In its second season, Succession, America’s favorite show about the haunting legacy of physical and psychological abuse and/or rich white folks trying to win a kiss from daddy — has seemingly gone from a show that a bunch of TV critics couldn’t shut up about to a show that seemingly everybody* can’t shut up about.
(*who works in the media)
The HBO series has made good on the prediction that I, Vox critic at large Emily VanDerWerff, made back when Game of Thrones’ final season had just ended: that Succession would become the next TV show everybody was preoccupied with. Its ratings are nowhere near as big as Game of Thrones’ ratings (though its audience has grown from season one to season two), but the fans it does have seem obsessed with it almost to distraction — exactly what you need when building a massive TV sensation.
Going into the season finale in which all the show’s fans could talk about online was who Logan’s “blood sacrifice” could possibly be. Kendall? Tom? Roman? Shiv? Gerri?! (God, not Gerri!) And then “This Is Not for Tears” aired, and it was so much more than the endless questioning leading up to it.
It ended in a place the series has always been heading toward — Logan and Kendall finally at war — but got there via a side door. And the buildup to those tremendous final moments, with Kendall finally, finally flipping on his father on live television, was bruising and boozy, with the characters sailing through a too-hot yacht trip from hell.
But you know that no Succession season finale would be complete without winners who’ve just taken one step closer to the spoils of the Roy empire (and/or earning Logan’s love) and losers who will have to spend the long wait between seasons licking their wounds. So for the last time in 2019, I’m joined by The Goods by Vox editor Meredith Haggerty to talk winners, losers, and the future of Waystar Royco. And was the biggest winner of them all the word “but”? Well, we’ll answer that too.
Emily: When it looked as if this episode would end like “DC” hinted it might — with Logan making Kendall his “blood sacrifice” — I was satisfied for having predicted the proper “skull” but also disappointed in the sense that it felt so much like Succession’s season one finale, wherein Kendall saw his open rebellion quelled via unfortunate circumstances. Was the arc of this show just going to be Kendall taking the fall for other people’s sins, bearing his father’s punishment with meek and mild, “Uh-huh”s?
Nope! “This Is Not for Tears” ends with Kendall ripping up the notes that have been prepared for him and tossing them like confetti as he exits the press conference where he stabbed his father in the back. It was awesome.
To get to a place where this felt as satisfying as it did, Succession had to spend an entire season watching Kendall slowly disintegrate under his father’s thumb and then had to make us care just enough about the Shiv-Kendall relationship to be at least a little sad to watch her become so intimately tied to Kendall’s ouster from Waystar Royco.
Logan’s tyranny has so defined his children’s lives that it’s hard to imagine a world in which the four of them find a way to step out from under him. Kendall’s choice, arguably, is the only way to get his father to respect him, even if it means Logan will probably try to have him killed — both metaphorically and (almost certainly) literally.
After all, when Kendall asks Logan if he ever could have been the big boss, Logan tells him he’s not sure Kendall could ever be a killer. It’s the wrong move — more on that in two seconds — but it’s also a move that Kendall seems determined to disprove, right down to giving his dad a Judas kiss. (Eat your heart out, Demi Adejuyigbe!) We’ll see who can be a killer now, dad.
Meredith: In last week’s penultimate episode, Logan casually accused Roman of wanting to fuck his mother (and excuse you, Gerri is not his mother), but he was worried about the wrong Oedipal impulse in the wrong tormented son. Killer Ken! I’m almost as proud as Logan!
Logan’s crushing of Kendall, as Emily mentioned, was brutal this episode: the cruel dismissal of and gaslighting about Naomi, another round of humiliation in front of Stewie (Logan offers to give up Ken’s board seat as part of the possible deal), all culminating in a murder the victim is supposed to agree to. It had to be in that moment, when Logan doubted his fortitude, that Ken truly turned. But I wonder if Logan’s fate wasn’t really sealed when he invoked the cruise’s offensive motto — “no real person involved” — to refer to the waiter Kendall let drown. Kendall has a better idea than most Roys that other people are horribly, horribly real.
