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5 winners and 5 losers from a Succession that crumples everybody up like a napkin

Winner: Rhea, of all people. Loser that thinks it’s a winner: Christmas.

Logan Roy in a pensive mood sits in his living room staring past the drink glass in his hand.
Is Logan getting played by Rhea? Or are his kids, while he understands exactly what’s going on?

Even the best TV shows have off episodes, and one nice thing about Succession is the way it seems adept at scheduling those off episodes so they don’t get in the way of all the drama in other installments. Such an episode is “Return,” a highly entertaining, incredibly gut-wrenching hour of television that, nevertheless, feels like a deliberately scheduled pause in season two’s unrelenting series of twists and turns.

To be clear, an episode like this is necessary every now and then. A show like Succession so easily uses up all of its oxygen if it’s breathing fire all the time; it needs a chance to reposition the characters on the game board, remind us of their emotional states, and find ways to subtly twist the story in new directions. “Return” does all of that and then some.

Perhaps most importantly, it gives us a rich, full story about the emotional state of poor Kendall Roy, who is still living in the dark and terrible place he entered at the end of season one. His visit to Britain becomes the dark heart of this episode and maybe the entire season.

All of which is to say that even if “Return” might be this season’s weakest episode so far, it is an episode that is making every move it makes with thoughtful intent. Whatever endgame season two is about to push toward seems very exciting indeed.

With that, here are five winners and five losers from “Return,” as chosen by Vox critic at large Emily VanDerWerff and The Goods editor Meredith Haggerty.

Loser: Kendall

Kendall confronts the truth.
Kendall’s smile gradually retreats inside his body throughout this episode, and it’s really a sight to see.

Emily: Kendall begins “Return” with a smile on his face. He’s FaceTiming (or using FaceTime’s non-branded TV equivalent) with Naomi — surely you remember the irresponsible Pierce he hooked up with back in “Tern Haven” — and they seem to be having a really good time and enjoying each other’s company.

Well, as you know, Succession abhors joy and it will do anything it can to tear yours to shreds. And it especially abhors Kendall feeling anything other than abject, empty, gutted horror at the state of his life.

Of course, by “Succession,” I mean “Logan Roy,” the original monster man himself.

One great thing about Succession this season is how successfully it’s lived in the shadow of everything that happened in the season one finale, when Kendall failed to save the life of the waiter he got high with as their car crashed into a small lake. Kendall escaped, because he’s cursed to be the protagonist of a TV show. The waiter died, and his family briefly asked questions before everything was hushed up by the almighty power of money.

But even though season two has existed in the aftermath of those events, they have only been referenced obliquely here and there until this episode, when Logan recruits Kendall to join him for a visit to the dead man’s family. Wandering about the family’s small home, Kendall looks like he might literally vomit up all of his guilt, but he somehow keeps it tamped down. And at all times, the camera keeps a steady eye on how this domestic space contains none of the trappings of wealth we’re used to seeing on this show.

To its detriment, “Return” perhaps pushes a little too hard on the “These are just normal folks!” button that morality plays about the evils of the rich have always pushed. But to its credit, it never really makes this theme text. It’s too focused on the way that Logan rubs Kendall’s nose in the bad thing he’s done, just to remind his son who’s boss. It’s chilling and eerie, and Jeremy Strong has never been better. (See, Winner: Jeremy Strong below!)

Meredith: There’s nothing worse than an episode where Kendall starts out happy and feeling cared about. Having “dick pic” chanted at him by Naomi is one of the nicest things we’ve ever seen happen to him. That feeling could never last! A win is as good as a loss!

Instead of “being in a fucking Simon & Garfunkel song” (adorable) at the zoo with Naomi, he accompanies his father on a meaningless brainstorm en route to the house of the family of the waiter he watched die, which is really a back-breaker of a false pretense. What a normal place for an ideas sesh! And did Ken really think Logan was going to let him stay in the car? It makes so much more sense to have him stand in the hallway like a shame butler.

“Monster man” really is the right description for Logan here; watching him clock Kendall’s joy and crush it with his own guilt and sin is basically a horror movie, but a really Catholic one.

Winner: Rhea

Meredith: If Holly Hunter wasn’t playing a devious mastermind, what would we all even be doing here? After her firing by Nan Pierce last week, Rhea has integrated herself seamlessly into Logan’s inner circle. Very efficient! It’s probably clear to Kendall, Rome, God, and everyone else that Rhea is playing some kind of game as soon as she appears on Logan’s plane, but it’s really obvious when she tells him Roman could be a good successor — just not yet. I’m sorry, who?

