(This week’s episode of Succession debuted two days early on HBO’s streaming platforms, due to the holiday weekend. Go watch it before you read this!)
Succession has gotten a lot of attention for how funny it is, and understandably so. The writers’ room is full of crack comedy writers, headed up by no less a brilliant comedy mind than Jesse Armstrong, a protégé of Veep creator Armando Iannucci (who also co-created the terrific Britcom Peep Show). The show’s dark sense of humor has become such a defining element that Vulture’s Kathryn VanArendonk recently wondered if its nomination for Outstanding Drama Series at the Emmys nomination should actually be a nomination for Outstanding Comedy Series.
But allow me (Vox critic at large Emily VanDerWerff) to argue that I think what makes Succession work as well as it does is everything that isn’t funny about it, and “Safe Room” is a great example of why. The characters on this show are fundamentally hollow and uninterested in much beyond the propagation of their own wealth. They want for nothing except fulfillment, and that makes them both horrible people and horribly sad people.
I am well aware that, for lots of viewers, the fun of watching Succession will never lie in empathizing with the Roys. But goodness me, when Kendall went up to the roof of the Waystar-Royco building, seemingly to throw himself off of it, and then found that glass barriers had been erected to prevent him from doing so, it hit me deep in the gut.
Everyone on Succession (and especially Kendall) can see the method of their destruction so clearly, but they’re still protected from it by an almost invisible barrier of wealth, class, and privilege.
All of which is to say that “Safe Room” is my favorite installment of the second season so far, and I’m looking forward to whatever’s next. But in the meantime, here are six winners and seven losers from the episode compiled by myself and The Goods deputy editor Meredith Haggerty.
Emily: If “Safe Room” is my favorite episode of the season so far, then it must also contain my favorite scene of the season so far, and oh boy, does it! When Greg innocently suggests that he and Tom might have an open business relationship, Tom loses it. He begins haranguing Greg, in a way that makes clear what Tom is really mad about: not Greg, per se, but some other person in his life, perhaps someone he sleeps with most nights (but not every night), perhaps someone with amazing hair.
The directors of this episode, Robert Pulcini and Shari Springer Berman (whose work on the 2003 movie American Splendor remains some of my favorite directing of this threadbare millennium), hang back from the confrontation with a documentary-like detachment, which only makes the scene funnier and more desperate. I watched with my hands raised in the air, shrieking, “Oh my God, oh my God, oh my God.” Reader, I felt that.
But Tom’s struggles don’t begin or end with that scene. He and Greg have the confrontation because they’re in the shitty safe room to begin with, while Shiv and everybody else are in much more luxurious one. (They’ve been sent to these safe rooms due to a scare involving a possible active shooter; more on that in a bit.) And the longer Tom has to sit in his terrible storage room of a safe room, with a security guy who keeps saying that no, maybe it’s not safe to leave yet, the more he slowly crumples into a little ball of wounded male privilege.
Tom has been down for so long that I have to assume he’ll start rising back up at some point. Yet at the same time, I have my doubts. Meredith, how can Tom save the day ... and maybe, just maybe, himself?
Meredith: If the water bottle flip-out was the best scene of the season — and it might be, it was glorious — it still wasn’t my favorite Tom and Greg scene of this episode. Mine was the one that gave everyone just a little hope (I realize I am soft on Succession, and this is a problem).
After their aborted breakup (“We’re good!” Greg tries to tell Tom. “We’re good??” Tom asks, channeling the end of every relationship), Greg’s labored entrée into blackmail is a big moment for Tom. Sure, he’s being put over a barrel by his favorite whipping boy, but he’s also a very effective mentor! “You’re a fucking slimeball!” Tom says with glee, a complex reaction that still manages to be the episode’s less complicated invocation of “slime.” He’s proud of his son. Teach your children well, etc.
But no one who yells “I will not let go of what is mine!” and then immediately and forcibly does so can be said to have had an A-plus week. That everyone around Tom refuses to commit to him — Greg, Shiv, probably human table Jonah — is a huge blow to his ego, as are the dawning realizations that the shooter was not after him, that network CEO Cyd looks brave and he looks weak, that he’s not even in the actual safe room for important people. Greg wasn’t even impressed with his man footstool. He’ll have to hope he can ride his blackmailing little pal’s coattails to the top.
