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Nothing changed and everything changed in Succession’s third season

The one scene that sums up a messily perfect season.

Kieran Culkin and Sarah Snook, looking quite dapper, walk through a lovely garden.
Roman and Shiv prepare for their mother’s wedding.
Graeme Hunter/HBO
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.

Succession is about abuse.

Yes, you could point to ways the show is about power or wealth or family, but every single one of those themes winds its way, eventually, back to the fact that Logan Roy is an abusive parent to his four children and that Logan himself was abused as a child. The world is doomed because it is run by men like Logan, who believe that the only truth is that everybody is out to get you and that paranoia is the only rational response to the world.

Logan says late in the third season finale “All the Bells Say” that he is screwing over his children because he wants to teach them something about how the world works. He seems to be talking about how selling the company out from under his kids will force them to grapple with “reality,” with the way that nobody is looking out for you, by kicking them out of the nest and making them face some harsh truths.

But the person who isn’t looking out for them is Logan, their own father. Kendall, Roman, and Shiv try to present a united front against him, and when he’s unable to peel Roman off from the other two, he erupts almost as badly as he has at any point in the show’s run.

Just before the three go in to confront their father, Roman nods to the idea that his father’s physical abuse of him — as seen in the form of a slap in the show’s second season — has a long, long history that his siblings seem to have mostly ignored or blocked out. Neither Ken nor Shiv remembers when they abandoned Roman to squirt their father with a water pistol alone, which seems to have had dire consequences:

“I went in and you fucks left me for dead,” Roman says.
Roman tells Kendall and Shiv about the aftermath of the water pistol incident.

So what’s the path out of this labyrinth? How do you escape a cycle of abuse so large that it seems to have swallowed society? “All the Bells Say” has an answer to that question. It just might not be where you’re looking for it.

The scene that best explains “All the Bells Say”

The core of “All the Bells Say” is a long, long scene featuring just Kendall, Roman, and Shiv. It lasts nearly nine minutes — an eternity in television, where scenes usually try to stay concise, and even an eternity on Succession, which tends to have longer scenes than most. Kendall’s near-death in the pool from the end of the previous episode has been handled mostly poorly by his siblings, who stage reluctant interventions and offer mockery. But to stop the deal their father seems to be striking with tech company Gojo, Roman and Shiv need Kendall on their side. So they approach him at their mother’s wedding to ask him for his help.

The three retreat to an area just beyond the wedding festivities, where the ground is caked in clay. Wind whips dirt into the air, and Shiv and Roman just want to talk business. When they suggest Kendall might have his own angle, though, that he might have gone around everyone to form some sort of outside deal with Gojo, Kendall just laughs. He is a man who nearly died just a couple of days ago, possibly by suicide. He is not someone who has been carrying out corporate skullduggery.

He sinks to the ground, and director Mark Mylod cuts to one of the show’s signature wide shots.

Kendall (in the foreground) sits in the dirt. Shiv stands close to him, and Roman (slightly out of focus) stands further away.
Kendall, Shiv, and Roman have a little chat.

As the scene continues, Kendall stays rooted in place on the ground, the white clay slowly staining his dark brown pants. (The New Yorker’s Michael Schulman reports this was something actor Jeremy Strong decided to do on the spur of the moment, even though sitting on the ground ruined the continuity of nine other takes.)

But Shiv and Roman move back and forth between either crouching or sitting beside Kendall and standing. When they get on Kendall’s level, they talk to him in a way that acknowledges the dark emotions he’s experiencing; when they stand, they become more interested in their father’s business dealings. As Roman becomes more involved in Kendall’s situation, he moves closer to him, just as Shiv moves further away to take a phone call related to the deal. The scene is a master class in how to block actors to enhance a scene’s subtext.

