Succession review: Buckle up, f---leheads, things are getting real

"Why is everybody so f---ing happy?"

Succession's Logan Roy (Brian Cox) is taking stock. The Wall Street kind, yes, but also of his life, the universe, and everything he's fought so ferociously to conquer. "Nothing tastes like it used to, does it?" he laments over dinner in the fourth and final season premiere. "Nothing's the same as it was." During a tense negotiation, he surveys his room of minions with disappointment. "Nobody tells jokes anymore, do they?" He's on the brink of a massive business deal, and three of his four children aren't speaking to him. "Everything I do," he growls, "people try to turn against me."

World domination comes at a price. But is it worth it? That's the unspoken question hanging over Logan and his children this season. In the four episodes made available for review, Jesse Armstrong's excoriating examination of one-percent dysfunction and a family poisoned by power takes some impressive risks without sacrificing the character dynamics that make it so viscerally satisfying.

Succession Season 4 Sarah Snook, Kieran Culkin, Jeremy Strong
Succession Season 4 Sarah Snook, Kieran Culkin, Jeremy Strong

Claudette Barius/HBO Sarah Snook, Kieran Culkin, and Jeremy Strong in 'Succession'

In the wake of last season's breathtaking double-cross by Logan and his duplicitous son-in-law, Tom (Matthew Macfadyen), the Roy siblings — manic mastermind Kendall (Jeremy Strong), cagey only daughter Shiv (Sarah Snook), and snarky Roy runt Roman (Kieran Culkin) — are careering ahead on their own splashy venture. Their idea is either "literally too good" or "a made-up company of dreams," depending on which one you believe. Now that they're out of their father's immediate reach — emphasis on immediate — the trio are as aligned as they've ever been. The possibility of healing shimmers on the horizon, but years of ingrained distrust linger. "I have to look after myself because nobody else will," Shiv tells her brothers. They don't rush to correct her. When Roman pushes back on a potential new investment, Kendall wonders if he's "scared" to go up against their dad. "No, Ken," he snaps. "It's just, that's getting f---ing old."

That's the fear, of course. How much longer can we watch these kids backstab one another over the brass ring before the thrill is gone? Armstrong and his team have done a remarkable job so far of finding new ways to strip-mine betrayal for dramatic riches, which makes this season's tentative truce between Kendall, Roman, and Shiv even more compelling. United by a common enemy and the upcoming wedding of their political dilettante brother, Connor (Alan Ruck), the Roy siblings spend a good deal of time together in the early episodes — and not all the talk is about business. Kendall & Co. take Connor out for a night on the town when his betrothed, Willa (Justine Lupe), experiences some pre-wedding wobbles. The four of them veer dangerously close to having an honest conversation about their childhoods. Some of the moments are minor — Shiv speaks almost gently to Roman about his fear of conflict — and others explode like stink bombs at a black-tie gala. (The origins of Connor's aversion to Victoria sponge cake ranks alongside Roman's "dog pound" ordeal in the annals of foundational Roy family traumas.) Strong, Culkin, and Snook are seamlessly connected to the characters they've helped create, and this shift in the trio's family dynamic manifests with authentic, unforced pathos.

Succession Season 4 Justine Lupe, Alan Ruck
Succession Season 4 Justine Lupe, Alan Ruck

Macall B. Polay/HBO Justine Lupe and Alan Ruck in 'Succession'

This isn't to say Succession is going soft. Mired in creeping disillusionment, Logan still feeds on the terror of others. He finds new hunting grounds in the open-plan offices of ATN, much to the chagrin of network exec Tom and his whipping boy/assistant, Greg (Nicholas Braun). The writers give us generous dollops of that duo's symbiotic sadomasochism in the early episodes, which the actors execute with their typical thrust-and-parry finesse. Macfadyen glides fluidly between Tom's many personas — unctuous right-hand man, derisive boss, shame-faced husband — and it's a delight to watch him bounce Tom's frantic energy against Cox's imposing command of silence. And Zoe Winters has some particularly sharp moments as Logan's vituperative assistant/paramour, Kerry, whose ill-conceived career ambitions become a running joke inside the CEO's circle.

Other very important things happen, none of which would be right to spoil, but it's fair to say these events inform and propel the family's interactions in ways we have not seen before. One development I can reveal is that Ruck, who's always been Succession's most unsung performer, is central to the success of the first four episodes. As the most self-assured Roy child, Connor blusters with the confidence of a wealthy white man while simultaneously recognizing the depths of his irreparable emotional damage. "The good thing about having a family that doesn't love you is you learn to live without it," he says frankly. His siblings protest, of course, but history is not on their side. The Roy family has always lived in a world where human connection is corroded by the toxic, rarefied air they are so privileged to breathe. Grade: A-

Succession season 4 premieres Sunday, March 26 on HBO and HBO Max.

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