‘Succession’ Aims for the Jugular in Stirring Series Finale

Like an overcrowded nest of vipers, everyone yearns for the top chair without realizing they are the prey in the feature-length series finale of “Succession.” The HBO hit has become a pop culture phenomenon by articulating, with crackling eloquence and energy, our fascination with the character and personalities of the elite. With its handheld cinematography and content dependent so much on the rhythm of conversation, this series made us feel as if we were flies on the wall spying on captains of industry. In the final lunge for the throne of Waystar Royco, the personas at the center of it all are stripped down to their most vulnerable selves. This was the season where the Roy siblings were left to their own devices, which come undone in shocking, personal fashion.

It’s the day before Waystar’s board votes on the sale to GoJo and its eccentric chief, Matsson (Alexander Skarsgård). Among the Roy siblings, Kendall (Jeremy Strong) is trying to marshal his forces in order to ensure a vote to block the sale. Meanwhile, Shiv (Sarah Snook) expects to be named the American CEO by Matsson once the deal is signed. Roman (Kieran Culkin), still smarting from having broken down publicly during the funeral of deceased patriarch Logan (Brian Cox), is hiding out at the Caribbean home of mother Lady Caroline (Harriet Walter). Kendall and Shiv both make their way to Roman to win him over. But everyone else is also busy making moves. Matsson is already considering other options who are not Shiv. Her husband Tom (Matthew Macfadyen) sees a window of opportunity while many others also await scraps.

Much of the appeal of “Succession” first began with the fascination created by the domineering Waystar founder Logan, and it was a great twist from showrunner Jesse Armstrong to kill off the mogul force of nature at around episode four. What should have always been clear became definite, that this was really the story of Kendall, Shiv and Roman. Each one felt inclined to become the new head of the whole operation by birth right. As the season progressed they tried to prove they could take control by diving into dad’s media empire. Roman could coldly fire a Hollywood executive and they all three became enmeshed in the dirtiness of media and politics, resulting in the decision to throw their weight behind a terrifyingly charismatic Trump-DeSantis clone running for president. 

But there are always cracks to reveal under pressure, particularly with those who have been handed power as opposed to truly fighting for it. The penultimate episode is where fissures truly appeared during Logan’s magisterial funeral, when Roman couldn’t make it through his speech and became a weeping man child, later running into a crowd of protesters. Shiv was willing, meanwhile, to build a very close relationship with Matsson, in hopes that playing in the opposing team would finally bring her the position she believes she deserves. Kendall, who had been so quiet as a recovering addict, now reignited as the slang-swinging, cutthroat business player of the first season. 

Even more so this season, the Roy siblings became pop cultural figures, with internet chatter becoming obsessed and fans playing the game of wondering which Roy they were. When you consider this, the brilliance of Armstrong’s approach for the finale becomes apparent. All of the flash and acidly refined build-up leads in the finale to the stripping down of these characters to almost nothing. The detonator is when Shiv learns Matsson is already looking for another American CEO, in no small part thanks to pitiful cousin Greg (Nicholas Braun). This is not treated as a traditional twist, but as the first true sign that the wider world is out of the siblings’ control. Like a wannabe alpha, Kendall pushes Shiv and Roman to (reluctantly) agree to throw their weight behind him as Logan’s true successor. 

None of it will matter in the riveting crescendo when a last minute change of heart occurs during the defining board vote and the Roys essentially devour each other. None of their ambitions or tough talking matter when the board votes to go forward with the sale. Unable to muster the necessary numbers, Kendall is reduced to an exploding ego mumbling his demands, claiming “I’m the eldest boy.” Shiv, so wrecked already by her conscience, admits she loves her brother but can’t stand him. She also brings up a particular, past crime in Kendall’s past that makes him unfit but also exposes a disturbing capacity of his to lie and spin with desperation out of any situation. 

It takes the usually sarcastic Roman to state what may be Armstrong’s prime idea behind the series. Looking ahead, tired of all this lunacy, Roman tells Kendall that they and everything Waystar claims to represent is “bullshit.” Stripped of power, Kendall transforms into a pathetic, pleading man while Shiv can only stand back and watch as Tom becomes CEO, appointed by Mattson, who wanted a Roy in the role, but preferred an in-law. Earlier in the episode, during a strongly bizarre bit of writing, Mattson admits to Tom he wants to sleep with Shiv, which is a complication he doesn’t want setting off an awkward vibe at the office. How the pieces fall into place makes sense. His marriage to Shiv may have been a nightmare falling apart, but Tom always played his cards right. He was the empty suit who knew what posteriors to kiss.

“Succession” may go down as one of the defining TV dramas of late stage capitalism. Gasp and shake your head at the Roys, but there are many of them in the real world who run the business of our economy and media. In this country we tend to worship the image of wealth for its own sake. Indeed, the Roys became media fixtures for not only their personas, but for how accurately they captured even the ways the elite dress. This is why it is so crucial that the final moments of the final episode and series are full of quiet, hopeless eloquence. Kendall wanders in a daze looking out at the sea, as if he wants to jump. Roman sits at a bar ordering alcohol to sooth his decayed soul. A brilliant shot finds Shiv getting into the back of a car with Tom, who now seems suddenly changed into an omnipotent figure. Such is the nature of acquiring power, which is why everyone wants it. “Succession” could have aimed for a more melodramatic ending, and there are plenty of fireworks, but like this it says so much more. Our elite are human at the end of the day, becoming their own worst enemy despite the trails of destruction they leave behind.

Succession” season four finale aired May 28 at 9 p.m. ET on HBO.