Meredith: By one metric — the all-important “Logan gives a shit about you” benchmark that everyone in the Roy family measures their existence by — Kendall seems actually kind of up this week. For one thing, he brought in PGM CEO Rhea Jarrell (Holly Hunter!), earning congrats from his dad. For another, during the shooting incident, Logan was extremely worried about his boy in a way that seemed ... sweet? Paranoid? More accurately about the fact that Kendall is holding onto Logan’s pills?
But Kendall isn’t up, he’s just maintaining a slightly better facade. His business dealings are just about holding onto dignity and usefulness and forward momentum. As he tells Shiv in a teary hug, “It ain’t gonna be” him running the company instead of her, not anytime soon. He’s treading water.
It turns out that his battery-stealing at the end of episode two wasn’t a one-off. As Gerri tells Shiv, her brother is (still) grabbing stuff he can easily afford, including candy and vape fluid (“He could buy the industry,” Shiv observes). Pilfered vape fluid is not actually the thing that’s causing Kendall to sneak around, but it’s still something that PR head Karolina and bodyman Colin have been tasked with covering up.
And those petty thefts aren’t his worst cries for help: that designation belongs to his fascination with the Waystar-Royco building’s roof deck, where he’s taken to leaning over the edge with a cigarette in hand. Is it at all possible that the real reason Logan is so worried about Kendall is that he’s afraid the lockdown-inducing employee suicide was his own son’s? Unlikely, maybe. But not impossible.
And as you noted above, Emily, he’s now lost access to the sad and horrible vice of flirting with death, as by episode’s end a large wall of protective glass has been installed between Kendall and the ledge, giving him a literal looking glass to see himself through.
Emily: Something that people like to criticize about Succession is that the show makes being rich seem a little too fun. And to be sure, the boardroom machinations of “Safe Room” are wild and entertaining, but in Kendall, we see the cost of this sort of thing. He’s a hollow man, marching forward in an attempt to get back into his father’s good graces that is probably doomed to fail.
Which is to say that even when he’s winning, he’s losing, because he’s lost all sight of who he might be or what he might want. In season one, he seemed to care about something (the direction of the company, namely), and that might have been a dark and horrible goal — Waystar-Royco is terrible — but at least it was something to pursue. Now, he’s basically a puppet, with sins hanging over his head that he hasn’t accounted for.
Succession is never going to be a polemic about how the rich are evil, but I’m not convinced it should either need or want to be. There’s something so potent about that final image of Kendall, stranded on the building’s deck, longing for death but sealed off from it by a glass wall. Wealth insulates you even from yourself, and to be cut off from your own soul is its own kind of horror.
Meredith: After last week’s low point, Roman is in a semi-voluntary personal hell: the management training Gerri suggested to get him back into Logan’s good graces.
There is a host of horrors: group activities, a Waystar-Royco promo video that fails to give him his due, time spent inside a presumably sweaty mascot uniform, contact with real Americans. He’s sulky and panicky, freaking out at the prospect of having to have ideas, calling a business school 101 prompt to pitch a theme park ride “a death march through minefield.” He spends much of his time hiding — under a baseball cap, behind a turned-up collar, forcibly in a giant turkey costume — even telling his fellow management trainee Brian (You and Crashing star Zach Cherry) that his name is Ron Rockstone, which Brian totally buys.
But Roman almost, kind of, barely gets into it, telling Gerri he’s “stripping back to basics” (“this is my White Album”) and actually coming up with a halfway decent ride idea based on fear (“no one’s ever gone bust overestimating the public’s interest in violence,” Brian confirms), winning the big scary competition, and calling both of his favorite women in triumph.
And this is where things get real: while he fails to “do phone sex with [his] girlfriend like a normo” with Tabitha (“I want to fuck you in the pussy,” he says flatly, after chiding her for using a breathy voice), he calls up Gerri and, as she dresses him down as a “pathetic” “slime puppy,” he uh, achieves real intimacy? (Oh, there’s the more complicated use of “slime.”)
I don’t want to talk about how I feel about this, thank you! Real Gerrman shippers know.
He ends the episode with a new buddy in Brian, a personal success in the management class, and a semi-consummated relationship with his business mommy. Kind of sick, but a win!
Meredith: Here’s a list of things Brian won this episode: the management trainee pitch face-off, the award for the world’s greatest Tinder bio, a powerful new friend, and my heart.
