Warning: spoilers for Succession season 3.
Succession season 3 takes the amorality and antiheroism explored in the first two seasons into interesting new territory. Alongside a continuation of the series’ popularity and critical acclaim — accentuated by, amongst other things, episodes 1 and 2 having their European premiere as a “Special Presentation” at the London Film Festival — the third installment of Jesse Armstrong’s HBO’s phenomenon has also brought an expansion of the series’ delightfully reckless balancing act of channeling pessimism and threatening complicity, of encouraging spectator empathy despite recognizing the need for audiences to have critical distance from such a reprehensible cast of characters. From beginning to end, Succession season 3 expands these issues, but I am focusing on a pair of pivotal scenes from episodes 2 (“Mass in Time of War”) and 7 (“Too Much Birthday”) that are central to this “balancing act.”
At the heart of this discussion are the characterizations of Kendall Roy (Jeremy Strong) and Siobhan “Shiv” Roy (Sarah Snook), who are arguably the series’ only sources of empathy, humanism and redemption. Kendall and Shiv are placed in diametrical opposition to their megalomaniac father Logan (Brian Cox) and insufferably deceitful brother Roman (Kieran Culkin), but in Succession season 3, they are pitted against one another, too. The latest episodes have seen character oppositions receive a more explicit narrative stage, with the entire structure being shaped by Kendall’s season 2-ending declaration of war against the family company, Waystar RoyCo, a global media and entertainment conglomerate. The opposition between Kendall and Shiv, meanwhile, can be outlined by looking at the Succession season 3, episode 2 meeting in Kendall’s daughter’s bedroom, where battle lines between Strong’s character and his father and siblings are irrevocably drawn, alongside the simultaneously petty and consequential events at Kendall’s birthday party in Succession season 3, episode 7 (“Too Much Birthday”), where Kendall’s exclusions of Shiv and Roman from the party’s VIP area culminate in Roman bringing Strong’s character close to tears, an action even Shiv expresses contempt for (consolidating her alienation from Roman, who in the previous episode masterminds their father’s decision to advocate a fascist presidential candidate).
The VIP scene in Succession season 3, episode 7 demonstrates how the damage caused by Shiv and Kendall’s opposition will mean that the siblings cannot possibly have success when the series demands their unity more than ever in order to take down their father together (Logan is set to sell the company during the Succession season 3 finale, “All the Bells Say”). The birthday scene shows the result of the opposition set up in episode 2, which alters the fabric of the Roys beyond repair, sealing their destiny in episode 9 despite their frantic efforts to finally leave behind their difficulties and work together. These two key moments of Succession season 3 benefit from focused attention, as in different ways they further complicate the series’ most attractive debate, the one that puts it into a conversation with The Sopranos’ seminal tug of war between organized crime and domestic American normalcy, Breaking Bad’s timeless depiction of relatable everyman turned destructive lawbreaker, or with other recent small screen classics that dramatize amorality such as The Americans and Mad Men. This is a debate that connects these ideas of pessimism, complicity, empathy and critical distance, which can perhaps best be summarized by a question: why do we enjoy watching the Roy family?
HBO subscribers know that Succession’s characters are terrible people that could only have such authority and control in a society that closely resembles the American present, but they still can’t look away. Worse, many people actively tune in once a week for another look. To reduce Succession to the kind of brainless entertainment that does not require thinking about what is being felt would, of course, be a disservice. Armstrong’s series separates itself from his other television work to date — which will always circle back to the incredibly popular British sitcom Peep Show — because it completely relies on thinking, erudition and didacticism. But watching Succession season 3 may consistently leave one wondering why they should feel anything for these awful people, a concept that is front and center in the first scene I would like to talk about: Kendall’s meeting with Shiv, Roman and fourth sibling Connor (Alan Ruck). After Kendall’s first words, as he, Shiv, and Roman walk into his daughter Sophie’s room — “Okay, don’t touch any of her shit” — the no less formal conversation gets underway, the new setting (a switch from the front room, which had eavesdroppers) doing nothing to dilute the prickly, uncomfortable responses Kendall’s recent movements get from his siblings. The character’s opening gambit proper also does no convincing in its suggestion that his response to their responses will play out straightforwardly or quickly: “Okay, so, it’s pretty simple. Let’s gang up on dad and take him down.” Roman cracks jokes, at this point never even entertaining the possibility of ganging up, whereas Shiv asks Kendall why he did not come to them before publicly denouncing their father — as she puts it, “this is a real fucking mess now.”
