Logan Roy's entrance into the second episode of "Succession" begins with a question: "Why does everybody ask how I'm doing?"
It now looks like a signal to the audience of what's to come. Of course, the question hovering over all four seasons of "Succession" is the mortality of Logan Roy (Brian Cox) and which of his children will succeed him at the head of his companies. Or, perhaps, none of them?
But the question looms larger now after the third episode, "Connor's Wedding," where Connor (Alan Ruck) was once again upstaged by his father - this time, with the patriarch's death on board a plane headed to Stockholm in hopes of landing yet another deal.
Looking back on how we got here, it's clear mortality was on Logan's mind, among other things. One wonders how conscious he was of the proximity of his end.
It was in the season premiere, "The Munsters," that Logan, at his birthday party, compared his family to the denizens of Mockingbird Lane from the old 60s sitcom - a house of zany monsters, presided over by the creation of Dr. Frankenstein.
Later, when Logan is lying on the floor of his private jet, with an aide administering chest compressions in a futile attempt to resuscitate him, his son Roman (Kieran Culkin) will whisper into his ear, through a phone, some words of encouragement to keep fighting: "You're a monster." He means this as a compliment, of course.
Logan has had plenty of chances to prove how true the compliment is. Consider his actions in the second episode, the pregnantly-titled "Rehearsal." Logan knows something is close - if he sells his Waystar Royco holdings, it will only leave him with ATN, his prized news channel. We sense this is where his heart is, since he wanders the newsroom, critiquing how busy his employees may or may not be. When he refers to one staffer as a Stakhanovite, a Stalinist plaudit given to heroic workers, his voice drips with trademark scorn.
No, Logan is ready to return to his roots, which is why he quizzes Tom (Matthew Macfadyen) about the cost of pizza in the newsroom kitchen, about the success of Kerry Castellabate's (Zoe Winters) disastrous anchor audition tape, why he mounts the steps on his final flight calling for everyone to be "a bit more f***ing aggressive." He is preparing, he says, for a "Night of the Long Knives," a cleaning out of the company to refocus it. It's never a good sign when the boss is throwing around verbal nods to Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union.
But in the newsroom, he stands atop a hastily-assembled podium of copy paper boxes to give a "Man of the People" pep talk to his troops. He scorns Tom's kind words to the staff, browbeats one unlucky employee about numbers, then launches into a bellicose stemwinder familiar to anyone who watches cable news talk shows, or cleansing sessions during the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution. Tom and Greg (Nicholas Braun) clap and look around uneasily for reassurance as Logan's ragged, manic voice reassures them - and him - of his plans:
"I’m going to be spending a lot more time with you lot in here. Because I love it in here. I f***ing love it! I don’t want to know about 3 percent week-on-week. I want to know that we’re killing the opposition! I want to be cutting their throats! Our rivals should be checkin' in, up back of their chauffeured cars, because they can’t believe what we did! So f***ing spicy. So true. Something everyone knows, but nobody says, because they’re too f***ing lily-livered! Huh? They cannot believe what we said, and the fact that we f***ing said it! They’re f***ing jam smears on the highway! Now, anyone, anyone who believes that I'm getting out, please, shove the bunting up your a**! This is not the end. I’m going to build something better. Something faster, lighter, meaner, wilder, and I’m gonna do it, from in here, with you lot! You’re f***ing pirates!"
Probably not a lot of people in the newsroom will be getting Christmas bonuses this year.
A lot of attention will be paid to Logan's farewell to his children.
On the eve of Connor's wedding, the four siblings are gathered for an improbable Karaoke session. Connor wants an evening away from the usual posh surroundings, but they're still in a bar where someone probably needs six figures to get into the place. Their drink orders are ridiculously highbrow. Into this atmosphere, Logan enters, probably with an idea to satisfy his offspring, whom he regards as "spicy." This also is a compliment.
What follows is a "show trial," with Kendall (Jeremy Strong) acting as prosecutor and Shiv (Sarah Snook) reveling in the effect on her father. But what happens? When Kendall and Shiv hurl the accusations at Logan, Connor and Roman make excuses for him. "He's trying," Connor says.
Then Logan, sensing his children want an apology, offers an appropriately ham-fisted one: "then...sorry." He can't even say "I'm sorry." It's not clear what exactly he's sorry for. Was it cancelling their helicopter earlier? Or the thousand indignities of their lives? Is he sorry, as he will say later, that his children haven't suffered enough to appreciate what they have?