Shiv crouches beside Kendall, as Roman moves out of the background.
Shiv is getting down on Kendall’s level. Roman is moving closer.
Kendall and Roman stoop in the dirt. Shiv stands up on the phone.
Now Roman is on Kendall’s level, while Shiv takes a call related to the deal in the background. (Note how she’s out of focus. The deal is no longer what the scene is about.)

Lots of Succession commentators — including me — speculated that “All the Bells Say” would feature Kendall coming clean about being responsible for the death of a waiter in the show’s first-season finale, something that Logan covered up for his son. But that speculation usually pegged the “coming clean” bit as involving him confessing to a journalist or true-crime podcast or something. Instead, he came clean to his siblings.

As the scene begins, it’s clear Kendall is hanging on by the slimmest of threads. He feels disconnected from his family, his work, himself. His revelation of what he did forces his siblings to stop caring so much about the deal and start relating to him on a human level. It also shifts the dramatic action of the scene. No longer is this a scene about whether Shiv, Roman, and Kendall will present a united front or whether the former two can badger their brother into backing some sort of play to stop their father selling the company. Instead, it’s a scene about whether Shiv and Roman can find a way to reach Kendall in his heightened state of depression and guilt. Ultimately, they do.

What’s notable about this scene is that what finally works has almost nothing to do with what Shiv and Roman say and everything to do with how they behave. Roman never stops making wisecracks about how Kendall isn’t as responsible as he claims he is and how everybody’s killed a kid or two and how he couldn’t get a decent gin and tonic after the waiter’s death, but those jokes only land once he physically sits down next to Kendall (and in the process gets his own pants covered in clay).

Kendall finally laughs genuinely at one of Roman’s jokes, as Roman finally sits right next to him in the dirt.
Kendall can still smile!

The three of them eventually leave to try to stop their dad’s deal. They fail. Of course they fail. The odds are always against them when their father is involved. But they are, for the first time in ages and ages, together. And that’s the key to what follows.

In Succession’s third season, nothing changed. But everything changed, too.

I want to be careful in stating that the Roys are “together” and making it sound like they have suddenly become good people. What empathy they feel for each other in this episode (if any) is at least partially driven by the self-interest each has in taking over the family business. Roman correctly notes in the car ride over to where the deal is going down that if their attempted coup had been successful, they would have immediately started sniping at each other. They probably will start immediately sniping at each other the second season four begins. These are not people capable of very much growth.

What’s more, Kendall, Roman, and Shiv might finally be on the same page with each other, but they continue to casually hurt many other people. They seem taken aback by Connor’s sudden emotional outburst at the breakfast intervention the siblings hold for Kendall, when the series’ backstory includes references to Connor being their protector before becoming estranged from everyone due to Logan’s interference. Kendall’s treatment of Greg earlier in the season led to Greg returning to the warm embrace of Tom, who was about to betray his own wife. And Roman continued to send Gerri pictures of his penis after she had told him not to, which nearly resulted in her being fired.

Shiv’s treatment of Tom is particularly important in this regard. She’s spent all season avoiding his obvious anxiety over potentially having to go to prison, and her inability to have a simple conversation about why she maybe doesn’t want kids right now kept threatening to blow up into a whole thing. This arc culminated in the season’s penultimate episode, when some cruel talk in the name of (intentionally) spicing up foreplay concluded with her telling him that she doesn’t love him, something that seems true but which she brushed off as no big deal. Tom’s betrayal of Shiv is treated as a momentous act, but mostly because the show situates us in the perspective of Shiv when it happens. Seen from his point of view, it’s a rational response to a woman who takes him for granted and arguably emotionally abuses him.

Tom holds Shiv by the shoulders as she has a big revelation.
Tom comforts Shiv, immediately after she realizes he betrayed her.
Graeme Hunter/HBO

So, no, I don’t think the Roys have empathy, nor do I think they’ve experienced much in the way of character growth. What they have found, instead, is solidarity in the face of their father’s abuses, and that might be enough to keep their fledgling alliance together.

