Let's Talk About "Succession"

Spoilers: We unpack the explosive finale.


HBO / Via screenshot

Kieran Culkin, Jeremy Strong, and Sarah Snook in Succession

Tomi Obaro: All right, let’s talk about that season finale. First, Kendall. He’s alive! Were you surprised?

Estelle Tang: Not really — Succession excels at twists, but they tend to be business-related in nature, which is what we ended up seeing instead. I did find it interesting that it took a couple of beats for the siblings to realize they actually cared about Kendall’s well-being — when we first see that he’s alive, they’re all playing Monopoly, and they just keep making fun of him. But that now-much-praised scene where they find out about the waiter who died is a huge turning point. The catharsis is very real, and the resulting camaraderie seems to be too.

Stephanie McNeal: I totally thought he was dead. Clever Succession!

Elamin Abdelmahmoud: I honestly spent a week thinking he might be dead, and trying to imagine the reaction from the rest of the sibs. I mean, he would’ve been the perfect candidate to die — it would’ve forced Logan to confront his cruelty, and the rest of the family to confront their indifference (or appearance thereof, anyway). That is an element the story still needs. I think one of the hardest things about watching Succession is the slow deterioration of some kind of moral anchor, some thing that reminds the Roys to look inward for a split second (even if they hate what they find). I thought maybe Kendall dying could be that.

TO: It’s impossible to mention Kendall without talking about this New Yorker profile of Jeremy Strong, the actor who plays him. Is the Method version of acting ethical? Does Strong need to love his job less?

SM: I actually think knowing what a strange guy Jeremy is made me appreciate the character of Kendall more. I was watching the last episode after reading the piece and it made me like him more in scenes. Like not only is Kendall a mess, the actor who plays him is this weird, eccentric guy. It’s interesting! I can’t explain it.

ET: I feel a little ill replaying the Drama of the Jeremy Strong profile. But let’s just say it revealed how much hunger we have to hear gossip about not only celebrities but, when it comes down to it, coworkers — even if that’s elevated gossip in the New Yorker about a prestige HBO drama. We’re in an age where actors are generally so media-trained and anodyne that you can’t complain about them, or so immediately available to their fans that they can spill their own mess into the internet. But this profile was a Rorschach test: How OK is it to be self-centered around your coworkers? How OK is it to try really hard? Is it OK to be humorless if that’s the quality that had made you successful? How honest should you be about the many personas you take in different aspects of your life? And Strong’s approach pays off; he’s great in the finale.

Honestly, my biggest takeaway from that profile is that I want to hang out with Kieran Culkin. And Brian Cox, call me and tell me how to do my job. You can eviscerate me anytime.

EA: Reading the profile heading into the last two episodes was fascinating context, before seeing Jeremy Strong put in a hell of a shift in both episodes. Particularly, the finale, when he finally opens up to his siblings. I agree with Estelle, I think the profile did become a referendum on some big questions, but for what it’s worth, whatever Strong needs to do to pull out a performance like that, I’m all in. When he delivers that “Shiv, I’m not here”? My heart shattered.

TO: What’s Kendall’s fatal flaw?

SM: Bad parenting. He just needs a hug.

ET: Yes, big Daddy issues. The problem with all these Roy kids is that they’ve spent their whole lives in Logan’s world, and in his shadow, and they have zero perspective on how to cultivate or measure value outside that system. Kendall has clearly spent his whole life chasing Logan’s approval and affection, and even his grand gesture of independence was an effort to get a kiss from Daddy. Which is pathetic, because he’s so obviously not that present as a dad to his own kids. He makes a big show of caring about them, but he doesn’t actually seem to spend time with them because he’s up his own dad’s ass.

EA: I have such a soft spot for Kendall, my No. 1 boy. I don’t know if anyone has done the math on how long it’s been from the start of Season 1 to where we are now — Season 2 starts pretty much right away after the finale of S1, and S3 is relatively immediate, maybe a day or two after the end of S2. What I’m trying to get at here is that for Kendall, this has all been the year of realizing stuff. Mostly realizing that his family doesn’t speak about love for each other, only “angles,” and the toll it has had on him.

