Unpacking “Succession’s” Game-Changing Emmy Conundrum


If reactions to the final season so far are any indication, Succession will sweep the Primetime Emmys in September. The HBO series has already won two Outstanding Drama Series Emmys and landed trophies for Jeremy Strong and Matthew Macfadyen. Last year, nearly every central cast member scored acting nominations. (Alan Ruck, who plays firstborn son Connor, missed out on Supporting Actor.) There’s no reason to doubt the same happening this year.

And then family patriarch Logan Roy (Brian Cox) died in the third episode.

The third episode, “Connor’s Wedding,” shattered the family’s dynamics and shifted the calculus for the endgame. Killing off Logan also potentially upends where the remaining cast members might submit for Emmy consideration. With Cox’s screen time limited to three episodes, does he still campaign as a lead? Who steps in to fill the power vacuum he leaves behind if he doesn’t? Suddenly, Succession has shaped the Emmy race in its image, as every actor’s campaign plan hinges on what a titanic figure decides.

There are still seven episodes left, but given the overwhelming critical and commercial success of “Connor’s Wedding,” it isn’t too early to begin thinking about where the actors may land. If cards are played right, every major cast member could walk away with at least a nomination.

The Wild Card: Brian Cox

Brian Cox in "Succession" (Courtesy: HBO)
Brian Cox in “Succession” (Courtesy: HBO)

Logan Roy may be dead, but he casts a long shadow. This year marks the final opportunity for Emmy voters to recognize Brian Cox for his steely, intimidating work as the Roy patriarch. (He was nominated for Lead Actor twice, losing to his TV son Jeremy Strong in 2020 and Squid Game’s Lee Jung-Jae in 2022.) Television Academy voters tend to take that into account. (See Mad Men’s Jon Hamm.)

The wrinkle in that scenario is his curtailed screen time. Would Cox still count as a lead, even though he’s missing from 70% of the season? That’s the question he’s trying to answer himself. According to Variety’s Clayton Davis, Cox’s camp is deciding whether to stay as a lead or submit as Guest Actor instead. (Davis doesn’t expect Cox to run in the Supporting Actor category.) 

If Cox runs in Lead, it will be because he’s still considered the face of the series. However, some voters may be sticklers for the screen time issue. Instead, he could campaign as a Guest Actor against Nick Offerman and Murray Bartlett’s heart-wrenching performances in The Last of Us. His placement there may seem like an automatic win, but it runs the risk of some cognitive dissonance for voters. In other words, if you’re the face of the series, how could you be considered a guest star?

It’s a difficult call. Still, Cox’s strongest bid may be in the Guest Actor category. His performance in “Rehearsal,” the season’s second episode, perfectly encapsulates Logan Roy’s infuriating allure. Cox is outrageous but captivating as he rallies the troops at ATN News to his cause. He is vulnerable but calculating as he tries to curry favor with his four children during Connor’s bachelor party. Finally, he is devastatingly Machiavellian as he sweet-talks Roman back into his good graces. Cox’s bravura performance is a powerful swan song, strong enough to make Offerman and Bartlett a little nervous.

The (Potential) Lead Actors: Kieran Culkin and Jeremy Strong

Kieran Culkin and Jeremy Strong in "Succession" (Courtesy: HBO)
Kieran Culkin and Jeremy Strong in “Succession” (Courtesy: HBO)

If Cox doesn’t run in Lead Actor, it would theoretically be Strong’s Emmy to lose. (Or Better Call Saul’s Bob Odenkirk could stage a Jon Hamm win.) While Strong hasn’t been this season’s driving narrative force (yet), he’s had moments that prove his “controversial” method acting technique yields astounding results. “Connor’s Wedding” perfectly captures Strong’s gift of undercutting Kendall’s attempts at stoicism with aching weakness.

The other possibility is for Cox’s other TV son, Kieran Culkin, to step up in his place.