What’s next for Kendall, in a post-Logan world? It seems pretty likely that he’ll be telling his whole story now, not just talking about the cruise mess, and he certainly has the media connections to do it. PGM, New York magazine, Jessica Hecht’s forgotten biographer character. Hey, maybe he’ll even write a book of his own!
Meredith: Oh Shiv, Shiv, Shiv, Shiv. So close, so far; doesn’t even matter anymore.
None of Shiv’s plans this episode go as expected, no matter how meticulously she plants the seeds. Yes, she’s able to arrange for a female steward to be her and Tom’s unicorn for a threesome, but it’s an overture he nervously rejects due to what seems to be performance anxiety but is in fact a deep and abiding desire to only bone his wife (Tom suggests they have the woman watch them ... from the bathroom). Worse, it ends up forcing them to have the kind of emotional discussion married adults sometimes have to have, the kind about how one of them is secretly horrifically unhappy (“I do maybe also demand to gobble the odd side dick,” being a thing I assume all married people say to one another).
And much more importantly: Yes, Dad ultimately goes with the plan they had “discussed” — Shiv was the only one who knew how likely Logan was to ax Kendall — but Kendall ruins it by, you know, exposing Logan to the world. Oh, and rooting for your brother’s demise is like, bad? But even before the end of what could easily be understood to be a Shiv season, the only Roy daughter is reduced to having the unspecific title of “a very senior person” dangled in front of her while begging for her miserable husband’s life, only to see it all go up in smoke. Not great for the woman who was nearly CEO. Shiv maintains her position beside Logan, but that seems like a pretty dangerous place to be.
That said: fantastic jumpsuits this episode. No one wears white better. And we’ll always have the hair.
Emily: God, Shiv’s probably gonna get another haircut between seasons again, and ... and ... I don’t think I’ve ever loved anything on television as much as I’ve loved Shiv’s hair. Alack and alas!
Otherwise, Shiv truly showed how bad she was at making the tough calls this season. Even by her father’s “you have to be a killer” estimation, it’s not really that hard to argue that she made the easy and incorrect choice when begging to keep Tom’s job. And that’s to say nothing of how she was forced to take a very hard look at some huge cracks in her marriage, cracks that will not be easily fixed, if they are at all.
In the end, Succession season two used the character of Shiv to say something devastating about lean-in style feminism, the idea that what we need are more women in boardrooms and not necessarily massive structural changes that would radically alter our patriarchal institutions. Shiv entered the season as the one character who was far enough outside of the family enough to viably be named the next CEO. And now she exits it as an even more terrible person than she already was (Gerri herself points to witness tampering!).
It doesn’t matter who’s in the big chair if the whole system is broken. And Waystar Royco is so broken that it takes whatever was good in Shiv (admittedly a tiny few droplets) and wrings it out of her. And all along the way, it toys with the emotions of those of us who might find Shiv just a little too relatable, who might just be currently growing their hair into a very familiar power bob, by reminding us of just how complicit she’s always been.
Emily: Think all the way back to “Tern Haven,” this season’s fifth episode. Remember how that episode ended with the Pierces agreeing to Logan’s deal if he would simply name Shiv as his successor — something he had promised to her in the season premiere (however uncertain his word may be)? Remember how he blew it up because he doesn’t like to be told what to do? Remember how many moments the season centered on him seemingly isolating and wounding himself due to his inability to give up control?
Well, that’s what we call “great season construction,” because it was all leading to this. If Logan had told Kendall that, yes, Kendall could have been a great CEO, would Kendall have decided against taking down his dad? It’s impossible to say one way or the other, but it certainly might have tempered Kendall’s wrath a tiny bit.
In retrospect, season two now feels like one about how Logan’s refusal to give an inch when it comes to his kids made them into the terrible, damaged people they are, while also guaranteeing that in his old age, those deeds would be repaid over and over and over again. There are so many instances in this season where, if Logan had just said or done something slightly different, he might not have seen his son assail the foundations of his empire.
