[Editor’s Note: The following review contains spoilers for “Succession” Season 3, Episode 2, “Mass in Time of War.”]
“He’s not infallible, Rome.”
“Yeah, sure, I just don’t think he ever fails or ever will.”
This is it. This is the deciding factor of the Roy-al Rumble — or this week’s round, at least. Shiv (Sarah Snook) and Roman’s (Kieran Culkin) contradictory back-and-forth about their father’s unconquerable nature so perfectly outlines the internal incongruity raging throughout “Mass in Time of War” (Season 3, Episode 2) that it’s amazing how far the Roy siblings are willing to go before, ultimately, shooting down Kendall (Jeremy Strong) and his passionate plea for a generational coup.
On paper, the strategy of the so-called “attention whore” should work. Logan (Brian Cox) has been labeled complicit in the company scandal by his own son. There are documents to prove it, and able (if not entirely willing) individuals to testify to their validity. Shareholders are spooked, and nothing settles folks down like a show of unity from familiar faces. So if the kids just join forces, whether it’s for the better good or their own gain, Logan is “toast.”
So why wouldn’t they? Episode 2, written by series creator Jesse Armstrong and directed by Emmy winner Mark Mylod, outlines those reasons — sound or otherwise — in painful detail. Yes, in the end, these kids are still scared of their dad. Connor (Alan Ruck) doesn’t want to “destroy” him; Roman worries a takeover would literally kill Logan; Shiv fears losing her status as “No. 1 boy”; and even Kendall, who’s leading the opposition party, is desperate for his siblings to stand by him so he’s not alone against their father. (His anxiety is neatly summed up when he asks his attorney, Lisa, played by Sanaa Lathan, to make sure there’s an untraceable plane ready to whisk him away to Frankfurt in case Logan just… shuts this whole thing down.) Behind all these rationales is the pervading fear that Logan is all-knowing and all-powerful, and all it takes to remind them as much is a box of donuts — which, it must be said, is a rather ingenious choice by Logan, not only to shatter the kids’ illusion that they’re safely meeting in secret, but to infantilize them with a “gift” of sugary treats.
But despite Kendall’s suspicions that the “fucking donuts” spooked them, that’s not actually all that’s at play here. Logan’s secret weapon isn’t a box of possibly poisoned pastries; it’s that he’s orchestrated a competitive instinct within his children since birth, raising them in an abusive household where they’re rewarded for cutthroat greed instead of taking care of each other. They see their father as a god, but they also see each other as deeply, profoundly mortal — which means they see weakness, and weakness isn’t meant to be healed; it’s meant to be punished, usually by dear ol’ daddy. Simply put: This group isn’t built to support each other. Just look at the key turning points throughout Kendall’s pitch.
The impromptu Roy siblings’ summit gets off to a great start. Shiv, upset that Logan gave Gerri (J. Smith-Cameron) the CEO job, heads to Kendall on her own, sans coaxing. Once there, his smiley confidence and zen demeanor rattle her enough to listen. “You tell yourself you’re a good person, but you’re not a good person,” Kendall says. “Right now, I’m the real you.” Shiv isn’t ready to hear that, even if there’s truth to it. Shiv distanced herself from the family and got into politics to make a difference. She supported candidates on the left who opposed her father, until his health scare brought her into the fold and lured her into coveting the top job. Any moral high ground she had over her brothers is now seen as a liability, since she lacks the “experience” needed to compete for Logan’s role. Kendall has that experience, and now he’s also aligned against Logan.
Of course, he’s still a piece of shit — as they all are, really — but back to the pitch. “It’s pretty simple,” he tells Shiv, Roman, and Connor. “Let’s gang up on dad and take him down.” Soon, he’s painting them the “big picture,” where Waystar Royco can become “omni-national,” “combine all its news operations,” “detoxify our brand and become supersonic.” I wont’ lie: I have no idea if there’s a cohesive, attainable win within all Kendall’s inflated business jargon, but Shiv’s expression near the end of his rambling says it all: She’s tempted. She sees something there that she didn’t expect to see. And if she sees it, the others can, too. (Shout-out to DP Patrick Capone and director Mark Mylod, for capturing so many of these of telling gestures while building visual context around the rapidly fluctuating hourlong negotiation.)
But then the bickering begins — not coincidentally, after Roman mentions their father. Once Logan comes up, Kendall moves away from business tactics and makes a righteous plea. “I’m just trying to be open-hearted and invite you in here,” he says, even though anyone should know such a “gesture” won’t sit well with an audience plagued by shame and insecurity, which they cloak through aggressive and constant attacks. The knives come out. Shiv takes a pointed jab at Roman’s sexual insecurities — comparing Gerri to his “mommy” and challenging him to “actually fuck something” — and the group gathered in Sophie’s soft, inviting bedroom starts to stiffen. When Connor returns with Roman, Kendall again goes to the moral well, claiming his side offers absolution, only no one can agree on how much they knew about the company scandal. “No, I didn’t know that dancers were fucking for their jobs and I didn’t know that we threw migrants off boats and covered it up as matter of secret company policy,” Shiv says, defiantly. (Connor, perhaps the sibling most at peace with being a sleazeball, admits he knew everything with far too much ease.)
