A little over a year ago, I watched Succession for the first time. It was a glorious experience for many reasons, not the least of which was discovering what I had assumed was just a show about impossibly rich assholes being impossibly assholeish to each other was in fact about more than that. (Though it is also and very much about exactly that.) There are daddy issues galore. There’s a whole grenaded yacht’s worth of class drama to unpack. There are bucketloads of sexual dysfunction and commentary on the sad marriage of mutually assured destruction between politics and mass media in the 21st century. And – to the surprise of no one, given Succession‘s pedigree – there are more amazing dick jokes than one man can shake a Lester at.
But one of the things that caught my attention and held it was Succession‘s use of love and trust. By “use” I mean both as intangible themes (i.e., concepts for its characters to lean on and contort) and as language: those characters’ literal deployment of the words “love” and “trust” as linguistic extensions of those themes. I find the latter especially compelling because Succession, like The Sopranos before it, is a show where almost every character is lying almost every time they talk. Half truths and ulterior motives are far more common than any outright statement, any flat declaration through which someone would have left themselves exposed, vulnerable, weak.
But of course it’s not a 1:1 translation. For Succession, just because a character is lying, that doesn’t mean they’re only telling the untruth. With these Succession recaps for Screen Speck, then, I’m going to pay special attention to how the show relies specifically on failures of language to convey the Roy family’s bizarro-world morality. (And to the insane amount of hilarious shit happening all of the time: by a similar sort of bizarro logic, Succession isn’t quite a comedy…but that’s not for lack of trying.)
We open on a pitch-black bedroom. Dark: like Succession. Dark: like Logan Roy’s mind. There is snoring. Then there is rustling. Then there is the first line of dialogue of the entire show: “Where am I?” And then, because it’s Logan Roy, a moment later, we hear, “Where the fuck am I?” Logan stumbles out of bed, meanders in the darkness a bit, then wanders into a room and starts pissing. The sound-conscious among us will note that this is not the sound of piss being pissed into the water of a toilet bowl. Marcia flips on the light and enters. Logan realizes he’s been pissing on a carpeted floor like an ordinary housecat whose owners have irritated it for some common reason. Marcia assures Logan, “It’s OK,” and reminds him that they’re in the new place.
I love this scene as an introduction to this character in particular because it means Logan is always grounded in frailty and fragility. Way before I saw one minute of Succession, the only thing (I thought) I knew about it was that Brian Cox plays an angry guy who tells people to fuck off all the time. So it was a pleasant surprise to meet Logan Roy in such a pitiful state. (And my surprise and delight only grew over the first half of Succession Season 1, when practically every scene with Logan showcases either a) his weakness or b) his anger stemming from his awareness of that weakness. This will be a recurring theme throughout these recaps!)
Speaking of splashing piss on one’s own feet, here comes Kendall Roy! It’s everyone’s favorite special little guy, riding high in the back seat of his chauffeured car in his big headphones rapping along to the Beastie Boys‘ “An Open Letter to NYC” while he punches the front seat like it’s a gym bag and generally looks (and sounds) for all the world like a bright-eyed middle-schooler on the way to dropoff. I know I must be the eleven millionth person to have said this, but the best part of this whole introduction is when the soundtrack drops away, we’re in the driver’s POV for a minute, and all we can hear is Ken (Jeremy Strong) dropping rhymes in a voice that’s a little too high and a little too thin to ever take seriously. All filler, no killer.
Ken’s here to close Waystar Royco’s deal to buy Vaulter, the Succession universe’s version of Gawker, which was famously killed by venture capitalist assholes – and, to be fair, their own cockiness – way back in the wild wild web days of 2016 (and which, after a brief resurrection, died a second death last week). He rolls into the conference room all shiny and happy and bro-tastic, calling Lawrence, Vaulter’s CEO, “dude” and assuring him that he thinks Vaulter is “the shizz.” Rob Yang does a fantastic job balancing Lawrence’s clear discomfort with Kendall’s awkward praises and the relish he takes in blowing this whole takeover up right in Kendall’s face.
And I have to say: while I have no idea how high-level business deals are “supposed” to work – especially ones where the whole point of the meeting is to close the deal – it does maybe seem a bit disrespectful or shitty that Ken, the interested party, is the last one in the room? By several minutes at least? And that when Lawrence apologizes but says he has an “issue” with Royco’s bid, Ken doesn’t straight-up ask what the issue is? Ken’s response is to ask Lawrence what he wants and tell him that he’ll drop a Jaguar off at Lawrence’s house that day if that’s what it will take. So, in addition to the Roy family’s reputation preceding them into the negotiations and presumably being the thing that tanked them from the outset, Lawrence also has to notice that while Kendall more or less acts like he knows how a human being is supposed to act in order to show kindness and sincerity, all of his questions are about what Lawrence wants, never about what the rest of those people who make the shizz happen might want. Not exactly an endearing attitude.
