Why do we watch Succession? The experience isn’t like sitting through any other TV show. It feels neither relaxing nor like a form of escape. Most of the time, let’s be honest, you wouldn’t even call it pleasure. Watching Succession feels like being dragged underwater by a shark who is calling you a cunt.
Yet we still love it – and after a tortuously long break the Roys, TV’s most irredeemably horrible family, are back. When we left them – spoiler alert – Kendall had suddenly slid the knife into his father’s back on live television, refusing to be the sacrificial lamb for Logan’s complicity in corruption – and, in doing so, putting not just a cat but an entire Bengal tiger among the pigeons. As with the season before it, this was a finale that left you making unhealthy noises at your screen and punching the furniture in delight. You wanted more.
The third season of Jesse Armstrong’s unanimously praised, gong-laden drama makes no changes to its core lineup or modus operandi. It continues, in dense, hour-long episodes, to be exactly as it was before: funny, awful, irritating, cold, brilliant.
Sitting pretty as the headline act, Kendall – poor, broken, dead-eyed Kendall – can only be smug for so long before he needs to deal with the seismic implications of his stunt. Much of the third season (the seven episodes to which reviewers have been given access) is about how and with whom Kendall will take on the mighty Logan. This battle, between father and first-born (if we’re not counting Connor, which we’re not), has always been Succession‘s true essence; it has been the bookend for each season. The scenes that tease a meeting with the two, and those in which an inevitable meeting takes place, are the ones we want to see. The pair continue to be so well written, and so well acted by Jeremy Strong and Brian Cox, that you can almost feel yourself salivating with each line of dialogue.
A debate could be had about the authenticity of this dialogue – like The Thick of It, on which Armstrong also had a big impact, it can feel far too self-satisfied at times – but it serves up lines like no other. “I’d castrate you and marry you in a heartbeat,” Tom tells Greg at one point, as the fear that he will serve prison time begins to send him mad. In another scene, Greg, flirting with Kendall’s assistant Comfrey, uses the phrase “a very even-handed maiden” about her while adopting a deranged and half-hearted Texan accent. Logan’s brother, Ewan, a character who could always afford to be given more screen time, describes those in Logan’s camp as “crapulous shills”. For the fans who love a screenshot, there are retweets aplenty here.
There may, unfortunately, be fewer stand-out scenes – though the previous seasons set a toweringly high bar – and a little more verbal sparring than each hour can reasonably hold. But this is a little like criticising the lifts on the Eiffel Tower – we are already being spoiled. One criticism that feels fair is that we see too much of Roman, who is beginning to become more irritating to the viewer than he is even to the characters around him. “You’re not a real person,” Kendall tells him as his younger brother taunts him. There is a danger this is coming across in the script as well, as Roman spews phrases that probably made the writers squeal with delight but wrench the drama further and further from plausibility.
What Succession has always managed to do frighteningly well is make each of its main characters so believable and so dense that every scene is as layered as a lasagne palace. There is so much to sink your teeth into, and the stakes are so obscenely high, that the viewer risks overindulging. Does season three pack in as much as ever? Yes. Does it pack in more? Probably not. This dilemma was partly COVID-induced (taking characters to other locations was complex) but partly woven into the fabric of the show – for how long can the jostling for The Big Seat remain compelling?
Ultimately, Succession can risk feeling like a drama too obviously helmed by comedy writers, with its characters sitting in a circle firing off zingers. There is a reason it is particularly beloved in the media landscape. Where it has soared, over its 27 sublime episodes, has been when it has allowed its characters’ masks to slip and for dramatic change to actually occur. In this new season we may have wanted a little less “optics” and “temperature” and a little more mask-slipping. But, whether it can be categorised as pleasure or not, Succession‘s grip continues to pull us in as strongly as ever, down into the murky deep.
‘Succession’ season three premieres on October 18 in the UK via Sky Atlantic and streaming service NOW. It returns on October 17 in the US