The kids are convinced that Rhea and Logan are banging it out — an assumption bolstered by Rhea (“You must be fond of Marcia,” she needles Shiv, who tells her with irony that she appreciates Rhea checking in before fucking her father), Logan, and a little scene where Logan invites Rhea to sleep over. But Emily, you suspect there might be something more complicated at work, so I’ll let you talk more about that.

Whatever Rhea is doing, whether she’s in cahoots with Logan or playing him, she seemingly neutralizes her biggest threat — Shiv — through sheer networking. She wheedles our beautiful bobbed goddess into putting her name in for Pierce, which immediately gets back to Logan, who lashes out at Shiv. In the end, Rhea is the one sitting by Logan on the plane, looking like a pretty promising choice for Waystar Royco, at least until Roman’s “ready.”

Emily: Even as last week I apparently called the way Rhea had designs on the Waystar Royco job, I couldn’t quite appreciate that it was actually happening until it became clear just how thoroughly she had played every single last one of the Roys. Rhea ingratiates herself to Roman and Kendall by seeming to throw Shiv under the bus (though, to be clear, Shiv’s report is definitely the kind of insufferable that can only be managed by someone who has tasted a bite of power but not yet the whole apple). She (maybe?) sleeps with Logan. (More on this below.) She even sucks up to Shiv by offering her a job.

The Roys are deeply fucked up, to be sure, but Rhea correctly diagnoses what keeps them in power: the weird unity they have. Season two has quietly opened schisms between almost all of them — the Kendall/Shiv alliance seems strongest right now, and who’d have thunk? — and Rhea is right there, ready to pounce.

I don’t know that this was Rhea’s ultimate goal, but even if it’s just a pivot out of a bad situation — namely, getting fired — it’s a pretty fantastic pivot. And Holly Hunter is clearly having a great time playing an uninhibited Rhea, who is just happy to be on the plane, on the way to see some theater. In an episode that focuses on one of Logan’s exes and overshadows his current wife, it’s fascinating to see a future potential former Mrs. Roy maneuvering into a position where she’s gone from holding none of the cards to holding all of them.

Winner: Mum

Caroline and Kendall share a late-night chat.
Caroline has what might have been a nice moment with her oldest son. Emphasis on “might have been.”

Meredith: Caroline Collingwood is a terrifying negotiator. Roman (or “RoRo,” as his mother calls him) immediately gives up his whole hand, telling her the details of Logan’s best offer. This prompts her to change the game entirely — she’ll take either Logan’s $150 million Hamptons house or $20 million and every Christmas with the children she barely wants to spend time with.

When Logan opts to keep the summer palace (duh) she gets, bonus, a neat little reminder to their mutual offspring that their dad would rather have a big house than spend a holiday with them. Wait, is emotionalism that thing where a person can’t stop laughing or crying? Like, okay lady, you win, but I’d argue that this family spends more than enough time together.

Meanwhile, she manages to avoid Kendall in his hour of need (although I’d say he’s lucky not having the chance to confess his role in the waiter’s watery death to her, who knows how she’d use it), while still playing passive-aggressive martyr mother. Preparing to serve Shiv and Rome shot-riddled pigeon — which she apologizes isn’t a giant steak with truffle fries — she asks, “So, should I be mother?” Honestly, please don’t!

Winner (thinks she’s a loser): Shiv

Emily: Look, we’re all Shiv fans here, to the degree that we should probably just start a spinoff called Glorious Shiv Roy Dot Com (a new site from Vox Media) or something like that. And Meredith, at least, believes that Shiv is a loser this week. I, however, like the idiot I am, think she continues to be the big winner of the whole season.

Shiv has basically lost any shot she has at taking her father’s job, and Rhea has turned both Logan and Roman against her, and all seems dark right now. Plus, Rhea’s curt dismissal of the youngest Roy — “Shiv’s not as smart as she thinks she is” — is tailor-made to flatter these men while reducing the one absent woman to a puddle of self-doubt should Rhea’s cutting remark ever get back to her (and I have to assume it will). The Pierce job is probably a long shot, and she has to have a whole lunch where she thinks about her dad having sex. Plus, Christmas with her mom? No thanks.

But what strikes me here isn’t that Shiv loses but why she loses — namely, Rhea correctly and clearly understands that Shiv is the greatest threat to whatever Rhea’s larger plans are, then takes action to remove her from the board entirely. And, c’mon. Logan isn’t going to leave his daughter out in the cold forever. Shiv has been on a roller coaster this season, but it’s one designed to keep the audience from seeing how strong her position truly is.

Shiv’s hair update: Rhea’s just jealous of the hair. That’s gotta be it.