But so then speaking of endearing, after Lawrence blows up the deal and Ken gets the most awkward phone call of his life until the next time Logan calls him, it’s time to meet Greg! Greg gets high in his car before his first day of work at a Waystar amusement park. His job? Walking around the park in the most conspicuous least conspicuous way possible a gangly idiot can: within the comfy confines of the vaguely Disneyesque mascot suit. A pack of wild children, with the incisive reasoning only children both possess and act on, recognize the true gangly idiocy to which they are bearing witness and decide to do something about it: they bring Greg the Horse-Faced Dog Mascot Creature to his knees, then ride him and thwack him about the torso with a backpack until his high gets way too harshed and he throws up.
Because of this little set piece of absurdity, we get the two lines of dialogue between which Cousin Greg will bounce for the entirety of Succession‘s run. After the vomit starts pouring forth from the costume’s eyeholes like something out of a Troma film, the thwacking little kid shouts, “He’s puking out of his eyes!” And then Greg’s mother, after listening to his absurd little set piece of an explanation for what happened before he’s even gotten to the good part, says, with the exhaustion of a mother who never really stops saying it, “Greg, what the fuck.” That’s Cousin Greg in a nutshell. A weird, overlong, bumpy nutshell.
Oh, and hey, since we’re on the topic of character intros that do a really hilariously great job of encapsulating the character, here comes Roman Roy!
Yes, that is the very first line of dialogue Roman Roy ever speaks on Succession. It is also, thanks to Kieran Culkin, one of the all-time great line reads, period. He sounds like a twelve-year-old who just lost his virginity to a Smurf. It’s fascinating how easy it is to almost like Roman at first. He’s back from relative exile (for him) in California, working under current COO Frank Vernon (Peter Friedman) in Waystar’s movies division and being the kind of person who has an impossible time taking anything seriously but who will also hire a guy to come and burn sage in your office to get rid of the bad vibes. It’s partly to fuck with you, yes; Roman is nothing if not bro-ish and carefree (for not) – but it’s also partly because this is the kind of thing that Pilot Episode Roman vibes with. Did you know that Roman, and not Kendall, is supposed to be oldest of Logan’s children by Catherine? It seems wonky as shit, it feels wrong, and the show almost never mentions it, but it’s true! And later on, we’re even going to meet Roman’s kid! Remember when Roman had a kid? Which, of course, presumes that he can ejaculate? Oh, Succession – you were so much more naïve back then.
I find the writers’ retconning of Roman throughout Succession Season 1 to be hilarious. Also necessary. Roman as a father would be a tragedy to make Logan Roy less of a Lear figure and more like Malvolio from Twelfth Night. That would be the true shit show at the fuck factory.
Know what else is hilarious? The existence of Tom Wambsgans. Matthew Macfadyen, thank you for bringing perhaps the saddest sack in TV history to life. Of course, Tom also started with a leg up, comedy-wise, because “Tom Wambsgans” is the second-funniest name in TV history, right there behind John Wingsnight. Maybe it’s something to do with the letter W? I don’t know, and I don’t care. “Tom Wambsgans” is an objectively funny sound-scramble of a name, one almost as funny as “John Wingsnight.” Tom is just suuuuch an impossibly huge simp that he puts the “imp” in “imperial toady” and the “s” in “Should I have stayed in Minnesota instead of going to New York City and getting in so far over my head that Nicholas Braun would also drown (and does)?”
Anyway. Tom is hilarious; that’s all I’m trying to say. On this particular day, he needs help figuring out what to get the L to the O G for his birthday. He actually asks Shiv (Sarah Snook), “What can I get him that he’ll love?” I dunno, Tom, a breakup? Because seriously – unless you’re calling it quits with the man’s daughter, there is nothing you can get for him about which he will give the merest little squeeze of an old man shit. Shiv does try to convey this message: “Just, look. Everything that you get him will mean an equal amount of nothing. So make sure it looks like 10 or 15 grand’s worth and you’re good.” Naturally, though, Tom insists on trying to put thought and energy into his gift; just as naturally, Shiv says she’ll help him browse.
