Let’s take the temperature. The weather’s getting steadily colder and grayer, the long coats and fleeces are coming out, the sun is setting in the early afternoon, golf umbrellas are the pedestrian’s weapon of choice, and the overall mood is gloomy.
In other words, it’s time to watch Succession.
I don’t just mean that it’s time to catch up on the HBO show — I mean that it’s the perfect time of year to crack it open, or go for a rewatch if you’ve seen it already. The show is the coldest series this side of Game of Thrones and The Terror, and if the idea of watching something so cold and caustic during the summer (the show premiered in June) put you off, there’s no excuse to skip it now.
In fairness, despite the fact that it’s had the strongest word of mouth of any series this year (not to mention being one of 2018’s best shows, full-stop), selling people on Succession hasn’t been easy. As put to me by a colleague, the ads for HBO’s new show framed it as a self-serious drama featuring, for the most part, people talking at each other in boardrooms. There’s nothing to signal just how razor sharp the show is, and thereby demarcate its particular brand of chilliness as invigorating rather than lifeless.
Created by Jesse Armstrong (The Thick of It), Succession is much more than the Murdoch allegory that people guessed it would be. Where contemporary themes are concerned, it’s less concerned with lampooning media oligarchs and more interested in money and the way it shapes people, whether they’re born with it, are in a position to lose it, or have so much of it that you don’t even think about it. But even more than that, it’s a Greek tragedy juiced up by the kind of cutting humor that The Thick of It was known for. (Since wrapping up in 2012, the show has been a constant reference point for the absurdity of contemporary politics, and even earned an entry in the Oxford English Dictionary.)
When Logan Roy (Brian Cox) suffers a stroke, his children are suddenly thrust into the spotlight as they contend with the future of the family company without him at the helm. All of them — and even the people around them, from spouses to cousins — are in a state of dysfunction at the intersection of money and family that only grows thornier as the series goes on. It’s a spiral of panic that initially seems to put the show in a league with Arrested Development, and it ends up being something of a stealth tactic, as the inherent investment made in the comedic side of the show is then weaponized in the much higher stakes ultimate arc.
Without spoiling anything, the finale is bone-chilling, as the series sheds any pretense of being solely interested in satire and fully embraces its gothic proportions. Family betrays family, catastrophe is cold-heartedly dismissed, and one unfortunate Roy sibling is left to slog through freezing rain and water.
Though Logan is mercurial and fully capable of burning rage, it’s ice that runs through his veins — as well as the show’s. The New York it’s set in is one of perpetual winter (or at least perpetually on the cusp of it), weather that’s enforced by the cool color palette of the series as well as just how mercilessly the characters are put through the wringer.
The colors only change once, when the characters travel out to a ranch in New Mexico. But even the warmer tones there — as the family futilely angles for some sense of reconciliation — are muted, and preface the darkest episodes of the series. Warmth just isn’t their natural habitat.
Even the show’s theme, composed by Nicholas Britell, has an icy austerity to it. It’s a mix of classical and contemporary sounds, anchored by a wandering piano melody that floats above a percussive electronic beat, and though it’s as well-suited for the sterile boardrooms of Waystar Royco as it is the rainy streets of New York, the music’s a cue that’s deployed sparingly, leaving most of the rest of the series to go unaccompanied by any score. To hew to a theme, the scenes are left out in the cold, the background silence as cutting as the zooms that emphasize the characters’ most awkward moments.
However, rather than creating a sense of emptiness in its audience, Succession’s painstaking attention to tone and detail means it goes down smoothly. Everything about it — from color, to sound, to cinematography — coheres into a single vision of the Roy family’s winter of discontent.
Make no mistake: Succession is a cold show. The weather is just finally catching up with it. And if the holidays are meant for catching up with family, what better to watch?