I did not like the end of Succession. I think it was a bad finale. I’ll tell you why.
Succession is a show that doesn’t have very many stakes. The Roys are incredibly wealthy. Maybe one of the richest families in the world. Which is one of the interesting tensions in the show. We as viewers want to identify with Kendall, Shiv, and Roman because they’re the main characters. But we also dislike them because they’re bad people. And actually impossible (for most of us) to relate to. So we’re torn between enjoying their strife but feeling basic sympathy and empathy for our central protagonists. And, to some degree, we take on their perspective. That vicarious sense of power and entitlement becomes, for an hour on Sundays, ours. That’s very cool.
Except when we come back to the drama that occurs on the show, what even is it? Season 1, it’s avoiding a loan crisis. Season 2 it’s the government. Season 3 it’s a vote. Season 4 it’s the sale. Over and over, the broader stakes and conflict that make up Succession revolve around losing the company. We’re supposed to take this seriously because the characters take this seriously. Yet on a deeper level, is it even possible to care? These are rich and powerful people. If they lose Waystar, they have everything else. They can retire and waste millions of dollars every year and never have it be an issue. So the worst case scenario for Kendall, Shiv, and Roman is the dream scenario for 99.99% of the rest of the population.
That’s the foundation that Succession rests on. It’s not inherently bad or impossible to make work. But that puts extra extra extra pressure on the subplots to have stakes. And we got that in season 1. When Kendall is in that car crash and the waiter drowns, that’s heavy. That’s serious. He was about to oust his dad and take over the company. He was that close. And now he’s potentially going to be looked at for murder. That power he suddenly had over his dad? Gone. It was such a brilliant, terrible, consequential moment that castrated Kendall’s character, leaving us with the question of would he or will he ever be able to reclaim a sense of individuality away from his father?
Which is what season 2 got into. Kendall starts as Logan’s lapdog, does his dirty work, then, eventually, strikes back. Just when we think Kendall’s going to go to jail to protect his dad, he makes his move. He turns on Logan. On TV. To the world. Now that’s consequential. Now the son who wanted Waystar Royco is going to be the one to bring the company tumbling down. Right?
Nope. Season 3 neuters everything. Kendall’s ascending star? Freefalls. The government investigation into Logan and Waystar? Evaporates. The stakes go away. Instead, for the third time, we have some vague, ethereal corporate threat to the Roys claim to the company. And we have a lot of meetings and seemingly important moments that don’t amount to much of anything. The payoff to all of this? Tom betrays Shiv. Shocking! But, was it? Shiv had cheated on Tom. Was mean to him, all the time. For him to side with Logan instead of a suddenly united Kendall, Shiv, and Roman? Yeah. It’s obvious. It makes sense. But, also, what are the stakes? It changes nothing. Tom was already part of the company and family and gaining Logan’s trust. He and Shiv already had a disastrous marriage that was on the brink of failing. He had no relationship at all with his brothers-in-law. Him suddenly “betraying” them isn’t consequential. Nothing changes. Compare the state of the characters in the very first episode of season 1 to the end of season 3 and what’s different? Nothing. The kids still have a strained relationship with their father, with one another, and with the people closest to them. They all still want power and don’t have it.
For three seasons, nothing meaningful happened. Well, Greg got to glow up. Better clothes. Nicer haircut. That’s cool, that’s nice. But, is it enough? For those Greg-heads out there, sure. For everyone else? We deserve better.
And, look, I think the first two seasons are amazing, amazing TV. Like some of the finest of the 21st century. Season 3 is, where I’d argue, Succession began chasing its own tail. Scared to have anything happen that would meaningfully shift the story. It’s Days of Our Lives but with HBO’s talent and budget.
Then Season 4 happened. And I was thrilled. Logan dies in episode 3. Perfect. That’s meaningful. That is the stuff that gives a story charge and opportunity. The show could no longer keep going back to that same well of “Will the kids be with Logan or against him?” and have them flip flop over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over again. Because every other time it seemed like someone had crossed a line and nothing would ever be the same—things went right back to how they had been. You can’t do that when Logan’s gone.