Graeme Hunter / Graeme Hunter

TO: All right, biggest surprise of the season finale?

ET: Tom’s betrayal of Shiv and her brothers was breathtaking but perfectly set up. Her casual cruelty to him has been mounting and she’s deliciously blind to how it affects him. She’s too focused on her dad. And the final scene was a whirlwind. You’re realizing something is wrong in real time along with Shiv. But it’s not a surprise that they couldn’t actually take on Logan and win. As Tom pointed out, we’ve never seen Logan get fucked.

EA: I mean the era of Wambsgans is absolutely the surprise of the finale, but since Estelle picked that one, I’m gonna go with the next biggest, which was Roman’s genuine turn against his dad in order to stand with Kendall and Shiv. Roman can finally see that Logan will not ever trust him, and how Kieran Culkin plays that last stretch of that episode is so perfect. He’s devastated, he’s trying to appear together, he’s trying to come up with contributions to the plan, but he has nothing and you can see the imposter syndrome kicking in. He’s rudderless, but he’s with his siblings now, and all that happened in one episode.

SM: Did anyone see coming that Tom would be more loyal to Greg than Shiv? Not I.

TO: Most devastating one-liner?

ET: In terms of Season 3, I have not been able to stop thinking of Shiv telling Tom, “I may not love you, but I do love you.” That’s Joker origin story material right there. And in the finale, when Roman timidly says “Love?” to Logan, it’s ruinous. Because it’s a last resort! Logan doesn’t care about love and everyone knows it, yet it’s the bald expression of what these kids want. And the more I think about it, the more devastating I find Logan saying “You should have trusted me” after he knows they’ve hit rock bottom. He always knows how to make it hurt more. OK, I’m being greedy, but I also laughed a lot at Greg saying, “Souls are boring!”

EA: Oh my god, the “Love?” line!!!! My poor broken sociopath. 🥺 My line of the season is actually from the penultimate episode, when Tom says to Shiv, “Sometimes I think, Should I maybe listen to the things you say directly in my face when we’re at our most intimate?” Tom packs a lot into these rhetorical question moments — remember that iconic line from Season 2, when he tentatively asked, “I wonder if the sad I’d be without you is less than the sad I get from being with you?” Listen to your heart, Tom. It’s not lying.

SM: I think it was when Logan told his kids to “get their own fucking pile” of money. They have so much righteous anger about it, but is Logan wrong? It wouldn’t hurt them all to have to live in the real world.

TO: Let’s dig into the rest of the season, which our colleague Elamin previously raved about. Where do you rank it compared to the others?

SM: It felt kind of like a filler season. The cast was kind of treading water. Unsure if it was necessary story building for a fast pace next season, or if they are just running out of steam.

EA: I said what I said. I mean look, this is a show obsessed with every character study possibly of power, and sometimes it hits on notes it has hit on before — that’s unavoidable — but for me, this season has kept my attention and kept me enthralled, and kept pushing into the dynamics of domination between every possible pairing/grouping. This is what I come to Succession for, and boy am I a satisfied customer.

ET: I love this show, and I love to lie down on my couch on Sunday inhaling the Tom & Greg show. But this season, the pacing felt slow, and a lot of episodes had the hermetic feel of a locked-room mystery — almost literally, a lot of important scenes had this format of being important people talking themselves in circles in a room. I would guess COVID restrictions had an effect on how this season took shape. Succession held onto the Kendall stuff just a little too long, I think — he is not really a contender, and we spent too long watching him flail around.

TO: What was the best episode of the season? The worst?

ET: The finale was incredible, no notes. I did also really love Episode 8, "Chiantishire," which set everything up perfectly. While it felt like a recap of everything we know about this family — Logan is the most powerful man in the room, Caroline is a corn husk, Shiv doesn’t know what the fuck she’s doing, Kendall is a mess — the snappy electricity of earlier seasons was finally back. The lush backdrop that barely seemed to matter, the pettiness of the social calculations, Caroline’s fiancé’s pea-green pants…it was just a delight. When it comes to the worst, I don’t know. The birthday party was ghastly, obviously, but still gripping. The earlier episodes have all melded into one gray mass for me.

