Fans and reviewers of HBO’s Succession have said that this season, the show is simply spinning its wheels. Both the Los Angeles Times and The Atlantic say that the show is stuck, treading water. These comments mirror what fans are saying on social media: The show is repeating the same non-events, and people are bored.
This is only true, though, by the standards established by recently ubiquitous comic book movies and other popular genre work, in which audiences are used to seeing traditionally heroic characters on their journeys to save the world or catch a serial killer. In the broader context of fiction—and specifically compared to King Lear, which Succession is so clearly inspired by—this season has been action-packed. It’s just a matter of what people are expecting out of stories at this moment.
Succession, created by showrunner Jesse Armstrong, is about the foibles of the absurdly wealthy, Murdoch-like Roy family, who run the media company WaystarRoyco. In the show's inaugural episode, patriarch Logan Roy has a stroke, and the family must finally consider who will take over for him when he dies. Except, well, he doesn’t actually die, and he doesn’t want to give up the top throne either.
Now on its third season, Succession premiered shortly after the finale of Game of Thrones, another show about powerful people vying for control. In that show, the question of who would end up on the throne led all the action, which came to define the series with bloody, glorious events like the Red Wedding and the Battle of the Bastards. As Succession goes on, it’s becoming increasingly clear that the show isn’t actually about who is going to win after all, and that the backstabbing is not going to involve actual knives.
No character on Succession is easily likeable. Logan and his children Connor, Kendall, Shiv, and Roman hoard their wealth and are conspicuous with it. Slowly but surely, we see how they treat the workers at the company they are all fighting over—with inhuman cruelty—and their actions as business people match their demeanors as lovers and siblings and parents. There’s a blackness at the center of each of them, and in order to cover up that emptiness they take it out on each other, repeatedly. You can identify with Kendall’s trouble with addiction, or Shiv’s struggle to be taken seriously in a world dominated by blatantly sexist men. But just because they are relatable doesn’t mean they’re likable. In fact, that relatability only serves to make them even more hateable, especially when they’re at their cruelest.
Some reviews of this season of Succession take issue with the cyclical nature of these characters’ foibles.
“Unreviewed episodes later in the season, particularly one set in Italy, might herald a return to what Succession does best: an eruption of poisonous hostilities set against the backdrop of a Condé Nast Traveler pictorial,” the review from The Atlantic reads.
Indeed, the most recent episode about Kendall, Shiv, and Roman’s mother getting married in Italy had many high-water moments for this show’s third season, but I disagree about why. The pleasures of Succession aren’t derived from watching rich people use their money and being clever. It comes from the schadenfreude of watching people who really deserve it step on rakes for an hour.
While Succession showrunner Jesse Armstrong is also the writer behind The Thick of It and In the Loop, which skewered the world of politics, Succession has more in common with his previous show Peep Show than anything else. Peep Show, starring David Mitchell and Robert Webb, was a comedy series about two roommates who are so obnoxious that only they can really stand to be around each other. You might think that this show would have limited returns in terms of laughs, but Armstrong and his collaborator Sam Bain always found new depth to those characters, new ways they could debase themselves and alienate the people around them.
In Peep Show, Mark accidentally gets engaged to his on-again, off-again girlfriend Sophie, played with a fitful nervousness by Olivia Coleman. A worse show would have the characters pull out before the wedding. Peep Show actually makes you watch as they plan and have a ceremony despite knowing they don’t even like each other. By the time Mark and Sophie both say “I do” while openly weeping, the melodrama feels once again renewed. Peep Show asked its audience to watch as two people ruined their life out of embarrassment. Nothing really happened from episode to episode, except piling on the dread as these two characters aimlessly drifted towards this inevitable conclusion.
Some of these plot points wouldn’t be out of place on Succession, which ultimately is about watching bad people get much worse. Things happen constantly on Succession, actually, but not on the way things happened on Game of Thrones. There are no twists or turns. Allegiances won't turn on a dime. Succession isn’t truly a show about people making power plays—it’s about watching the humanity slowly get sucked out of people. Things happen in the sense that characters are given choices to be better but instead dig in their heels. Just like Mark and Sophie, there is an inevitable end, visible in how Logan Roy behaves and treats his children, that each Roy is in denial about. None of them want to be their father, but every episode is a lesson in how futile that desire is in the world they want to live in.
The show doesn’t have action in the way a Marvel movie has action, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have tense scenes that keep you on the edge of your seat. In an earlier episode this season, Kendall and Logan, at that point in time in the middle of a legal fight that could end either or both of them and multi-billion dollar company in the process, meet with one of their investors, played by Adrien Brody. Kendall and Logan are enemies, but they both need his support. After they reach a shaky understanding, they take a walk on the beach, and Logan, the old king of a media empire, can’t keep up. It’s only a walk on the beach, and he could easily take a seat or a drink of water, but to do so in front of his investor would be giving a sign that the king is weak and can be taken down by his enemies. It is just a walk on the beach with some dialogue, but if you accept Succession on its own terms, it is just as tense as the Red Wedding.
If Succession is spinning its wheels as a show, it’s because the characters by their nature are circling the drain. There may not be a lot of forward motion for the overarching plot in each episode, but each new interaction between these characters broaden and deepen exactly how and why they keep hurting each other. It’s less like watching the Roys race to the top, and more like watching Armstrong paint a portrait. With each new episode, new, horrible details are added to the canvas. I can’t look away.