Memorial Day weekend is traditionally a time for television academy voters to take serious note of candidates for the Emmy ballots they’ll be returning in mid-to-late June, and the contest has grown more complicated as the number of shows and networks multiplies. But it’s more than safe to say that after a Covid break, Succession will be back in contention this year and is arguably HBO’s best chance for a best drama series statue.
More than 15 years ago, after HBO wrestled the “prestige drama” banner away from the broadcast networks—a feat brought off with such wonders as The Sopranos, Six Feet Under, and The Wire—expectations of infallibility became downright problematic. Sure, there would be more hits, like Big Love, Boardwalk Empire, True Blood, Deadwood, Westworld, and the mightiest of them all, Game of Thrones, but that left precious margin for error—as witnessed with the likes of John from Cincinnati, Luck, Vinyl, and numerous others. HBO covets celebrated dramas not only for the luster that accrues around its brand, but also the very survival of its pipeline. As Game of Thrones began rounding third, HBO made discovering its next breakout hour the network’s top programming priority.
Mission accomplished. After three noisy seasons, Succession has proved itself an awards juggernaut and a glittering crowd-pleaser (if not a ratings powerhouse), reflecting its wide and deep excellence in writing, directing, music, casting, and editing—even if some wardrobe choices amount to a parade of horribles. (Hey, you can’t have everything.)
Succession creator Jesse Armstrong and his multinational, genre-diverse writers’ room won the drama series Emmy in 2020, defeating impressive nominees like The Crown, The Handmaid’s Tale, Killing Eve, Better Call Saul, The Mandalorian, Ozark, and Stranger Things. In doing so, they managed not only to avoid the dreaded sophomore slump with a season ripe with mighty storylines, stellar dialogue, and resonant performances, but become the first show in 22 years to win its first best drama statuette in its second go-round. Succession’s third tour of duty, which aired last fall, met resistance from some viewers who didn’t believe it measured up to the innovation of the first two. Nevertheless, the show demonstrated sufficient strength to be a serious contender this year, if not the inescapable favorite.
As we know, no TV series is perfect; character inconsistencies, stunts that compromise quality, inaccuracies, or attempts at humor for humor’s sake can tarnish a show’s gleam. But of the 29 Succession episodes aired thus far, a big batch deserve ratings of “Grade-A”—an enviable ratio that complicates the task of ranking them. With that in mind, let’s climb aboard the fun-ride inherent in a no-win situation and rank these babies.
29. “The Disruption” (Season 3, Episode 3)
Where Kendall gets publicly drubbed by both Shiv and a late-night comedy host, and the F.B.I. raids Waystar.
Warning: Succession will sometimes mute personal growth and twist Kendall’s (Jeremy Strong), Shiv’s (Sarah Snook), and even Roman’s (Kiernan Culkin) core competencies to suit narrative aims. Exhibit A: Stewy (Arian Moayed) and Sandy (Larry Pine) were often in the driver’s seat for Kendall’s season-one betrayals of his father, Logan (Brian Cox), but at the end of season two, Kendall’s astounding power play—pinning the cruise scandal directly on Logan at a press conference—was a truly impressive solo act. Kendall was smart, mature, media-savvy, and looked like a leader. And let’s not forget the “D.C. episode,” where Kendall hit the delete key on Senator Eavis (Eric Bogosian) with extreme prejudice, something no one else, including Logan, managed to do.
Which raises the question: What on earth happened to Kendall Roy between seasons two and three? Why the retrograde motion? In this episode, the series’ weakest, he’s shriveled into a singular embarrassment, replete with good-tweet-bad-tweet partying, offering himself not to CNBC but a lowbrow comedy show, and returning to Waystar’s offices with little game plan. Kendall’s battles with his family—and certainly with Logan—would be far more prodigious if we saw him operating at his best rather than his lamest.
28. “Mass in Time of War” (Season 3, Episode 2)
Where Shiv is offered the Waystar presidency and Kendall works with his new legal team.