So Season 4 brought me right back to considering if Succession is the best show of the last 10 years. It has to be in contention, right? Whether you think it is or not, the popularity and high points are what they are. It’s corporate Shakespeare with all-star performances and a unique perspective on modern America. It’s hit the zeitgeist in a way very few shows have or do. At the very least, it’s era-defining.
But the finale was, for me, a failure. The worst part of the show has been the siblings constantly racing each other for the crown. They’re united. They’re not. Roman and Kendall against Shiv. Shiv and Kendall against Roman. Roman and Shiv against Kendall. All of them together against whoever. So for the, what, fifth time this season, we have the siblings take sides against each other only to unite because Mattsson was going to screw over Shiv. Cool. Why is this any different than Season 1? Or Season 2? Or Season 3? Because Logan’s gone? That didn’t stop Shiv from secretly siding with Mattsson before. For the millionth time—no stakes. Greg betrays Tom. What are the consequences? Nothing that we see, just some vague dialogue from Tom that leaves Greg uncertain if he’s screwed forever or temporarily in the doghouse. Shiv betrays Kendall? What are the consequences? Nothing that we see. Nothing happens. Even when they lose the company. Nothing happens.
Roman ends up at a bar. The implication is he’s just going to be the rich drunk jerk that he was when the show started. But what was the alternative? A rich working jerk? Roman had gained in capacity and dependability in the world of Waystar but that wasn’t changing him for better or worse. He was who he was, just with some power. Having the company, not having the company, being CEO, not being CEO—does any of it matter for him in the long run? For the public? Did he lose but society gained? Not really. ATN is going to keep being ATN. Mattsson will happily work with Mencken or whoever. Roman succeeding or failing doesn’t change anything.
Kendall ends up wandering a park near the water. The implication being he’s despondent and will probably never recover his sense of gusto and will always be chasing his father’s shadow. Maybe he’ll run a company but it won’t be Waystar. As he tells Shiv, this is it for him. If he doesn’t have Waystar, he doesn’t have anything. So it’s a kind of spiritual death. It’s unlikely he suddenly becomes a great father or good person. He’ll forever have this itch he can’t scratch. But that’s where we were in Season 1 when Logan said it wouldn’t be him. And Season 2. And Season 3. To have it happen again in Season 4 is just more of the same. It’s just definitive this time.
And Shiv. Shiv has the most going on. She’s the one who reached out to Tom about getting back together. She’s also the one who had transgressed the most in the relationship and hadn’t done a good job of making it up to him. When she finds out he’ll be CEO if the deal goes through, there’s a crossroads for her. That’s a stake. Either she has her brothers at the cost of Tom. Or she has Tom at the cost of her brothers. Her decision is a result of Kendall’s growing smugness and her inability to stomach it and the desire to be back with Tom. That last moment with Shiv and Tom in the car is cool. It’s low-angle. Giving Tom and Shiv this sense of stature. And Tom puts his hand out, and there’s such a vibe of mafia Don. But also forgiveness. In a weird way, Shiv reshaped Tom into a distant, sharp, powerful man that kind of resents her. Someone in the image of her father. The caring, dopey, overly sentimental Tom from previous seasons has been burned away but the fires he’s walked through to get to this point.
Tom definitely has the greatest arc in the entire show. And is, in some ways, someone audiences can root for a bit more sincerely since he had humble beginnings, isn’t from this world, and is doing his best to be part of it. He always had a penchant for cruelty but wouldn’t let it show outside of how he treated Greg. For him to, over the four seasons, lean into that and be rewarded for it, is phenomenal (in a narrative sense, not a human one; in terms of humanity, it’s sad).. It’s thought provoking. Thematic. Dynamic. It’s the best thing Succession does. Tom’s arc and exploring Logan’s psyche from the slanted perspective of the rest of the characters. We do get a tremendous sense of Logan and the highs and lows of the man. The complicating factors. As well as the insight into why he wouldn’t give his kids control. “I love you, but you are not serious people.” The subtlety with which the show handles all of that is fantastic.