While loved for his snarky and crude one-liners, Culkin’s best moments as Roman exhibit his desperate need for Logan’s love and genuine belief in their family. This season so far has played to his strengths, as the Roy trio strike out on their own from Logan. Roman has emerged as the business-savvy voice of reason against Kendall and Shiv’s axe-grinding efforts. He seemed invested in The Hundred, their delightfully terrible media company, and initially pushed back against plans to overbid for the Pierce company and kill the GoJo deal. Despite Roman’s considerable growth, Culkin quietly conveyed his character’s insecurities and weaknesses, especially when facing Logan.

“Connor’s Wedding” gave Culkin his best material to date. Culkin turned Roman into a tightly-wound bundle of nervous grief and denial over Logan’s death. While Roman was always childish, Culkin became childlike through his frantic speaking cadence and vibrating physicality. He would reach for and grab at his co-stars for comfort, only to recoil into himself because Roman can’t fully communicate his loss. Rather than lose his natural irreverence, Culkin filters it through a prism of shattered belief and pain. It’s a stunningly vulnerable performance. Your heart breaks whenever the camera captures Culkin’s stricken face standing in a corner or sitting helplessly on the floor.

With Logan gone, Roman will undoubtedly take up more narrative space as he learns to trust his business instincts. That will likely put him against Kendall, Shiv, and Waystair’s flailing leadership and set up several moments where Culkin could shine even more. Even without those scenes, Culkin has a trove of meaty materials to fight for space in the Lead Actor category. With him mulling a category switch as I type, it seems like those dramatic set pieces are coming down the pike. The question is, which Roy will prevail?

The Lead Actress: Sarah Snook

Sarah Snook in "Succession" (Courtesy: HBO)
Sarah Snook in “Succession” (Courtesy: HBO)

Simply put, Sarah Snook should campaign for Lead Actress

With the Roy siblings at odds with Logan this season, Shiv and Snook’s narrative presence has grown exponentially. Snook has flourished under the increased spotlight, turning in remarkable scenes from the very top of the season. Shiv’s showdown with Tom in the premiere episode “The Munsters” was astonishing, with Snook rendering her character as a split-open nerve. Even through the darkened lighting, she brutally undercut Shiv’s usual unflappability with sad and slightly frantic eyes that contradicted her every word.

Snook would only top herself in “Connor’s Wedding.” Confronted with Logan’s death, Shiv barrels from devastation to anger to bargaining and back through with stunning precision. Like Culkin, Snook assumes a childlike state, her voice cracking as she speaks to Logan’s dead body over the phone. Even as reality settles and the Roys begin negotiating the statement about his death, Snook holds on firmly to Shiv’s grief, letting exhaustion knock her off-kilter. She doesn’t let that grief keep her from her toxic tendencies, like sneering at Kerry’s time with Logan or taking jabs at Tom during the statement debate.

Simply put, there’s nothing “Supporting” about Snook’s performance anymore. She more than makes up for Logan’s absence with her searing, raw portrayal of a complex woman on the edge. Even with contenders like Yellowjackets’ Melanie Lynskey and The Last of Us’ Bella Ramsey, Snook could be a strong frontrunner. No other cast member benefits more from Logan’s death, and Snook should take advantage and claim her overdue Emmy.

The Supporting Actress: J. Smith Cameron

J. Smith Cameron in "Succession" (Courtesy: HBO)
J. Smith Cameron in “Succession” (Courtesy: HBO)

If Sarah Snook leaves Supporting Actress behind, it could strengthen the position of Succession’s (relative) heroine J. Smith Cameron. As the long-suffering but ruthless executive Gerri Kellman, Cameron has frequently stolen scenes and struck up surprisingly potent chemistry with Culkin. Gerri is a joy to watch because she is frequently the most competent and undervalued person in the boardroom, constantly surveying the state of play and adjusting accordingly. Cameron conveys Gerri’s wry intelligence with subtle, knowing looks, especially effective given how the other characters tragically underestimate her. 

