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  • Writer's pictureAlexa Bouhelier-Ruelle

TV Review: Succession’s Final Season

After four seasons of TV drama, it’s time to say goodbye to the Roy family.

"Succession" Final season © HBO

We open at a sumptuous gathering, full of disaffected people reeking of money. A white-haired man is moving through the crowd – a nod here, a smile facsimile there – the purest essence of them all, distilled into one be-cardiganed frame. It can only be Logan Roy’s birthday party and it can only be “Succession”. It’s back for the fourth and final season to a mix of lamentation and relief among even – possibly especially – the most devoted fans, who hardly have the strength to survive one more round of the densest, cleverest, most emotionally pulverizing drama on TV.

 

A couple of days before the series finale of HBO’s “Succession,” an online-betting platform drew up hypothetical odds for the next C.E.O. of Waystar Royco, the Murdochian media conglomerate established by the late Logan Roy which his adult children have spent the past four seasons of the show fighting over. Shiv, Logan’s tough-as-nails-but-constantly-shafted daughter, was the front-runner, followed closely by her older brother Kendall, once the tortured heir apparent, and followed more distantly by the weakling Roman, Logan’s youngest son. Connor, the eldest Roy child, perennially discounted but never fully dismissed, came in next. And then there were the wild cards: Shiv’s estranged brownnosing husband, Tom Wambsgans, and the bumbling beanpole Cousin Greg. The whole world, or at least the part of it that watches “Succession,” was holding its breath, waiting to see which of these abhorrent characters would emerge victorious.

When I saw the third season of “Succession,” created by the British comedy writer Jesse Armstrong, I thought the show should be enjoyed not as a propulsive drama but as something closer to a sitcom: a near-static, tragicomic tableau in which characters rarely change, and situations end up repeating themselves with only very modest variations. For most of the show, this approach worked fantastically well, foregrounding the relentless game of musical chairs that the Roy kids were playing—an eternal wrangle for a seat of power that, at their father’s yank, was always just slightly out of reach. But Armstrong surprised everyone—including members of his own cast—when he announced, earlier this year, that “Succession” ’s fourth season would be its last.

In an interview with The New Yorker’s Rebecca Mead, the creator reminded us that there’s “a promise” in the show’s title—an epic resolution apparent in its own name—even if this had become somewhat obscured by the series’ endless baits and switches. And, while Armstrong’s decision may have come with an initial jolt of disappointment (how rare is it, these days, for a show to go out during its prime?), there was something noble in the choice to put the characters out of their misery and bring their toxic cycle to an end, forcing the series to truly become the drama that its establishing premise offered.

I must admit that, as the final season unfolded, I began to feel as if I might have had enough of the Roys. It had long become clear that the characters were not going to develop of their own will, and that some external force would have to force the issue. Logan’s death, in the season’s third episode, seemed to create the proper circumstances for this shift. But, even following the pivotal episode in which the patriarch croaks on his private jet after suffering a pulmonary embolism (Logan forwent his compression socks to “look hot” for his mistress, as Tom recounts to Greg), each episode was once again chock-full of constant reversals and counter-reversals, hinging mainly on which of the siblings were on board, at any given moment, with a deal teed up by Logan, to sell Waystar Royco to the Swedish tech mogul Lukas Matsson, and thereby cede at least some control of the company.


After Logan’s death, Kendall and Roman, the company’s interim co-C.E.O.s, decide that they’d rather stay in charge forever, and their resulting schemes to sink the Matsson deal, led to every possible permutation of power struggle: Kendall and Roman vs. Shiv; Kendall vs. Shiv and Roman; Kendall, Roman, and Shiv vs. Tom and Greg; Kendall and Greg vs. Shiv vs. Tom. Such familial alliances have always been more important than any political ones brokered by the characters, though the Roy siblings do throw their weight behind different Presidential candidates, with Kendall and Roman supporting Jeryd Mencken, a Trumpian figure who might destroy the country, and, more important, the Matsson deal. All of these ins and outs made for a viewing experience that could sometimes feel like jogging in place for a moment too long, as we waited for the light to change.


The show was still compelling, and the dialogue was, as ever, a snappy, nihilistic delight - when Shiv reveals to her brothers that she’s pregnant, Roman responds, without missing a beat, “Is it mine?”. Sometimes, it was oddly poignant - “Dad played sudoku?” Roman asks, after finding one of the puzzles on his deceased father’s desk—and at other times it was almost too perceptive for television: “He couldn’t fit a whole woman in his head,” Shiv says, eulogizing Logan at his funeral. But what ultimately kept me watching were not the siblings and their machinations, which seemed increasingly calcified, but the show’s minor characters, whose scenes revealed glimpses of the actual human stakes that, in the case of Kendall, Roman, and Shiv, had flattened through sheer force of reiteration. These include Logan’s mistress Kerry, who is humiliatingly refused entry to Logan’s room after his death; Gerri, who, lip quivering, is summarily canned by a power-tripping Roman; and Greg, whose brutal firing of ATN employees over Zoom, using a haltingly read script, exposed the flip side of unbothered upper-level corporate jockeying.


For while, it seemed this final season didn’t know what made it work — and in the finale, it got its old high-stepping confidence back. The stakes and characters Armstrong and company had set up to this point allow them to wring unbearable tension out of, for instance, two siblings swimming out into the ocean to speak frankly to a third. They have successfully interested an audience that includes many people who don’t subscribe to the Wall Street Journal. And yet every episode of this final season was determined to soar higher, to draw excessively grand concentric circles around the Roys’ legacy as we waited for certain fundamental questions to be answered. Another week, another plane: The plotting had a drafty quality to it. And the show, never shy about a set piece but more reliant on them than ever, felt as if it were using a high volume of incidents to skitter away from frankly addressing certain core dynamics.


Overall, as the “Succession” final season ended, we get a deeper look at Logan’s true legacy. Kendall, followed at a distance by his father’s old bodyguard, wanders to the water, a king without a kingdom; Roman, sipping a martini at a bar, is also alone, though at least secure in the knowledge that, if he is nothing, then so is his brother; and Shiv, in maybe the darkest denouement of all, has joined Tom in his town car, once again in the position of a lesser complement to a powerful man. Thanks, in part, to the siblings’ messy efforts at power-grabbing, the country is in chaos, with the fate of the Presidency unclear. But, for the children of “Succession,” all that matters is the family, even when it’s gone.


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