In the field of business management, there is an idea called “text and conversation theory.” It proposes that communication, far from being a subcategory of a business’s operations, is a business. The corporation’s soul lies in every conversation, not just the important ones, in other words; putting things into words or numbers comes before anything else and is the medium every commercial objective must be accomplished through, and can’t therefore be separated out from any other concern.
It would please the management nerds who came up with that idea, I imagine, to see how much material the HBO show Succession has wrung out of the act of talking in the presence of profit. Premiering this Sunday, on the heels of the second season’s seven Emmys, this third season continues to follow the Roy family as its media empire, Waystar Royco, shudders under the weight of the enmity between its founder, Logan Roy (Brian Cox), and his second-oldest son, Kendall (Jeremy Strong).
In a time when strong teleplays are few and far between, the joy of Succession lies, as ever, in its script, whose sheer ickiness and cringe factor comes out of the double toxicities of the Roy family’s dysfunction and its chauvinistic family business culture. Summoning contemporary villains as varied as Trumpian politics, the Vessel at Hudson Yards, and the maddening sexism of the men who use the vocabulary of feminism to leaven their social reputations, the show’s creator Jesse Armstrong (Peep Show, In the Loop) and his writing team have, in an admirable move, turned the evil way up on this season, sacrificing the likability of their characters for the stickier pleasures of their nasty sides.
Season 3 picks up immediately after the ending of season 2, when Kendall gave a press conference denouncing his father as a “malignant presence” and a “bully” who must be ousted from the top spot at the company. Specifically, Kendall alleged that Waystar covered up crimes that happened on the company’s cruise line, an accusation backed up by documents exfiltrated by Greg from the company archive in season 1. Throughout all three seasons of Succession (I’ve only seen episodes one through seven of the new season, and there will be nine episodes in total), Waystar Royco has been haunted by the need to cover up old misdeeds on its cruise line.
In reality, crimes on cruise ships do frequently go uninvestigated. Just as the season 1 storyline in which Kendall humiliated himself overpaying for an internet property named Vaulter (read: Gawker) was horribly credible, so is the cruise-crimes storyline, and it haunts the action of the show like a conscience as much as it imperils the legal safety of the company. Kendall, now alone—his siblings Siobhan (the luminous Sarah Snook) and Roman (Kieran Culkin) have to choose between him and their father—decides to spin his episode of Oedipal sabotage as feminist whistleblowing, and position himself as a kind of Ronan Farrow–alike young champion of the rights of the vulnerable.
Jeremy Strong is perfect as the dark Kendall. Clearly high all the time but hiding it, he barrels forth on his quest to take down Logan on a mission that, almost as soon as the big moment has passed, seems ill-conceived. Refusing to acknowledge that he’s in trouble, however, Kendall pursues his self-destruction with such classic accompaniments to cocaine abuse as being incredibly rude to his ex-wife and his (largely female) staff. For Rava (Natalie Gold), his ex, he reserves his choicest bits of foolishness. After commandeering her apartment as an operations base without really asking, for example, he coyly tells her about his big speech: “You know, it was kind of like, for you guys.”
Rava smiles but narrows her eyes in mute disbelief at his gall, inhabiting one of the many, many moments in this season when women bite their tongues while we, the viewer, scream into a pillow. When he hires an adviser, Berry Schneider (Jihae), for example, he interrupts her so frequently she never gets to deliver her initial pitch for their publicity strategy. When she tries, Kendall interrupts, to say, “The headline needs to be: Fuck the weather, we’re changing the cultural climate,” and to demand that “some Bojack guys” be hired to punch up the quality of his Twitter feed. Smaller incidents of this kind happen continually with Kendall’s unflappable assistant, Jess (Juliana Canfield), and his lawyer, Lisa (Sanaa Lathan), except that Lisa eventually loses patience—though not her cool.
Although I don’t think we explicitly hear the hashtag “#MeToo” spoken aloud, Kendall’s strategy is clearly rooted in a cynicism that has nothing to do with actual care for the vulnerable. “Shouldn’t you be on a rainbow soapbox somewhere, screaming ‘Time’s up?’” Stewy (Arian Moayed) asks him, in one of the season’s many lines whose deliciousness and brutality satisfies some deep, hard-to-reach place.
This is dialogue that snaps, but satisfyingly, like wet vegetable flesh, a cucumber or a bell pepper between your teeth. Fans of the sexual tension between Logan’s adviser Gerri and Roman Roy will be delighted by further frissons in season 3. Roman, however, undergoes one of the most frightening psychological transformations in the show, played out across a storyline in which Logan handpicks the Republican candidate for president. After he does some party-circuit flirting with a Jordan Peterson–ish figure, Roman’s interest in him spirals into a full-blown campaign for the candidacy, swept up in the glamor of digital fascism.
The other possibility is, of course, that all these scions of a superrich clan were predisposed to tip toward fascism anyway. The conservatism of their father’s media empire, particularly ATN, which mirrors the real-life Fox News, is like a curse, repeatedly bending the arc of Succession’s universe toward evil. There is some repetition in the larger plot cycle of season 3, which hews roughly to the same arc as the first two seasons. But since it concerns Kendall’s feeling of entitlement, gone berserk under the psychological torture exerted on him by his father, the repetition feels like that curse returning rather than a retread.
Whatever is eating Kendall from the inside out, one feels, is also part of that curse. Armstrong has been wise not to incorporate the pandemic into the plot of the new season, I think, if only because it would muddle the way fate seems to conspire against the thwarted son. He’s constantly in trouble in the back of cars; traffic keeping him corked inside the Holland Tunnel, making him miss the vote of no confidence he had himself schemed against his own father, or the car crash that so memorably garlanded season 1 in violence, shame, emotional collapse, and humiliation at the feet of his father.
Of course, anybody coming to this season will know that Logan has ultimate dirt on Kendall—the knowledge, and probably the proof, that he killed one of the caterers at his sister’s wedding in England. It’s hard to tell if he’s actually forgotten, but showing him repressing the memory is smart: Kendall’s every offensive conversation is threaded with guilt, making his idiocy so close to self-harm that even his siblings seem unsure where to look.
The problem with “text and conversation theory” is that it isn’t specific enough. In all the texts and conversations and chats and instant messages and silent moments of body language that exist in and of and about a company, where does the soul of the business really lie? Is it in the adjectives? The pitch decks? Some secret code embedded in the stock market numbers?
It’s harder than ever to tell, in this season, where the line between irony and hypocrisy really lies on Succession, or when its frenzied dialogue is misdirecting us or giving the whole game away. It’s language that blurs all those boundaries, just like in real life, miring the best of conscious intentions in unconscious bias, the clearest of data in ambiguity, and the understanding of a damaged child in the belief that his agenda of corporate reform has anything to do with the politics of work. Under its slippery influence, activist catchphrases become insults and good intentions become Achilles’ heels, and every member of the Roy family progresses further on their inexorable journey to total villainy.