Those looks will likely come in hand now that Logan is no more. The battle over Waystar Royco’s future will be one for the ages, and there’s no doubt that Gerri will play a pivotal role. One can only salivate at the possibilities. Will Gerri re-align with Roman and help him assert control, possibly carving a big piece of the pie for herself? Could Gerri stick with Waystar’s current executive suite of Karl, Frank, and Tom and establish a puppet regime? Will she forgo alliances and make a play, using decades of damaging Waystar secrets as leverage? Cameron will make a meal of whatever Jesse Armstrong hands her.

The Supporting Actress category is up in the air as perceived frontrunners re-assess their placements. (Jennifer Coolidge is mulling a Lead Actress run after The White Lotus shifted from Limited Series to Drama.) The unsettled atmosphere could bode well for someone considered a sure bet in the category. I wouldn’t say that Cameron should start writing her speech now. (Better Call Saul’s Rhea Seahorn is very much in play.) However, at the very least, she could breathe a bit easier as she submits.

The Supporting Actors: Matthew Macfadyen, Alan Ruck, and Nicholas Braun

Alan Ruck in "Succession" (Courtesy: HBO)
Alan Ruck in “Succession” (Courtesy: HBO)

In 2021, Supporting Actor could’ve been called the Succession category, with Culkin, Macfadyen, and Nicholas Braun (as Cousin Greg) landing nominations. This year could yield the same result, but who will be the three that make it in? Culkin running as Lead Actor would leave a spot for Alan Ruck to fill alongside Macfadyen and Braun. This would create a scenario where voters nominate every major cast member, something incredibly rare, if not unprecedented. If Culkin stays in Supporting, the math gets trickier, and the chances of someone missing out increase.

Macfadyen feels as close to a lock as anyone. This season has further proven how and why Macfadyen won the Emmy last year: his incredibly nuanced range. He is as sad and tentative in scenes with Snook as he is cruel and dismissive to Braun’s Greg. Whatever mode he operates in, Macfadyen allows tiny glimmers of humanity to shine through. “Connor’s Wedding” is the best example so far, where Tom relays the news of Logan’s death. We get Tom’s full spectrum, from his natural gentleness in speaking to Shiv and Roman to his ruthless calculation in demanding Greg go to the office to delete essential files. The middle grey area between the two sides is Macfadyen at his most compelling.

Next up behind Macfadyen is someone who would be a first-time nominee: Alan Ruck. Connor has occupied an intriguing space in the Roy paradigm: the eldest son with no ambition to lead the family company and instead indulged in fair-weather interests, including an absurd presidential run. With much of Succession dedicated to Waystar, Connor and Ruck haven’t had the narrative attention that others have. 

That hasn’t changed much this season, but Ruck does have moments where he commanded the spotlight. In “Rehearsal,” Connor ends his post-rehearsal dinner hangout with his siblings by laying his cards on the table. Connor excoriates his siblings in the stunning moment for their desperate overtures for Logan’s approval and prides himself in not needing it. “The good thing about having a family that doesn’t love you is you learn to live without it” is a crushing line of dialogue that Ruck delivers perfectly. The entire sequence is a contender for one of the best scenes in Succession’s history, and Ruck’s central presence in it is more than worthy of recognition.

Nicholas Braun’s nomination may largely depend on Culkin’s move. So far this season, Greg has been relegated to the periphery as Tom’s fellow “Disgusting Brother.” He’s had great moments, like fumbling through telling Kerry she failed her audition. Still, Culkin, Macfadyen, and Ruck have stronger material to stage successful campaigns. If Culkin moves into Lead, then Braun will likely have enough to land his second consecutive nomination. If he stays in Supporting, voters nominating four actors from one series feels like a long shot. In that case, Braun might miss out.

2 thoughts on “Unpacking “Succession’s” Game-Changing Emmy Conundrum

  1. We have to see how the season shapes out before we classify Cox as Guest, as episode 3 isn’t the last we’ll see him. He has confirmed himself that he has filmed flashback scenes, so if he appears in 3 or more new episodes, he removes himself from the Guest category eligibility, as he will have featured in more than half of the season. If he’s not going for Guest, then Supporting has to make the most sense.

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