He's there, ostensibly, in an attempt to convince them not to sink the GoJo deal by pressing for more money. And neither he, nor the audience at this point, knows this will be the final conversation he has with his family. But he nevertheless delivers a memorable verdict - on them, his voice just over a whisper:
"You're such f***in' dopes. You're not serious figures. I love you, but you're not serious people."
An easy observation, of course, is that he is absolutely right. Kendall, wounded by substance abuse and his father's abuse, still convinced of his business acumen. Connor, hovering at one percent in his Quixotic presidential campaign. Roman, self-amused and socially needy. Shiv, perhaps the wisest but with her own emotional blind spots. All of them, perpetually scornful, cynical, lacking in self-awareness. Yet as Greg pointed out when Logan asked for jokes at his expense, whose fault is that?
One could ask why an actor like Bryan Cox wasn't given a grand death scene. Yet Logan's death, played out largely off-screen, is devastating in its emotional weight, mostly because the audience is unsure until the very end whether what they are watching is real. Which is the response of most of the human race to death, especially in the 21st century. We go to a great deal of trouble to insulate ourselves from death - socially, culturally, politically, spiritually. When it happens, or when we are confronted with the possibility of our own death, our first instinct is often denial or rejection.
But one scene in particular, in "The Munsters," allowed Logan a moment to muse aloud on the possibilities of what was ahead of him. Sitting in a restaurant with his bodyguard, Logan, with no prompting, tells the man, "You’re a good guy." Then, "You’re my pal." Then further, "You’re my best pal." The man can only repeat an awkward "thank you" each time.
The easy pathos of the moment - a titanically rich man, ostracized by his children, angling awkwardly to get his ambitious paramour a television job without leaving his fingerprints, tries to bond with the man paid to take care of him. It's a pathetic spectacle, and familiar. The mercies of God, the consolations of salvation, the balm of love, can only grasped with a humility that seems beyond the reach of this foul-mouthed billionaire culture warrior, yet one sees a vulnerable soul flicker for just a moment within sight of the inevitable, uncomfortable truth.
Logan asks, "what are people?" before trying to pigeonhole them as mere "economic units" functioning within markets. If everything is a market, and all the actors merely units within, then he isn't obligated to adhere to any specific morality. Yet, is that all there is? This doesn't seem to satisfy him, even if he is "100 feet tall." Something is wrong. Something is missing. For all his grasping, something has eluded him.
"Everything I try to do, people turned against me," he says. "Nothing tastes like it used to, does it? Nothing’s the same as it was." This is a deeply distrustful, dissatisfied man, aging, bewildered, alone. His ancient heart, damaged, wants something more. He has evaded death, but it has not left his sight. He is not the man he once was. Or was he ever that man at all?
Then, seemingly from nowhere, comes the familiar question:
"You think there’s anything after all this? Afterwards?" A man doesn't usually ask this question unless he's got reason to. But you could argue that we all have reasons to ask.
When the bodyguard says he doesn't know. Logan replies, "I don’t think so. I think this is it. Right?" But he doesn't want the question answered. The other man begins with, "Maybe. My dad is very religious…"
Logan waves this away. What other people believe is distracting, inconsequential, annoying even. "Yeah, but realistically though." Realism, on its face, doesn't require faith. But that depends on who is defining realism. For each individual, what is real is what is felt. That which we see and hear may or may not be real, but if it is real to us, that is enough for us to believe. For all of his life, Logan Roy's reality has been the building of businesses, the shaping of opinion, the supplying of products, the manipulation of crowds, and the wielding of power. That is real. Never mind that there are millions of others disputing his own conception of reality. Much of his life's fight has been about who is right and who is wrong.
He has spent his life in the commercialization of meaning. Political meaning. But that changes. What about beyond politics. What does it all mean?
"We don’t know," the guard says.
This satisfies Logan, for a moment. "That’s it. We don’t know. We can’t know."
One wonders how many times this question has occurred to him. We never know how long we will have to consider.
Whatever satisfaction he receives in dismissing the question, though, doesn't last.
"But I’ve got my suspicions," he says, only hours from having them either confirmed or denied, which is ultimately true of us all.
And we are not serious people.