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Succession's Nightmare Retreat Was a Showcase for Brian Cox

An appreciation of Cox's Logan Roy and the blustery actor's history of scene-stealing roles.
  • Brian Cox as Logan Roy in Succession. (HBO)
    Brian Cox as Logan Roy in Succession. (HBO)

    Spoiler Alert: This post contains spoilers from the August 25th, 2019 episode of Succession.

    At the risk of sounding overly hyperbolic,, Sunday night's Succession was one of the show's best hours, heightening the Waystar Royco takeover with Logan's (Brian Cox) maniacal determination to acquire rival Pierce Media, despite nearly every character's objection. We got rare character combinations, with Shiv (Sarah Snook) dispatched to shut down Connor's (Alan Ruck) presidential bid (no dice there), and then a subsequent afternoon on the town with Willa (Justine Lupe), where Shiv found a hot new sidepiece to cheat on Tom (Matthew Macfdyen) with. Meanwhile, we came the closest we've ever been to sympathizing with Tom Wambsgans, as he found himself stuck between orders from Shiv and repeated, squirrely requests from Gerri (J. Smith-Cameron) and Karl (David Rasche) to voice the horde's concerns to Logan.

    It was an hour that took the Waystar inner circle to Hungary for a hunting trip, where Logan opportunistically brought Frank (Peter Friedman) back into the fold, and where Roman (Kieran Culkin) was so paranoid that Kendall (Jeremy Strong) might get one over on him via the Pierce deal that he completely allowed Kendall to get one over him via the Pierce deal (Roman's multiple humiliations and degradations were almost pornographic). Most memorably, it was an hour where the offsite boar-hunting trip led to the kind of ritualistic display of power you'd like to think only happens in movies or on the campuses of our finest institutes of higher learning. Logan — his paranoia running twice as hot, as he's surrounded by doubtful whispers that no one will speak aloud, compounded by updates about a biography being written about him that he can't seem to squash and to whose author somebody in the inner circle has already spoken (it's Greg, obviously, who doesn't know how to properly declare himself off the record) — starts barking questions at his various underlings and family members, and if their answers displease him, makes them kneel on the floor of the dining room of this foreboding Carpathian estate and beg for sausages.

    As much as the episode highlighed the deep bench of Succession cast members, the hour belonged to Brian Cox's performance as Logan Roy. When the series began, and Logan had a stroke at the end of the first hour, it seemed he might end up being a character whose specter held more sway over the events of the series than he would as a character. His slow rehabilitation over the course of Season 1 presented a wounded tiger, making moves through emotional manipulation and proxies like his wife, the almost-entirely-absent-this-week Marcia (Hiam Abbass). This is why Kendall thought he could make a move on him, why even Roman momentarily considered jumping ship, and why for the bulk of the season he mostly sniped with Shiv over her working for a populist presidential candidate. Remember when he almost didn't attend her wedding? That seems so long ago now.

    Season 2 sees a rehabilitated, reinvigorated Logan: One who's ready to do battle with the likes of Stewy and Sandy over their proposed takeover. One who's eager to take an active role in molding Shiv as his successor (so long as that succession takes place several years down the road). One who has nursed every grudge he's ever had with liberal-media giant Pierce — the network that his estranged brother gets his news from —  that he now wants to swallow whole. One who's sitting atop a simmering rage volcano directed at his children and his closest advisors for any number of sins, both spoken and unspoken. Half the time, you get the impression that Logan sneers at everybody around him because they allow themselves to be so thoroughly dominated by him. Maybe that's why he seems to love Shiv best, since she at least requires more than just brute force of personality to get in line.

    This current incarnation of Logan Roy is a perfect character for Brian Cox, an actor who hasn't spent a ton of time on in the spotlight, but who has nevertheless created an indelible resume of character work as either a loudmouthed blowhard or a thundering tyrant. Two sides of the same coin, really. Both of them making liberal use of Cox's theater-trained instrument. Succession sees him in both modes. It also gets a lot of mileage out of his truly unique ability to holler curse words as if Eugene O'Neill had just placed them into his mouth. 

    If you haven't taken the time to account for just how many times Cox has been the best part of a movie (even in fairly minor roles), here's a sampling: 

    The Long Kiss Goodnight (1996)

    Cox played Nathan Waldman, former handler of international assassin Charly Baltimore (Geena Davis), whose handful of scenes provide the requisite exposition to sell the unlikely premise that she's been living with amnesia as a plain, happy Midwest mom. The scene everybody remembers is the one-off where he complains about the unappealing sight of a dog licking itsele, but where he truly shines is the information dump, where he impatiently catches "Samantha Kane" up on what happened to her. The way he barrels forward through dense Shane Black dialogue — "You failed to complete your mission, electing instead to die, of all things, despite clear orders to the contrary, and dead you remained until, without preamble you emerged, eight years later and a good deal frumpier" — is nothing short of spectacular.

    Adaptation (2002)

    In what amounts to little more than a cameo, Cox plays real-life screenwriting expert Robert McKee, whose seminar Charlie Kaufman (Nicolas Cage) attends in order to help him adapt a book about orchids by Susan Orlean (Meryl Streep). McKee, being a Cox character above all, is both erudite and short-tempered as he answers Kaufman's question, ripping him a new asshole for wanting to write a story without conflict or growth, and giving the very best evidence that nobody can holler the word "fuck" better than him.

    The Ring (2002)

    Cox's gift for bombast also makes for a great villain. Or at least a superb red herring, as displayed when Naomi Watts showed up at his door, searching for answers about dead-girl Samara.

    This quality can often be very effective when played against type, as well. In 25th Hour, Cox plays Edward Norton's Yankee-fan New York father as tender and sad beneath the gregarious barkeep exterior, but it's that melodious voice that truly pays off as he narrates the film's shattering "what if" conclusion. In Zodiac, Cox plays a blustering psychologist and quasi-huckster looking to become the face of the Zodiac investigation, at least on television. On Deadwood, Cox's character arrives in a town full of prospecting hardcases as a bombastic but unthreatening theater professional.

    Of all the characters Cox has played on screen, Logan Roy has the potential to become his greatest performance of all, depending upon where the story takes him and his venal, cowardly family. More episodes like this week's "Boar on the Floor" display ought to help.

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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, Brian Cox