Roman — sorry, Ron Rockstone — first meets Brian in the Brightstar theme park mascot locker room, where Brian is extolling the virtues of their job (which is among the top “1, 2 percent” of all employment opportunities on Earth right now, in aggregate, he estimates) and describing himself in just the most lyrical, over-the-top way. In full, because we all need it:
I’m an enigma. You can’t pigeonhole me. I’m there and then I’m gone. I’m intellectually promiscuous but culturally conservative. I work hard but I don’t play hard, I play easy, why would you play hard?
Why would you play hard? He enjoys hiking and racing drones and spending time with his nephews, Cooper and Clark, all things that frankly sound like terrible inspiration for theme park ideas. And sure, he has enemies in Florida who are thwarting his meteoric rise, but he’s pure of heart and there (not yet gone), so Roman tells Gerri that he’s a “rough diamond.” He’s moving on up. Brian, you literal gem, when will you meet Greg? I can’t wait!
Winner: Con’s presidential campaign
Emily: There’s nothing like an untimely death to prop up a political campaign, which might be why Connor is so excited at how the death of
Moe Lester allows him to step up and offer the sorts of public condolences that will mark him as a bright political shining star. After all, if there’s one thing that we know about Connor — or, rather, if there’s one thing that he wants Logan’s biographer to know — it’s that Connor Roy was interested in politics at a very young age.
And purely from the viewpoint of political self-interest, Connor kinda nails it. His speech at the funeral is awful and empty (more on that in a second), but it’s just vacuous enough to pass as solid political pabulum. He’s not saying anything anybody will disagree with. Everybody dies! Death is sad! That’s a political platform everybody can get behind, right?
Connor also proves most adept at avoiding the biographer’s wiles, and even if Willa steps in it by calling Lester “Moe,” well, it’s probably a bigger threat to his campaign that she’s a call girl who’s probably never going to make it on Broadway. (Connor seems briefly thrown by Willa’s faux pas, muttering, “Why can’t I be the one trapped in a lockdown with a maniac!”) Speaking of Willa...
Loser: Willa’s writing ability
Emily: Since we first met Willa, we’ve known one thing about her: She wants to be a playwright. And when Connor is fretting about what he can say at the funeral, she hastily scrawls some ingenious thoughts down on paper, which he then takes up to the church’s pulpit and delivers apparently verbatim. And it’s one of the greatest long-lead jokes in TV history. (I’m serious!)
I am here as a fellow human to acknowledge that Lester has, you know, passed on. Lester was a man. Also Lester was an employee of the Waystar company for 40 years. And when a man dies, it is sad. All of us will die someday. In this case, it is Lester who has done so. Lester was alive for 78 years, but no more. Now he is dead. Lester’s wife is Maria. They were married for 15 years. Now she is sad.
Connor leaves the pulpit, and the camera cuts to Maria, looking absolutely baffled as to what she just heard.
A lot of TV shows would have revealed that Willa is every bit as good as she hopes she is, that her writing is wonderful and powerful and full of truth and beauty. But c’mon. Do you think a woman who was that good of a writer would have hitched her star to Connor Roy? I’ve always been slightly leery that Succession invites us to dismiss Willa because she’s a call girl — sex workers unduly get a hard time of it on TV — but this sequence reveals that, no, you should be dismissing her because she’s a fatuous, pompous fool who’s more interested in looking good than doing anything real. Just like the man she’s “in love” with.
Meredith: Let’s start by confirming that Shiv’s hair is still a winner in this episode — no one panic! But the hair’s owner isn’t having the best first day at work.
Shiv is nominally just visiting Waystar-Royco (her family owns the joint, if you hadn’t heard), but no one is fooled, least of all Kendall, who asks if she’s thinking of getting into media.
But despite unsettling her already unsettled brother and starting the day with champagne in Dad’s office (“Let’s get hammered and buy a mining company in Tanzania,” she says, to his approval), she’s soon escorted off to another room to be kept busy “with a coloring book,” shut out of Kendall and Logan’s super-top-secret meeting with PGM CEO Rhea Jarrell. Her suggestion (via Tom) that Nazi-at-minimum-sympathizer Mark Ravenwood should be fired is ignored. For the future head of the company, she’s doesn’t seem particularly well-informed or well-received.
Then, by virtue of the upsetting gun incident, she finds herself the only person important enough to be in the real panic room who didn’t already know about the Jarrell meeting. She quickly makes herself useful, drawing PGM’s main qualms with a merger out of Rhea, but ultimately, Kendall gets the credit for orchestrating the slightly-more-possible deal, which didn’t look close before Shiv intervened.
