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‘Succession’ Recap, S2E1: Blood in the Water

Succession is a show about family. But the HBO series, which debuted its highly anticipated second season on Sunday night, is also very much a show about business: money, power, influence, ego, and the machinations of corporate America.

As such, it’s the perfect show for us at Fortune to recap as the saga of the Roy family, and the battle for their Waystar Royco media empire, unfolds over the weeks to come. In the first episode of the new season: bear hugs, cameras, and of course, succession planning.

Logan Roy may be a dinosaur, but he’s not oblivious to the forces that are transforming the business he’s chosen. “Kodak was trading at about $100 a share back in ‘97,” the Roy family patriarch tells his gathered clan at their palatial Hamptons estate. “Yesterday, you could pick it up for about three bucks.”

Logan, played masterfully by Brian Cox, spent much of Succession’s first season trying to reassert his authority over his Waystar Royco media empire via the kinds of moves that got him where he is—much to the chagrin of his underling sons Kendall (Jeremy Strong) and Roman (Kieran Culkin). While Kendall tried to make a name for himself by spearheading the acquisition of the digital media startup Vaulter, Logan—once he returned to the helm of the company after a brain hemorrhage at the start of season one—set about his tried-and-tested strategy of buying local TV stations by the handful.

Other than the obvious, ego-driven desire for Logan’s kids to step out of their father's immense shadow, this old-versus-new dynamic represented the tension at the heart of the battle for Waystar Royco in season one. Kendall, Roman, and their sister Siobhan (Sarah Snook) may be driven by their own insecurities above all, but that manifests itself through the younger generation’s desire to prove that they know what’s best for the company in the 21st century—lest the old man lead the firm down the path of the point-and-shoot camera.

That’s how we got Kendall’s numerous desperate attempts to wrestle control of Waystar Royco from his father, which culminated in the attempted “bear hug” acquisition of the company by Kendall, his old private equity pal Stewy Hosseini (Arian Moayed), and his father’s bitter rival media baron Sandy Furness (Larry Pine). Of course, Kendall’s designs—at least as far as he’s concerned—went down with the Chappaquiddick-esque climax to last season, but season two finds Sandy and Stewy persisting with their strong-arm tactics.

Kendall, now back on the family reservation, is pulled out of drug rehab painfully early; he’s ordered to go on TV to defend his father and discredit the bear hug bid—which, in essence, is an offer made at such a premium to Waystar Royco’s stock price that to refuse it would be against the best interests of the company’s shareholders. It works, for the time being; the stock climbs, and an almost catatonic Kendall—guilt-ridden and in withdrawal—makes his way back to New York to fill in his father on what Sandy and Stewy have planned for him.

For Logan, there are two options: he could make like Rupert Murdoch and sell up, allowing him and his family to walk away from their empire with an enviable fortune. That’s the course of action recommended to him by his banker friend, Jamie, over dinner. “There’s blood in the water,” Jamie informs him. “Tech is coming. Tech is here. Tech has its hands around your throat.” We’ve all seen the wave of consolidation that’s swept the mass media sector in recent years; in Jamie’s estimation, only one or two legacy media players will be large and strong enough to survive the digital-fueled transformation of the industry.

The other option, of course, is a war of attrition: dig in, drag it out, and outlast your opponents. But that could be a vicious, yearslong fight, and one that would bring Logan back to one of the key conflicts at the heart of the show: the identity of his eventual successor. But with Kendall a broken man and Roman ever the jester, there’s really only one person for the job if Waystar Royco is to stay in the Roy family.

Siobhan may be busy running the Bernie Sanders-esque Gil Eavis’ presidential campaign, but time and again, she’s shown that she’s the only one with the wits, nerve, and vision to handle the job. When the family gathers in the Hamptons to weigh the future (yet another of Succession’s brilliant set pieces that allow the writers to get all of their main characters in one room), she pitches her dad on a slimmer, smarter Waystar Royco: get rid of the video game consoles, independent films, exploding satellites, and other cash-burning verticals that are more trouble than they’re worth.

Logan knows that she’s “the one” for the job, and when Shiv eventually accepts, her steely veneer breaks with emotion. “Why did you never ask me?” she queries her father through tears, a tender moment that surely tweaked the heartstrings of anyone who’s followed the family’s tale. But after composing herself, she and her dad get down to the business of choreographing her ascent—one that also comes with a sweetener for her husband Tom (the hilarious Matthew Macfadyen), who will helm the company’s global broadcast news operations.

Later, Kendall meets with Sandy and Stewy while his dad hangs back in the car in a classic “1987 power move,” as Stewy notes. Waystar won’t sell, and while the company is willing to do a more limited “asset swap” deal, their corporate raiders want it all. Which leaves only one outcome. 

“You’re gonna bleed cash, he’s gonna bleed cash, it will never end,” Kendall tells Sandy. “Maybe you’ll kill him—but if you don’t, he aims to kill you. He will go bankrupt or go to jail before he lets you beat him.”

That all sounds fine to Sandy, and he tells Kendall as much—setting the stage for a most hostile of hostile takeovers to play out over the course of Succession’s promising second season.

Juicy Morsels

  • The exterior shot of Waystar Royco’s offices establishes 28 Liberty St. (the old One Manhattan Chase Plaza) as the company’s headquarters. That’s somewhat curious; as regular Financial District dwellers may note, the show used the World Trade Center for similar shots in season one. Of course, this is a fictionalized universe.
  • “I’ll tweet, the markets will move, and that’ll be that,” Logan tells Shiv of his plans to sell the company, after she initially turns down the CEO job. Nice touch. (Another Trump-esque twist to Logan’s character is him shorting his contractor—though who among us would not be miffed by a rotting raccoon found in our mansion's chimney?)
  • Episode one was rather short on the hilariously amusing Connor Roy (Alan Ruck), Logan’s eldest son from his first marriage. But the desert compound-dwelling, federal support-hating Connor still has his sights set on the presidency—as well as Napoleon’s genitalia, which he is bidding for at auction. No character on the show more vividly skewers the hubris of the 1%.

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