But he didn’t. The finale ends on a shot of the man staring implacably forward. What is he thinking? Who knows — but the horizon is drenched with dark clouds filled with rain.
Meredith: Roman wins this week by showing up — literally, as far as I’m concerned, because I was very worried about him dying last week. But Roman made it out of Turkey, not just okay, and not just more-than-okay-with-a-multi-billion-dollar-deal, but with the sense and courage to tell Logan that this deal could not be as good as it seemed. Who is this young man, with a head for business and a nearly thoughtful manner, who only makes jokes every other sentence, instead of two per?
It does seem like Roman’s kidnapping changed him for the better: Besides being clear-eyed about the Turkish deal, he actually suggests talking “normally” to his siblings (who, of course, respond by saying “normally” in funny voices). Could Roman be ready for human connection? He even protests Kendall’s offing, the way a person would stand up for their brother.
Plus, and these are the real stakes after all, he did indeed win the theme song’s kiss from daddy by landing the job of COO (“Roman wins a kiss from Dadd-eeee”). It might just be the high from his still-developing master plan to burn the house down, but Ken looks incredibly proud.
Meredith: If Gerri had been blamed for cruises, I would have rioted in the streets!!
No one has shown Waystar Royco more loyalty, as Logan pointed out while still fully planning to business-behead his devoted general counsel. In fact, doom seems terribly close for Gerri a few times over the course of this godforsaken yacht excursion, as her name is repeatedly included in Logan’s various iterations of who should take the fall.
But luckily, along with a fantastic boating wardrobe and an eternally unflappable manner, she has Roman in her corner, whose stirring defense of his sex mommy (“Haven’t we — and I’m kidding here — killed enough women?”) helps to spare her. Gerri survives another day, sees her semi-betrothed installed in a serious power position (season three: the Rockstar and the Molewoman, here we come!), and well, she still isn’t an actual Roy, a blessing in and of itself.
Emily: Our dear Wambsgans is such a goofball that it’s tempting to forget he apparently has a beating heart and real human emotions inside of him (we checked!). But in the finale, a season full of Tom’s slow-building anger and rage at the various situations that are out of his control (and especially being informed by his wife that he’s in an open marriage on his wedding night) implodes rather than explodes.
He tells his wife he’s not sure he’s happier since he married her than he was without her. He tries to explain just how distraught he is. And what was it that tipped off these bad feelings? The moment when Shiv failed to sufficiently stand up for him at the gigantic family meeting that is the episode’s centerpiece, and it became clear that if push came to shove, Shiv would shove Tom out of a helicopter if it meant she could advance just a few steps further in her father’s company. (To be fair, he might do the same.)
And here’s the final twist of the knife: Shiv, so moved by her husband’s utter despair, contrives to spare him and keep him close — just when Kendall is about to blow up the company. Honestly, the Tom and Shiv marriage is a thing Succession hasn’t quite explained in a fashion where it makes a ton of sense, but this feels like the start of some serious introspection, like the series owning up to the idea that it just might be broken beyond repair, even if both parties have tried to fix it at various times.
Emily: Succession has gained a reputation in some corners — including in the Vox Slack chats about Succession — for raising plot points that seem dreadfully important, then letting them slide, seemingly forgotten.
Well, just look at how long those documents Greg saved from shredding have been floating around the edges of the series, only to make their triumphant return at Kendall’s news conference! To be sure, the show spent lots of time reminding us those documents exist. It made sure in every other episode that they were mentioned. It even gave us a scene of Greg saving some from being destroyed, just a few episodes ago.
But the way they’ve remained mostly offscreen until right now and the way that they neatly resolve Greg’s growing conflict over his place in the Roy family, versus the family he grew up in, is terrifically engaging and great character development for our favorite very tall boy. (I anxiously await the many scenes of Kendall and Greg interacting with each other next season.) Greg did the right thing — whatever that means — and once again, he rises to the winner’s circle. Just can’t keep a good Greg down!
(Less auspicious: Greg going before Congress and speaking in extremely formal terms, even when he’s told he can speak normally. “I shall,” Greg intones.)