At home, Logan putters about aimlessly. He observes a cleaning lady scrubbing out his piss mishap (“pisshap”). There’s a whole crew setting the table for his birthday lunch under Marcia’s direction. But the camel that breaks this lion’s back is the sight of Kendall on the cover of Forbes and the headline “The Heir with the Flair.” This is just too much for
George Sr. Logan, who gathers a bunch of paperwork and announces he’s going into the office. Where, what do you know, he comes upon Ken and his team still trying to figure out how to close the Vaulter deal! Guys. Ken. They think you’re all pieces of shit; Lawrence made that abundantly clear. You don’t have anything they want except for more money. So offer them a fuckload more money and be done with it. Yeah? You could have done this hours ago, Ken-doll.
I hate to go all Logan on him, especially with Logan standing right there making Ken look like an asshole by pressuring him into signing a revision to the family trust (!) without first running it past a lawyer (!!), but, like, am I missing something? If you’re trying to do a business thing and the thing isn’t working because people are being turds, don’t you give them more money and get the thing you want? This is how business works, as I understand it. Tell me if I’m wrong!
In any case, Logan insists he’s only there for a little bit of “housekeeping” w/r/t the paperwork, and Ken is too distracted by his attempt at daddy-pleasing to do anything more than exactly what Logan wants. “It’s your call,” Logan tells his son, when Ken suggests he might not be able to make it to the 80th birthday shindig. “Just priorities.” Hoo boy. This should be Logan Roy’s theme song:
Except since this is Logan we’re talking about it should really be David Brent’s version.
So: here we are at Logan’s birthday lunch! Why is it not a birthday dinner? With a fuckton of “friends” and business associates paying tribute and kissing the ring and stuff? The guy’s turning 80, after all. Doesn’t matter; this little preamble scene, where Logan steps off the elevator and is completely unmoved by the “Surprise!” he knew was coming, has the funniest line in the Succession pilot episode: “Where’s Tom?” HAHAHA oh man. While STANDING NEXT TO TOM Logan says this. And no, he doesn’t ask Shiv in that ball-breaking way where you know the person is there but you also want them to know you’re not above using them as the butt of a joke. He just straight-up does not see Tom Wombat Scams even though Tom is a foot taller than him and, you know. Dating Logan’s daughter. (This line becomes the funniest in the pilot only after you’ve seen Succession all the way through and understand exactly how much of a fool and a goober Tom is. But when you get it, you get it.)
By now, we’ve almost reached Succession 1.1’s big Father-Son Showdown. Before we get that, though, we need to witness something else.
LOL Greg you delightful idiot. He’s almost the only one in the entirety of Succession who ever gets the better of Logan and it’s simply because he doesn’t come from this world at all and has no idea what the rules are supposed to be. It’s like when ChatGPT played Stockfish. And five minutes after this scene in the elevator Greg actually one-ups himself by refusing to take the Great Logan Roy’s “No” for an answer in insisting he’s worth a second chance…at the Waystar amusement parks’ management training program. The poor bastard. I would call him a fish out of water except fish out of water have the good sense to flop briefly and then die. Greg is more like a swordfish at a knife fight. Not the guy wielding the swordfish, the actual swordfish.
Logan Roy, on the other hand, never goes to a knife fight without a double-barrelled shotgun. Just before the birthday lunch and his ostensible retirement announcement, he pulls all four of his children into the study and announces what he’s already told Kendall: he would like them to sign an amended family trust to which his wife Marcia is now a party. Oh, and that Marcia will have double voting rights upon Logan’s death. Oh oh and also that he’s actually not going to step down as Waystar Royco’s Chairman and CEO just yet. Typical housekeeping stuff, really. We’ve all been there with our own families can’t live with ’em can’t combine the best parts of each of them to construct a bionic heir am I right?
Naturally, when Shiv expresses concern about the suddenness of the change and asks her father if she can run the new trust past her lawyer, he’s as copacetic as can be. Connor (who is, in fact, the eldest son) refuses to play this game; he gives his proxy to whatever the siblings decide and peaces out of the room with the vaguely Zen “I’m water; I flow.”
Kendall Roy, though, can’t quite believe his ears. He gets Logan alone in the dining room and asks him what the fuck. Logan says he simply changed his mind. Easy as could be. Ken asks him the dumbest possible question: “When will you be ready? To step down?” For fuck’s sake, Ken-doll. Even on first watch of this episode it was obvious that Logan will never ever be “ready” to step down as the Supreme Allied Commander of his worldwide empire. He’ll shit on an uncloseted toilet in Times Square before he gives up power. He’ll fuck his daughter doggystyle over the ATN News desk before he lets go.
