Distributed by: HBO
Directed by: Mark Mylod, Becky Martin, Lorene Scafaria, Andrij Parekh, Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini
Written by Anna Harrison
There is only so long a show like “Succession” can last. As creator Jesse Armstrong reminded us, there is “a promise” within even the title: our old King Lear will die, and someone will have to inherit the throne. This has caused the show to be, incorrectly, likened to “Game of Thrones” if set in corporate America—a large ensemble of characters jostling for a chair both literal and metaphorical, one in a throne room and one in a boardroom overlooking the New York skyline. But this comparison misunderstands both “Succession” and “Game of Thrones,” which were never about who sat on that chair at the end, but the lengths it took to get there and exactly how much of your soul you would be willing to sell to sit upon it (though “Game of Thrones” would forget this as time went on). You might win the CEO title, you might sit in the chair, but you will never be happy, and your daddy will never love you—especially after he’s dead.
“Succession” creator Jesse Armstrong has been vocal about his belief that people never truly change, and some believed that the show, especially in a Covid-shortened season three, was beginning to spin its wheels in this effort to stay true to Armstrong’s view on human nature: media mogul Logan Roy (Brian Cox) would entice one of his kids—Kendall (Jeremy Strong), Roman (Kieran Culkin), or Shiv (Sarah Snook)—with the promise of a Waystar Royco carrot, only to snatch it away from them with inspired cruelty. After the first two episodes of season four, those critics had little cause to change their tune, until along came episode three, “Connor’s Wedding,” when the aging tyrant dropped dead on a plane like everyone else does; that is to say, without ceremony, without any last words, without a goodbye. “He kept us outside,” Shiv will later say of her father. “But he kept everyone outside. When he let you in—when the sun shone—it was warm.” Suddenly, the three Roy children find themselves without even the possibility of that sunlight for the first time in their lives. They are out in the cold. (Connor (Alan Ruck), meanwhile, is the happiest of the unhappy bunch, having learned to live in that cold a long time ago: “I don’t need love. It’s like a superpower,” he says.)
So, finally, “Succession” changed, and that titular promise could finally be fulfilled.
Yet while the show may have changed, the three siblings at its heart, perhaps more than ever, find themselves stuck. The Roys, both for and because of all their wealth, can’t help but be a little pathetic. They have been conditioned by their father to sabotage each other and themselves, all in the name of winning, and ironically it’s their own father’s doing that causes them to fail in the end—because yes, of course, of course, they were always doomed to fail, doomed from the moment Logan Roy became their father, or perhaps doomed from the moment Logan brought back polio to his baby sister, Rose, or maybe even doomed when he and his brother, Ewan (James Cromwell), got shipped across the sea to Canada. “Maybe the poison drips through,” Kendall says in season four, ostensibly talking about an election but really talking about his father, and himself and all three of his siblings. They never could have won, even if we wanted them to.
“Succession” is (or was, now) a show that asks for intellectual critique—on the rot of capitalism, on gender dynamics, on trauma—and yet finds itself subject to tweets and fancams from teenagers and twentysomethings who insist on calling a manslaughterer and wannabe fascist “babygirl” over the somber words of Mitski or Phoebe Bridgers; it’s a dichotomy you’re unlikely to find anywhere else in television. How could a show possibly invite such different readings? It’s a testament to creator Jesse Armstrong that “Succession” manages to thread the needle between sympathy and repulsion and never manages to be less than great, even in the weaker episodes of the show’s final season. The show’s commentary remains most pointed when focused on how politics get refracted through the Roy siblings; when it ventures into real politics, such as in episode eight, “America Decides,” the results are only “really, really good” and not “sublime.” Still, even the call of a presidential election gets upended by petty sibling squabbles, rather than objective analysis. The Roys, wealthy as they are, don’t have to care about healthcare, debt, or any number of voter issues; they only care that the deal with Lukas Matsson (Alexander Skarsgård) goes through—or fails, depending on how the sibling rivalries have shifted within the course of the last hour.
Of course, the show’s success (ha ha ha) is not all Armstrong’s doing, as he has a slew of talented directors at his disposal—most especially Mark Mylod—and actors who remind you what “skill” really means. Even without Brian Cox, who towered over the show’s first three seasons and whose own Shakespearean résumé lent a certain weight to the proceedings, those left in his absence prove more than capable of carrying his loss. While Jeremy Strong is reliably great as always, it’s Snook and Culkin who steal the season as Shiv stares down motherhood and Roman grapples, for the first time, with real loss. One episode you despise them, the next you want to spit on Logan’s grave for damaging them as he did. “You are not serious people,” Logan tells his kids in episode two. He’s right, but what he fails to see, or perhaps what he does not want to see, is that he (and his money) have shaped them like that. How could they have been serious, when they grew up playing dolls in the offices of a company worth billions? Or when they get promised a global empire at age seven in a candy store? Logan tried to teach them at the school of hard knocks, but none of his children ever lived in reality—their father both controlled the world and was their world. Logan was their sun, and even when he’s gone, each of them try to shove the other ones away just to get a sliver of warmth.
When push comes to shove, the tantalizing sibling alliance that materializes at various times throughout the season—none so affecting and devastating as the moment at their mother’s (Harriet Walter) house in Barbados and the disgusting “Meal Fit For a King”—falls apart in (where else?) the Waystar boardroom. Shiv withholds a key vote out of sibling rivalry, old grudges, and perhaps misplaced loyalty, Kendall results to physical violence and pitiful pleas of, “I’m the eldest boy!,” and Roman finally accepts the truth: “We’re nothing.”
So, in the end, it’s little Midwestern nobody Tom Wambsgans (Matthew Macfadyen) whose head the hollow Waystar Royco crown will rest upon at the end in a twist that seems both shocking and inevitable at the same time. “Life is not knights on horseback,” Logan Roy (Brian Cox) once said. “It’s a number on a piece of paper. It’s a fight for a knife in the mud,” and with that knife Tom has killed both his soul and those of the Roy siblings, or what they had left, anyway. And isn’t that just perfect? The interloper, the Midwestern hick whose middle-class upbringing looked more like Logan’s than that of his kids, and whom even (or especially) his wife, Shiv, looked down upon for daring to lust openly after the money they were born into, ends up in that lonely corner office, puppeteered by Matsson and with full-Roy-mode Cousin Greg (Nicholas Braun) by his side. The kids are back where they started: on the outside looking in. “Succession” may have changed, but did the characters? Kendall ends the series staring out over the Hudson, his eyes haunted as he watches the waves, looking at the water that meant death for a caterer so long ago and a wretched rebirth for our number one boy. Only this time, it seems like it’s Kendall trapped in that flooding car. Who will these kids become, with the very thing that gave their life meaning stolen away, now that they can never win Daddy’s approval? The answer does not look good.
As Logan Roy must die, so, too, must “Succession,” though we viewers will hopefully leave it feeling better than Kendall, for how often do we get a show that can disgust us and make us care so deeply in equal measure?
To paraphrase a certain eulogy: Goodbye, you dear, dear world of a show.
“Succession” Season Four Trailer