Somehow, Kendall pulls them back from the brink and gets the trio to reconsider his offer once again. “I don’t know what I think about dad,” he says. “I love him, I hate him, I’m going to outsource it to my therapist. But he was going to send me to jail. He’d do the same to you, Rome. And Con. Shiv, I don’t know. I don’t know. Maybe.” This is a much better gambit! Cater to their “it’s him or me” mentality! But that ambitious mindset cuts both ways, and as soon as Kendall’s asked to paint a picture of the Waystar Royco landscape post-Logan, none of the kids can accept one of their own as the new boss. “If I was going to back you against dad, I would need to take over,” Shiv says, after they all balk at Kendall being the one to sit in the big chair.
After a few phone calls, the donuts arrive, and it’s all over. Whether it’s their selfish desire to win, their lack of trust in each other, their fear of their father, or a mixture of all these and more, the Roy kiddos depart on crushing terms. Kendall turns on each of them as they choose to walk away. “You’re not needed,” he says over and over to Connor, prompting a pitied reply from Roman of all people (“Like he hasn’t heard that enough in his life”), who gets the curt dismissal, “You’re a fucking moron,” before Kendall turns in desperation to Shiv, who he’s soon calling a coward and a “twat” for sticking with Logan. “It’s only your teats that give you any value,” he calls after her, as his best chance for a quick win walks into the elevator.
If last week’s premiere was about urgency and survival, then Episode 2 slows things down to study the root of the Roy family’s rot. Sure, Logan is the clear winner of Round II, having avoided a fatal blow from his gathered offspring, but Armstrong & Co. don’t build the narrative around suspense; you’re not meant to be on the edge of your seat, wondering if the kids will come together to take down their evil papa. It’s inevitable that they don’t, and understanding why is what brings the pain and power to “Mass in Time of War.” They’re all complicit. They’re all making choices for the wrong reasons. And they’re all going to drag everyone down with them as they do.
Macall Polay / HBO
OK, first and foremost: Kudos to whoever in the “Succession” writers’ room had the idea to not only bring in James Cromwell, but the chutzpah to ask our former Farmer Hoggett to say, “That’ll do” in an entirely different context.
Second, thank goodness they immediately recognized the need for a classic Tom & Greg conversation near the top of the episode, after limited the dynamic duo last week. “This isn’t Tom’s number,” is such a great Greg line, and Matthew Macfadyen saying “dicky” will be the only voice I hear that word in for the rest of my days.
Finally, Greg’s new attorney, Pugh (played by Peter Riegert), doesn’t exactly seem like his priorities are in line with his client’s. “I’m very focused on… not going to jail,” Greg says, desperate to find some form of security amid all these double-talking lawyers. “Eyes on the prize, Greg. Eyes on the prize,” Pugh says in response… but what is the prize, exactly? Is it “priority one” (Greg’s “well-being”) or “priority two”: expose the structural contradictions of capitalism”? Sure seems like the latter! Good luck, Greg!
Shiv Show at the Fuck Factory
“It’s good to know we don’t have an unbalanced love portfolio,” Tom tells Shiv, in a succinct summary of their long-unbalanced relationship that’s suddenly tipping against the lady wearing the pants. (Oh, and it must be mentioned: Shiv’s caller ID photo for Logan is a picture of Saddam Hussein??)
Slime Puppy Time
“Well, don’t threaten me Gerri — I don’t have time to jerk off.” Should this line have elicited a hysterical laughter? Probably not. But nothing about Gerri and Roman’s increasingly inappropriate relationship should be as exciting as it has been, so let’s just go with it. Great line.
Kenny on the Rhyme
One of the main questions surrounding Kendall’s choice to betray his father was whether he could survive the silver bullet, lodged in Logan’s gun, that kept him in check throughout most of Season 2: that he was at least partially responsible for the death of a caterer at his sister’s wedding, and that he also participated in the cover-up of that involvement. Couldn’t Logan simply threaten his son with exposing the truth, as he did repeatedly near the end of Season 2? It turns out Marcia had a similar question, posed cautiously this week.
“And you do have things you could say to stop him,” she poses to Logan, while discussing Kendall’s takeover attempt. “You drop some bombs, you get burnt, too, you know?” Logan replies, implying that he’s as tied to the death and its cover-up as his son. Still, considering Kendall’s crude joke last week — “”Who says I never killed anyone?” — and this week’s second reference, it doesn’t feel like the traumatic incident is going away any time soon.
The A+ F-Bomb
“She’s a whore, and it’s not my problem if she couldn’t finish him.”
Technically there’s no F-word in Marcia’s assessment of Rhea (Holly Hunter), but it sure feels like there is — and even so, she drops one when she first walks up to Logan and says, “Those fucking kids of yours” — in an episode filled with torn allegiances, Marcia leaves no doubt about where her loyalties lie. (With the money.)
Best Line that Could Still Air on ATN
“I hope you’re not anxious that you’ve chained yourself to a fire hydrant that spews out cultural insensitivities and sperms.” – Roman (followed closely by Gerri’s gem: “You’ve got good instincts. You also have horrible instincts.”)
“Succession” Season 3 premieres new episodes Sundays at 9 p.m. ET on HBO and HBO Max. Seasons 1 and 2 are available to stream via HBO Max.