Final episodes of long-running TV shows are rarely perfect. Often these dramas lack a definitive direction, with stories dependent on recommissioning. Many have outstayed their welcome, burning too long in the sun of their own popularity, only to leave with a lacklustre farewell. Thankfully avoiding that ashen history, writer/creator Jesse Armstrong made the honourable decision to conclude his corporate family drama Succession after four seasons.
The series balances in an ideal middle-ground: short enough to avoid cataclysmic disappointment, but also long enough to leave a lasting imprint on your cultural soul. Every episode, scene and shot feels historic. Titles like Connor’s Wedding and Church and State will stand tall alongside Two Cathedrals (The West Wing) and Ozymandias (Breaking Bad) in the trophy case of American television.
Left to right: Kendall (Jeremy Strong), Shiv (Sarah Snook), and Roman (Kieran Culkin). Photo: Sky/HBO
This season is the best of the four: starting with the post-amputation of the three core siblings – Kendall (Jeremy Strong), Shiv (Sarah Snook), and Roman (Kieran Culkin) – from Waystar Royco. They grapple with a new, positive family dynamic, and it's strangely moving to watch these self-tortured billionaires enjoy each other’s company. And then, like a swansong ‘F**k off’, the CEO and patriarch Logan (Brian Cox) dies a mundane death. The three kids return to take over the company.
As expected, they’re not great leaders. Kendall exists as an awkward impersonation of his dad, Roman’s vulgar spontaneity threatens the structure of the company, and Shiv secretly sides with the creepy future buyer Lukas Matsson (Alexander Skarsgard). They’re kids in suits with none of the malice and intellect needed to run that kind of company – a fact that explodes, again and again, throughout this finale.
Sure, you watch for the elite corporate world, the corruptive influence of media over politics and the incandescent, cannibalistic dialogue that flows between poetic and puerile. But it’s the dysfunctional family at the dark and broken heart of the series that keeps your ‘face eggs’ stuck to the screen, reinforced by obscured backstories that are as fractured as the home-video title sequence. Armstrong feeds you the occasional carrion from their largely loveless past, but the trauma is etched into their faces and decisions.
Kendall and Shiv find Roman in their mother’s Caribbean villa, where they gather as enemies and then turn into friends again after anointing the new CEO. They blend together an odious concoction of food and drink with a drop of Shiv’s spittle as a 'meal fit for a king’, subsequently poured over Kendall's head as a liquid crown. They’re having such fun.
Contrasting this is the closing stab. Shiv hesitates and votes against her brother taking over Waystar, leading to their biggest fight. Their professional masks crumble, revealing the children underneath. ‘I’M THE ELDEST BOY!’ Kendall shouts, erroneously, before things get physical – Roman’s skull ready to break under his brother’s desperate hands. The youngest and most insecure sibling deflates the violence perfectly. ‘We’re nothing,' he says. He's even more damning and hopeless than Matsson, who called them a ‘tribute band’.
Matthew Macfadyen as Tom Wambsgans. Photo: Sky/HBO
Behind the stabbed backs of the Roys, Matsson abandons Shiv in favour of Tom (Matthew Macfadyen) to become the American CEO. Considering Tom has spent the whole season vying for attention and fearing the sack, he’s the ultimate success of Succession.
It’s not an overly satisfying answer to the series’ titular question, but that’s the point. It’s the product of a double betrayal of trust; love and affection shred in favour of money and power. Did Shiv turn against her brother because she could regain some control via Tom, thus reversing their roles?
Roman has also succeeded, in a sense. His closing shot – smiling into a martini – suggests he’s glad, relieved and liberated from the pressure of continuing his dad’s legacy and the emotional emptiness purging his family.
The greatest loser is, as ever, Kendall. Despite being infinitely entitled, you feel his lack of purpose as he stares into the rapid currents of the East River. He says he might ‘die’ if he doesn't make CEO, and there’s credence to that. What happens when your will to live dissolves, never to reassemble itself? In a recent interview with Vanity Fair, Strong reveals: 'For me ... this show could have been called The Death of Kendall Roy.'
Left to right: Oskar (Jóhannes Haukur Jóhannesson), Matsson (Alexander Skarsgard), Greg (Nicholas Braun) and Tom (Matthew Macfadyen). Photo: Sky/HBO
Although the HBO head of drama Francesca Orsi has denied any plans for spin-offs, With Open Eyes resembles a new beginning. You can picture the executives salivating over the possibilities. None of the siblings could helm separate shows because their intrigue ends when the power runs out. But this critic would love to see more of the relationship between Matsson, Tom and Greg the Egg (Nicholas Braun) – a dog-cat-mouse triumvirate of a global media empire, heralding a weirder epoch for the company in a country run by a neo-fascist.
Or maybe these speculations, like Roman’s prolonged denial of grief, are a way to avoid the reality of Succession’s passing, of getting the series out of its coffin. The shadow in front of its tall, garish mausoleum will loom over television forever.
|What||Succession finale review, Sky Atlantic/NOW|
29 May 23 – 29 May 24, ON SKY ATLANTIC / NOW
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