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  • Writer's pictureJames McCleary

Succession // Series Review

“Let a thousand sunflowers bloom, Romey. I wanna start a business with you, brother.”

The world of Succession runs in circles, as is the design of its creator, Logan Roy. Each of Logan’s children spends the series in a constant pattern of jumping through hoops, burning bridges and surrendering their every iota of moral good in pursuit of the prize he has nurtured them to covet, endlessly sacrificing until there’s nothing left of them. Over four seasons of trauma, the three “sibs” have been beaten into the most animalistic and cruel versions of themselves, committing unspeakably awful sins on the regular in service of their father. Shiv silenced a survivor of sexual assault, Roman burned the love of his life and, most recently of all, Kendall elected a fascist.

It has long been said that Succession is a show about the most unlikeable people we know, so going into these final episodes, the question had to be asked: what kind of ending do the Roy kids actually deserve?

From its opening moments to its last, the show has also formatted itself around this cycle of abuse. In the words of its head writer Jesse Armstrong: “I'm on the fence about human beings, and people certainly change what they do. But in my view, people's essential selves don't change… I would say the circumstances have changed." Kendall Roy embodies this most of all, doomed to make the same mistakes over and over, surviving only through tenuous new alliances with the likes of Stewy, Sandy and Cousin Greg.

It is no coincidence that the climactic board vote of finale “With Open Eyes” mirrors an earlier failure on Kendall’s part, winding the clock back to Season 1 episode “Which Side Are You On”, where the cowardice of one Roman Roy cost him his chair. Here, it is Shiv not Roman who betrays him, but only because Roman has seemingly lost his stake in the game. “We’re bullshit,” he says to Ken in a half-taunt, half-lament. Bearing in mind that this is the same man who only episodes ago would listen to deep-fakes of his deceased father ridiculing his “micropenis”, Roman’s apparent epiphany begs an essential question: is this a bitter reaction to a shift in circumstances, or could the slimy, spineless Roman Roy somehow be the one to beat the odds and actually grow beyond his father’s sphere of influence?

Before discussing the events of that titanic finale, a word for Connor Roy. In a surprising move, the carefully crafted opening moments of this final season belong to him, as he watches Logan parade melancholically through a pack of strangers at his birthday party, his back turned to the only son willing to make an appearance. Over four seasons, Connor has become increasingly aware that his relationship with Logan is a one-way emotional transaction. Indeed, upon hearing of his death in the aptly titled third episode, “Connor’s Wedding”, notably only after each of his siblings had their chance to say goodbye, he decides flatly: “he never even liked me.” The episode’s one triumph then belongs to him; as his siblings drown in their grief, he decides to go through with his wedding plans. Logan had no intention of appearing, so why should his absence make a difference? Willa's love may be just as fraudulent as Logan's, but at least this relationship makes him happy.

Logan’s disinterest in Connor has always been something of a quiet blessing. Without the burden of competing for affection, Connor has been able to successfully marry for love, build himself a home and even run for President on a whim, just for fun. Even when the election turns on him, he refuses to pick a fight as his father may have, stating elegantly: “I shan't become that.” At Logan’s apartment auction, Connor takes a single item as a memento, and promises Willa free rein otherwise to redecorate the premises as she chooses. The happy couple might be discussing long-distance options but in the world of Succession, Connor is the closest we have to a winner.

On the far end of the spectrum then, is Kendall Logan Roy. In think-pieces of late, Kendall has been framed as one of television’s great anti-heroes alongside the likes of Tony Soprano, Don Draper and Walter White. Curiously, the latter trio are known for their arcs of gradual erosion; men seeking genuine enlightenment who come to accept their darker nature. On the contrary, Kendall never achieves cognisance. In the penultimate episode of Season 3, he proclaims to his father: “I don't wanna be you. I'm a good guy.” Exactly a season later, Kendall eulogises Logan at his funeral with the fateful words: “that magnificent, awful force of him… I hope it's in me.” Despite his talk of being a “new gen Roy”, of doing everything for his neglected family, Kendall’s singular need is to secure the birthright he was promised at the age of seven outside a Candy Kitchen in Bridgehampton. And maybe he would be better than his father. Maybe he really could enforce change from the inside but, then again, he did kill a kid.

Each Succession finale, titled after a line from John Berryman’s “Dream Song 29”, has reckoned with the show’s most visceral act of violence; the night Kendall killed the waiter. Berryman’s poem tells the story of a man wracked with guilt over a crime he has only imagined himself to have committed. In the grammar of Succession, this translates cleanly to Logan’s cold effort to console his son in Season 2 finale “This Is Not For Tears”, wherein he dismisses the event with four cursed words: “no real person involved.” In the episodes to follow, even as Kendall allows the spectre of Logan Roy to haunt his every action, this is the one hypothesis he resists. For the guts of three seasons, the inescapable fact of the matter is that Kendall Roy is a killer, and that guilt drives him close to suicide.

