The Janus-Faced End of “Succession”

The Janus-Faced End of “Succession”

The Janus-Faced End of Succession

At once cruel and compassionate, the finale of the much-loved HBO show revels in the space between tragedy and comedy.

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In Succession, life isn’t nice; it’s contingent. Or so says Kendall Roy (Jeremy Strong) moments after the body of his billionaire father, Logan (Brian Cox), has been laid to rest. Inside the family mausoleum lie four vertically stacked chambers for Logan’s children as well; the kids—the oldest and youngest brothers Connor (Alan Ruck) and Roman (Kiernan Culkin) and the sole daughter Shiv (Sarah Snook)—crack morbid jokes at the prospect of being laid to rest next to a man who viewed love as a weakness and cruelty as a strength. (“A chance to get to know him?” Shiv asks.) The Roys have spent the better part of their adult lives trying either to curry their father’s favor or to undermine him. But they still crave his approval even when they are trying to take him down, even in death. As Paul Westerberg, the patron saint of self-sabotage and mistrust, once sang: “The ones who love us least are the ones we’ll die to please.”

For four seasons, Succession has chronicled the Roy children’s struggle for control of Waystar Royco, Logan’s media conglomerate inspired by Rupert Murdoch’s Fox, trying to outmaneuver each other to succeed their father. But that bare-bones plot has always taken a back seat to the family dynamics that make up the show’s core drama: the shadow that Logan and his brutality cast on his children. Desire and suffering are frequently expressed in the same breath on Succession—the Roy children have been taught that they cannot untangle want from pain, evidenced by how they express affection through the barbs they throw at each other.

The series’ invasive, Dogme 95–influenced handheld camerawork, with its frequent snap zooms, generates an emotional immediacy to the narrative but also operates like a recorder of humorous facial reactions to absurd events. Broad ensemble set pieces depicting outsize panic and frustration, plus the many deadpan punch lines, are often juxtaposed against emotional devastation without a hint of tonal whiplash. Succession is hardly the first series to balance comedy and drama, but it’s one of the most successful to integrate the two modes by insisting, in a uniquely British way, that they are always one and the same. “In the writers’ room,” Jesse Armstrong, the show’s creator, said in a New Yorker interview, “we have occasionally had a kind of recurring phrase: ‘Which is the most funny thing that could happen here, and by that I mean the most painful?’ And, sometimes, ‘Which is the most painful thing that can happen here, by which I mean the most funny?’”

Succession’s ability to have it both ways extends to its critical and sympathetic depiction of the Roy children: They are both broken toys and repellant vultures; morally suspect, yet eminently pitiable characters. The final season illustrates their divided states with perfect clarity, delivering the siblings to a collective emotional low before demonstrating their inability to transcend their avarice.

In “Connor’s Wedding,” the four Roys are brought together to celebrate Connor’s nuptials when they learn about the sudden death of their father on his private plane via a phone call from Tom (Matthew Macfadyen), Shiv’s separated husband. The widely acclaimed episode captures the sudden paralyzing effects of unprepared grief by depicting the patriarch’s death in real time. The early great Succession aphorism—“Words are just, uh, what, nothing; complicated air flow”—takes on a tragic dimension, as the children struggle to put their feelings into words in the moment of their father’s demise. It also offers a fittingly unsentimental end for Logan: a powerful man dying partly of vanity (he refused to wear compression socks on the plane, a factor leading to his pulmonary embolism) and poor diet (he was on the toilet at the time), surrounded by associates instead of family, being unable to hear the shaky “I love you”s from three of his four children—with two of them also insisting that they can’t forgive him—because, of course, he’s already dead.

In the aftermath of Logan’s passing, the siblings reject compromise in favor of an almost epigenetic urge: the quixotic quest to regain control of their family company. Although Armstrong positions Kendall and Roman, the interim co-CEOs, against Shiv—who ingratiates herself with Lukas Matsson (Alexander Skarsgård), the founder of Swedish tech giant GoJo, who’s looking to buy the company—they eventually band together in the series finale to back Kendall as their father’s heir and prevent a takeover. But in the world of Succession, all trust remains conditional. At the last possible minute, the children are torn asunder by their inability to commit. As Kendall insightfully and profanely notes: The people who love you also will fuck you.

It’s no surprise that Succession, a series about the media establishment, has been obsessively covered by said media establishment. Yet it’s easy to forget that the series initially premiered to a polite, hesitant reception, with many critics uncertain of its ability to sustain interest. In my eyes, it proved itself by its second episode, the first to feature the siblings jockeying for power, but the pilot was middling at best, marred by frantic, ill-conceived direction from executive producer Adam McKay. Not until the middle of its debut season did Succession home in on its talents, crafting a Venn diagram where feebleness and egotism overlap in its portrait of elite fail-children, whose conflict not only inspires spiritual crises and nervous breakdowns but also trickles down to the American public.

It’s obvious and a little boring to point out that the Roy children are craven, unprincipled opportunists. Armstrong repeatedly underlines this fact by highlighting their complicity in Waystar, especially its reactionary news division, ATN. But their toxic proximity to right-wing media is not the only deleterious role that they play. Service workers, sexual assault victims, and the young all bear the brunt of their cynical influence. For some people, it’s important to reiterate these points lest viewers sympathize too strongly with the characters, because doing so would supposedly excuse their turpitude. (It’s telling that depictions of businessmen in suits cause these kinds of identification crises more often than portrayals of violent criminals.)

