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'Succession': Season 3 soars, especially in the later episodes

Brian Cox and Sarah Snook star in HBO's

Brian Cox and Sarah Snook star in HBO's "Succession," which returns Oct. 17. Credit: HBO/Macall Polay

SERIES "Succession"

WHEN|WHERE Season 3 premiere Sunday at 9 p.m. on HBO

WHAT IT'S ABOUT After Kendall Roy (Jeremy Strong) has returned to New York with cousin Greg Hirsch (Nicholas Braun) and refused to take the fall for the improprieties at the Waystar/Royco Parks/Cruises division, his father Logan Roy (Brian Cox) has some decisions to make. The obvious one: Country-hop on the private jet in search of a country that doesn't have an extradition treaty with the United States. The old man is asked how he's feeling. His reply: "I'm looking forward to seeing more of the Balkans."

Meanwhile, the scramble is on and the panic sets in. Who will join up with Ken? Who is with Dad? Daughter Shiv (Sarah Snook) and son Roman (Kieran Culkin) side at least for the moment with their father, same with son-in-law Tom Wambsgans (Matthew Macfadyen) who doesn't have much choice in the matter but does have an accurate read on the situation: "This is a 12-foot sub of poisonous tree frogs."

Oldest son Connor Roy (Alan Ruck) is thinking hard about (who else?) Connor. Even with this mess, he still dreams of the White House.

This third season has nine episodes instead of the usual 10 (blame COVID).

MY SAY HBO offered seven of nine episodes for review, so here's the bottom line on those before the "Bottom Line:" Starts off strong, wobbles a bit, then hits cruising altitude around the fifth episode (entitled, provocatively enough, "Retired Janitors of Idaho"). This is not to say you'll be dozing off while waiting for 35,000 feet; the early episodes are very good indeed. It's just that those late November episodes are the perfect distillation of everything and everyone that makes "Succession" so great, still so great. With their writing, pace and sheer tragicomic lunacy, watching these three is to experience the unalloyed (and unaccustomed) joy of post-pandemic television. The best that the medium has to offer is back, and to witness that feels like something close to a TV miracle.

Whence that early wobble? "Succession" went into production in November, burdened by COVID protocols and a Manhattan setting that was part-ghost town, part-Dubuque. The city looked the same, but clearly wasn't the same. Showrunner Jesse Armstrong nevertheless made the decision to ignore the pandemic, which meant to a certain extent ignoring that setting.

Instead, large swaths of these early episodes take place high above the streets, in rarefied — sanitized — offices where the busy work of high-stakes poker proceeds. (Who's aligned with Ken? With Logan?) The show ventures out to the Hamptons in the fourth episode (Nov. 7), where Ken and Logan literally become lost in the weeds. It's lonely, wind-swept, desolate — to an extent; the same with parts of the early half of the season, metaphorically speaking.

These lab rats need to escape their gilded cage every now and then for this show to really soar, which is partly why the second season finale was so thrilling. Aboard Logan's yacht, on the azure Adriatic where great civilizations have sunk without a trace, all the Logans can think about is, who's going to take the fall for the hanky-panky in the cruises division?

This season unfolds under a biodome, so to speak, or alt-reality space where the past 17 months never happened and the daily concerns of the super rich still seem almost consequential. For the pandemic to intrude would have killed the buzz or, in Shiv's words, harshed the mellow. Who will one day assume the Iron Throne at Waystar/Royco must remain the preoccupation of these lab rats because to have shifted the focus elsewhere would have turned "Succession" into something else, or undeniably something less.

The reason why is obvious. Armstrong's view of human nature is such that when presented with a set of choices, people — specifically these people — will always pick the door of self-preservation, especially when their defenses are scrambled as thoroughly as they are in the third season. Each Roy is so reductively focused on the door of their choice that they tend to forget that there are better doors, better choices. It's that single-mindedness, that uncluttered focus, that makes the latter part of this season so funny.

The tragic element, meanwhile, is embedded in the pervasive cynicism of both the Roys and the series. Bottomless or rather cosmic, this cynicism has now leached into the body politic to become a poison, and a pox upon the Republic. There is no moral center because there is no center, and no line that can't be crossed because — in Logan's indelible take — "nothing is a line. Everything, everywhere is moving. Get used to it."

Logan remains the cat's paw of "Succession," deciding fates and fortunes. He's the true nihilist here, Waystar's own Nietzsche with his own set of end-of-times aphorisms. When Shiv tells him that he has to "take into account the climate" when choosing the next President of the United States, he corrects her: " 'Climate' said I was going down, 'climate' said I should just step aside. [Long beat.] I guess I'm a climate-denier."

Cox's performance is staggering but then so is the performance of everyone else. Prepare to be staggered.

BOTTOM LINE Triumphant return of TV's best.

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