After two stunning seasons, we need more dramatic sustenance than Kendall repeating—from two seasons ago—that Logan’s “time is up,” while still being the only Roy heir willing to openly take him on.
The real problem here, however, is what’s being done to Shiv—or should we say, what the aptly named Shiv is doing to herself. In “Mass in Time of War,” we have no idea who her character is or what game she’s trying to play. The woman who was prepared to torch her father and his company at the end of season one to come to the aid of a political candidate she didn’t particularly like is now telling Kendall, “You fucked the family” with a “snake move.” At the same time, she’s deceiving her husband and father (at a critical time) about her dealings with Kendall. Turns out, monogamy isn’t Shiv’s only issue. Her pinballing loyalties and ever-changing agendas are both tragic and laughable.
27. “Secession” (Season 3, Episode 1)
Where Logan and the Waystar team are on the run, and Kendall sets up his own operation.
A particularly challenging episode for the writer’s room: Starting a new season after an outstanding prior season finale. Throw in a pesky detail like a global pandemic, along with scheduling uncertainties, and you’ve got an entirely new process, with the potential and ironic problem of too much time for rewriting.
Season two of Succession ended with just about everybody throwing everybody else under the bus to survive; now, in the season-three premiere, they’re doing the same thing to secure the Waystar C.E.O. job, even though the role itself is a sham. As we learned from the beginning, Logan will never relinquish actual power if he can help it, and he can.
Even though Gerri (J. Smith-Cameron) is clearly spooked by the D.O.J. threat, somehow it doesn’t appear formidable enough; we sense from the start that it’ll be no match for Logan. But we do get to witness Rava (Natalie Gold) somehow managing to remain the most gracious ex-wife anyone could want, as she plays host to Kendall’s chaotic new enterprise.
26. “Too Much Birthday” (Season 3, Episode 7)
Where Kendall turns 40 and Roman elects to turn the tables on Shiv.
Although we find ourselves two-thirds of the way through the third season, we haven’t progressed much in terms of narrative advancement or seeing the show’s characters attempt new methodologies. A confounding example: Toward the end of season three’s third episode, the somber realization that we think Kendall has come to about his behavior (after Shiv rips him apart with a public scolding and the TV host slices and dices him) turns out to have no significance. That moment took him nowhere.
Succession thrives on events—weddings, a bachelor party, a shareholders meeting, a hunt—and along comes Kendall’s cringeworthy 40th birthday celebration to offer little more than expensive (if intermittently amusing) window dressing. He’s doubling down on his lack of self-awareness, self-humiliation, and pathetic pattern of self-destruction.
Prepare yourself, meanwhile, for more of Shiv’s intolerable behavior toward Tom (Matthew Macfadyen), and further evidence of Tom’s attachment disorder with Greg (Nicholas Braun). (Greg is, of course, the first person with whom Tom celebrates the news of not having to go to prison). It’s a collection of new variations on old themes, including the rather weary notion of the Pierce media family once again playing the role of Waystar savior. That possibility was blown to pieces in season two—hence Shiv’s pronounced eye roll at even hearing the name again.
25. “What It Takes” (Season 3, Episode 6)
Where Logan spearheads the hunt for the next G.O.P. presidential nominee.
If there was one takeaway from the 2016 Republican nomination process, it’s that the era of clandestine “back room” maneuvers among the power elite is gone for good. Party bigwigs met early and often in settings like this, not to anoint the best candidate but in desperate efforts to knock Donald Trump off his road to the nomination—to no avail. So a Succession storyline of a room selecting “the One” feels strangely … nostalgic. Still, “What It Takes” offers a fascinating journey for Roman, who bests Shiv in a contest for Logan’s approval on her home turf of politics by convincing Logan to support the most controversial contender.
24. “Lifeboats” (Season 1, Episode 3)
Where Logan’s medical issues give rise to disarray, and hubris.