SM: That’s the problem.

EA: Maybe because it’s extremely fresh, but the finale had so many little examples of what makes the show great. Con’s “I’m the eldest” rant? Incredible. Roman playing off a joke after being informed of literal murder, and the laugh he manages to extract from his distraught brother? Incredible. Brian Cox even managed to fit in a bunch of “FUCK OFF” all-timers in there. And finally, we can stop pretending that Cousin Greg doesn’t simply fuck. Can’t wait till he’s the king of Luxembourg or wherever.

TO: The Roys are supposed to be horrible people and yet we continue to root for them. Do you think this season really grappled with the consequences of their actions?

SM: I feel like the point of the show is they have no real consequences, except the silly ones they perceive, like not getting enough praise from dad or whatever. I will say that I used to like Shiv, but this season soured me on her and I want her to go down.

ET: They never will. This isn’t that kind of show. If these people wanted to understand what was wrong with them, they would simply walk out and find a nice little house in the French countryside and invest in green futures or something. But they don’t. They’re little rats, hitting the lever with their little paws, again and again until they die. We actually saw fewer outsiders this season — not like the man Kendall killed or that kid who Roman plies with a million-dollar check. Not even Shiv is connected to “the people” anymore. Even after Kendall processes his emotions sitting in the Italian dirt, then he’s immediately back to his old scheming. What jerks. I love them!

EA: Ugh, that turn from Kendall, where he goes from being a shell of a man on the dirt to schemer in the back of a limo? That’s Succession firing on all cylinders. I don’t think any of us are rooting for these people. At best, depending on the episode, we are rooting for them to fail in a different order. They’re jerks and they enjoy being jerks, and they don’t know how else to be in the world, and I will never stop watching them.

TO: The writing on Succession got a little sloppy, just even in terms of continuity errors. Did Roman use the same cellphone he and Alexander Skarsgård's character pissed on to call his dad? Does he just magically have two phones? What happened to Marcia?

SM: Yeah, where is Marcia? Is she in a contract dispute or something? I keep forgetting Logan has a wife.

ET: Are you kidding me? Roman has nine phones. I don’t care about that. I did think Skarsgård was great as that Logan Paul/Elon Musk hybrid. I will say it’s a crying shame that Marcia has disappeared. When I saw Hiam Abbass’s name in the credits for the finale, I was thrilled. But they barely let us see her. This show doesn’t have room for another cold-blooded winner. It’s about the people who only think they’re winners, fighting for a knife in the mud, to paraphrase Logan. I mean, have we forgotten about "boar on the floor"? But I wonder if she might come back to haunt Logan in the next season. She negotiated the hell out of her “play nice” contract, and I’m wondering if she has more leverage than we think.

EA: My biggest beef with the show is the criminal misuse and underuse of Hiam Abbass. I have a desperate urgency for them to correct this, and the only reason I have some hope of this happening is that I think over time, the show has shown some ability to take peripheral characters and move them closer to the center of things. We are, after all, about to enter the age of Tom!!!!! So I am hoping that Marcia will have a significant plotline in Season 4. Make Marcia CEO. Give the people what they want.

This show is famously white, which the show’s creator Jesse Armstrong, has said is in keeping with the demographics of the über rich. But some critics have pointed out that this can be kind of a cop-out. Do we want more diversity on this show? What would it look like?

ET: On HBO’s official Succession podcast, Aminatou Sow mentioned that the lack of diversity in this conservative media C-suite is not untrue to life. I think that’s right. It doesn’t really bother me that the cast is mostly white. This show is very good at demonstrating what a family of terrible white people do when they think nobody is watching. I do love Sanaa Lathan’s top-shelf lawyer coming in on this high-profile case to defend Kendall — you can see what she really thinks behind her eyes. She’s like, This is a big idiot and a giant baby. She’s one of the few normal, intelligent people in this show who remind you how other people in their world might see them. Ultimately the drama continually comes back to the bonds within the family, which makes it structurally unlikely that any outsider will have that much sway; Stewy is another character who seemed to loom large but then ultimately receded as a threat.