The proxemics in this Succession season 3 scene are immediately interesting. Shiv goes straight to sit down on the child’s bed and picks up an animal cushion, but Roman leans against the doorway with one arm behind his back, affecting his characteristic appearance of cool, laid back and unconcerned. In these early moments, Shiv takes the conversational lead, telling Kendall that she is there to reason with him, to persuade him to back down. More forthrightly, Roman tells his brother that he is a spy, then proceeds to contribute mumbled, sardonic agreements with Shiv’s proclamations until Connor enters the scene. Just before this, at the news that Ruck’s character will be joining them, Roman quips how “I thought I heard a clown car pull up.” This clown arrives and lies on his side at the foot of the bed compared to Shiv’s position at the head, doing so with even more abandon. Connor wastes no time conceding that the meeting will not solve anything and allows it to devolve into triviality, contradicting Kendall’s insistence that they get something out of the occasion, that they all learn something. As Strong’s character instructs his siblings to turn off their devices, he highlights how “these incidents are symptomatic of a foundational sickness within our father and his company,” simultaneously including Shiv, Roman and Connor in a shared first-person plural “we” and distinguishing their father from them by using a pronoun (“his”) that undermines the fact that they all work for the same company, reminding them that, despite this, ultimately and liberatingly, the company is his. Kendall pleads with his siblings to recognize that Waystar RoyCo is “a declining empire within a declining empire.” The Succession season 2 revelations of misconduct and coverups in the company’s cruise division have only accelerated this decline, which are Kendall’s ideological ammunition as he tries to convert his siblings to his way of looking at the situation. He moralizes in a way that would always fall on Roman’s deaf ears and has too much depth and complexity for the empty-headed Connor, so he is primarily concerned with reaching Shiv and striking a nerve in her.
This potential is unfulfilled, though. Kendall stumbles through his masterplan before the scene change has lost both Roman (who leaves the room sulking after Shiv tells a joke at his expense) and Connor (who follows Roman out). This all comes after Strong’s character flails and claims not to care whether his siblings join his side; he claims to be doing this only because he is “openhearted” — a premise that could only ever appeal to Shiv, who deep down beneath her unpleasantness might have a heart like her brother, unlike Roman who doesn’t pretend to have anything close to one. But when the Succession season 3 episode returns to this scene after cutting to Logan, a return which brings the re-entry of Kendall’s brothers, Shiv too slips from her middle brother’s grasp of persuasion. As for the proxemics: Roman now lies adjacent to Shiv and Connor in an ovular straw chair while Kendall stands towering over them all, but any symbolic implication of success is misleading, as the only one who could win (Shiv) is soon irrevocably lost, joining Roman and Connor on their father’s side. In desperation, Kendall suggests that “All I am asking is for us to move forward from a position of truth,” but Shiv quickly undercuts this as the camera picks her out specifically, highlighting her bemused, unimpressed facial expression in close-up. As is often the case in Succession season 3, Kendall’s unpreparedness is his undoing. His ramblings about goodwill and redemption fail to connect with Shiv, which establishes a new opposition ready to be mined during the remaining seven and a half episodes of the season. In a scene that clocks in at under 10 minutes spread over two cuts, Kendall’s attempts to appeal to Shiv’s humanist sensibility (and moral sensitivity) completely miss the mark. Alongside other narrative commitments, the next four Succession season 3 episodes exploit this failure in order to widen the gap between Kendall and Shiv, and the extent of this distance is most noticeable at Kendall’s birthday party in episode 7.
If the Succession season 3, episode 2 bedroom scene is the stage for demonstrating Kendall’s failures as a self-elected leader and his shortcomings as a productive moralist, the sequence at his birthday party in episode 7 is the complete antithesis of that (albeit unstable) foundation of method, calculation and agenda. As Kendall’s birthday party turns sour, he is a comparatively broken man, one step behind the version an episode later (“Chiantishire”) when he sits down in Tuscany with his father and finally folds his cards by admitting that Logan has won, and stating that he wants a buyout and will then leave his father and the company alone forever. One episode earlier, it becomes clear why Kendall arrives at this episode 8 decision: he knows that he has failed, that no one believes he can turn it around, that he has been pursuing an intention to take down the company for himself rather than for anyone else. In so doing, Kendall has neglected a family that is already slipping through his fingers, something he abruptly realizes when he manically tears through his pile of birthday presents while trying to find the gifts from his children.