“Lifeboats” comes across as a script written to combat anyone who would dare suggest knocking out Logan early in the series—a truly disastrous idea. The show, like Waystar, would have turned into a gigantic ratfuck without Logan’s tactics and gravitas.
Even though Logan Roy was more than equal to the challenge of building an empire, we are reminded yet again of how poor a job he did as a father and mentor. Taking Logan out of the picture for so much of one episode to deal with his health issues leaves us trapped inside the siblings’ dysfunction and feeling exhausted by the ordeal. This episode, however, does make it clear that no one individual is capable of filling Logan’s shoes.
23. “Lion in the Meadow” (Season 3, Episode 4)
Where Logan, Kendall and Josh Aronson go for a walk.
It’s fun to see Adrien Brody guest-star as Josh and leverage his 4 percent stake in Waystar. But this episode is too subtle where its most provocative prize is concerned: Is Aronson trying to kill Logan on this long hike or not? Jesse Armstrong loves being Switzerland, giving us a ton of intriguing elements and then letting us form our own conclusions about a storyline or relationship, but we wouldn’t mind a finger on the scale every now and then. Imagine if we had seen Josh’s hug with Stewy up close and heard Josh whispering something like, “About halfway he looked like he was going to tumble over, but gotta give the old man credit, he made it.”
More enjoyable: Greg’s awkward charm gets so mouthwatering, Tom can’t help but finally confess, “I’d castrate you and marry you in a heartbeat.” Glad that’s settled. For those keeping track of Tom’s homoerotic score at home: “Swallowing his own load” and calling it “so fucking hot”? Check. Not interested in a threesome with Shiv and another woman? Check. Most eager for sex to procreate? Check. Thinking ahead to prison sex? Check. Responding, “Yes I am, Greg,” after Greg is forced to ask, “Are you trying to seduce me, Tom?” Check.
Please spin these two off and let Tom spoil Greg on some picturesque island (just make sure there’s cell service so he can FaceTime Shiv).
22. “Sh*t Show at the F**k Factory” (Season 1, Episode 2)
Where the Roys and Waystar attempt to survive in the aftermath of Logan’s stroke.
The twist-and-shout world of Succession requires a great deal of explaining, hence the rather pedantic quality of this, its second episode. While Logan recovers, we learn more about the gang: Shiv and Roman literally fighting it out (plus Tom seeing it and rushing off); Kendall’s desperate need to be first among equals; the family tolerating Greg as long as he can be useful; and Logan’s wife Marcia’s (Hiam Abbass) comfort with “being in charge.”
Pilots receive a lot of attention and revision, but the early parts of a first season are often more challenging. It takes time to find the best ingredients for a new cocktail; they are all on display here, just not shaken and stirred like they will come to be in the show’s not so distant future.
21. “Vaulter” (Season 2, Episode 2)
Where Kendall is forced to cut his prized digital media asset.
In order to position family dynamics front and center, Succession often presents Waystar Royco as a much smaller operation than it would be in real life. Taking the family-centric Trump Organization model and blending it with the publicly held vastness of the Murdoch empire can create illogical (though fascinating) business storylines. Case in point: Logan sending Kendall and Roman (whom he often calls morons) off to investigate recent digital media acquisition Vaulter so a decision can be made about its future. In the real world, Logan would augment their efforts with an army of experts from different parts of the company. But that would deprive viewers of Kendall having to personally kill a Vice-like business he loves before Logan awards him the neighboring office—the latest example of daddy’s addiction to conditional love.
Whatever acting process Jeremy Strong utilizes, let us salute it. The guy takes a spit to the face as if it were a balmy breeze.
20. “Sad Sack Wasp Trap” (Season 1, Episode 4)
Where we first learn about the Waystar cruise scandal.
Gerri and Roman have the most crowd-pleasing relationship in Succession, while Logan’s connection to Kendall is the most multifarious. In this episode, however, the foundation is set for the Tom and Greg rom-com as they and we say hello to the Waystar Royco cruise scandal, a delectable ticking bomb that’s also a shrewdly conceived long-range narrative device certain to inflict all sorts of pain (and pleasure) on these two unicorns—along with the entire company.