I’m not saying Succession didn’t have tremendous moments of amazing plot and theme. The penultimate episode with the funeral speeches is incredible. Truly incredible. There are so many startling and fascinating and powerful scenes across the series. And the performances are awesome, generational. This isn’t me saying Succession is a bad show. It’s not. It’s dumb to argue that it is. But I think the whole of it is less than the sum of its parts. That instead of going for something immense and literary, we got a lot of throat clearing and melodrama that never went anywhere.
At the end of the show, is anything different for anyone? There’s the idea that the clown siblings swung the election for a horrible person who could send America down a dark path. Except that’s not certain. We’re left with the possibility that Mencken still doesn’t win. And Logan had been leaning Mencken himself. So it’s not like Mencken had no chance but the kids, in their brief tenure, caused irreparable damage to the country. So we’re not taking away from this that the whims of the wealthy have a profound impact on everyone else. You could make the case that they corrupt Tom and take someone from humble beginnings and turn him into this cold, corporate person. But Tom was already seeking that out. So as a commentary on the haves vs the have nots, Tom isn’t necessarily representative of the have nots. There isn’t some great contrast in him winning vs Kendall. There are subtleties, sure. But it’s not a meaningful throughline.
The biggest thematic argument would be how Succession explores the impact of parents on their children. And how the inability of the siblings to support one another and be happy for one another is a direct result of Logan’s fickle affection and the jealousy he engendered by being so hot and cold and promising everything to each of them in turn then denying it. Because of this shared trauma, there’s no way for them to ever unite. No matter the circumstances. The resentment is too much. You could then begin to extrapolate that, turn it into symbolism for America, for modern society. But I’m not sure if the show earned or even wanted to go for that kind of grander metaphor.
I guess that’s ultimately where I land with Succession. I wanted it to say something. I don’t think it did. And that’s okay. Not every show has to say something. It can just tell a story that’s interesting. When that’s the case, I’m not looking at what’s said but rather the quality of the storytelling. And I think the story didn’t amount to much. Some great individual pieces and parts. But I’m left going: That’s it? That’s all you’ve got? Especially when I compare it to (in no particular order) Barry, Better Call Saul, The Marvelous Mrs.Maisel, The Wire, The Sopranos, Veep, The Leftovers, The Good Place, The White Lotus, Boardwalk Empire, Ozark, Mindhunter, Mare of Easttown, Sharp Objects. These shows balance narrative and theme and drive their stories to a final, climactic point.
And it’s not like those shows are perfect. I would say at its best, Succession is as good or better than some on that list. But when I look at the larger storytelling and thematics, Succession ends up in a tier below. It repeats itself too many times. I mean, seriously, even in this episode, the siblings went from divided to united to divided. That’s three shifts in a single episode. After they’ve already flip flopped a dozen times before this. But that many times in a single episode? It goes from meaningful and climactic to absolutely empty and almost sarcastic.
Was it fascinating to be in this world? Yes. Am I satisfied with the story? Enough to still say the show is good. But having the conclusion come down to something so repetitious and kind of obvious with no real payoff is disappointing. It’s like all the creative fireworks exploded in the previous episodes. And instead of the grand finale that lights up the night, we’re left with the smoke in the air and empty shells on the grass and the acrid scent of sulfur and the dark and dull sky and a crowded walk to the parking lot and traffic on the way home.
I’ll answer questions in the comments. We can even (politely) debate because I know some of you feel quite the opposite to me. Would love to hear why! Thanks for reading!
Do I think the kids should have won? Did I want a happy ending?
No and no. I didn’t have a particular ending in mind. I just didn’t want it to be the siblings agree then disagree for the millionth time. And if it was that, I’d want something a bit more consequential. Roman calling out Kendall’s kids is transgressive but is it any more climactic/dramatic than other transgressive things the siblings have said or done to one another? Kendall briefly getting physical with Roman is dramatic but momentary. And Shiv turning on Kendall is, yeah, what a scorpion does.