Kendall’s subsequent embrace of Shiv and assurances that he’s no danger to her don’t confuse things any less. While they may not be in competition (although: ha, as if ever), by the end of the episode, Shiv is worried about her brother in more ways than one.
Meredith: Greg can’t lose for winning! Sure, he gets pelted with snacks by Tom and fails to secure a spot in the good panic room (he’s susceptible to “attack children” in the Cheezits room), but he pulls it out in the end!
In a scene most familiar from awkward conversations that usually happen three months before teen couples go off college, Greg very, very gently tries to break up with Tom and his job at ATN. Wouldn’t it “more interesting for both of them,” Greg asks, if he played the corporate field? He “wants to explore!” He offers, of course, the worst possible thing for Tom at the current moment, and his suggestion is not met with enthusiasm.
But it is with this same spirit of gentleness and care that Greg does a blackmail, telling Tom that he doesn’t want to pull up those supposedly destroyed cruise molestation files but, y’know, he kept them and he will if he can’t get away from ATN. He does his blackmail so good (“Where are those files?” “Oh I’ll never tell!”) that Tom’s actually proud. He gets a salary and title bump. Greg!
Loser: ATN’s work culture
Meredith: Even though the Waystar-Royco management training video tells us that the company aims to be “dynamic,” as per Kendall, and “a net that can hold the world,” as per Logan, that mission isn’t working out so well for ATN. As rising star Greg describes the network: “Human furniture, verbal assaults, physical humiliation, Nazi stuff, shooters” — he doesn’t love it! And it was, indeed, in-house bullying that reportedly lead to the on-site employee suicide.
Plus, things at the building are scary. Thanks to a probable-Nazi anchor in the model of well, who can say whom, both fans and anti-fans (you get it) are rallying loudly outside.
But that’s just people stuff, big whoop, who cares. What’s really bad is that ATN’s culture is what’s “stinking” up the possible deal with PGM, according to Rhea Jarrell.
Meredith: In the larger Succession universe, everyone out there is talking about how incredibly brave the CEO of Media Networks for Waystar-Royco, Cyd Peach, is, and simultaneously what a putz network president Tom Wambsgans is, probably. At least that’s Tom’s fear when he sees Cyd on their own station “breakdancing through gunfire” following the shooting scare.
Cyd is the very model of conservative toughness as she narrates her experience of the shooting from the control room. Cyd wants ATN to stay ATN, Nazi stuff and all, and she has a lot of power behind her coming out of this episode. She hasn’t lost on Ravenwood (yet), she’s shown up that coward Tom, and she sees the narrative she suggested at the beginning of the episode — “ATN under siege” — literalized. All while only losing only one employee.
Loser: the biographer
Emily: I suspect that the biographer thread is leading somewhere rich and meaty, but this week, the best she can get out of anybody is Connor’s endless repetition of “Connor Roy was interested in politics at a very young age,” because no other Roys attend Lester’s funeral. (They’re all stuck in management training and/or panic rooms.)
She hints that she got some great stuff from Lester himself, and she was present for Connor’s truly strange eulogy. But she’s going to need to find some other way to crack the Roy sibling quartet than following Connor around.
Emily: After Willa reveals to Lester’s widow that people called her husband “Moe” — the name we first heard when his death was announced in episode three — Connor pulls Willa aside to make sure she can’t embarrass them further, then proceeds to explain why Lester was called Moe in the most tortured manner possible.
His real name is Lester. I guess I haven’t thought about it for a while, but it was kind of a joke. ... Moe Lester? I guess it wasn’t a very nice joke. ... [Willa: And was he one?] Oh God no. Just, you know. Old Mr. Fiddlesticks. Uncle Meat Hands. Dad wouldn’t let us in the pool with him, but, you know, the guys of that generation... it was a different time.
Suffice to say: Succession is really good at setting up long-lead jokes like this.
Winner: Holly Hunter stans
Emily: I’ve watched ahead, gentle reader, so I know there is so much more Holly Hunter to come, but my God, does she fit into this show’s world beautifully. Whether Rhea is rebuffing the Roy family’s offers or snidely saying that she might have to start taking them seriously as the number creeps up and up, she’s always willing to set aside principle for cash, which is to say she takes to Succession like a duck to water.
And if you’re a longtime Holly Hunter stan like myself, well — how wonderful to see her back in a TV newsroom, right? Figure out a way to have her coach somebody through a TV appearance from the control booth, Succession, do it for Broadcast News!