Nevertheless, much of this episode finds the other characters running in place. We already know about their unique penchant for failure and embarrassment somehow coupled with audacity. This is the episode where people begin to articulate how much they hate everyone—but still can’t help but tune in every week.
19. “Austerlitz” (Season 1, Episode 7)
Where Logan organizes a family therapy retreat at Connor’s ranch.
Watching Alan Ruck as Connor play host to his family in New Mexico, it’s awfully tempting to view him as an adult version of Cameron Frye, the sullen teenager he played so artfully in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. There’s a lot of connective tissue bridging the two characters, isn’t there?
Here’s where we discover that the time and energy Logan will expend to be an instrumentalist is infinite—he’s flying thousands of miles just to facilitate a photo shoot designed to create a false image of a happy family. Because there’s ample fun to be found in “Austerlitz,” forgive one for wanting to forgo Dr. Parfit’s (Griffin Dunne) bloody diving accident bit in favor of an emotional surprise during a therapy session. Couldn’t one Roy learn something about themselves or another, or is the show making sure we know such will never be the case?
18. “The Summer Palace” (Season 2, Episode 1)
Where the family gathers to plot strategy about the future of Waystar, and Logan amps up the sibling sweepstakes.
Once again, Succession’s brilliant season finales create collateral damage, specifically raising the bar and viewer expectations so high as to make the new season potentially anti-climactic. From the moment Kendall is forced to leave the exclusive Icelandic wellness center on his father’s orders to castrate himself on live TV—separating himself from Sandy’s takeover bid—the intensity of Kendall’s traumatic car accident is very much with us despite the season break. So far, so good.
But Logan hearing from his banker in no uncertain terms that it’s time to sell feels like only a setup for his declaration that he intends to do just the opposite. And when Logan encourages his family to “speak freely” about their opinions on the future of the company, one is left to wonder how Brian Cox didn’t do a spit take when delivering that line.
“The Summer Palace” exposes a key question about Succession that never really gets properly answered: For a man who is supremely confident about his knowledge of Waystar’s businesses—and his instincts about human beings and the world in general—why does Logan spend so much of his time soliciting other’s opinions? Even Connor’s escort girlfriend Willa! (Justine Lupe).
Finally, congrats to the show’s wealth consultants, as we get to see the family’s $150 million Hamptons hovel in action.
17. “Prague” (Season 1, Episode 8)
Where Roman takes charge of Tom’s bachelor party.
The notion of a bachelor party for Tom is low-hanging fruit for this writing bunch, and they make the most of it with a cavalcade of debauchery and laughs. But attention must be paid to one of the strongest explanations of the Roy family psyche in the entire series. Discussing Roman’s P.T.S.D. about being locked in an actual dog cage when he was growing up, Connor tells Kendall, “Dad’s theory was you got two fighting dogs, you send the weak one away, you punish the weak one, and then everyone knows the hierarchy.”
With that in mind, what does Kendall do when he sees Roman next? Give him a supportive hug to ease the pain of the past? Nope. He jams his brother into the side of the damn elevator. The siblings often detest Logan’s sensibilities, but don’t be fooled: They are inextricably linked to his playbook, and the show excels when it finds surprising ways to showcase this.
16. “DC” (Season 2, Episode 9)
Where Waystar executives are called to testify before Congress.
Logan to Roman: “You can do it.”
Logan to Shiv: “You did great.”
Logan to Kendall: “I’m sorry if it was rough.”
Uhh, we to ourselves: “We’ll have what Logan’s having.”
Logan’s been under suffocating pressure since his introduction in the pilot, so what exactly fuels these dad-of-the-year love bombs? And after such embarrassing testimony, how does Tom keep his job, son-in-law status notwithstanding? (Even Roger Ailes would’ve suffered in the aftermath of such a performance.) Fortunately, these speed bumps don’t get in the way of a dynamic hour, including Gerri taking command of the cruise situation at a key moment with clarity and confidence. Will we ever get tired of J. Cameron Smith’s Gerri being brilliant and stunning? Probably not.
