arc meet
rock pond bottom. After pulling himself from the wreckage, Kendall leaves the waiter in the car and begins his journey — wet and in a state of severe shock — back to the wedding festivities
These last ten minutes of Succession’s first season offer some of the most gripping television seen in recent while. Covered in pond scum and mud, Kendall’s retreat back to his room in the deepest recesses of darkness and out of the watchful eyes of possible onlookers vividly foreshadows the moments to come. He returns to his room and tries to scrub himself of the act he’s just committed. He dresses, returns to the wedding after-party, and mimics normalcy. The following morning he feigns ignorance when informed by Greg that a member of the wait staff died in a tragic accident. Suddenly, Logan’s bodyguard interrupts the conversation with a request for Kendall to go see his father.
In the defining scene of season one, Logan asks Kendall of his reaction to the news of the night’s previous tragedy. Under the weight of Logan’s tacit acknowledgment of his involvement, Kendall’s emotions give way. With tears streaming down his face, Logan wraps his arms around his son and softly whispers, “You’re my boy. You’re my number one boy.” And thus the prodigal son’s unexpected return home concludes one of the best inaugural seasons of any show in this golden age of television.
[banner image: HBO]