This article contains spoilers through the seventh episode of Succession Season 3.
Given how this season of Succession has gone so far, the Roy siblings should have reason to celebrate. They held on to control of the family’s company, Waystar Royco, after a Hail Mary negotiation. They helped choose the Republicans’ next presidential nominee from the comfort of their father’s hotel suite. And in tonight’s episode, they hear that the Department of Justice is considering dialing back its criminal investigation of the family conglomerate. Clearly, Kendall (played by Jeremy Strong) can’t choose a better time to throw himself the “fucking best birthday ever.”
Unsurprisingly, he turns out to be horribly wrong. The reason lies in Succession’s thesis: Money has bought these characters everything except an ounce of real joy. Even when the Roys have a party, they’re surrounded by yes-men, opportunists, and, worst of all, one another. The siblings have been taught that happiness comes only from attaining more power and wealth, so backstabbing and insulting others is second nature to them, even at festivities. From this setup—toxic people in a gilded cage—the HBO drama has repeatedly mined both laughs and schadenfreude, and at times the series has felt like it’s spinning its thematic wheels. Yet in examining the siblings’ maliciousness over the course of a single, cursed night, this latest episode captures in close-up the horror of the family’s perpetual cycle of pettiness and empty triumphs.
Listen to Shirley Li, Spencer Kornhaber, and Hannah Giorgis discuss Succession on The Review, a new podcast from The Atlantic.
Kendall’s party, after all, provides the perfect playground for egos to get hurt—especially his own. With the help of his PR team, he populates the venue with a nursery-themed section dedicated to his birth, a tree house honoring his childhood, and a room full of oversize fake tabloid covers disparaging his siblings. These lavish decorations—along with a plan to perform Billy Joel’s “Honesty”—are meant to keep the spotlight on him amid his war against his father, Logan (Brian Cox). But by the end of the night, his image-burnishing attempts leave him vulnerable and paranoid, obsessing over whether the DJ’s using the “approved playlist.” Kendall has set himself up to fail again; his showboating only heightens his insecurity. In the end, his 40th birthday results in a cancelled performance and a room full of meaningless presents, while the gift he’s looking for—something handmade by his children—is nowhere to be found.
The show illustrates how misery can be contagious: Naturally, Kendall takes his woes out on Shiv (Sarah Snook) and Roman (Kieran Culkin). When he learns that they’re attending his party not to celebrate him but to woo Lukas Matsson (Alexander Skarsgård), the CEO of a streaming service Waystar Royco wants to acquire, he revokes their access to the tree house, in which Lukas is hanging out. Shiv, discouraged to learn that her father favors Roman, and secretly unhappy about her husband, Tom (Matthew Macfadyen), not being sent to prison, ends up drunk on the dance floor. Her apathy toward Tom deepens his (partly drug-induced) despair, and he winds up inside a “compliment tunnel” where party employees deliver flattery to the guests. There, Tom grows angrier, as he feels even less deserving of his luck in avoiding jail time, and he subsequently picks a fight with Cousin Greg. Succession thus depicts its characters’ joylessness as a domino effect: One slight begets another, then another, until Kendall’s party feels like an inescapable labyrinth of gloom.
Among the party’s forlorn guests, Roman is the exception, because he doesn’t hide his motives or deny that being a Roy means being merciless and spiteful. He barges into the tree house, secures a meeting with Lukas, and embraces his role as Logan’s new lackey. He intensifies his obnoxiousness, taunting Kendall, Shiv, and Connor. In Roman’s scenes, the show underlines how far a Roy has to go to feel some semblance of fulfillment: Rather than trying to shake off the demons, he embraces them, and consequently he’s the only one who walks out of Kendall’s bash looking unscathed.
As a Roy, there’s a lot to celebrate but very little to feel happy about. Turning 40, having a partner, making career strides, or experiencing any kind of personal growth, really, fails to matter. The bleak reality is that most of the Roys can’t have the only thing they want—control of the family company—while Logan remains alive. Perhaps that’s why Logan is the only Roy to indulge in any genuine celebration in this episode. When he learns of the DOJ’s new stance, he raises a glass of champagne, toasts “justice,” and looks like the most satisfied man in the world.