‘Succession’ Season 4 Plays Harder and Darker for Its Final Round

Family dysfunction has a way of capturing a society’s vicious nature. No family on TV captures the dark spirit of American corporate culture like the diabolically dysfunctional Roys. The clan at the heart of HBO’s “Succession” initiates its final battle in season four, which the world was recently shocked to hear is the last hurrah for the hit show. Maybe it is smart for creator Jesse Armstrong to quit while he’s ahead. A ruthless yet intimate saga like this can lose its edge if you force it to go past the point of believability. Last season’s cliffhanger ending signaled a point of no return for its characters, as the Roy siblings united in one last effort to try and outplay billionaire patriarch Logan (Brian Cox). How can a family as toxic as this one recover from that? They do try, while continuously sniffing for blood.

We return to the inner world of the fictional Waystar Royco media giant with Logan on one side and his kids on the other. It’s his birthday and while a polite society bash is thrown, Logan is too distracted planning his next moves. Kendall (Jeremy Strong), Shiv (Sarah Snook) and Roman (Kieran Culkin) have been attempting to form their own media company with less than stellar results. They instead decide to derail their dad’s planned acquisition of the company belonging to old rival Nan Pierce (Cherry Jones). While Kendall and Roman seem entirely focused on the business at hand, for Shiv it has become even more personal. Her marriage to Tom (Matthew Macfadyen) is shakier than ever over his upfront misery and the fact that he has essentially become Logan’s acolyte. Also wandering around Logan’s sphere but in neutral mode is Connor (Alan Ruck), who is still running for political office despite polling at one percent and at the verge of going even lower. As both sides raise the stakes and numbers, Logan also appears ever more tired, but his ferocity still bites hard.

Since its first season, “Succession” has been a vicious neo-comedy of manners. The Roys do not function like self-conscious “rich people,” they just are as their life has shaped them. There is a low-key yet brutal bit of comedy in the season premiere, when dim-witted cousin Greg (Nicholas Braun) brings a date to Logan’s party who inspires mockery from Tom for eating like a slob, using all the display towels in the bathrooms and posting on social media. Class can produce an insular environment and this show knows how to inhabit it. For the Roys their wealth and access are tools more than perks. The siblings can offer their target $10 billion as an offer, not to show off, but as the only way to hit their even more powerful father hard. Some notes this season don’t feel repetitive however. Logan feels more contemplative, losing himself in metaphysical musings. The familiar rage is still there when he pressures his inner circle to entertain him with jokes, to which he responds with cruel swipes of his own.

As viewers we don’t care much for what’s happening out in the wider world of this show. Watching the Roys think and scheme is absorbing enough. Then there are the more intimate storylines still churning beneath all of the financial power plays. The typically icy-Shiv shows more vulnerability now that Tom has not only betrayed her by siding with Logan, he’s rumored to be dating around during their trial separation. When she comes home after a major development and finds Tom still there, not afraid anymore to call her out on her own hypocrisies, she does everything possible to hold back building tears. Throughout these early episodes of the season, we will be left in suspense over whether this marriage can possibly mend itself. It’s also one of the deeper story elements since everyone else is either at war or farcically pathetic, like Greg and his oddball dating life.

With all of the dramatic intensity going on, powered by the hand-held cinematography, it must be noted “Succession” is also roaringly funny. From Greg having sex in an unwise location with his despised date to Roman’s snarky comebacks, the writing brings out the worst of these characters with biting humor. Logan’s right hand and obvious lover, Kerry (Zoe Winters) is expanded while being given some excellently vicious lines (“What’s her name? Is it Randomfuck?”). Logan goes out to a diner with basically his bodyguard and calls him “my best buddy,” while obviously feeling alone. Kieran Culkin has by now mastered turning the debauched Roman into a show onto himself with mere grimaces and bored, cynical smirks. But as the battle heats up, he also becomes the first real target for Logan’s gaslighting. Beneath the venomous portrait is a scared man child.

Another great show prepares to leave. “Succession” could have kept going for one or two more seasons. Its themes are the kind that always finds some relevance with an audience. When it premiered in 2018 the world was embroiled in the Trump presidency and the way it made us look closely again at the underbelly of corporate America. Since then we’ve made it through a pandemic and new banking fears dominate the headlines. The Roys still feel right at home. Season three had received some criticisms for losing its focus midway, this new season starts as it should, never missing a beat and keeping intact what makes these characters believable. They don’t need superpowers or zombies to stir and unsettle us, because they are just the right combination of being humans with massive bank accounts and having plenty of scores to settle.

Succession” season four premieres March 26 and airs Sundays at 9 p.m. ET on HBO.