Most rewarding is how the writers prove their ability to surprise us with bold character work. Kieran Culkin nails tough moments in Turkey and an important debrief after with Logan; this is the episode that reveals a new, wiser, more mature and complex Roman—the kind of development one can easily argue we would have liked to see from Kendall and Shiv as well.
15. “Dundee” (Season 2, Episode 8)
Where Logan Roy returns to his hometown for a celebration honoring his 50 years in business.
Brian Cox was born in Dundee, Scotland, and the splendid sequence of Logan riding into that town demands its place in the Succession highlight reel. A wonderful close-up and spectacular writing somehow manage to deliver empathy for Logan the man and even more respect for Cox the actor.
Speaking of r-e-s-p-e-c-t, Kendall’s gumption-filled “L to the OG” rap tribute to his father may have elicited more visceral and physical reactions (eyes and/or ears covered, jaws gaping, stomach growling) from an audience than any television scene of recent memory. Watching Kendall on that stage, we became Kramer jerking around Jerry’s apartment upon hearing Mary Hart’s voice, a painful yet delightful reminder that Succession is boundless in its ambitions and Jeremy Strong limitless in his acting acumen.
The scene is also emblematic of one of the show’s most ingeniously choreographed trademarks: pushing its characters to the limits of convention and likeability—then even past them—but without being so reckless that we feel like voting any of them off the island altogether.
Elsewhere in “Dundee,” note to file: Never bet against Marcia, and always give thanks to Succession for its commitment to give Ewan Roy (James Cromwell) ample opportunities to wickedly delineate the evil that is Waystar Royco.
14. “Safe Room” (Season 2, Episode 4)
Where a potential Waystar marriage becomes Topic A, and Shiv begins her unannounced company residency amidst a gunshot ringing out.
J. Smith-Cameron came up with the enchanting “Slime Puppy” label for Roman, an insult that practically demands ignoring W.G.A. guidelines so she can have a writing credit. That Gerri doesn’t hang up on Roman while he’s, uh, taking care of himself, is another example of the show’s second-season ability to execute deft character developments, and plenty reason why we will always be eager to witness further chapters in the Roman/Gerri psychosexual odyssey.
It’s in “Safe Room” that Holly Hunter bursts upon the show as Pierce Global Media C.E.O. Rhea Jarrell, a part that proves to be one of the most quietly layered of her career. Exceptionally noteworthy: it’s often difficult to wade through the fog of Logan’s true feelings, given his steady stream of Machiavellian ploys and deceits. But in one of his most revealing moments, as chaos inside the building strips Logan of his gamesmanship, all he can think to ask—despite Shiv being on the premises—is, “Where’s Kendall? Is he safe?” Chew on that one, won’t you?
13. “Retired Janitors of Idaho” (Season 3, Episode 5)
Where a hostile shareholder vote is set to take place just as Logan becomes loopy.
Whenever Succession’s comedic stripes are acted out (as opposed to being contained in dialogue), the show becomes irresistible. Ye olde cat-in-the-bag sequence backstage at the annual Waystar shareholders’ meeting—juxtaposed against Gerri, Frank (Peter Friedman), and Carl’s (David Rasche) podium possum antics—offers yet another example of how skillfully Jesse Armstrong et al. can elicit laughs without killing the drama at hand. (For good measure, we’re gifted the Sandy syphilis rumor, another example of Waystar Royco flair).
And even though it may not appear to always be the case, the show has a high antenna when it comes to protecting its characters. In this episode and others, it shrewdly side-steps the need to present Logan in specific sexual situations, particularly with a much younger employee; here, the mere mention of a U.T.I. provides us with a clever port of entry to appreciate what’s going on.