I think good finales take us to a place the story couldn’t go prior to the finale. Choices are made, things happen that can’t be undone. I didn’t get that feeling of the climactic that I got at the end of Season 1 and Season 2 or even at other moments through Season 4. This felt more transitory. It implies things for the characters. But it’s so open-ended that anything could happen. Like I can easily imagine a Season 5 where Tom becomes overwhelmed after a (secretly) Mencken-backed ATN competitor emerges. Waystar begins to slip. Suddenly there’s a conversation about bringing back Roman and Kendall. I’m not saying that’s what I want. Just that you can easily imagine scenarios that invalidate the initial consequence of Shiv’s decision. Especially given how the show had done that exact thing with other seemingly important tipping point moments that ended up being far less impactful than they initially seemed.
Did I miss the point of the Succession?
Being unsatisfied with the specifics of how things played out is very different than not understanding the larger thematics or purpose of the show. The two can go hand in hand. That’s certainly true. But just because you don’t like the way something was done doesn’t mean you don’t get what it’s doing. And vice versa.
There are a lot of nice aspects to the finale. Like the dichotomy between the Shiv, Roman, and Kendall under their mother’s roof vs. their father’s. In the kitchen, we see them at their most purely childish and innocent and loving, even if they’re still kind of horrible (that poor cheese). In the conference room, we see them at their most twisted and ruined by the influence of their parents. Their jealousy, their fear, their mistrust and sensitivity to betrayal, and inability to support one another. This ties back to the larger thematic exploration of generational influence and the way parents shape children but also the way in which these “Logan Roys” of the world shape society. The same flaws that Logan engendered in his kids he also gave to America.
And there’s the Shakespearean-ness to the fact that Logan always maintained the company. No matter the threat. He always found a way. The first major crisis under the kids? They lose it. With the tragedy being they actually won. Except for Shiv ultimately deciding she couldn’t stand to see Kendall. His egotistical bearing during the vote helped drive Shiv to change her mind. For decades, Logan boxed out his family and people he loved and succeeded because he didn’t rely on any of them. The kids never learned that lesson. They kept going back to family and family kept betraying them.
Which gets at Succession‘s larger commentary about the wealthy and capitalism and modern America. Through the Roy family and their universe, we see how dehumanizing that world is. How callous. It’s right there in the series premier when Roman taunts the family during the softball game and teases them with an opportunity to win money. There’s a disconnect from their actions and the way in which it impacts the rest of the world. Which comes to life with the Mencken election.
That’s not everything but it’s some of the highlights of what Succession is doing. These are some of the reasons I think so highly of the show. But the payoff we get is just a bit uninteresting to me. Like the initial exploration and potential of what Succession would do with these themes was a lot more exciting than what it ended up doing in the finale. Go back one episode to the funeral, and that had the power and energy of a finale to me. Honestly, I probably would like the funeral episode as the finale more than what we actually got. It would leave a lot unanswered but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. With that said, the Tom arc was great. That’s the silver lining of the finale.
Did I identify with Roman, Shiv, and Kendall?
Quite a few people on Twitter thought that I was saying audiences should identify with the siblings and because of that we’re rooting for them. Just wanted to clarify that’s not what I intended. My point was that storytelling inherently asks us to put ourselves in the shoes of its characters, to think about what they’re experience and how they’re feeling and put that in context of our own lives and feelings. It’s the reason storytelling is such an important part of society. It’s how we expand our theory of mind and capacity to relate to others. When you watch Avatar and see Jake Sully come to appreciate the beauty of the forest, it asks us to think about the beauty of the forest. Stories like American History X and Succession rift on this technique by putting us with pretty abhorrent people. We’re disgusted by aspects of who they are, how they think, and what they do. That disgust wars with our inherent urge to identity through story.
That’s not me saying I want to identify with the kids because of who they are. That I see myself in them. Or anything like that. It’s just pointing out that by putting the siblings as the main characters the show is playing on our natural inclination to identify. I probably should have framed the initial statement as “We naturally want to identify with a story’s main character. In the case of Succession, that’s difficult because…”