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It’s a well-known fact that one of the most distinct pleasures of writing criticism is being proven right—of having people fall in love with something you’ve championed from the beginning. There is a less-discussed but equally important pleasure, however: being proven wrong.
I gave the first season of Succession a fairly positive review, writing that it was entertaining but ultimately dismissing it as “a bunch of corporate, macho chest-beating” that lacked star power. Now, I realize it wasn’t Succesion’s fault I failed to see its greatness, but my own. We’ve been so conditioned to expect headline-grabbing, revolutionary television from HBO, I failed to meet this media empire saga on its own terms. In season 2, Succession is no less macho, and the biggest names attached to it remain producer Will Ferrell and producer/director Adam McKay. Yet what once seemed a safer bet for a network like Showtime has blossomed into one of the best shows on HBO.
CREATOR: Jesse Armostrong
In season 2, ‘Succession’ establishes itself as the best piece of commentary on corporate America since ‘The Wolf of Wall Street.’
Following the shocking conclusion of season 1, season 2 (which debuted last Sunday and airs a new episode every week) picks up 48 hours after we last left the Roy family. Kendall (Jeremy Strong) is in shambles after his attempt to take control of Waystar Royco spectacularly fell apart, forcing him to crawl back to his father, Logan (Brian Cox). In the wake of this betrayal, Logan’s two younger children, Roman (Kieran Culkin) and Shiv (Sarah Snook), must reconsider to whom the patriarch might hand his legacy. Logan’s oldest and the black sheep of the siblings, Connor (Alan Ruck), is planning an absurd and all-too-believable run for president. And of course, Shiv’s husband, Tom (Matthew Macfadyen), continues to haplessly scramble for any scrap of power, all while abusing the lowest family member on the totem pole, cousin Greg (Nicholas Braun).
Logan’s first choice for successor should be apparent to anyone who watched season 1. Unsurprisingly, however, things do not go according to plan. Perhaps one of the reasons Succession first felt out of touch is that, besides being so male, straight, and white, season 1 was also obsessed with old media amid a modern media landscape that only seems to care about the new. Somehow, though, this season manages to feel more relevant by doubling down on its out-of-touchness.
It quickly becomes clear that the Logan sees himself as the last vestige of hope for the old guard against the growing threat of America’s tech giants. It’s no secret that Succession is loosely based on the Murdoch family, a fact which 1) is terrifying and 2) makes perfect sense. Therefore, it’s no surprise we see a lot more of Logan’s Fox News-like ATN network this season. While Murdoch’s approach to media may seem old-fashioned compared to, say, Mark Zuckerberg’s, that doesn’t mean it’s not still incredibly powerful. Succession is a prescient reminder that it’s not just Silicon Valley’s monopolizing and power hoarding that pose a threat to our democracy; if old media goes down, it intends to take us all with it.
The show’s obsession with masculinity has also grown on me. There’s so much unnecessary aggression in this series, one can almost read it as a commentary on bullying. Roman bullies his siblings because he thinks it will impress his bullying father. Shiv bullies Tom because she’s faced bullying all her life from the patriarchy. Tom bullies Greg because Shiv and the rest of the family bully him, and Greg is lowest on the totem pole, so he can easily get away with it. It’s all incredibly nasty and often hilarious, but never lacking nuance.
The entire cast of Succession season 2 delivers dynamite performances. Braun’s Greg is one of the funniest characters on television, almost stuck in a demented Laurel and Hardy routine with Macfadyen’s perfectly pathetic Tom. Culkin is deliciously slimy, Cox remains believable as the most powerful guy in almost any room, and Ruck is a doofus who’s fun to watch. Newcomers include Holly Hunter as Rhea Jarrell, CEO of a rival news corporation, with Cherry Jones playing the matriarch of said dynasty. These women—along with Snook and Hiam Abbass, who plays Logan’s wife, Marcia—mercifully take away some screen time from the fraternity that makes up most of this season’s cast.
Yet the actor I have to single out is Strong. Last year, I wrote that Strong “doesn’t quite have the instant magnetism to give [Succession] that boost.” Star power aside, I was flat-out wrong. His performance as Kendall is so tragic, so profoundly damaged, it will almost make you feel sorry for every rich, Wall Street daddy’s boy you’ve ever met. From doing his father’s bidding to entering a potential relationship with a toxic new love interest, every bad decision Kendall makes is somehow more compelling and more frustrating than the last.
Strong’s performance, like Succession as a whole, is proof that some things are worth a second look. If, like me, you initially dismissed this show, it’s time you circle back to the best parable about corporate America since The Wolf of Wall Street.
Chris Osterndorf is an entertainment reporter and movie critic based in Los Angeles. He holds a degree in cinema from Chicago’s DePaul University. His work has appeared on the Daily Dot, Mic, the Script Lab, Salon, the Week, xoJane, and more.