12. “Celebration” (Season 1, Episode 1)
Where the show’s pilot introduces us to the Roy family and Waystar Royco.
There’s a touch of irony to the fact that HBO has Succession, its drama king, thanks primarily to three men who have comedy coursing through their veins: Armstrong and his varsity comedic pedigree e.g. Peep Show, The Thick of It, Veep; Adam McKay, a former head writer at Saturday Night Live who would go on to direct such hits as Anchorman and Talladega Nights; and HBO & HBO Max’s current head of content, Casey Bloys, who earned his exec stripes in HBO’s comedy department supervising series like Veep and Eastbound and Down.
Armstrong’s degree of difficulty with this pilot script was akin to a reverse four-and-a-half somersault dive in the pike position. First, he had arguably unlikeable characters in the Roy family to introduce without driving us away; second, he married dramatic and sardonic, and even laugh-out-loud dialogue, thus creating a tonal outlier; and third, he was able to bring it all together with suspense and smarts without introducing a whiff of melodrama.
Moment after moment in this first episode widens the distance that separates the Roys from viewers, but unlike many land-of-the-rich sagas, there’s little that’s aspirational about it. If you are at a softball game and a rich young turk offers a preteen son of working class parents a million bucks if he hit a home run—or if, say, you’re at a meeting about the possible sale of your company and one of the seller’s top execs begins by asking, “Are we ready to fuck or what?” you’ll probably never want to emulate (or spend another minute with) either of them. And those are just two examples from an hour of similar provocations. Yet Armstrong pulls off the unthinkable, keeping us not only riveted but wanting more.
Remember “Shimmer”? That was a faux commercial from SNL’s infancy, in which Chevy Chase proclaimed it to be both “a dessert topping and a floor wax.” The first episode of Succession manages to pull off a similar act of multi-personality wizardry.
11. “I Went to Market” (Season 1, Episode 5)
Where Marcia organizes a picturesque holiday dinner, and Tom wrestles with his prenup.
Interestingly enough, it was episode five of The Sopranos (“College”) that catapulted that series into another stratosphere, and this Thanksgiving celebration of Succession does the same. It’s chock full of important moments: Logan threatens to ship Kendall overseas, fueling Kendall’s duplicity; Tom uses Greg to shred files; Logan and Ewan go toe to toe; and the simple act of pouring a cup of coffee warns us to never forget the fragility of Logan’s health.
This episode is also instructive in making the case that in all three seasons—with a few outliers—Succession starts out comparatively slower than mid-season fare and, without a doubt, pales when set against the show’s lollapalooza seasonal finales.
Is this because Armstrong engineers a deft methodical build, constantly increasing tension and heightening stakes at various turns along the way? It feels as if that’s actually not quite the case, but rather that annual narratives start with the show’s shocking finales and then work backwards, with storylines, hints, and misdirections dropped along the way.
10. “Return” (Season 2, Episode 7)
Where Rhea takes on Shiv and Kendall finds himself face to face with the aftermath of his car accident.
We know what it’s like to have Logan as a father. “Return” gives us insight into the complexities these siblings wrestle with on the mother front—and we’re not talking about being served pigeon. In one moment, Caroline (Harriet Walter) seemingly sacrifices $20 million for Christmas visits from her children; in another, she disappears when Kendall attempts to bare his soul to her—after his father finds yet another way to rub his face (and heart) into the still-tragic nightmare of the waiter’s drowning.
We must never let Succession’s lucent humor obscure the profound pain everyone—including Logan—carries with them. This is a family even Eugene O’Neill might say suffers a tad too much.
9. “Which Side Are You On?” (Season 1, Episode 6)
Where Kendall’s plan to take Logan out and take over Waystar come before the board, and Shiv ponders working for a left-wing populist.
Dramatic choreography forces Kendall to render the most important speech of his life (to this point) on the run, and even though he does a masterful job of making the case, Logan prevails at the vote of no confidence. Like most of the show’s strongest episodes, the writing on “Which Side Are You On?” is so adroit, it gives us a choice as to who we believe deserves our sympathies (a question Roman asks himself all the time). But be bold. Applaud Logan’s anger. How dare they.
