I'm worried about Cousin Greg
Is Succession about the moral corruption of its most hapless character?
Things aren't looking so great for Succession's Cousin Greg.
From his humble beginnings as a failed theme park mascot to his "Machiavellian" blackmailing of Kendall in the season one finale, a marked change has come over Greg since he was welcomed, however reluctantly, into the Roy family fold. It is a testament to Nicholas Braun's acting that I still feel so protective of Greg at the beginning of season two, which premiered Sunday, and so invested in what he's going to look like after the Roys inevitably chew him up and spit him back out. Because, in a show full of deliciously unlikeable characters, I fear it is the lovable younger cousin who has the potential to become the most detestable of all.
Cousin Greg became an instant fan favorite when the first season of Succession came out on HBO last summer; his comical size, dopey demeanor, and constant subjection to verbal abuse resulted in him being the rare sympathetic character in the lion's den. But Greg's eagerness to fit in makes him not quite a lamb, either — The New Yorker's Troy Patterson describes him as being more of a Nick Carraway type character who, due to his outsider status, can marvel at the absurd and alien opulence of the Roys while also participating in it. When Kendall (Jeremy Strong) disses his own lavish penthouse in the season two premiere, for example, Greg mumbles a relatable, "Yeah, it could be way better, I just don't know how."
But Succession clearly has greater, as-of-yet unknown plans for Greg the Egg. More than just a respite from the polished idiocy of his cousins, Greg has managed for 11 episodes now to balance the desire to be good with also wanting to be successful — goals that in the world of American business seem like the opposite ends of the see-saw. Greg's character even seems poised to eventually answer, or at the very least ask, is it possible to be a principled mogul?
Despite Cousin Greg's lone scene in the season two premiere, interestingly enough the repercussions of "The Summer Palace" put much of the future weight of the show on his shoulders. In season one, it had appeared as if the trajectory of Succession was working toward Shiv's future coronation as the head of Waystar Royco; clearly her father's favorite, there had briefly emerged a potential storyline that would have seen her gradual corruption and return to Logan Roy's side.
But no longer. In the season two premiere, it turns out Logan already has designs on seating Shiv at the head of the company, a proposition she hungrily accepts. With the sudden acceleration of her story, it no longer appears as if Succession's endgame is concerned with Shiv alone. Meanwhile, Greg has jumped from being a sort of lackey-slash-punching-bag for Tom to fetching drugs for Kendall, a subtle sign he's progressing deeper into the fold. I keep returning to the moment when Greg attempts to blackmail Kendall in the season one finale, eliciting not outrage from his cousin but a wicked smile of respect. Game recognizes game.
Most of the time, though, Greg is ignored by everyone around him until they need a de facto servant. In the process, he sees and records everything, albeit not with a sly cunning so much as in dumbfounded strokes of luck. But knowledge is power in the world of business; half the plot lines in the first season, after all, dealt with hoping word didn't get back to the wrong people before a plan could be set in motion. And Greg is "learning" how he can manipulate his position, Braun explained to Rolling Stone of his character. "...He's thinking, 'Do I have that inside me? I could do that. I could s--t on somebody if I was asked to.' I think he's just waiting for the moment where he can do some of this stuff, too."
Then again, perhaps Succession only wants it to seem like Greg is a pawn in a sort of Dickensian moral tale about the corrosive properties of wealth and power. Certainly the show has twisted its plot to go more unexpected directions before. Succession is clearly operating within the boundaries of a satire, too, which means any sort of happy ending — Greg escaping with his soul intact, for example — would only be done in deep irony. Admittedly, there are no indications that Greg is suddenly going to become a capable, clever, ruthless capitalist ready to swoop in and take over the company in some distant season five. His abilities only stretch as far as clumsy opportunism; yet wouldn't it be fitting for that to be enough?
Next week, with Tom the newly-minted head of ATN, Greg also makes the transition to working in TV. He balks at his new role, describing working for Succession's version of Fox News as "kind of against my principles."
"Your principles?" Tom splutters in response. "Greg, don't be an a--hole, you don't have principles." I'm terrified he might be right.