The turning point for Kendall in Succession season 3 is knowing that he has lost Shiv, the only one in the family who might want to do good and also upend the company. She only realizes that she does want to do this when it is too late, in the finale’s dying moments, when Roman also panics and finally agrees with Kendall on forcing their father out of the company. Kendall has lost all fight by this point in Succession season 3 after spending his birthday party in episode 7 squeezing out the last bits of fight he has and directing them at Shiv, setting the tone for the likelihood that they will be a functioning team when needed during the season finale. This is emphasized in the petty way he excludes her from the party’s VIP section — something petty that, as viewers have learned in the three seasons of spending time with this family, would never be left alone and would always escalate to something more serious. The scene that exemplifies this bad Roy habit comes in the final 10 minutes of the episode after Shiv and Roman sneak into the VIP section despite Kendall’s instructions to his security staff to not let them in. After the breakdown trying to find his children’s presents, Kendall notices that they have snuck in on his way out of his own party. Instantly trying to wind his brother up, Roman shouts “Birthday boy, hey! Happy birthday man”; Kendall cannot help himself, and turns around when he is almost out of the door, reminding his siblings that “neither of you should be in here.” Kendall all but takes the pin out of the grenade and walks back into the scene still holding it — as is so often the case in Succession, the U-turn of one of the only characters with redemptive potential underlines the pessimistic nature of the HBO series. Audiences have been trained to expect Kendall to turn around and go back and have his say because he always does this, because they all do, whether they possess moral values or not.
Instinctively, Roman adds kindling to the fire: “Oh my God, you’re right. Someone call the cops. Intruders have breached the masturbatorium.” After calling them “ghouls” that “tried to fuck me behind my back,” Kendall finally does try to leave, but just before doing so he makes Shiv admit that she did not come there to see him, at all — “Look, we haven’t been getting along great lately, so what do you think?” she retorts. A three-way conversation then ensues between the siblings, which sees Kendall only speak to Shiv and Roman only speak to Kendall. The negotiation between who directs their dialogue at who speaks volumes about the character agendas: Kendall is so used to Roman’s shit that he is only truly upset at Shiv (which he makes a point of spelling out for her); Roman knows that attacking Kendall will push Shiv’s buttons more than Kendall’s; Shiv competes with the desire to side with Kendall by being alienated by Roman and the need to communicate to Kendall that he has lost her, which is his own fault (which causes more damage to the scaffolding holding up the Roy siblings). The Succession season 3 scene ends with Kendall trying to leave again, but first telling Roman that he is “not a real person,” which Roman uses to try and get his brother to hit him. Kendall ignores his male sibling to the point that Roman wishes him one final “Happy birthday, fuckface” and pushes him playfully. The fragile Kendall completely falls over and is close to tears as the party guests look at him, confirming that a serious fight against his father is completely unattainable at this point. The strategic seating, lying or standing positions of the bedroom scene in episode 2 are replaced with a man unintentionally being on the floor in this vital moment in episode 7, which is mirrored in the Succession season 3 finale when Kendall is voluntarily on the floor, moments before he and his siblings try to unseat their father.
The first appearance of this Succession season 3 image puts the nail in Kendall’s coffin, pessimistically illustrating how insurmountable his task of righting the company (and series’) wrongs always was. The negative outcome of his journey towards doing the right thing is reached due to Succession season 3’s introduction of an added opposition between him and Shiv, and this outcome consolidates how the HBO series can only ever be complicit in letting the bad guys win. Its balancing act of fighting these kinds of outcomes by letting viewers feel for the barely three-dimensional human beings within this reprehensible family is what makes it such exciting viewing. The situation of the Roys will never end well, but one cannot help but hope that it might, even if it’s clear that the outcomes speak to the accurate, realistic state of the world. This is the fundamental truth of the HBO series. The tension between spectator empathy and necessary critical distance are at the heart of Succession’s mixing pot of antiheroism and amorality, which is all that’s left when its humanism is squandered and its morally redemptive potential falls short. These are the desired effects, though, and they perhaps bolster the audience’s ability to self-reflexively answer the question I asked at the beginning of this piece: why do we enjoy watching the Roy family? All things considered, I think the answer is a simple one: because the world is on fire, so we might as well sit back and take pleasure in pretending for an hour a week that the situation is unique to the small screen.
George Kowalik (@kowalik_george) is a published short fiction and freelance film writer. He is also a PhD candidate at King’s College London. Recent and upcoming film publications include Bright Lights, Bright Wall/Dark Room, Luma Quarterly, and Off Screen.