So of course this is when Logan starts to go in for the kill. He points out that Ken “let himself” get shouted at and made to look weak in the meeting with Vaulter, didn’t consult a lawyer over the trust, and left the midday Vaulter strategy meeting to be at Logan’s own birthday lunch. Ken says he trusted his father and doesn’t accept that that should then be used against him. Logan, though, knows his son a little bit better than Ken knows his father. Because what Ken’s “trust” really means here is that he wanted to believe his father would act like someone other than who he really is.
It’s a bit easier for me to say this with the benefit of hindsight (i.e., the 28 episodes that follow the Succession pilot). But to this point in just this one episode, all Kendall has done is fumble a $120 million deal at the goal line. And while that’s a near-unlimited amount of money to me (and I assume to you as well, Dear Reader), Waystar is a stand-in for Fox. Meaning it is a multi-billion dollar multinational corporation. A low-nine figure deal? Peanuts. Given Logan’s temperament, it sure does seem like any other employee of his who oversaw the same cockup would have been kicked right the fuck to the curb for it.
And so we’ve arrived at Logan’s Grand Statement, for the Succession pilot episode as well as for himself. In response to Ken telling his father that “The world is changing” and that Waystar needs Vaulter, “a portfolio of online brands and digital video content,” as “part of an upstream investment strategy to save” the company, which is otherwise poised to tank hard in the short term, Logan has this to say (emphasis added).
Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. Everything changes. The studio was gonna tank when I bought it; everyone was gonna stay home with videotape – but guess what? No! They wanna go out. No one was gonna watch network – except you give it a zing, and they do. You make your own reality. And once you’ve done it, apparently, everyone’s of the opinion it was all so fuckin’ obvious.
So there it is. Logan Roy has been bending his own reality in the shape of his desires and whims for almost the entirety of his adult life. (We won’t find out until Succession 2.8, “Dundee,” that he’s been Chairman and CEO for 50 years; for now, Brian Cox’s gravitas carries the same heft.) And the size of that reality has grown in proportion with the company itself. The one thing he can’t shape is, to paraphrase Ken, the number of birthdays he has left. Inasmuch as Succession has a single thesis statement, this is it. It’s one man fighting against the biggest, most inexorable reality as futilely as we all do, and taking it out on his kids along the way.
(The show is, of course, way more than just that. But to quote the main character from Succession‘s diametric opposite show, I just came up with that; I feel pretty good about it.)
This lunchtime showdown is effectively the climax of Succession 1.1. But I would be remiss if I didn’t spend a few (more) words talking about the episode’s coda. Because as the meal is winding down, Logan gives us a cryptic utterance: “I think it’s time to play the game.” As this is the most awkward family in the world, there are naturally a ton of aww geez smiles and do we really have to faces. But Logan insists. And so we shuttle on down to the helicopter pad and fly out of the city in our Roy family helicopters to the Waystar baseball field for a friendly game. I find it…rrrather difficult to believe that Logan Roy ever gave a solitary shit about either baseball or playing it with his children. This, to me, feels like those early episodes of The West Wing when Aaron Sorkin tried to write President Bartlet as this clumsy-but-vaguely-athletic guy who would ride a bike for fun (into a tree, but still) or play basketball with his staff. It wasn’t until that show got into its groove that Bartlet became the fully cerebral economics guru and chess master we all know and love.
But then maybe it’s also fair to assume that Logan would have bullied his younger kids into playing, and so they go along with it now. I guess all I’m trying to say is that even in Succession 1.1, Boar on the Floor feels like the correct game.
And then again I really shouldn’t be too quick to assume, because what is baseball but a social gathering – and what is a social gathering but a chance for Logan to bend reality that bit more advantageously. During warmups, he reminds Shiv – who’s been off working for a yet-unnamed entity in Washington – “Politics is what comes out the asshole. Would you rather be upfront, feeding the horse?” In addition to offering Shiv a lucrative corporate job to get her “back inside” the family business, he also promotes Tom (to a comparatively meaningless position, but one that’s also considerably higher than where he was before). And he demotes Frank to open up the COO position for Roman. Meaning that over the span of an otherwise innocuous hour and change, he made space for both of his non-Kendall children to coerce them into signing the new family trust, which was Logan’s endgame all along.
Oh, and Shiv wears a fantastic cardigan.
The fact that Logan then goes on to have a stroke on the ride back when Roman and Shiv hold out for more is beside the point. I’m not claiming that Logan Roy is a supernatural force, and I’m damn sure not suggesting he always wins.
