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29 May 2023

Succession’s unsettling ending

The final episode stays true to the show’s spirit: full of all the surprise of great comedy, and all the inevitability of great tragedy.

By Anna Leszkiewicz

How do you end a demonstration of perpetual motion? As Logan Roy once explained to his daughter, in the world of Succession as in the world of corporate America, “everything, everywhere, is always moving, forever”. Jorge Cotte writes in the LARB that the series’ swaying, shaky camerawork suggests “the instability of the Roy family form” and our own nausea at the events on screen. But, paradoxically, plots of constantly fluctuating, unstable alliances keep the Roy children immobilised. It is as if they are treading water in a relentless whirlpool, trapped on a lurching superyacht, or strapped onto an endless, looping Waystar-Royco Parks rollercoaster. It thrilled them (and us), it made them (and us) queasy. But they were never going to voluntarily get off the ride.  

The show’s last episode opens the morning after Logan’s funeral. Though his death brought a new sense of finality, the gears of the perpetual motion machine kept on turning: in place of his towering presence enters the looming threat of The Deal – the show’s comedy and horror orbit around this rather than Logan’s terrifying might. The promise of a more permanent seat of power – leadership of Waystar – is seemingly closer than ever for the Roy children. Current co-CEOs Kendall (Jeremy Strong) and Roman (Kieran Culkin) might “tank” their late father’s planned agreement to sell the company to the sinister Swedish tech-bro Lukas Matsson (Alexander Skarsgård), who has guaranteed Shiv (Sarah Snook) the role of CEO in exchange for her support in getting The Deal through. Shiv and Kendall count up board votes and rattle off the names of shareholders and board members, while Kendall declares this “huge board meeting” is “Defcon 1”. Of course, we’ve been here before. (As their mother, exquisitely portrayed by Harriet Walter, says, exasperated: “‘Huge board meeting!’ Gosh. What an event! That’s never happened before in my life. I’ve never had my plans ruined by a ‘huge board meeting’ before.”) 

The arc of this episode repeats the shape of the whole final series – siblings battle for supremacy, temporarily come together, until their individual ambition drives them apart again. There is a painful glimpse of hope, when, at their mother’s house in the Bahamas the three siblings agree to unite against Matsson and make Kendall their leader, crowning him “king” with a singularly disgusting ceremonial drink of milk, tabasco, Branston pickle and God knows what else. The three actors delight in this brief moment of childlike innocence and play. (It was, apparently, the last scene they filmed.)

But even more painful is the “virtual dinner with Pop” – a video that Connor (Alan Ruck) plays at their late father’s home. Shiv, at Logan’s funeral, tells a story of how she and her brothers would play outside his locked office. “What he was doing in there was so important. We couldn’t conceive of… of what it was… He kept us outside. But he kept everyone outside.” Their desperation to enter that room has profound consequences. Here – watching their dad recite a long list of presidential losers, laugh at Connor’s impressions of him, and sing along with Karl’s rendition of “Green Grow the Rashes”, while Kerry cuddles up to him – they are shut out again, looking into a room they were never allowed to access, seeing a side of their father he would never show them. This has always been a show about how a traumatic childhood stalks and corrupts a grown-up family, how easily the search for love becomes the search for power. 

Of course, their union can’t last – nor would we want it to. Over the course of this series, each of the Roy children sold their soul to a different devil in search of that prize: Shiv to Matsson, Roman to the incumbent hard-right president Jeryd Mencken, and Kendall to the ghost of his father, who he is determined to become. Each of them abandons their loyalties, their families and what was left of their morals for the promises they were made by these men, and each finds themselves impoverished, powerless and infantilised as a result.

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Roman is the first to realise that he has given up his best bargaining chip for nothing more than the breakdown of American democracy – he shrinks into himself. Culkin suddenly transforms into a teenage boy in a T-shirt, fiddling with bracelets and flinching at the self-destructively obtained wound on his face, regressing into the role of picked-on youngest brother. He gives up, accepting his father’s final judgement that he and his siblings “are not serious people”, telling Kendall and Shiv: “We are bullshit.” When Shiv learns that she has, so predictably, been demeaned and discarded by Matsson for her gender and her pregnancy, she is furious – full of a roiling, righteous outrage that has nowhere to go but inwards. Snook’s face contorts, scoffs, blinks back hot tears and ultimately twists into a bitter vindication (you sense that somewhere deep down, she knew she couldn’t win). Her final act is to drag Kendall down with her, denying him the final board vote he needs to retain control of Waystar. During her turn to vote, as if overwhelmed by sudden motion sickness, she gets up and leaves the boardroom. “Are you sick?” Kendall asks. “I love you, but I can’t fucking stomach you,” she tells him. The three siblings’ final confrontation is true to Succession’s spirit – funny, repulsive, full of all the surprise of great comedy and all the inevitability of great tragedy. (“I am the eldest boy!” Kendall rages. “…You’re not!” Shiv laughs in disbelief.)

Kendall, with his delusional self-confidence, of course, refuses to accept defeat until the last moment. He uses everything he has in his final grasps for power, impersonating his father’s belligerence, physical violence and “No Real Person Involved” attitude to his crimes against ordinary people – denying the one thing he’d ever been truly honest with his siblings about, his killing of a waiter at Shiv’s wedding: “It did not happen. I wasn’t even there. It did not happen.” When he realises he can’t win the role he has been auditioning for since birth, the life seems to drain from him entirely. Strong, so expert in moving between the superhuman and the shadow of a human, walks like an automaton as he exits the office for the final time. “I am like a cog built to fit only one machine,” Kendall says desperately. Ultimately, it is Tom (Matthew Macfadyen), the “highly interchangeable modular part”, who is given the role of CEO. “I’m a grinder,” he tells Matsson. “I grind ‘cause I worry.” Tom’s total and utter subservience to power – at any cost – is rewarded. But his is a particularly unstable sort of reign; his reunion with Shiv – in the back of a car, they are touching, but not holding, hands – just as precarious and insecure.

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As Succession neared its close, some complained that it was growing repetitive – here was another scramble for board votes, last-minute changes of allegiance, deals brokered and undone, family members betrayed and lured back. In this, critics posited, it was more sitcom than drama: though its characters, in their search for power, changed positions from episode to episode, somehow they always seemed to end where they started. As Lili Loofbourow writes in Slate, the scheming suits of Waystar-Royco are chess pieces that can “only move around futilely… fail, and reset. The children are ridiculous, and the more they insist that something matters – corporate malfeasance, political messaging, a deal, a concession – the less it does.”

This circularity, of course, tells us something about the endless, swirling exchange of American capitalism: what Kendall, at his father’s funeral, called “the money. The lifeblood, the oxygen of this… this… this wonderful civilisation that we have built from the mud. The money, the corpuscles of life gushing around this nation.” Succession, for Kendall, and for us, ends when he is ejected from the corporate machine. But it goes on whirring without him. 

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