For the past two years, Succession fans have speculated about that small smile that fell over Logan Roy’s (Brian Cox) face as Kendall (Jeremy Strong), the once-presumed heir to the Waystar RoyCo throne, stabbed him in the back for the entire world to see. Was it merely a way for Logan to mask his boiled-over anger, or was it a show of begrudging respect for Kendall, whom he'd deemed “not a killer” just hours prior? Underneath all his rage, is Logan perhaps the slightest bit impressed by his son’s chess move?
Ten minutes into Sunday's Succession Season 3 premiere, we finally get our answer. Logan, now playing defense after he’s accused of overseeing the cruise division’s sexual abuse cover-up, calls Kendall and concedes that he “played a decent move” with the press conference bombshell. But this is the Roy family, and praise doesn’t last long: Logan quickly demands that Kendall retract his statement and return to the fold, where the two will work out a new “deal” that benefits both parties. When Kendall refuses, Logan declares all-out war on his son, forcing the other Roy siblings and his Waystar RoyCo consiglieres to pick a side.
Clear battle lines immediately emerge in the Roy family civil war. On Team Logan are Roman (Kieran Culkin), Shiv (Sarah Snook), and Connor (Alan Ruck), plus Waystar executives Tom (Matthew Macfadyen), Gerri (J. Smith-Cameron), Frank (Peter Friedman), and Karl (David Rasche). Back in New York, Kendall has only one family ally, Cousin Greg, whose bumbling ineptitude is covered up by a cadre of assistants, crisis managers, and lawyers.
Kendall doesn’t seem bothered by his limited manpower; for now, he’s content to watch his father squirm as the feds, shareholders, and the public bear down. As Karl describes it, Logan is facing “the full Baskin-Robbins: 31 flavors of fuck,” every one of them spurred on, or made worse, by Kendall’s show of strength.
Because of the emotional and geographic rift between father and son — Logan’s camp remains in Europe, where they search for five-star accommodations in a country with favorable extradition policies — the first episode of Succession Season 3 feels like two different shows, but creator Jesse Armstrong does both exceptionally well. While Logan seems unmoored, Kendall relishes the fact that his personal beef with his dad is being perceived as a larger moral crusade. As a result, Kendall’s side is able to take advantage of the lighter moments that make Succession so great — Greg and Naomi Pierce (Annabelle Dexter-Jones), have a hilarious wine mishap, for example — as Logan remains mired in the doom and gloom of the abuse scandal. Uncertainty isn’t a position Logan is used to (and Kendall is even less familiar with winning), but the power shift prevents Season 3, which features the same backstabbing and tenuous alliances that defined the first two seasons, from falling into predictable patterns.
If Kendall and Logan are standing on opposite sides of the battlefield, Shiv and Roman are floating somewhere in between. The siblings initially align themselves with their father, but they’re hesitant to go all-in until Logan dangles his favorite carrot before them — a promotion to figurehead CEO. As they jockey for position, Roman and Shiv are more ruthless than ever: Roman curries favor with his father by suggesting that Waystar destroy Kendall’s life, while Shiv works to acquire as many potential allies (and escape routes) for herself as possible. Culkin and Snook excel in this kind of slippery environment, where a reaction shot is often more important than what’s happening mid-frame, and their performances show off new, even more depraved sides of the two siblings.
The nuclear Roy family functions as the eye of the storm in Season 3, but things aren’t any less volatile on its fringes. As we’ve seen in seasons past, Gerri is also in the running to be named CEO, but her relationship (biggest of all possible asterisks after that one) with Roman complicates her loyalties. Despite the long break in between seasons, Smith-Cameron and Culkin pick up right where they left off, and fans will be happy to learn that their back-and-forths continue to ooze “slime puppy” energy.
On the other hand, Succession’s best duo, Tom and Greg, find themselves at odds over Kendall’s press conference — and the incriminating documents in his possession. Tom spends the bulk of the premiere dealing with the fallout of his relationship-altering conversation with Shiv (“I wonder if the sad I’d be without you would be less than the sad I get from being with you,” he says in the Season 2 finale), but Greg’s deception is never far from his mind, especially given his role in the cruises cover-up and his newfound proximity to Logan. You can’t make a Tomelette without breaking some Greggs, but what happens when the Greggs turn?
Succession is at its best when it allows viewers to simply inhabit its world of immense privilege and egomania, and in that regard, the Season 3 premiere doesn’t disappoint. By the end of the first episode, little has changed for these self-obsessed, spineless characters, yet the HBO drama still manages to ratchet up the tension bit by bit, like a rollercoaster slowly making its way to the top, where a great fall awaits. The stage is set for an epic battle between father and son, but with both going “full fucking beast,” only one will make it out alive.
Succession Season 3 premieres Sunday, October 17 at 9:00 PM ET on HBO.
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Claire Spellberg Lustig is the TV Editor at Primetimer and a scholar of The View. Follow her on Twitter at @c_spellberg.