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Succession season 2: 4 winners and 4 losers from the premiere

In “The Summer Palace,” Shiv gets some good news, but the other Roys aren’t doing so hot.

Roman and Gerri hold a tablet screen and watch Kendall’s disastrous TV performance.
Roman and Gerri are just happy they’re not Kendall.
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

Something smells rotten inside the Roy family’s palatial summer estate as the second season of Succession begins.

The Roys have retreated to the home in the wake of the devastating series of events that bound them ever more tightly together at the end of season one. They might all hate each other, but there are several wild cards in the mix that any one of them could play at any time to take out any other member of the family. Everything from the dark and murky records of horrible occurrences aboard the family company’s cruise ships to former golden boy Kendall’s role in the death of a hapless waiter in the season finale could be thrown down on the table with great flourish at any time.

But it’s not the stench of all those secrets that’s haunting Succession’s characters. No, it’s a bunch of dead raccoons in the chimney, decaying and crawling with maggots. When patriarch Logan Roy (Brian Cox) sees the horrific sight, he insists that all of the expensive food the family brought with them be thrown out. Lobsters and shrimp and steaks are chucked in the trash, and the family orders pizza.

And although the home is a summer residence, the episode (named “The Summer Palace,” naturally) takes place in the eerie cold of winter, underlining the sense that this family is out of time and out of place, but there’s really nothing that can be done to dislodge them. The Roys rule from their palace, and everyone else must bend around them.

That probably makes Succession sound like a super-depressing show to watch in an age when the rich just get richer, but trust me, we’re having a great time here. What makes it bearable is that the Roys are half-formed people who keep throwing themselves at each other in the hope that the resulting conflict will suddenly make them become human beings, never quite realizing that what’s holding them back is the staggering amount of wealth they possess, wealth they will never give up.

So who was winning and losing that fight this week? Well, we have some great contenders, starting with ...

Winner: Shiv Roy

Logan and Shiv cut a deal.
Shiv is the hero the Roy family needs, but maybe not the one they deserve.

The first time we see Shiv (Sarah Snook) in season two, she’s on what appears to be a very expensive honeymoon, traveling aboard a sleek, jet-black yacht. The next time we see her, she’s all over the opening credits, which have been subtly retooled for season two to focus much less on Kendall, her older brother, and much more on her.

Does this mean we’re getting a Shiv Season? Sure seems like it! (I also submit that Succession will thus have a season for each Roy sibling, and I’m really not looking forward to the Connor season.)

We heard a lot of chatter in season one that Shiv was old man Logan’s favorite, but we didn’t see a ton of evidence to support this fact. Yet we get oodles of it in “The Summer Palace,” when Logan tells his only daughter that she’s his choice to succeed him as CEO. He has to play a whole bunch of mind games to get her to accept, because that’s just his way, but she eventually accepts nonetheless.

She might be the youngest of his four kids and she might have the least relevant experience and she might be a political liberal (at least in the vague sense of all rich liberals). But she’s the one Roy kid who has mostly kept her nose clean and who is least tainted by the association with her father’s name. And even if she’s still working on the presidential campaign of a senator who’s taken direct aim at Logan Roy and all he stands for, that might make her an even better choice to head up Waystar-Royco when Logan is finally ready to step down (or when he dies).

Is Logan telling Shiv the truth here? Or is this just another mind game? I’m inclined to say that he is telling the truth, but let’s be honest — he could change his mind in an instant. But even if it’s a mind game designed to keep Shiv close to him when she might otherwise be pulling away, the fact that nobody else in the family knows what he’s told Shiv adds yet another gigantic secret that could blow up at any time. It’s a delicious setup for the season to come, and it ably suggests we are now in The Season of the Shiv.

Winner: Shiv’s hair

Look, I can’t believe she went and got the power cut mere days after her wedding either, but maybe she was just sick of the longer locks and wanted them chopped off. Just look at this ’do! I had to stop myself from turning this entire article into praise for her hair.

Shiv’s! Hair!

Losers: Kendall and Roman

The opening 10 minutes of season two are a long sequence of Kendall Roy (Jeremy Strong) being summoned from his detox efforts so he can go on TV and tell everybody how wrong he was to back a corporate play against his father at the end of season one. Kendall was the face of that play, but after a car accident led to the death of a waiter and Kendall scuttled away (very Chappaquiddick), he was thrust back into his father's embrace.

All of this is to say that when season two opens, Kendall looks like shit. He’s gaunt and pale, with dark circles under his eyes, and as we’re reintroduced to Succession’s other characters — who are all watching him and mocking him on TV — they’re happy to admit he looks like shit, too. Kendall, who in season one seemed like the confident, business-savvy guy who could take his father’s company into the future, is as low as he’s ever been. Is it any wonder he’s fallen so hard off the wagon that he’s asking Cousin Greg to procure drugs for him? (Cousin Greg does a terrible job.)

