This recent 'Succession' was among the best hours of TV our critic has seen in years
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. The HBO series "Succession" is in its fourth and final season. Our TV critic David Bianculli was so impressed by the most recent episode, which aired Sunday, he has a review focusing entirely on it. A warning to viewers - there are spoilers ahead. Only listen if you're entirely caught up on "Succession." Here's his review.
DAVID BIANCULLI, BYLINE: In the very first episode of HBO's "Succession," media tycoon Logan Roy, played by Brian Cox, was flying in a private helicopter with some of his adult offspring. They were arguing about his ideas for restructuring his company and which child would do what when the patriarch had a brain hemorrhage and collapsed. That first episode ended with the clear suggestion that Logan Roy was about to shuffle off this mortal coil, leaving his four children to fight for the spoils. But Jesse Armstrong, the creator of "Succession," pulled a fast one. Logan spent Episode 2 in a coma, but by the end of Episode 3, he was back, swearing and scheming as much as ever. And as Logan recovered, the series became about various efforts by his children to gain power or steal some of his.
And during the show's run, now in its fourth season, we've gotten to know the Roy family very intimately and witness the formidable skills of the actors portraying them. As Logan, Brian Cox is a force of nature, but the other members of the ensemble are just as valuable. Alan Ruck, as eldest son Connor, is all but invisible but in a haunting way. Jeremy Strong, as Kendall, is a mass of insecurities, addictions and rash decisions. Sarah Snook, as sister Shiv, is the master schemer of the group, ruthless even when dealing with her husband Tom, played by Matthew Macfadyen, whose relationship with her didn't last to the current Season Four. And Kieran Culkin, as kid brother Roman, is my favorite actor and character in the cast, a loose cannon with a very wicked way with words.
That's why I've loved "Succession" up to this point. But Sunday's installment dazzled me. Jesse Armstrong wrote the episode, which was only the third one of this final season. Mark Mylod directed it, and it's one of the best hours of series TV I've seen in years. Once again, Logan was in the air, this time flying to Sweden in his private jet with Tom and other members of his staff. The siblings were on a yacht attending Connor's wedding. If you're really into symbolism, maybe it's worth noting that neither Logan nor his children in this pivotal episode were on solid ground.
Logan boards his jet just before the opening credits, and that's the last we see of him until Tom, phoning from the plane, places a call to Roman, who's on the yacht and puts his phone on speaker so Kendall can listen. They're stunned by the news they hear and so are we, as members of the audience. It comes without warning and leaves the usually glib brothers fumbling for words and thoughts.
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MATTHEW MACFADYEN: (As Tom Wambsgans) Hey, Roman.
KIERAN CULKIN: (As Roman Roy) Yeah.
MACFADYEN: (As Tom Wambsgans) Hey. Your dad is very sick. He's very, very sick.
CULKIN: (As Roman Roy) What?
JEREMY STRONG: (As Kendall Roy) What?
CULKIN: (As Roman Roy) It's Tom. Apparently Dad's sick. What do you mean he's sick? Like, sick like..
STRONG: (As Kendall Roy) What's going on?
CULKIN: (As Kieran Culkin) Tom? Tom, are you still there?
STRONG: (As Kendall Roy) Is he OK? What's going on? What is it?
MACFADYEN: (As Tom Wambsgans) We don't know.
STRONG: (As Kendall Roy) Is he OK? Who's with him?
MACFADYEN: (As Tom Wambsgans) He had a very serious...
CULKIN: (As Roman Roy) Serious what?
MACFADYEN: (As Tom Wambsgans) It is very, very bad. It seems very bad. I'm so sorry to call you like this.
CULKIN: (As Roman Roy) Can you put him on the phone?
STRONG: (As Kendall Roy) Who's there, Tom? What's going on? What happened?
MACFADYEN: (As Tom Wambsgans) So he was short of breath, and he went into the bathroom. And he was going - someone heard something, and he was - we were concerned. And then they went in there.
CULKIN: (As Roman Roy) They went in. They broke in?
MACFADYEN: (As Tom Wambsgans) They broke in. They had the key and they got in there. But he's nonresponsive.
CULKIN: (As Roman Roy) Is he still in there? Did...
STRONG: (As Kendall Roy) He's nonresponsive?
MACFADYEN: (As Tom Wambsgans) Yeah, they're...
STRONG: (As Kendall Roy) Is he talking? Can he talk?
CULKIN: (As Roman Roy) Is he breathing?
MACFADYEN: (As Tom Wambsgans) They're doing chest compressions.
CULKIN: (As Roman Roy) Oh, [expletive].
STRONG: (As Kendall Roy) Has his heart stopped? Has his heart stopped?
MACFADYEN: (As Tom Wambsgans) I don't know.
BIANCULLI: The rest of the show is a masterstroke of ensemble acting, deft direction and riveting writing. Each and every character reacts to the news and lack of it in ways that ring true and often felt painfully relatable. Once that call is placed, most of the rest of that "Succession" episode is shot with handheld cameras, capturing multiple characters and reactions simultaneously. It feels almost like a documentary about the first stages of grief. And when the rumors of Logan's demise turn out to be true, "Succession" stuns us all with a sudden death as unsettling and unforgettable as the shower scene in "Psycho." Where, we are left asking at the end of the episode, do we go from here?
That's the brilliance of this unexpected move - the timing. The show's center is ripped away with seven episodes still to go. The remaining hours of this final season really will fulfill the promise and premise of the series title. From now on, "Succession" will be all about succession.
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GROSS: David Bianculli is a professor of television studies at Rowan University.
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GROSS: Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, I'll talk with a cardiologist who also became a caregiver for his father who had Alzheimer's. There were tough decisions to be made when his father's memory was vanishing and he became irrational, argumentative and sometimes violent. My guest will be Dr. Sandeep Jauhar, author of the new memoir "My Father's Brain." It's also about the latest research into the disease and why there's not yet a cure. I hope you'll join us.
FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Susan Nyakundi. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross.
(SOUNDBITE OF NICHOLAS BRITELL'S "SUCCESSION (MAIN TITLE THEME)") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.