No, my point here is that Roman Roy is an absolute piece of shit. What Roman does next is one of the most despicable things I have ever seen happen on a screen, and I watched The Mountain fight The Viper. After Ken smacks a fly ball, gets a phone call, and leaves in the middle of the game, Roman recruits a replacement player in the form of the let’s say 12-year-old son of the ballfield’s groundskeeper. Who, as luck would have it, is also there with his mother. The kid is (UNDERSTANDABLY) a bit nervous playing baseball with all these people he’s never met, these people who are adults and drunk and OH YEAH ALSO BILLIONAIRES WHO EMPLOY HIS FATHER.
To loosen the kid up, Roman asks if he can hit. When he says he can, Roman does this.
Even Shiv knows this is several steps too far: “Rom, come on; don’t be an asshole.” Roman, though, has never backed down from a bad decision after being confronted with the fact of it. “I’m not being an asshole,” he replies; “I want him incentivized. This is fun. It’s a game, geez – stop being so serious.” (And then, in a channeling of Ted Lasso as perverse as it is anachronistic, the little fucker adds, “I believe in you.”)
The kid smacks the next pitch. He runs and runs and runs. He makes it to third base before the ball catches up to him. Tom tags him out, marking the most action Tom has seen at third base in probably his whole life. And then Roman, whose enraptured cries of despairing delight are best described as “near-orgasmic,” rips the check up in front of the kid. He hands him a fragment of it and tells him it’s worth a quarter-million.
Roman actually does do some decent, borderline kind things later on in Succession. It’s important to remember that. Because despite them, I will never, ever, ever forgive him for doing this. I’ve watched this scene a number of times. It never fails to enrage me. The perfect thoughtlessness with which Roman makes the offer. The careless precision with which he tears up the check. I will murder him; I will strangle him to death with his own hands.
(FAIRLY IMPORTANT DISCLAIMER: Let me make it perfectly clear that I am talking about murdering the character Roman Roy, who does not, in fact, exist. These feelings are in no way a reflection of my feelings about Kieran Culkin, who is a goddamn marvel in this role! Kieran, you rouse me to murderous rage. Jesse Armstrong, you are a sadist and a gentleman.)
There’s nowhere else to go after you’ve twice threatened to murder a fictional creation. See you in the next recap!
–Rava (Natalie Gold) is a) extraordinarily hot and b) insanely well-acted. I really love the line about how “I’m just hopin’ this one doesn’t leave coke smeared all over the kids’ iPads” because it is TOTALLY TRUE, YES SHE DOES HOPE HER NEW LOVER IS NOT AN ADDICT, and which line she then follows up with “Oh, God. Kendall. I’m fucking with you.” And indeed she is! But also she TOTALLY IS NOT, KEN. And which Rava then follows up with “This is a big day – coronation day. Hey – you deserve this.” There are whole undiscovered dimensions of frustration; anger; discomfort; and goodwill in just these seven seconds.
–Kendall’s bathroom tantrum begins with him snapping a pair of Q-Tips in half, lol
–Back at Waystar HQ after he leaves the game, Ken tells Lawrence the offer for Vaulter is now $140 million, plus stock alternatives, and Lawrence gets a seat on Waystar’s board. Ken then threatens Lawrence (sort of makes sense, given the amount of shit he’s been eating all episode long), but Ken also tells Lawrence that he doesn’t need him to “sign off” on the deal in the sense that Lawrence means. “This is a deal so fucking good,” Ken says, “you have to take it. Or we’ll see you in court.” My question: is that a thing? Can you, like, sue a company for not negotiating in bad faith if they back out of a deal that’s overwhelmingly in their favor?
-How did Lawrence find out about Logan’s stroke and hospitalization before Ken did? Shiv, on the phone with Ken just moments after Lawrence breaks the news, tells Ken they’ve been trying to get in touch with him; has he only been anxious about answering calls and messages that pertain to Vaulter? (Of course, it’s also possible that everyone in the helicopters and at the hospital thought somebody else would be the one to call Ken, so nobody actually did it.)
–Delightful Wholesome Incest Alert: As he plots with Roman and Shiv before the baseball game, Kendall proposes that the three siblings enter a “threesome” of power atop the company. One way you can tell Roman isn’t fully Roman yet? He doesn’t counter-propose a “daisy chain of decision-making.”
–The Patek Philippe watch Colin gave to the kid’s family to help secure their silence? The one sitting on the table in the living room in the second-to-last shot? Is the watch face…cracked? I paused and squinted and double-checked, and I can’t tell. Also I’m not sure you can crack a watch face like that; they’re meant to be supremely shatter-resistant. It’s probably not cracked, because the family did keep the watch. Still, as a metaphor for the Roy family’s reverse Midas touch, it’s not bad.
–Fuck you Roman Roy