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The Bracing Comedy of Succession's "Chuckles the Clown" Moment

A plane full of flunkies and Kerry's irrepressible grin proved Succession could still be a comedy in its most harrowing moment.
  • Peter Friedman, David Rasche, Dagmara Dominczyk, Matthew Macfadyen on Succession (Photo: Macall B. Polay/HBO)
    Peter Friedman, David Rasche, Dagmara Dominczyk, Matthew Macfadyen on Succession (Photo: Macall B. Polay/HBO)

    It doesn't even skirt hyperbole to say that "Connor's Wedding" was the most dramatically impactful episode of Succession's four-season run. The moment we all knew was coming eventually — but were still in no way prepared for — finally arrived in the third episode of Season 4. Logan Roy (Brian Cox) dropped dead in an airplane en route to a critical board meeting, throwing his family into the uncharted waters of grief, and throwing the business of Waystar Royco into total chaos.

    It was a tremendous episode featuring standout performances from the show's major players, particularly Sarah Snook, Kieran Culkin, and Jeremy Strong. Watching the Roy siblings flail against the idea that their tyrant of the father could actually die, then fall into the numbness of their own grief was riveting dramatic television. Succession has always been good for riveting dramatic television. But what's always placed Succession a cut above most TV dramas has been its ability to operate as a razor-sharp, bracingly funny comedy. If any episode might demand leaving the comedy on the bench just this once, it would be "Connor's Wedding" — instead, creator Jesse Armstrong and his team decided to flex with one brief scene of comic relief that cuts through the harrowing emotions and showed that Succession hasn't forgotten what kind of show it is, even amid such highly traumatic events.

    With Logan dead in the airplane and everybody too terrified to say the words, the Waystar Royco flunkies assemble in the cabin to strategize next steps. Unsurprisingly, Karolina (Dagmara Dominczyk) takes the reins and begins to craft a response plan, with Tom (Matthew Macfadyen), Frank (Peter Friedman), and Karl (David Rasche) offering input. Into that den of nervous pragmatism steps Kerry, who is clearly shell-shocked by having just watched her lover/employer/patron die in front of her. Grief and trauma responses take all forms, and for Kerry (Zoë Winters), she's shaking, stammering… and smiling. Like a massive, irrepressible rictus grin that she probably isn't even aware of, as she talks about how "f*cking crazy" that all was.

    The flunkies take her in with maximum bemusement, and they ultimately usher her off into another room to rest and recover while they plan. Once she's gone, Tom whispers "what the f*ck?" at that display of emotional short-circuiting ("It looks like she caught a foul ball at Yankee Stadium”). Shortly thereafter, when Tom mentions Kerry as a possibility to make some of the phone calls to VIPs, Karl shoots that idea down with a quickness: "Chuckles the Clown? I think not."

    The line itself is classic Succession: a brutal, colorful put-down that's as quotable as it is cutting. It's also a wickedly funny moment in an episode that didn't seem like it would have any. The Waystar flunkies are always reliable for moments of levity like this, but "Chuckles the Clown" goes beyond comic relief. It was the comedy that sits at the heart of this series bubbling up to assert itself just when things might be getting too tragic. Logan may be dead in the next room, but Karl can still land a perfect one-liner at Kerry's expense. The comedic nastiness that has fueled this show about nasty people doesn't have to take a week off for bereavement. Succession is still going to be Succession, tears and insults both at the same time.

    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, Brian Cox, Dagmara Domińczyk, David Rasche, Jeremy Strong, Jesse Armstrong, Kieran Culkin, Matthew Macfadyen, Peter Friedman, Sarah Snook, Zoë Winters