Sex has always been a little funny on Succession. The HBO drama, now in its third season, treats sex almost exclusively as a byproduct of its characters’ knotty neuroticism, rather than an expression of love or even pure libidinal desire. The Roys save their most ardent passion for fighting over who will succeed aging patriarch Logan (Brian Cox) as CEO of the family business, Waystar Royco. As a result, sex is often slipped alongside all the white-collar clamoring. A newly anointed COO jerks off in his office overlooking Lower Manhattan. A tryst is proposed in a parked car after an interview. A phone call shifts nearly imperceptibly from pep talk to dirty talk.
Indeed, Succession’s characters seem to enjoy talking about sex more than having it. While other prestige series like Game Of Thrones have taken advantage of their home on cable to stage explicit, often gratuitous sex scenes, couplings on Succession are more frequently hinted at or speculated over rather than depicted onscreen.
In the first season, Tom Wambsgans (Matthew Macfadyen), husband to Siobhan Roy (Sarah Snook), self-consciously explains a black eye to two of her brothers by saying, “I was in bed with Shiv.” “Fucking our sister? That’s cool, man,” youngest brother Roman (Kieran Culkin) replies, his eyes gleaming. Periodically, the Roy children wonder whether their dad is having an affair. Last season, Logan’s supposed mistress was the arch outsider Rhea Jarrell (Holly Hunter), who briefly flitted about the media conglomerate before exiting; now, it’s a slippery and oddly influential young assistant named Kerry (Zoe Winters).
Nearly all other intimate entanglements have cooled this season—even Roman’s surreptitious relationship with Gerri Kellman (J. Smith-Cameron), Waystar’s general consul who’s two decades his senior. There’s too much going on, she implies, including Gerri being named interim CEO, to risk one of their “special conference calls”—Roman’s euphemism for their somewhat unconventional meetings. (In brief, you don’t always need to use your hands to get someone off.) With Kendall (Jeremy Strong) having revealed at the end of last season that his father had full knowledge of systemic sexual abuse within Waystar’s cruises divisions, Logan is now trying to get the Department of Justice to back off its investigation. Meanwhile, Tom, who helped destroy evidence of the scandal, researches white-collar facilities with the same compulsion a porn addict might open a private browser; he jokes nervously about prison rape.
This season, sex is kept almost entirely to the show’s piquant, barbed dialogue, the characters using explicit imagery to liven up an insult. “Is it true you let the track team finger-bang you for lunch money?” Shiv asks Roman during a meeting in episode three. (A more precise context doesn’t really matter.) As with the writers behind Veep—whose savage, graphic dialogue often upstaged the show’s plot turns and character arcs—the creators of Succession understand there’s little point in one character disparaging another unless they get highly creative and decently nasty with it.
None of this is new for Succession, but this season has ramped up, and quite significantly, all the Oedipal allusions. What was once a more generalized and somewhat well-worn subtext has steadily risen to the surface to slap viewers in the face. Early on, such gibes don’t register as out of the ordinary, as when Roman asks if his dad wants him to ride in the same car as him to a hotel, and Logan responds, “Want to suck my dick?” Or when Logan keels over on a walk with Kendall and an investor, prompting Roman to chastise his brother, with “Do you have a fetish for nearly killing Dad? Like, ‘just the tip,’ but for killing Dad?” Earlier, Kendall insists he’s not bothered that a late-night host has dubbed him “Oedipussy.”
But it’s not just business as usual between Shiv and Roman, whose verbal sparring has risen to a whole new heavy-handed level in season three. With Kendall out on his woke crusade against his dad, the two of them have been left to wrestle over whatever power Logan may cede. Their insults grow more and more personal as the season progresses. In the second episode, Roman tells his siblings he likes Gerri for CEO, prompting Shiv to unleash this treacherous retort: “You can’t hide under the covers with Mommy… You love showing your pee-pee to everyone, but some day you know you’re actually going to have to fuck something.” A biting mix of literal and figurative, the remark stands out even among characters who address each other frankly and often bitterly.
While the increased tension between the siblings is majorly tied to their battle over the top position at Waystar, Shiv and Roman might not hit each other below the belt so frequently if their own sex lives appeared less deviant. As it is, a pattern has quickly emerged: Roman branding Shiv a slut for cuckolding her husband, and Shiv calling Roman a mama’s boy who can’t have intercourse with a woman. Their reasoning, if pressed to verbalize it, might go something like this: If you can’t be CEO, you can at least make the competition feel like shit.
A climax of sorts arrived in this Sunday’s episode, when Shiv and Roman attend Kendall’s garish and affected 40th birthday party to try to salvage an acquisition that’s gone sour. After much prelude, including being “birthed” into the party through a giant pink entrance tunnel, Roman is able to smooth things over with the CEO of the company in question, in part through some juvenile bonding in the men’s bathroom. Later, in a heated exchange with Shiv, who is once again upset for having been excluded from Waystar’s most important dealings, Roman drunkenly goads her over not being able to sleep with as many dudes as she’d like, now that Tom may no longer be going to prison; she, in turn, calls Roman the “COO who can’t fuck.” What at first seems like a rote spat then curdles into something stranger. Insisting that their father no longer has any use for Shiv, her brother tells her, “Turns out he loves it when I do the daddy dance… He loves fucking me, and he just doesn’t want to fuck you anymore.”
Shiv is appalled, but she shouldn’t be surprised. The Roy siblings, not erroneously, have long conflated their respective standings at Waystar with their father’s affection. Logan bestows and rescinds status at the company capriciously, commanding the dance like a petulant lover who knows exactly how desired he is; he’s turned off when admiration is displayed openly, yet pouty when it’s not. The first half of this season has largely been content to play the hits—the question of succession and family control of the company still dictates the biggest moves—and it’s left room for undertones like this to build and become steadily, sometimes ludicrously more apparent. But while Roman’s comment is of a piece with the pair’s usual tossed-off jokes and asides, the dynamic now feels tinted a darker shade, dyed in a vat of increasing cruelty and psychosexual anxiety.
The most erotically charged scene so far this season evinces a similar sense of disquiet. It comes at a closed-door political conference where Roman riffs with politician Jeryd Mencken (Justin Kirk), a Jordan Peterson-esque, neo-fascist enfant terrible. “I don’t have a lot of boundaries,” Mencken says, approaching Roman in the gilded bathroom of the family’s hotel suite. The men are alone and the sleeves of their white-collared shirts are rolled up, their top buttons unbuttoned. The presidential hopeful then name-drops Franco and Hitler (“H,” he calls him), the tête-à-tête creeping into dangerous territory. The suggestion of anything sexual is pushed back down below the surface, but the insinuation is still there, now alongside a couple of dictators. Though there’s also this: Earlier in the crowded hotel bar, by way of an opener, Mencken tells his would-be benefactor, “Most people here want to fuck me or kill me.” In the world of Succession, these things are one and the same.