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Succession (Sky Atlantic) is back, and with it the Roys, the billionaire media dynasty whose vituperative family dynamic makes the Sopranos look like the Telletubbies. In its concluding scenes, the first series turned from a black comedy into something more sophisticated, underpinned by pathos and even pity for the Roys – impressive, given how unlikeable they all are. This time, those undercurrents are roaring from the start. For all the yachts and restaurants and limousines, this level of privilege is indistinguishable from a curse.
The new run begins with second son Kendall (Jeremy Strong) submerged in a jacuzzi at a luxurious resort-clinic, 48 hours after we last saw him. His attempted takeover of Waystar, the media conglomerate ruled by his father Logan (Brian Cox), ended in personal and professional disaster, with everything coming to a head at his sister Siobhan’s (Sarah Snook) wedding. The metaphor doesn’t take much unpacking: Kendall might still be cosseted, but he is out in the cold.
Strong is an intense actor and commits fully to his character’s ruination, moping around like the walking dead, the definition of hangdog. A recurring drug problem got him into this mess, but powders provide no solace. In one scene, he berates his cousin Greg (Nicholas Braun) for buying drugs from someone in the park, before hoovering them up anyway. He’s pathetic in every sense.
The plot, in as much as there is one, continues from where it left off. Waystar is still under threat from the rival consortium Kendall had been threatening to team up with. Logan’s long-standing banker, a new character played by Danny Huston, advises him to sell. The weakened Logan from the start of the first series might have given in, but he is back to full strength, strapped to the mast and steering into the storm, and Cox is having the time of his life. Logan wants to go on the attack instead. He summons the family to an enormous beach house to plan his strategy, seeking out acquisitions and preparing seriously for his eventual retirement.
Enter Siobhan. It has always been clear that Logan’s daughter was the only child with the nous to run the company. She’s known to all as Shiv, and that word’s other meaning, an improvised knife in a prison, is never far from the surface. As a woman, she has been passed over by her father, although it hasn’t stopped her from having a career of her own as an adviser to a Bernie Sanders-esque liberal presidential candidate. In an array of fine performances, Snook’s stands out, although honourable mentions must go to Kieran Culkin’s turn as the spoilt wastrel youngest son, Roman, and J Smith-Cameron as Gerri, the Roys’ long-standing and long-suffering senior advisor, who spends her life tactfully leading the children away from their own terrible decisions. Her marriage to the clownish Tom (Matthew Macfadyen) still rings hollow, but it hardly matters. Shiv bewitches and bitches with equal verve, and if the first season was Kendall’s story, the second will belong to her.
Despite the strength of its ensemble cast, Succession is a feat of writing above all. Although it is ostensibly a business show, you won’t learn much about the minutiae of media deals by watching it. Its key dynamic, between father and children, means that it is limited in the amount that can actually happen without risking the magic. The writers, led by the creator Jesse Armstrong, who also gave us Peep Show, weave just-about-plausible and sympathetic characters from a web of insults and backstabbing, and tight editing and camerawork ratchets up tension from a slow-moving plot.
Succession aims to show us that the world of these capitalist monarchs is cruel, funny, and desperately sad, and on the strength of this first episode succeeds entirely.