Yes, when it comes to Waystar’s mission and corporate values, Logan’s moral compass is worse than merely askew. But Logan gives his children opportunities no other company would ever consider, while often allowing them to squeeze toothpaste back into tubes even after they’ve dishonored themselves, the company, or Logan himself.
So consider, for a moment, that Logan is—at least in part—a genuine softie.
8. “Hunting” (Season 2, Episode 3)
Where Logan takes his senior Waystar team to Europe for a retreat amidst internal discussions of a deal with Pierce.
In “Hunting,” we witness frat hazing Waystar-style with “boar on the floor,” daring anyone to say, “Oh, that again.” In fact, the sequence’s sheer nutty singularity fueled a ton of attention on social media, and ultimately seduced new fans.
There’s plenty more in this episode to admire—Roman’s misadventure with Pierce, Shiv gobbling up a guy despite his belief that the “real news” nowadays comes from comedians, and Gerri buttoning Roman’s shirt. All of it reminds us that when it comes to the characters of Succession, none of them can really hide; they may not be honest with each other, but thanks to this writers’ room, we as an audience will always see their true selves.
7. “Chiantishire” (Season 3, Episode 8)
Where Caroline’s wedding is front and center, but the real action is whether there’s a deal for Waystar with tech giant Gojo.
Good old HBO. Pandemic raging though it was, the company sent cast, production, and publicity personnel to Tuscany. They got their money’s worth: “Chiantishire” is 64 minutes of Italian splendor ranging from majestic countryside to an appalling close-up of Logan’s grandchild turned poison taste-tester. Alexander Skarsgård is masterful as reluctant tech tycoon Lukas Matsson, and in so doing keeps Succession’s guest-star batting average at 1.000.
Thank you, thank you, Kieran, for elegantly pulling off Roman’s agonizing (and quick!) journey from business triumph to personal humiliation via dick pic. And how devilish of the writers to create a sexy-talk “game” for Shiv to mindfuck her husband, telling Tom, playfully, “… Even though I don’t love you.” Yet that conversation trembles when compared to Caroline and Shiv’s sure-shot bloodletting. At least the two agree on one thing: Each is the other’s onion.
6. – 5. “Argestes” (Season 2, Episode 6) & “Tern Haven” (Season 2, Episode 5)
Where back-to-back episodes feature the bizarro world of the Pierce family and the prospect of their ideological mismarriage with Waystar.
Could either of these episodes have existed without the amazing Cherry Jones to anchor them? Technically, yes, but it’s hard to imagine them as compelling. Executive producer and legendary theater critic Frank Rich wears many hats on Succession; place your money on his advocating for Jones in this role.
Not even President Raisin is fearless enough to combat Logan, but Jones’s Nan Pierce, in stronger command of her family than Logan is of his, is easily his match. As the two families interact, their respective sensibilities mirror their disparate orthodoxies—like finding the staffs of MSNBC and Fox News hanging together at Mohonk Mountain House.
These two episodes remind us of the powerful duality behind Succession—the internal battle to take over Logan’s seat and the external struggle to protect Waystar. Often these conflicts intersect, but when it’s largely the latter, the show gets a needed break from sibling agonistes.
4. “Pre-Nuptial” (Season 1, Episode 9)
Where Shiv’s wedding preparations collide with Kendall’s bear hug to take Waystar away from family control.
Greetings to matriarch Caroline Roy and welcome to Eastnor Castle for a decadent family affair with your three unapologetically entitled offspring. Their father is forever their sun (at best, you will be Pluto), so you have our sympathies from the start. No wonder every line from Caroline is weaponized.