It is fitting then, that Logan’s mantra marks the final stage of Kendall’s transformation into his father’s son. In Season 3 finale “All The Bells Say”, his criminal confession unites the siblings against their father, rocketing them as far from his orbit as they will ever be, and it is his rescinding of that confession in "With Open Eyes" that ultimately destroys their alliance, as he denies to their shock ever killing a person. When his crumbling morality then turns the pair against him, his only move is to cry out in anguish: “I am the eldest boy," paraphrasing Logan’s patronising nickname of “number one boy”. For a man known for his run-on sentences, incoherent metaphors and filler mumbles, he is beholden to his father’s words like a code of laws. In his final scene, Kendall walks through Central Park with Logan’s former bodyguard Colin only a few steps behind, mirroring a similar shot from season premiere “The Munsters”. Armstrong describes this final scene not as an opportunity for reflection, but as the moment “the story loses interest in him”. His circumstances have changed irreversibly, but Kendall might well spend the rest of his life playing the part of his late father. A cog without a machine.

The idea of manufactured father figures permeates through this last season, whether through Roman’s fixation on President Elect Jeryd Mencken (as nominated by Logan) as a power to which he can cling for support, or through that final, devastating beat of silence between Shiv and her scorned husband turned king, Tom Wambsgans. Shiv herself is the first to draw comparisons to Lady Macbeth when negotiating her position with Mattson early in the finale, however this closing arrangement suggests something less akin to a power behind the throne and more like a bird in a gilded cage. Taking a moment away from his CEO announcement photoshoot, Tom tells Shiv: “I’ve got a car in 20 if you want to join?” She shakes her head, and yet when he passes the onslaught of press and slides into his limo, she’s sat there waiting for him. The dutiful wife.

Shiv begins the series at a healthy distance from her father, operating as a political advisor for a democratic candidate whom Logan considers an enemy (indeed, this is not dissimilar from her and Kendall’s rebellious purchase of PMG just to spite him in “The Munsters”). It is only through the promise of a clean road to the CEO title that Logan is able to coax a successful Shiv back into his bubble, quelling her fire with the tease of safe passage through the misogyny of a corporate world she has so far avoided.

This deep-rooted misogyny is apparent from a single cursory glance at the cast call sheet. Where Rava and Tabitha are irrelevant to the careers of their respective spouses, Shiv’s fate has always been tied to that of her social climbing husband. Throughout this final season, she has faced exclusion by both of her brothers, and dismissal from allies for her pregnancy. The one man she believed was on her side, Mattson, writes her off as a potential candidate for both talking too much and being someone he potentially: “wants to fuck”.

On the other hand, Tom has soared upwards through the ranks over the two year span of the series, captaining the cruises division through an international scandal, directing ATN through an election and now sitting in Logan’s chair to see the company through a hostile takeover, all on the merits of general competency and a lack of visionary ambition. Tom possesses none of Shiv’s acumen or tact; he was a laughing stock before congress, he wrote off the Wisconsin fire as an irrelevance to the election, and he even had the lack of foresight to bet all his chips on an 82-year-old man several strokes into his golden years. All of that becomes water under the bridge to Mattson however, because Tom is the easy choice, not likely to ruffle any feathers, which is the one thing that Shiv’s gender prohibits her from ever promising.

One of the central questions of Succession then, is the nature of their love, or lack thereof. Tom would be nothing without Shiv, yet in their four short years together he has played every card he has to reverse their fortunes and make her the social climber within his own empire. Is there any semblance of romance in this former Mr Darcy, or is it all pragmatism? As with everything in this show, the answer lies in the venomous spitting of Logan Roy, snarling in Season 1 episode “Austerlitz”: “you're marrying a man fathoms beneath you because you don't want to risk being betrayed.”

Logan does not believe that Shiv loves Tom. He sees Tom, at least initially, as a symbol of his daughter’s inability to stomach a reality which could bring her pain, and for quite a while this appears clean-cut to characters and viewers alike. That is until the Season 2 finale “This Is Not For Tears” of course, when Shiv rescinds her offer at the CEO job just to spare her husband from being Logan's scapegoat. When contemplating Tom’s fate over the cruise ship scandal, Logan explains to Shiv: “It's the sort of tough choice people need to be able to make. People who would be very senior people.” Blocking Tom's sacrifice is the most selfless act of Shiv’s run in the series, and the one time she successfully breaks from Logan's cycle, choosing personal happiness over the impossible expectations of her father.

Which is why it breaks her so entirely when, just a season later in “All The Bells Say”, Tom takes the shot his wife refused, betraying Shiv for a chance at garnering Logan’s favour. Despite his constant framing of himself as the romantic half of their pairing, and despite the constant affairs, slander and requests for an open marriage, it is Tom who proves most susceptible to the disease of Logan Roy. The man who Shiv chose in her efforts to escape her father becomes his very proxy, and at the series’ end she quietly slots into place as the mother of his baby, feeding off his love in the knowledge that Mattson, like every man before him, would chose Tom a thousand times before giving her an opportunity to make a name for herself. Like Kendall, Shiv has spent her life running the gauntlet of Logan Roy, and like Kendall she is fresh out of fight; resigned to spend the remainder of her time chained to his spectre.

