Nobody Wins in the Savagery of ‘Succession’

The finale leaves many characters’ stories unresolved — what exactly was the Roys’ childhood like? What happens to Kendall? Can we learn more about Stewy kissing guys on molly? This ambiguity matches the rest of the series, which prefers subtle hints and side comments to on-the-nose exposition or flashbacks.

After four seasons of betrayal, scandal and murder, HBO’s “Succession” comes to a tragic but fitting end.

“Succession” spins a story about power, capitalism and cycles of abuse by focusing on a single family. The Roys are conservative media moguls likened to the Fox Corporation’s Murdoch family, according to New York Magazine. Witty writing, unique film techniques and perfect casting make the show an instant classic.

The series started in 2018 with patriarch Logan Roy’s health in jeopardy, leading his four children — Connor, Kendall, Roman and Siobhan, or Shiv — to scramble amongst others for power over their massive media franchise Waystar Royco.

The last season had a rocky start. After Shiv’s husband Tom Wambsgans, a high-ranking Waystar executive, betrayed Kendall, Roman and Shiv by revealing their plan to overthrow Logan in the third season’s finale, the siblings had trouble finding their footing as they fought for rival media company Pierce Global Media and promoted their own hollow company, The Hundred. 

The Roys’ bland, “stealth-wealth” fashion sense was subject to a horrible fate: way too many thinkpieces.

The jaw-dropping cinematography in the third episode — which included Logan’s death — helped make it the most-watched episode in the entire series until the finale, according to AP News. The CEO’s surprising, sudden death paid off — every scene afterwards has an emotional undercurrent that keeps viewers on the edge of their seats.

The eighth episode stunned with the intensity of election night. Waystar’s coverage of the presidential candidates has major consequences, especially when one of those candidates, Jeryd Mencken, is an openly fascist white supremacist. The Roys’ decision to call the election for Mencken reminded fans these characters will do whatever it takes to keep themselves in power.

Despite the show’s thick layer of business jargon, it’s acquired a rabid fanbase on TikTok, where users make edits of their favorite characters set to songs by Fiona Apple, Olivia Rodrigo and Taylor Swift. The absurd juxtaposition between the stone-faced Roys and bubbly pop is actually true to the show — after all, according to Logan himself, his children “are not serious people.”

Every piece of “Succession” drips with detail. Composer Nicholas Britell’s sweeping soundtrack resembles an opera while shaky camerawork recalls the twitchy tension of action films like the “Bourne” franchise and “The Hunger Games.”

The finale leaves many characters’ stories unresolved — what exactly was the Roys’ childhood like? What happens to Kendall? Can we learn more about Stewy kissing guys on molly? This ambiguity matches the rest of the series, which prefers subtle hints and side comments to on-the-nose exposition or flashbacks.

Halfway through the finale, a glimmer of hope pokes through. The siblings’ cousin, Greg, reveals that Swedish tech company GoJo plans to buy out Waystar and make Tom CEO. They make a truce and playfully taunt each other in the kitchen, sneaking bites of their step-father’s precious cheese in one final snippet of childish sibling innocence. This levity only makes their fall from grace steeper and more heartbreaking.

As the siblings turn on each other, the show’s motif of soulless self-interest seeped back in. Kendall hugs Roman so hard his stitches pop, which not only perpetuates Logan’s abuse but shows the board that his brother doesn’t have what it takes to run the company. Shiv lives up to her prison-knife nickname by teaming with Roman to metaphorically stab Kendall in the back.

The three siblings had spent their entire lives fighting for their father’s approval. In the finale, Kendall reveals his father promised him the company at just seven years old. So, when Swedish tech company GoJo takes control of Waystar and crowns Tom as CEO, they’re more than a little upset. Tom doesn’t fire Greg for betraying him, though — he promotes him, proud he’s finally embracing the spirit of corporate greed.

Despite some fans’ disappointment that none of the Roys won, the ending makes sense. In the very first episode, Tom gives Logan a watch for his birthday, which was seen on his wrist in promotional posters for the final season, perhaps hinting at the transfer of power. 

When Kendall steps in front of his wife Rava’s car to stop her from leaving the city, he parallels his father’s possessive, bitter personality. When Shiv surrenders herself to being the unhappy wife of a heartless CEO, she follows in the miserable footsteps of her mother, who had the same fate.

Shiv isn’t just a victim, though. In the end, she’s not a poor, helpless damsel in distress — she’s a rich white woman who made the choice to concede. She’s also more than complicit in her family’s crimes, like in the second season when she tried to intimidate a victim of sexual assault to save the company’s reputation.

While the fourth and final season is full of Emmy-worthy moments, Matthew Macfadyen and Kieran Culkin stand out in their performances as Tom and Roman, respectively.

Macfadyen (“Pride & Prejudice,” “Frost/Nixon”) expertly captures the essence of pretentious-yet-awkward outsider Tom. As his marriage to Shiv rapidly disintegrated in earlier seasons, Tom projected his insecurities onto fellow outsider Greg (Nicholas Braun), sparking a toxic and twisted homoerotic tension. Macfadyen also succeeds in mastering his character’s hokey Midwestern accent — a hard feat for someone known for his posh English accent.

He serves an especially soul-crushing performance when fighting with Shiv in the fourth season. His subtle but sophisticated hand gestures in the finale are another spectacular detail — he’s soft and gentle when brushing the cheek of Greg, despite his betrayal, yet cold and stiff when holding hands with Shiv, his literal wife.

Culkin (“Scott Pilgrim vs. the World,” “Igby Goes Down”) is equally captivating as Roman. He’s a walking paradox. He blurts profanities in boardrooms indestructibly yet is afraid of intimacy. He despises his father’s abuse yet sobs at his funeral, hindering his ability to give a speech.

Roman’s complex chemistry with the older, motherly Gerri Kellman (J. Smith Cameron) and dry humor make him deserving of sympathy — that is, until he takes on an inflammatory provocateur persona, causes a rocket to explode and supports Mencken as president of the United States. Culkin especially shines in the final season’s episode nine when he fights with protesters to satisfy his need for pain — a need fostered by abuse from his now-dead father.

People of color, especially women, are often pushed to the side in “Succession,” reflecting the racism still embedded in corporate America, according to The Washington Post and Insider. Marcia (Hiam Abbass), a Lebanese woman and Logan’s second wife, mysteriously disappears to Europe at the beginning of this season. Jess (Juliana Canfield), Kendall’s dutiful assistant, is berated and dismissed when she voices concern for herself as a Black woman when the Roys elect Mencken and Sophie, Kendall’s adopted daughter, faces similar harassment both within and outside the family.

It’s futile to debate which character is the most evil or irredeemable — they’re all horrible in their own ways, each capable of destroying lives and, perhaps, society as a whole. The obsession with pinning blame on just one person is exactly the kind of American individualism “Succession” lambasts.

All four seasons of “Succession” are streaming on Max.

Featured image courtesy of Warner Brothers.

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