The other afternoon, I listened to the Succession theme by Nicholas Britell on my way to a meeting. This may have been a mistake. It is an exquisite, atypical piano-driven melody that seems classical but is really made up of music that shouldn’t work well together, and I love it. Merely listening to it made me feel evil. Like I would cut someone out of my will because they snickered at an inopportune moment, or fire three people before breakfast because…well, because I could (I may have displayed malevolence in the conversations that followed).
All this from just a twinkly baroque reminder of a show that you can’t stop gasping at — as well as one you can’t stop quoting. Created by Jesse Armstrong — writer of The Peep Show, Fresh Meat, The Thick Of It and Four Lions — Succession is the king of present-day television drama, a deeply unsettling show that makes power feel like a mirage. Streaming in India on Hotstar, Succession had a gorgeous first season (it was my top new show of 2018) and with the ongoing second season, Armstrong is crafting a tragicomedy for the ages. It started out as a riff on King Lear, the story of the flawed inheritors fighting for a media empire, but it has grown beyond that now, into an amorality saga that makes wealth smell putrid.
And Shakespeare never wrote lines this mean.
“A pusillanimous piece of fool’s gold." That’s what a former friend calls Kendall Roy, the chief successor to the empire. The last season had Kendall mounting aggressive boardroom plays against his father—Logan Roy, played by Brian Cox like a sabre-toothed tiger who refused to read the memo about his extinction—but this year his spirit has been ground to a fine powder, the kind someone more powerful would not even deign to snort. Jeremy Strong is haunting as this emasculated husk—I am genuinely surprised his kid brother hasn’t called him a Ken-doll yet. This wretch is unfortunate enough to actually know his place. Logan bats him about dismissively even as the other children circle around, smelling the blood in the water (and grateful their brother bled first) and hankering for a piece of the pie.
It is a crusty pie. Waystar Royco is the kind of news-entertainment conglomerate that is fast losing relevance with the death of old media—a character floats “We do hate speech and roller coasters" as a slogan—and Logan himself is aware his bark is worse than his bite. Which only makes him bark harder.
This raises hackles down the totem pole, as those bullied become the bullies. On the penultimate rung lives Tom Wambsgans, Logan’s obsequious son-in-law, who sounds atrociously articulate given the queasiness of his position. “Time for me to habeas the corpus," he says, hiding insecurities behind a glibness meant to indicate he’s in on the joke. That is precisely what everyone else on the ladder is doing, yet Tom (played by Matthew McFayden as both hapless and hideous) is the one whose words stick out, visibly trying too hard to be funny in a show built out of lethal lines. This is because the rest are better conditioned to barbarism. They are old money.
“Does he even know what a jail is?"
“He literally only knows it from Monopoly."
That is the kind of maddeningly sharp comeback that announces Logan’s younger son, Roman—the patriarch calls him Romulus, like the son of the god of war. Roman wants to provoke. His wit is savage and his truculence is meant to be shocking. Played by Kieran Culkin, Roman is a fascinating creature: a boy who has lived a life without consequences, literally getting off on being told the truth about himself. He wants to be shamed, he wants to be judged, he wants to be humiliated.
Logan’s daughter, Siobhan, is the most puzzling piece. Logan privately informs her she will succeed him but appears unwilling to formalize the arrangement. Siobhan—nicknamed “Shiv", less like the god and more like the kind of knife used to stab snitches in prison—is brighter than the boys, but her candour is not to Logan’s liking. Sarah Snook is terrific in the part, frightening and bloody frightened. “Dad is in a secret meeting," she sighs when shunted toward paperwork, “and I’m in here with a colouring book." The patriarch, unwilling to make way for a girl, tortures her with indecision, marooning her in daisy-plucking limbo. He loves me, he loves me not.
This would be a wondrous enough show with Logan at the height of his powers, taking turns tormenting his undeserving offspring, but Succession sees the big cat cornered. His empire is crumbling, his legacy is questionable, and he chokes others just so they don’t notice the strangle-marks around his own neck first. Cox is a veteran actor enjoying every bit of this brutality. At one point, when negotiating a buyout with a Shakespeare-worshipping woman, he uses his own un-Bardly words. Quoting is for those who can’t afford to make up facts.
This is a devastatingly good series. It feels special right from theme tune to direction—the way the camera snakes between the father and his children, wavering between the kids indecisively before coming to the lion’s point of view, leaving the cubs squirming in the cross hairs, is very David Fincher—and the pacing is inch perfect. The cast is extraordinary, with some of the most talented actors in television: J. Smith Cameron’s Gerri has a lot more to do this season, even if she is described as a “competent old filing cabinet", Alan Ruck’s Connor is running for office (and daft enough to possibly win), while Holly Hunter, Cherry Jones and Annabelle Dexter-Jones are fantastic new additions to the party.
Armstrong has crafted something miraculous here, invoking cashews the size of boomerangs and chauffeur-driven superbikes, yet not making us want them in the least. Where lesser fiction may glamourize the bastards and the brazen, Succession looks beyond the lustre. It makes us glad we aren’t rich (I do wonder how a Murdoch or an Ambani would feel watching it, though).
This marvellous season is about secrets and truths. This is about confessing a crime to a parent and not wondering how aghast they may be, but fearing whether they would be aghast at all. This is about getting a haircut just because you need someone to touch your head. This is about the unspeakable panic of being in the wrong panic room.
Stream of Stories is a column on what to watch online.
Raja Sen is a film critic and the author of The Best Baker In The World (2017), a children’s adaptation of The Godfather.