Season 2, Episode 1: ‘The Summer Palace’
Has anybody ever been less comfortable in his own skin than Kendall Roy?
In the Season 1 finale of “Succession,” Ken (Jeremy Strong) looked as panicky as a lost child as he stumbled from one catastrophe to another at his sister Siobhan’s wedding. First, he unconvincingly threatened his dad, the tyrannical media magnate Logan Roy (Brian Cox), with a semi-hostile “bear hug” takeover. (“I’m not sorry for what I’m doing, but I’m sorry for how it makes you feel,” he squeaked.) Shaken by his pop’s unruffled response — and in desperate need of cocaine — Kendall then accidentally killed a young cater-waiter by driving the kid’s car into a deep pond.
By the end of the episode, even as Logan was calling him his “No. 1 boy,” Kendall appeared broken … a barely functioning human being.
So what now? Well, Kendall, whom we rejoin in Season 2 just days after the accident, is in no better shape than we left him. If last season he nearly betrayed his own family, he begins this season betrayed, in turn, by his own body. Right before a pivotal TV appearance, he gets a nosebleed and the sweats. His brother Roman describes his appearance as “demented” and “shiny.” His new brother-in-law, Tom, compares him to “an unshaven candle.” With inadequate time to rehab, he remains in the grip of cocaine withdrawal. He is, to put it mildly, a little off.
There were a lot of standout performances in Season 1, but by the end, Strong’s turn as Kendall came to represent the show’s haunted soul. At once opportunistic, overmatched, opinionated and drug-addicted, he was warped by a lifetime of undue privilege and severe paternal disapproval. His paralyzed reaction to the many train wrecks happening right in front of his eyes came to embody what this drama is about.
For the rest of this week’s premiere, for example, Kendall seems barely engaged by what’s going on around him. He stares into the distance, and whenever pressed to explain his about-face on the company takeover, he occasionally mumbles the phrase a Waystar Royco aide instructed him to say on television: “I saw their plan, and my dad’s plan was better.” The talking point becomes a mantra, which he seems intent on repeating until he believes it.
This is what it takes to be a soldier in Logan Roy’s army: stumbling ahead, with blind conviction.
At the start of the first season, the big hook for “Succession” was that it was a thinly veiled dramatization of Rupert Murdoch’s family melodrama, mixed with some brutal spoofing of Donald Trump’s children and of other dynastic power-clans like the Mercers and the Redstones. But the way Season 1 ended, and the way Season 2 begins, has broadened its scope. What began more like a winking satire has since become a critique of all of the towering, terrible giants of global industry and how, through some combination of ego, impulsiveness and ignorance, they’re destroying their own legacies.
“The Summer Palace,” as the premiere is titled, serves as a reset for the story so far. Kendall’s failed coup has been a wake-up call for Logan, who — for now — has recovered from his more debilitating health problems and is thinking about how he wants to spend whatever life he has left.
The family’s chief counsel lays out the choices. There is very little chance that a multifaceted conglomerate like Waystar can survive having print and television as the core of its business. (Put concisely: “Tech is coming … Tech is here … Tech has its hands around your throat.”) But if Logan sells the most valuable pieces now, the whole Roy family can still net billions.
So the bulk of this episode tracks Logan as he thinks aloud about his next move. He brings Kendall back to the main office — where he no longer calls him “my No. 1 boy” but rather “Mr. Potato Head, my plastic adversary” — and finds out exactly what Kendall told Waystar’s rivals. The patriarch then gathers all his children and top underlings at the family’s country house, where no one believes him when he says he wants them to give their opinions freely about whether or not he should sell.
The most entertaining stretch of this very strong season premiere comes in two back-to-back scenes, in which first Roman (Kieran Culkin) and then Siobhan (Sarah Snook) meet with Logan in private and lay out their competing visions for the company’s future. In keeping with Roman’s trollish inclinations, he suggests that his dad hold onto the news division in order to keep his political power, then use his money to bleed other businesses dry and to wreck his enemies’ personal lives.
“Scare ‘em off,” he suggests. By which he means, “Use the lawyers, the P.I.’s, the honey-trap hookers — all of the unpleasant people at our disposal.”
Shiv, on the other hand, says Logan should “IBM it.” He should “shutter the businesses that burn cash,” expand the divisions that earn Waystar a lot of good will — like her husband Tom’s cruise ship and theme park wing — and get out of news. Shiv wants to be powerful, but she also wants to be liked. Whether she’s actually committed to the Democratic Party causes she was supporting in Season 1, she definitely doesn’t enjoy being associated with a family so many liberals despise.
In the end, Logan ends up offering Siobhan the role of his successor, perhaps not because he is buying into her business plan but because she is his one child who is not completely awful.
The dynamics between Kendall, Shiv and Roman — and to a lesser extent their dimwitted older half brother, Connor (Alan Ruck) — remain the most humanizing element of “Succession,” which otherwise can sometimes seem like a punishingly bleak show about a bunch of miserable creeps. Roman is a destructive, perpetually smirking imp, but as played by Culkin, he also has this little puppy-dog whimper that slips out occasionally, making him oddly sympathetic. Siobhan seems like the most “normal” of the Roys, but she still cheats on her husband, curries favor with her meanspirited father and teams up with Roman to mock Kendall. All these siblings are complicated and not easily reducible to their worst or best qualities.
That includes Kendall, who is still pretty catatonic when this episode ends but also has accepted his new role within the company. He is now the born-again loyalist, letting his former allies in the takeover plan know that Logan is willing to bleed assets if it leaves his enemies critically wounded, too.
Perhaps the most important line in this episode is tossed out in passing by Kendall when his dad arrives at the country house and is disgusted by a rotting odor that turns out to be a sack of raccoon corpses, stuffed up into the chimney by a disgruntled underpaid contractor. Still whipped and still sullen — and having endured a lifetime of being a prisoner in his own ill-fitting Roy persona — Kendall shrugs off the smell, telling his father, “You get used to it.”
The Rich Are Different From You and Me:
Brian Cox spent a lot of Season 1 playing Logan Roy at less than full strength, so it’s a pleasure in this episode to see him in Lord of the Manor mode, flexing his muscles on matters petty and profound. Cox gets to show Logan enraged, demanding that a specially ordered and prepared buffet of aged steak and lobsters be tossed in the garbage because it sat around in a house befouled by the stench of dead raccoons. But in a way, he’s just as scary when he’s quiet — like when he opens up the family meeting by saying, “Obviously I have an obligation to our shareholders,” before adding a monotone, “Ha ha.”
Logan is also casually cruel when he suggests that all he has to do to calm the roiling market for Waystar stock is give the investors any reasonable name as a possible successor, like the company’s can-do counsel Gerri Killman (J. Smith-Cameron). He then looks straight at her and says, “It won’t be Gerri, but Gerri’s fine.”
Kendall does come to life briefly when cousin Greg drops by with a “straightener” — some lousy cocaine he bought from a guy in the park. “If my septum falls out, I’m going to make you eat my septum,” Kendall snarls.
Poor Tom (Matthew Macfadyen) is so preoccupied with his own ambitions that he fails to anticipate that his wife might end up running Waystar. Before she goes into her meeting, he says he wants to move into media, and in his usual passive-aggressive “just spit-balling here” way, wonders: “Do we just ask? Could I consider the big trousers? Can I fill them out?”
Some good further “Succession” reading from the Times: Dave Itzkoff interviews the cast and Edmund Lee writes about how the show captures the chaotic state of the modern media industry.
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