Since the end of Game of Thrones, HBO has been positioning Succession as the show’s heir. They might not seem like natural bedfellows — Succession is the furthest thing removed from high fantasy, instead ripping its plot straight from the headlines of media trade rags — but they share a central focus: family and empire-building. If anything, it’s not their respective genres that set them apart. Succession is playing the same game; it’s just doing it better.
Succession wasn’t simply gifted the title of king in HBO’s castle; rather, it earned it with a first season that snowballed both in terms of popular attention and critical acclaim, on the way to a stunning finale that blew off the metaphorical roof. In the year since, the big question has been just how the show, created by Jesse Armstrong, could top such a staggering first act.
As improbable as it might seem, the second season of Succession, which picks up exactly where the first left off, leaps over that high bar with balletic ease, spinning further gold (or would it be platinum?) out of the story of a family-owned media empire and one-percenters behaving like monsters. Though that might not seem like an appealing premise on paper, Succession succeeds where many of its contemporaries fail, exploring themes of power, money, and family — and refusing to coddle its audience — with greater depth, clarity, and humor than Game of Thrones ever had.
The shocking twist that ended the first season serves not to vault it into thin melodrama but to heighten the series’ two extremes of cutting satire and gothic tragedy. There’s a push and pull to the proceedings: The family members themselves struggle to distinguish their feelings for each other as love or hate; the show’s excellent theme song, composed by Nicholas Britell, veers between classical and hip-hop; the witty banter bounces back and forth between hilarious and cruel.
The series’ title directly poses its central question: To which of his children will media mogul Logan Roy (Brian Cox) bequeath his empire? It’s simple enough to be summed up in a word, but also encompasses a thorny knot of dysfunction that’s been passed down through generations. There’s so much wealth and trauma at play that characters don’t seek answers, they pursue victories. Family gatherings are games to be won.
Logan’s first son from a previous marriage, Connor (Alan Ruck), has decided to run for president despite having no accomplishments to his name. Former heir apparent Kendall (Jeremy Strong), meanwhile, has been completely broken, turned into a dead man walking (to borrow his siblings’ description of him) by his fear of and forced allegiance to his father. Youngest son Roman (Kieran Culkin) is an arrogant blowhard whose shot at taking on responsibility last season caused a literal explosion. Daughter Siobhan (Sarah Snook) is the most competent of the bunch, taking care to stake out her independence from the family, but her father’s gravitational pull has just as much of a negative effect on her as it does on her siblings. Her patsy husband Tom (Matthew Macfadyen, giving the performance of his career, including Pride & Prejudice), who notably doesn’t come from money and is constantly humiliated by the Roys as such, isn’t even in the running, though he’d sorely like to be.
They’re all traits exacerbated by the seeming black hole of power left by Kendall’s newfound docility and the need for a successor to be named if the company wants to remain independent. The only problem is that no matter who’s named, there’s no winning. The only thing that would get Logan to relinquish his empire is death.
Unlike Game of Thrones, or at least the common criticisms leveled against it, Succession feels untethered from any worries about audience perception, and rewardingly grounded in consistency. Succession may not have dragons, but it has (sometimes frustratingly) organic character growth, even-handed depictions of women, no gratuitous sex or violence, and a keen understanding of just how power games work. It prioritizes logical twists and rich character pairings over dramatic monologues and convenient character deaths.
As a result, the series also doesn’t have to work to curry favor with certain characters or pull off heel turns with others. They’re human, despite the seemingly larger-than-life settings they’re in. It’s heartbreaking. It’s affecting. It’s incredibly funny. In the first episode of the new season, a stench pervading Logan’s mansion on Long Island prompts him to tell the house staff to throw out all of the food — steak, lobster, the lot. All of it, untouched, goes into the trash without a second thought. It’s hysterical, not because the waste is amusing, but because it’s so unthinkable to (almost) everyone else watching it happen. The camera lingers on the service workers, who don’t — or rather, can’t — react.
The rest of the first five episodes, which HBO sent out for review, continue to walk the tightrope between mean and amusing. There’s no question that the Roys are awful people, but it’s impossible not to be transfixed by everything that happens to them. It’s an impressive gambit; there’s no “antihero” to fall back on as a sympathy cushion. This isn’t another prestige drama about a supernaturally charming bad man. It’s a look at the very real people who sit in penthouses and boardrooms and places most of us will never see, making decisions that we would never make, losing everything because they want it all.
It might seem like there’s so much TV that making any qualifying statement as to how the shows stack up against each other is a lost cause, but in the same way that Logan, despite chumming up the water, doesn’t actually plan to cede power, so too does Succession not have that much serious competition. It’s the best drama currently airing; Game of Thrones is lucky to be mentioned in the same breath.
The 10-episode second season of Succession premieres Aug. 11 at 9 p.m. ET on HBO.