But Succession’s major coup lies not in making evil palatable but in the writers’ ability to find pathos in the Roys’ inherited pathologies without exculpating their actions. Yes, Armstrong roots the show’s satirical foundation in his characters’ juvenile behavior, their shortsighted attempts to dominate or backstab each other, and the arrogant naivete of the corporate world and the larger culture. But to engage with its dramatic potency requires seeing the band of “screwups and dipshits” as the overgrown, emotionally stunted children they are, an emotional plea that Armstrong deploys not as an apology but as a compelling illustration of behavior. It’s a comforting lie to believe that the most venal among us are inhuman; the harder truth is that they’re closer to us than we’d like to believe.

Despite its psychoanalytic dimensions, Succession eschews explanatory flashbacks. In their place, we are treated to various suggestions of abuse or negligence that trickle through the present tense like an IV drip filled with poison. It’s a canny way to avoid the worst indulgences of the trauma narrative: Armstrong can obscure the full details of familial mistreatment and deprive viewers of neat cause-and-effect reasoning for the children’s actions. We instead infer that Kendall’s delusions of grandeur, Roman’s psychosexual dysfunctions and petulant bullying, and Shiv’s tunnel-visioned pursuit of respect all have roots in their father’s treatment, but we also understand them to be individual compulsions. Their refusal to examine these obstacles prevents them from confronting their pasts or altering their futures. It’s lovingly ironic that Connor, the “first pancake” of the family, turned out the happiest because of Logan’s physical and emotional absence. Neglect turns out to be the most positive form of parenting.

In this way, Succession charts a full spectrum of humanity, in all of its relatability and unpleasantness, without reducing its depictions to a set of archetypes and caricatures. Logan’s physical abuse of Roman doesn’t offset the youngest brother’s workplace sexual harassment. Shiv’s progressive streak does not dwarf her collaborating with a fascist presidential nominee. Kendall’s suicidal despair, in response to his near-constant parental and professional rejection, can’t counterbalance his role in the accidental death of a cater waiter, who drowned in a pond following a car accident brought on by Kendall’s drug addiction. All of these flawed characters are damaged in their own ways, and yet they are also all of a piece with their most human qualities. The series finale ends with Kendall, Shiv, and Roman at each other’s throats before being reduced to shells of their former selves, but this scene is preceded by one where they share a moment of adolescent joy in their mother’s kitchen. Cruelty and compassion are entwined emotions in the world of Succession.

This mixture of joy and violence reflects our world as well, as Succession documents American decline from the perspective of the profiteers. We watch the Roys feign interest in adapting to an economy driven by services and consolidation, but for Logan, that mostly means securing his own power so he can safely survey the impending chaos from on high. “When I arrived, there were these gentle giants smelling of fucking gold and milk,” Logan tells Mattson near the end of the third season. “Now look at them. Fat as fuck. Scrawny on meth or yoga. They pissed it all away.” A Scottish lad by way of Canada and America, Logan knows the country is unmoored, and though he wants to secure his legacy to save face, he’s secretly glad he won’t have to live to see the nation tumble from the top.

Logan’s children, however, are cursed by a past they refuse to confront and a future they don’t fully understand. It’s revealing, if not a bit obvious, that they frequently refer to anecdotes from their childhood as ammunition for their actions: Kendall talks about Logan promising him his position when he was 7 years old; to convince Kendall to allow ATN to call the election for his fascist candidate of choice, Roman invokes the fact that he never had enough steak as a kid. Logan has successfully manipulated his kids, in life but also from beyond the grave, straitjacketing them in permanent states of arrested development. He saw them less as kin than as proxies for the American public, whose insecurities and prejudices he proudly exploited. “He was a man who has, here and there, drawn in the edges of the world,” his brother Ewan (James Cromwell) pronounces at his funeral, arguing that he “fed a certain kind of meagerness in men.” Kendall, Shiv, and Roman were, of course, taught to feel that hunger most directly at their own expense.

Hence, it was inevitable that their downfall would pivot on feral impulse instead of careful strategy. Unable to swallow Kendall as CEO, Shiv refuses to vote for him at the board meeting, citing his lack of competence and his involvement in the waiter’s death; Kendall denies any involvement to secure his position, claiming he “false-memoried it.” Pregnant and bereft of influence, Shiv crawls back to her loveless marriage to Tom, whom Mattson handpicks as CEO because he’s a corporate lackey. She remains close to power, not as a Roy or as CEO but as a “first lady,” the keeper of the family bloodline, just like her mother.

Though there’s a blowout in the Waystar offices as each of the siblings falls on their own sword, the board vote is portrayed like just another day at the office. Succession ends with the practical gears of greed humming along. Tom will push out some of the old guard and keep a few others. Papers will be signed; photos will be taken; life will go on. Abandoning Waystar should offer a fresh start for the Roy siblings, but they treat their liberation as if it were a terminal condition. The last scene features Kendall vacantly staring out into New York Harbor, consumed by the noise of lapping water as a punishing reminder of the blood on his hands: Waystar, his purpose as a “cog built to fit only one machine,” were all contingent on his father, who didn’t believe in heirs because he couldn’t envision a future without him in it. Without their bitter struggle over power, the Roy siblings are nothing at all. As Roman—the most immature, disturbed, and arguably amoral of the four siblings—realizes, they are indeed “nothing.” The company they fought for was nothing more than “bits of glue and broken shows, [and] fucking phony news” that will continue long after they’re gone. They all finally see themselves with open eyes, only to discover they were better off blind.

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