Loser (thinks it’s a winner): Christmas

Shiv figures out just how thoroughly she’s been played.
Shiv gets played in this episode, but maybe she’s still a winner!!! (Probably not.)

Meredith: Oh, poor Christmas. While it’s sure to be a very uh, merry affair, wine- and weed-wise (Caroline checking the bottle mere minutes after her children arrived only to realize it’s empty was a nice little moment, and Rory is the perfect name for the stoner second husband of a woman who married well the first time), it’s going to be a fraught one at dear old mom’s house.

Picture it: desperate Ken, defensive Shiv, and needy Roman all waiting and waiting and waiting for Caroline to open their stockings in the English countryside. Does she show up? Or is having them there to ignore gift enough? It’s almost too much too bear.

Plus, probably, throw in Ken’s kids, Tom, Tab, and — if I get my way — Gerri. Oof, what month is it in the Successionverse? I hope we’ll see this disaster, with Logan and Rhea crashing, before the year is up.

Loser: Tom

Meredith: Aren’t we all a little more comfortable with Tom in the loser’s column? All is right with the world again.

Tom gets thrown directly to the wolves this week, being questioned for an internal investigation about cruise ship cover-ups in a way that doesn’t feel like the walk in the park he was expecting. Tom, why would you expect good things to happen to you?? The lawyers’ not-so-easy questions concern the paper trail — you know, the one Greg is keeping (at work, in a file labeled “Secret”) — and Tom’s mission this week is to destroy it. So that’s probably what will happen! Just kidding.

Once again outsmarted (barely) by Greg, Tom not only fails to get rid of all the evidence that something was amiss in cruises, he gives his protégé the perfect tape of him attempting to commit a crime. “Oh lord of malfeasance, give us your divine blessing,” he intones over a burning pile of papers, before turning to Cousin Greg and literally saying, “Hold my beer.”

Winner: Greg

Two men having a conversation while facing each other, the shorter man pointing at the taller.
Tom and Greg are always getting trapped in the weirdest B-plots.

Emily: Not only does Greg, in a fit of pique, hang on to a handful of the papers that he might continue to use as leverage for whatever reason he might need, but we also get to see him chill with Tom and hear composer Nicholas Brittell’s saucy little Greg theme, which has almost a trip hop vibe.

Greg wins week after week not just because he’s a delightful fan favorite but because he’s the character who seems the most inclined to self-preservation without accompanying self-pity. He just does what he needs to do, and usually in the most entertaining and amusing fashion possible. Will Greg lose is not the question. The question is “Can Greg lose?”

Loser: Marcia

Emily: Marcia is mostly a loser by implication, since Logan seems awfully fascinated by Rhea (even if the two aren’t having sex) and, well, Logan is married to Marcia, lest we’ve all forgotten, given how little she’s been around this season. But also, like, Shiv doesn’t mince words when she says that she has “a relationship” with Marcia.

The way that Succession is backgrounding Marcia (and, honestly, like Connor and Stewie and a bunch of other characters) would feel more frustrating if not for the fact that it keeps bringing them up, to remind you of how they’ve been pushed out of the spotlight, at least for now. The only characters whose existence the show doesn’t actively remind you of in every other episode are maybe Kendall’s ex-wife and ... Larry from Vaulter? Everybody else is mentioned often enough that I’m convinced some sort of storm is brewing.

Loser: Anybody who was hoping to not have to think about Logan Roy having sex

Emily: I remain deeply unconvinced that Logan and Rhea have actually slept together — even a show this committed to making sure sex remains in your imagination would show us a kiss or something — but Succession wants you to think about it a lot, about the prospect of Rhea smiling tightly as she unbuttons his shirt or Logan letting out a great huff as he whumps down into bed.

And yet Succession needs you to forget that Logan is an old and frail man, the better to allow him to terrorize his children. This plot seems to be doing the opposite of that. It’s fascinating to see someone who’s not cowed by him so effectively wrap him around her finger.

But also, like, no, I don’t want to think about him having sex, no thank you.

Winner: Jeremy Strong

Meredith: Kendall might have had a terrible week, but Jeremy had a strong one (I’m not sorry!!!).

No one does unravelling better than Jeremy Strong, perfectly playing a character who can never quite say what he’s feeling or entirely hide his fear and shame. It’s an internal, roiling performance that absolutely has to hurt, and he really had a chance to devolve in this episode. The devastating scene in the waiter’s family’s kitchen, Kendall shakily rinsing his water glass, made me feel like I was inside his body. Give the man some awards before he truly injures his nervous system.

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