Such a scenario would typically be Roman’s time to shine, as the other son heavily involved in Waystar-Royco, but with Logan’s attention turned toward Shiv, Roman (the oily Kieran Culkin, who is so good at finding unusual physicality to add to all of his scenes) is stuck working as co-COO with Kendall, with the two trying to turn the company into the kind of legacy media behemoth that might survive the tech onslaught.

And even if Roman isn’t at as low of an ebb as his brother, it’s clear that on some level, he has no idea what the company’s future should be. Logan, that blustering bear of a staunch conservative, wants to fight the future. Roman wants to heavily deinvest from everything but the news and play the stocks. That approach couldn’t be any further off his father’s core desires.

(If you’re a play-along-at-home type when it comes to Succession's parallels to the very real Murdochs, it’s worth noting that a version of Roman’s plan — pull the family out of everything that’s not news and sports — is what the Murdochs really do seem to be doing.)

Loser: Gerri

Everybody treats Gerri, Waystar-Royco’s general counsel, like they can take her for granted, and ... honestly, they probably can. (She even tags along on the family getaway. Yes, that's because the point of the getaway is ostensibly to strategize for the war against the hostile takeover. But she probably has other things she’d rather be doing!) Still, she’s so funny, and I feel bad every time someone all but tells her to eat shit.

Fortunately for all of us, J. Smith-Cameron was promoted to a series regular this season, so I think there will be much more Gerri to come. Hooray!

Loser (thinks he’s a winner): Tom Wambsgans

Tom (Matthew Macfadyen) is just so happy with the current state of his life, now that he’s married to Shiv and climbing the Waystar corporate ladder, that he can overlook the whole way she renegotiated herself into an open marriage on their wedding night (not precisely what Tom might have preferred) and the way that he is almost certainly going to find himself the dead weight she sheds in a few years.

Similarly, his new job in TV news is exactly the sort of thing that seems great right now but will probably become an albatross as TV news further deteriorates. Tom, like so many other members of this family, is tied to a way of life that’s dead or dying, but he can’t escape it because everything he has is now tied up in it. Wheeeee!

So Tom Wambsgans doesn’t care about the whole “dead or dying” thing. Everything’s coming up Tom! He’s gonna be working in TV news! He’s married to the woman of his dreams! Everything is great!

Winner (who thinks he’s a loser): Logan Roy

Logan gives Kendall a shoulder squeeze.
Logan tries to comfort his son. It goes about as well as you’d expect.

Considering the pilot of this series ended with a health scare for Logan Roy, one that very well could have claimed his life, and considering that the episodes following said health scare were all about his children scrambling to get to the top of the heap to succeed him, it’s kind of remarkable how much more this man has cemented his power in just 11 episodes.

There are still reminders that he is a very old man who is on the mend from a near-fatal health scare, but, for the most part, he’s terrorizing his children and any contractors who have the misfortune of working for him.

And yet I don’t know if Logan would term himself a winner. It’s clear that what he wants most of all is to never be questioned and always be feared, but also somehow have those two things be compatible with unconditional love. He’s a kind of Old Testament god, raining fury down on everybody around him and sulking when he’s not given the gratitude he thinks he deserves. It’s a toxic combination that makes him perhaps the most dangerous ticking time bomb of all.

Loser: Anybody who doesn’t have as much money as the Roys

Succession typically doesn’t make a big deal of all of the working folks who make the Roy family’s lives run as smoothly as possible, but every so often we see glimpses of them. In this episode, those glimpses take the form of a montage featuring workers getting the summer palace clean and shiny for an unexpected visit from the family, and throughout the Roys’ visit, director Mark Mylod makes sure to include occasional sightings of these workers in various shots.

They are the unseen force behind everything, who will never be paid what they’re worth, and the show’s inclusion of them is pointed. Here are all of the men and women, mostly of color, who let this family indulge their every petty wish and whim. The world bends itself to the Roys’ desires because these people make sure that it does. But the Roys believe themselves to exist in a vacuum, without the benefit of outside help. So it has always gone for the rich.

The Roys have enough money to be able to pay for their every material need to be met. But that also means they have more time to stew over perceived slights. When those raccoons turn up in the fireplace, Logan takes it out on the contractor who fixed up the house, accusing him of planting the dead animals as a statement of some sort on the Roy family legacy.

And then Logan refuses to pay, on a job the contractor estimates at $300,000. That’s chump change for Logan, but for everybody else, it’s the difference between solvency and bankruptcy. It’s a nightmare that is tossed off casually, in the middle of a much larger story.

That Succession centers on the Roys and not those they crush really bugs some people, who wish it were more forthright in its criticisms of unchecked wealth. But that’s what I like about the show. It celebrates wealth in the way American pop culture always has — but it also always understands who’s being flattened beneath the family’s boots. It’s a dark, yet beautiful, vision of the world.

Speaking of which ...

Winner: America

Because Succession is back, baby! This show is so good, right? What a great premiere, huh?

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