TO: I feel like they really wasted Sanaa Lathan on the show. She was criminally underutilized. Both Slate and Refinery29 had interesting pieces about the way the show handles race. Sometimes it feels like the show kind of wants to go there, by having the Roys say or do something heinous, but the show’s continual sidelining of all of the nonwhite characters — Where is Jess? Where is Marcia? — also feels kind of shitty. I get the sense that there aren’t a ton of nonwhite writers in the writer’s room which is also annoying. Trust and believe that POC have a lot of insight into toxic whiteness!

EA: Tomi, we’ve talked about this before, and I still don’t have an answer, but the question for me is: Is Succession this white by design, aka is it aware of the ways POC are generally sidelined in corporate culture? Or is it a sin of omission, like its writer’s room just doesn’t think about this problem properly? And I haven’t gotten a sense in either direction. I do think Sanaa Lathan’s character saying “I don’t do requests, I’m not a DJ” was trying to get at the former answer, but I need more than one line to deal with this big question.

Similarly, Shiv is the recipient of a lot of blatant sexism this season. Kendall early on, in Episode 2, says she’s useful only for her "teats," Roman continues to make a series of bizarrely sexual jokes at his sister’s expense. (The incest jokes this season reached an all-time high.) What do you think the show is trying to say about her treatment? How should Shiv proceed?

ET: I am pretty curious where Shiv goes from here. It seemed obvious after her business failures that what Logan wanted to do was shunt her off to the side of the company somewhere. Logan’s mockery of her in the finale was brutal. If I were her, I would just do what I clearly want to do: divorce Tom and have a bunch of sex with whoever at my various pieds-à-terre. But she’s Logan-pilled. She’s tethered her self-image to this family. Maybe one day she will be like Greg’s grandfather and be an adversarial force from the outside — there have been some hints at that. But she hasn’t processed any of her family-related trauma at all, so that seems unlikely.

EA: One device the show uses a lot is Logan’s switch in nicknames for his children ( e.g. Rome, Romulus, Roman) depending on what he wants from them. For Shiv, it’s mostly “Shiv” unless he wants to talk her up — then, it’s Siobhan — or appear loving and intimate — then it’s “Pinkie.” It’s been a lot of “Pinkie” this season. I think the show is trying to get at the ways they needed a woman to clean up the horror they’ve been hiding. But by the time she realizes she’s being used and tries to regain control, some shady shit is going down with her husband. I can’t wait for Shiv in Season 4.

SM: Yeah, do any siblings actually speak like that? It’s bizarre, yet entertaining. I think this season really proved how Shiv is just as bad as the rest of them. I feel like the first two seasons she seemed to be somewhat smarter and more redeemable than her siblings, and this season she just seems mean and pathetic. I miss the Shiv from Season 1, but she may have just been a facade.

TO: Where do you think the show goes from here?

ET: I loved that final scene, with Sarah Snook trying to master herself. I am very excited to see Evil Tom take full flight. He’s been Jekyll-and-Hyde-ing it for three seasons, and it will be incredible to see Matthew Macfadyen let loose. It’s interesting because it’s very clear the kids don’t have leverage or any particular talents. Succession has been bringing Kendall to his knees over and over again and now they’re all at rock bottom. With all three of them desperate, who knows what they’ll be willing to do? I have no idea what it means in terms of where the kids end up. Will Logan keep them around after this betrayal? Can’t imagine it. We could come back next season, and they’re all working for Greenpeace. What’s certain is that all the actors remain astonishing. I find them endlessly compelling.

EA: All attention is rightfully on that final stare from Sarah Snook — Emmy voters, I hope you saw that!!!! But I would like to call to the people’s attention the desperation on Roman’s face as he says “love.” For next season, we are going somewhere we have not been before: All the Roys are broken and betrayed. They’re also, for the first time in a season, united on something. Do they stay and fight for their father’s empire? Did Logan realize a long time ago that the only way to counteract the selfishness of the wealth he’d given them is to sacrifice his relationship with them to see them all supporting each other? What will they do in the face of the Wambsmageddon???? ●

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