This brings us back to our initial question of deserved fates. There can be no question that Kendall and Shiv end the series suffering to an almost sadistic degree, as is the legacy of their father, but amidst the devastation one sibling appears to defy the odds. Tom and Shiv sit with stiffly joined hands, Kendall looks out on open waters in memory of his darkest day, but as the impish Roman Roy sits in a bar ordering his martini, one can’t help but look for the faintest trace of a smile pushing out across his lips.

If Kendall and Shiv have spent the series picking at the scabs of Logan’s old cuts, Roman’s have been open wounds. He is the only one of the siblings to still receive physical beatings, such as having a tooth smacked out of place in “Argestes”, and he is the only one shown to be incapable of so much as questioning his father’s rulings (see his deciding vote in Kendall’s first board coup: “you better be smelling your fucking armpit, Romulus”). Even in “All The Bells Say”, which united the siblings against their father, he was a nervous wreck in need of constant encouragement just to get a sentence out against his wrathful father. Roman was also the first to relapse, falling back Logan's manipulating arms to betray Gerri not a full two episodes after their showdown.

It is no coincidence that this order proved to be Logan’s final act among the living; in the finale, Roman hooks his claim on the fact that he was the last person Logan named successor before his demise. Roman had always clung the closest to his father, and as such it was inevitable that he be the last person hurt by the mogul on his way out. No amount of “pre-grieving” can prepare a child as pacified and co-dependent as Roman for this tragedy, and despite his efforts to play the part of a CEO, he quickly crumbles in the days and episodes to follow, weeping hysterically at Logan's funeral and disappearing into the streets in search of a beating on par with his father’s loose fist. He ends “Church And State” in the foetal position on the ground of a riot he indirectly started, craving the abuse around which he was built to last.

When we find Roman at the beginning of “With Open Eyes” then, it is no surprise that he is dressed in summer clothes pilfered from his mother’s wardrobe, with stitches over his eye and Caroline as a helicopter parent tending to his every need. He has regressed utterly, and seems as aware as anyone that he is in no shape now to stand as his father’s successor. And yet, as the night proceeds and it becomes increasingly apparent that he has no intention of returning to the fight for Logan's throne, his rock bottom gives way to something incredible:


This isn't all that much of a leap for the character. At the head of the season, Roman is hard at work developing 'The Hundred', a business venture he can spearhead in partnership with his siblings, and while Kendall and Shiv jump at the chance to abandon this project to spite Logan, Roman is less keen. He follows them out of misplaced family loyalty, but as the person most vulnerable to Logan, he seems uniquely aware how much happier the siblings are when estranged from their patriarch.

Naturally then, he is content here to hand off the responsibility of inheriting Logan's empire entirely to Kendall, and is ecstatic to hear that Shiv has decided to join him on the sidelines. Yes, his circumstances have changed and he has undoubtedly lost the war, but that defeat has only set him free. Kendall can bare the burden, and the trio can be united again simply as siblings. Fittingly, the night ends with the trio recreating a childhood they most likely never had, playing games in their mum's kitchen into the early hours of the morning.

Not that it could ever last. As much as Roman is keen to break the cycle, Kendall and Shiv have no such self-awareness. Kendall in particular almost seems to take pleasure in transforming into a toxic parental figure for Roman in the minutes before the board vote, bursting his stitches with a bear hug which mirrors the one Logan gave him back in "Nobody Is Ever Missing". He even hits his younger brother when the board vote seems to be turning on him, a reversal of the one time he stood up to Logan at his most broken back in Season 2. It becomes clear to Roman here, finally, that the only way out is to cut ties entirely, which is where we find him in his final scene, enjoying a drink in silence, the cuts on his face so deep they might scar.

"I feel like, if I don't get to do this... I might die".

For a show with such a circular narrative, packed full of repeating plot points and character arcs truncated by shifting circumstances, there is something harrowingly final about Succession's grace notes for the children of Logan Roy. One successfully breaks the cycle, another remains within it and the third, Logan's "number one boy" contemplates suicide not for the first time.

It is hard to argue that these fates aren't deserved on some level. It would take several thousand more words to break down the many abhorrent things these kids have done over just thirty-nine hours of television, and yet when Kendall sits in Logan's chair for the first and last time ahead of the board vote, the desk still decorated with the old man's personal effects, it's a tragicomic image. He's a child playing grown-up, a puppy without its owner.

Though this ending may appear pessimistic to some, the key might well be in the final musings of the siblings other parent, Caroline Collingwood, who only a season ago condemned them with the words: "I think this is for the best... I'm not sure it's been good for you." She was lying, of course, trying to justify betraying her children for an easy buck off her ex-husband, but when she reiterates that sentiment in the finale, it rings more true. Nobody can survive the toxic tempest that is Logan Roy, but now at least one of his children has a chance to live beyond it.


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