The promotional materials for Succession’s third season were largely head fakes toward a grand war between Kendall and Logan. But that war had mostly fizzled out by the end of the season’s second episode when Kendall’s siblings refused to join his quest to take down their dad. (Go back and watch that episode. It’s remarkable just how much Kendall’s pitch for the future of Waystar-Royco matches what Mattson, the tech CEO of Gojo, pitches to Logan. Kendall really did know what he was doing.)

That head fake led to some complaints that the show was just endlessly repeating itself. To me, that was the season’s point: The Roy kids are all battling endlessly over something that ultimately doesn’t matter, because their dad likes pitting them against each other and they are too traumatized to see that. All the same, I could see the argument that the show was somehow turning itself into a fatuous sitcom where absolutely nothing mattered.

What’s notable about “All the Bells Say” is that within it, several big changes seem to occur. Logan is proceeding with the deal with Gojo, cutting his children not just out of the deal but out of the financial windfall it will afford him (and only him). The siblings’ mother betrays them. Tom betrays Shiv. Willa says she’ll marry Connor (who gets the most sincere moments of screen time he probably ever has). Greg is maybe going to become king of Luxembourg.

But the season preceding this episode underscores that none of this will ultimately matter. The logic of money means that Gojo will keep following the horrifying turn toward bigotry that Waystar’s flagship news network has undertaken. (When Gojo head Matsson says, “Some of your content is cool,” it’s hard to believe he’s talking about the company’s news division. But it makes money.) Waystar will have new people at its head, but that won’t matter. The siblings knew their mom wasn’t to be trusted. Shiv and Tom already have a tumultuous marriage. Willa doesn’t have to give up her life of leisure. And, okay, if Greg becomes king of Luxembourg, that’s a perfect premise for a sitcom spinoff.

Nothing changed in season three of Succession. Nothing will change in season four of Succession. This show has taught us how to watch it by this point.

Except everything changed in season three of Succession.

Sometimes the only way for familial abuse survivors to stand up to their abuser is to present a united front. And the subconscious strategy of the abuser is usually to turn the survivors against each other. Logan tries to do this several times in the episode’s final scene. He mocks Shiv and tries to get Roman to abandon his siblings in the name of helping Logan. But for the first time, none of the three caves. The support they extended Kendall in the clay outside their mother’s wedding ripples through all three of them, to the degree that even Roman, usually the weak link, stands strong in the face of his father’s manipulation.

Logan, finally, turns to the last tactic in his box: He yells at them. He berates them. He tries to get them so scared of him that they turn against each other. But it doesn’t work. So he reveals that his kids have no cards left to play. They’re fucked. But through it all, they’re together.

As Logan exits the scene, Roman stops him. He had hoped, he says, that maybe Logan would deal with them out of love. Logan mocks the idea. What good is love? Reality doesn’t have room for love. The world is built by people who squash those who believe love is worth anything at all.

Parents are supposed to love their children, right? It’s one of those values so hard-coded into our societies that we almost take it for granted. We know, though, how often parents don’t love their children, and we know how often parents put their own self-interest ahead of their kids’ futures. Succession’s argument extends this core sadness out to an entire species and an entire planet.

But we keep believing anyway. The children of abusers hope that, finally, their parents might see them and love them, and Succession puts us in the shoes of abuse survivors over and over again, as they hope that Logan will just turn some corner and do the right thing. But we know he won’t. He can’t. He’s too far gone. Sometimes, parents don’t love their children. This is one of those times.

So you find love elsewhere. And what changes in season three of Succession is that Kendall, Roman, and Shiv finally realize they have each other. Nothing has changed; everything has changed.

Roman puts his hands on Kendall’s shoulders, while Shiv puts her hand on his head.
Roman and Shiv comfort Kendall after his confession of guilt ...
Kendall puts his hands on Roman’s shoulders.
... and Kendall comforts Roman in the same way after their father berates them.