Loser: the rest of the executive suite
Meredith: Oof, it sucks to be a high-ranking official under Logan Roy. Even his initial idea about a blood sacrifice was mostly limited to Waystar Royco’s generals (Gerri, Frank, Karl, Syd, and Ray, went the list), a reminder that all of these semi-interchangeable people are expendable. From Karl, whose love of illicit massages is once again rubbed in his face, to Laird, whose expertise is rebuffed in favor of Roman’s gut, to Karolina, who is stuck in the very room where Kendall is exploding Waystar Royco, no one is coming out on top. “We are real people,” Karl reminds Roman, who claims to be keeping a betting sheet to track which of the non-Roy execs will be ousted. “You say that, but look at you,” Rome replies.
The questions of what they knew and when they knew it (universally: “a lot about crimes but somehow nothing about basic morality” and “probably from the very beginning”) are about to become very public fodder, and the scramble to get in front of this disaster is going to be great TV.
Emily: Naomi! Get out of here! Before you can be sucked back into this whole — [gestures vaguely to Roy family] thing. You can finally be free!
We look forward to seeing you again in season three.
Loser: The Connor/Willa duology
Emily: It’s kind of fun watching Connor enjoy how the world’s finest meme-makers are contributing to his campaign (one of their memes apparently involves Connor bringing down the Berlin Wall!), and he’s truly embraced the name “Conheads.” But then the reviews for Willa’s play come in, and Will throws Con’s tablet right over the side of the boat.
It’s always this way with these two: Things seem to be going along nicely, and then somebody shows up to tell you you’re not doing so well and you throw your tablet overboard.
The rest of the episode doesn’t strike much more of a promising note, containing as it does Connor’s offer to fall on the sword for Logan, Logan forcing him to suspend his campaign, and Logan also refusing to lean on his newspapers in hopes of getting some good reviews for Willa’s play. Of all Succession’s major characters, Connor was perhaps least well-served by this season, and it’s not particularly clear why he’s part of the show at this point. Hopefully, future seasons provide some clarity beyond, “Sometimes he’s funny.”
Winner: Dat boat
Meredith: As a devoted viewer of Below Deck Mediterranean, I know how tense things can get on a yacht. More like a fracht, amiright? (Fraught? No? We’re trying to write this on a deadline.)
But wow, was this a beautiful, gas-guzzling monster. Even life-long boat-seer Kendall was impressed. Marcia had the ship “refit,” as they apparently say, in the billionaire version of “cutting [Logan’s] ties,” but for my money (none), it looks awesome. The swimming pools, the luxe master suites, the uncomfortably hospitable staff (as if agreeing to a threesome with Tom and Shiv wasn’t enough, the same devoted steward deals with Greg’s benign toenail fungus). If I was a billionaire who was gathering my family for a mini-break/internal trial, I would definitely be contacting this yachting company.
Loser: the Ford Motor Company
Emily: Do you ever think about how the Ford Motor Company isn’t really what you think of when you think of “Ford”? How it’s just a collection of entities and systems that share that name, but it’s not actually the “Ford” we all know and love? I’m sure you do all the time, or you will now that Logan reminded you of it in this episode. Of all the shambling legal entities known as corporations in this great country, who knows why Succession picked Ford to drag — but it did!
Winner: Succession’s crew
Emily: From Mark Mylod’s sun-soaked direction to what might have been composer Nicholas Britell’s best score for the series yet, “This Is Not for Tears” offered a terrific look at just why Succession has captivated so many people. This is one of the most technically proficient and beautifully shot shows on television, its diorama-like frames pinning the characters in place, slowly stripping away their artificiality until we see both what’s terrible and beautiful about them.
The Roys and their associates are monsters, but we’re caged in with them, on some level. And when everything about their lives looks this gorgeous, we have no choice but to sympathize with them. At least a little bit.
Winner: the word “but”
Emily: The way Jeremy Strong lets the word “BUT...” hover as Kendall completely makes the turn from taking the fall to destroying his dad — we love to see it! Here’s hoping season three arrives as quickly as possible.