Why ‘Succession’ Has One of the Best Acting Ensembles of 2019

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Photo Source: Courtesy of HBO

With this Year in Review, we at Backstage have picked through the weeds and found 2019’s true gems of the best big- and small-screen ensemble work. And don’t worry: We’ve got you covered with everything else you need to know this awards season right here.

Distributed by: HBO
Created by: Jesse Armstrong
Casting by: Douglas Aibel, Henry Russell Bergstein
Cast: Hiam Abbass, Nicholas Braun, Brian Cox, Kieran Culkin, Peter Friedman, Holly Hunter, Danny Huston, Alan Ruck, J. Smith-Cameron, Sarah Snook, Fisher Stevens, Jeremy Strong

Few shows this year generated as much buzz as the second season of HBO’s “Succession.” The acidic dramedy about a family-run media empire is brutally funny and eminently watchable. Showrunner Jesse Armstrong (“In the Loop,” “The Thick of It”) serves his actors a sumptuous buffet of spoils, from intricate plotting to barbed-wire dialogue, and they elevate that material to dizzying heights.

READ: Jesse Armstrong on Finding Actors to Play Tragedy and Comedy on ‘Succession’

The show orbits around the Roy family’s imperious patriarch, Logan, an old-media mogul whom industry vet Brian Cox inhabits with cantankerous stateliness. After fending off coups, Logan sets out to shore up Waystar Royco’s holdings, ferret out whistleblowers, and puppeteer his children to his own ends. Veering through the season from paranoid fury to schoolboy infatuation, Cox plays coy with Logan’s loathsome manipulations. His craggy baritone and imposing-but-eroding presence suggest a man used to bending the world to his will—from inside the prison of his own god complex.

But the emotional center of this series is “No. 1 boy” Kendall. A striving but self-sabotaging addict, Kendall is a brittle husk beset by guilt after his involvement in a fatal car accident. Jeremy Strong’s glassy eyes and faraway stare sell the vacancy of a once-power-hungry scion now pinned down as his father’s dutiful mercenary. Strong’s showreel scene contained Kendall’s tremulous, halting plea to his sister (“I would just ask that you take care of me, because if Dad didn’t need me, I don’t exactly know what I would be for.”), the first instance of naked emotional vulnerability in a show usually allergic to them. As a man desperate but unable to unburden himself of grief, Strong is nothing short of revelatory.

And Sarah Snook shines as the aptly named Shiv, who is tapped by her father to succeed him as Waystar Royco’s next CEO, until the succession’s failure to manifest curdles her characteristic self-assurance into arrogant insecurity. In Snook’s standout scene, she talks a sexual assault victim out of testifying against Waystar, navigating an ethically fraught scenario with expert caginess, modulating her body language and tone to signal indignation and empathy in what is really psychological manipulation.

Rounding out the primary trio of siblings is Kieran Culkin’s Roman. Long the so-called “fuck-knuckle” of the bunch, Culkin delights in slinging Roman’s profane cutdowns; you can practically see his inner child operating the levers. But this year, Roman matures beyond just playing the jester, revealing his sexual peccadilloes and budding business competence. While Culkin still feasts on the scenery, he also peels back the wisecracking veneer to reveal the neediness and doubt that come with being the runt of the litter.

Outside the immediate Roy family, there are Hiam Abbas’ mysterious Marcia, Nicholas Braun’s profoundly awkward cousin Greg, J. Smith-Cameron’s deliciously dry Gerri, and more. Perhaps most impressive is Matthew Macfadyen as Shiv’s husband, Tom Wambsgans, a vain coward who punches down to soothe his imposter syndrome. Yet Macfadyen imbues him with such interior turmoil that his indefensible actions are, at least, comprehensible.

Watching these actors and the rest of the excellent ensemble bounce off each other is a sublime pleasure. Always in lockstep with Armstrong’s sardonic-yet-serious perspective, they render every interaction a Rorschach test of sincerity versus ulterior motives. To make a roiling viper pit of the ultra-wealthy so compelling in 2019 is no small feat.

This story originally appeared in the Nov. 13 issue of Backstage Magazine. Subscribe here.

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