“Pre-Nuptial” is easily one of Sarah Snook’s finest performances, aided by a script that is a masterfully woven quilt of personal and business sagas between Shiv and Tom, Shiv and Nate (Ashley Zukerman), Shiv and Marcia, Shiv and Gerri (featuring some of the best dialogue of the entire series), Shiv and Logan (naturally), Kendall and Rava, Tom and Greg, and, excitingly, Logan and Senator Eavis.
When the three siblings get together to share a smoke, wedding emotions conquer rancor. We see Shiv smile for real and offer “old times” in advance of Kendall suggesting a group hug. They needed this; hell, we needed this.
3. “This Is Not for Tears” (Season 2, Episode 10)
Where a Waystar head must roll and Kendall unfurls a grand surprise.
Admit it: Once you saw Logan’s circle jerk sacrifice shift into high gear, your money was on Kendall taking the fall. Succession is powered by Greek tragedy, and the family bake-off on Logan’s yacht is primed for father/son mythology lovers everywhere. Besides, Logan had already thrown Kendall under the bus at the Senate hearing.
Nevertheless, the entire hour is a tour de force for these actors—and the boat. Tom’s admission to Shiv—“I wonder if the sad I’d be without you would be less than the sad I get from being with you”—was no doubt repeated in many real-life therapy sessions hence, and Logan’s Mona Lisa expression at fade-out was enough to keep us wondering and talking forever. Or at least until season three.
2. “All the Bells Say” (Season 3, Episode 9)
Where Kendall confesses his darkest secret to Shiv and Roman, and Logan makes his most important decision as both C.E.O. and father.
Responding to a concern expressed midway through season three that the show appeared to be moving from A+ to B+ territory, an HBO exec calmly told me, “Don’t worry, the season finale will be worth the wait.” It surely was. Huge props to director Mark Mylod for not telling Jeremy Strong in advance that he was sending two young kitchen workers into a scene in an effort to further remind Strong the actor of the waiter Kendall killed. That image led to Kendall sitting in the dirt, kicking off one of the biggest emotional scenes of the series. Indeed, after years of mostly acidulous behavior between the three siblings, the kindness shared between them here is cathartic, even for Roman.
Once Shiv, Roman, and Kendall realize their mother has made their extinction from the company possible, Logan demands to know, “What have you got in your fucking hand?” Roman’s painful plea to Logan that he change his mind, anchored by, “For love?” is the most un-Succession-like dialogue in the series, and an instant classic. Logan’s reaction may seem brutal, but it’s rather easy to defend his actions, even in the context of an early question Brian Cox asked Jesse Armstrong about the show: “Does Logan love his children?” Answer: “Yes, absolutely.”
And finally, a litany of Tom moments, building from previous episodes, were expertly layered into the season so as not to spoil the grand surprise of his betrayal. Essential plea for season four: Let Tom hold on to his newly found testicles. Shiv and Tom need new rhythms.
1. “Nobody Is Ever Missing” (Season 1, Episode 10)
Where Shiv gets married and Kendall escapes death.
Come for the post-nuptial between Shiv and Tom, one of the most remarkable newlywed conversations on this or any other series, ever.
Stay for a shocking calamity that carries enough weight to inform the series for at least the next two seasons—Kendall’s own private Chappaquiddick, which ingeniously builds to a hug between Logan and Kendall, the likes of which we haven’t seen since Michael Corleone embraced Fredo after their mother died.
The writers apportion other glorious moments to the entire cast, and they respond blazingly, including Roman’s hysterical stewardship of a satellite rocket launch, Greg revealing his cunning diabolical side to Kendall, and Connor going instantly hubristic—enough to decide he should be president after only a casual conversation with Senator Eavis.
Beautifully shot scene after scene deliver profound 180 turns, and keen editing establishes an irresistible curiosity about what comes next. At every moment of this episode, fans of the show can easily appreciate what a rarity it is—and that nothing succeeds like Succession.
James Andrew Miller is the author of five best-selling books. His latest is Tinderbox: HBO’s Ruthless Pursuit of New Frontiers. He is the host of the podcast Origins.