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Succession Finally Plays Its Holly Hunter Card

With three episodes left in the season, the Oscar-winner has stepped into the foreground at last.
  • Holly Hunter as Rhea Jarrell in Succession (HBO)
    Holly Hunter as Rhea Jarrell in Succession (HBO)

    Spoiler alert: This post contains spoilers from last Sunday's episode of Succession, "The Return."

    When Succession was preparing to return for Season 2, two casting announcements sent shockwaves of excitement through the populace. One was that Tony- and Emmy-winning actress Cherry Jones would be playing the head of a rival media family. The other was that Oscar-winner Holly Hunter would show up in a role that was largely left unspecified. And until this week, that's how Hunter's Rhea Jarrell character has remained since being introduced as the CEO of Pierce Media, the respected news conglomerate presided over by Nan Pierce (the aforementioned Ms. Jones). Rhea was sent as a go-between to test the waters of a possible purchase of Pierce Media by Waystar Royco, and while she certainly seemed to have an eye on her own agenda — something that eventually got her unceremoniously dismissed by Nan  — until the Roy deal went real bad,  the main battle of wills had been between Logan and Nan. While it was fun to watch Hunter say more with a sideways glance than most actresses can express with pages and pages of dialogue, it was still more than a bit curious that an actress of Hunter's stature and ability had taken such a backseat role in the first place.

    This week's episode, "Return," answered that question with a satisfying vengeance. With Logan shaken by the events of the previous week — where a major scandal broke in the papers, the Pierce deal fell through, Shiv spoke publicly in favor of her own ascendance at the expense of "dinosaurs" (unspoken: like her father), and he got so angry about all of it that he backhanded Roman so hard that he knocked out a tooth — he's looking to both consolidate power and re-assert his dominance over his kids, so he sends them all to England to try and wheedle their mother out of her Waystar shares while he hunkers down with Gerri and Frank and tries to come up with a game plan. On the plane to England, we see that Rhea has come along in an unspecified advisory capacity, and we're off to the races, at least in terms of this week's intricate dance of intentional misdirection and corporate subterfuge.

    Finally we can bear witness to the power of a fully armed and operational Holly Hunter. Having been cut loose by the Pierces, Rhea is out to feather her own nest, but we still have no idea what her end game truly is. She's obviously been more attracted to the money and power and sneering contempt for lower beings that Logan represents, but just … how attracted is she? The adult Roy children peer at Logan and Rhea's huddle and seem both disgusted and rapt at the idea that Rhea and their dad might be having sex, and while it's an immature display from some severely insecure trust-fund babies, we in the audience are thinking the exact same thing. Rhea offers to let Logan use her, which… doesn't deter us from that rubbernecking impulse.

    In fact, Logan uses Rhea to set up Siobahn and force her to surrender the moral high ground with her father. The two women — who, by the way, the audience desperately wants to see as natural allies who could take over the whole Waystar machine if they wanted to — have lunch, ostensibly to check in after the Pierce debacle. For a moment it seems to viewers, and to Shiv, that Rhea is trying to ingratiate herself into the family via Logan's bed, and she wants to make sure doing so won't ruin the kinship she and Shiv seem to share. But Rhea's real motivation is to get Shiv to agree to reach out to Nan about taking over Rhea's old job as CEO. It's a kind, collegial gesture to Shiv, who may indeed need a soft place to land if her dad screws her over like it appears he wants to. But its true purpose, after Rhea sees that the job offer is leaked, is to give Logan something to clobber Shiv with when she starts getting self-righteous about broken promises. It's a ruthless play, and it announces Rhea's arrival within the Waystar power structure. Right now, she's Logan's sniper, not to mention a buffer between himself and his children. Suddenly, whether or not Rhea is sleeping with Logan or not (we still don't know), she's taken up an even more provocative position: she's in his ear.

    This is what you hire Holly Hunter for. With three episodes left in the season, Rhea has now established herself as a formidable obstacle for not only Shiv, but also Roman (whose Oedipal/neg play partnership with Gerri is eyeing a power play) and Kendall (who manages to get psychologically dismantled and broken by both of his parents this week). There is a fox in the chicken coop, and that fox has a Best Actress Oscar for The Piano.

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    Joe Reid is the senior writer at Primetimer and co-host of the This Had Oscar Buzz podcast. His work has appeared in Decider, NPR, HuffPost, The Atlantic, Slate, Polygon, Vanity Fair, Vulture, The A.V. Club and more.

    TOPICS: Succession, HBO, Holly Hunter