“Succession” Finally Moves Forward | The New Yorker7 min read
When Jesse Armstrong, the creator of HBO’s “Succession,” revealed that he’d chosen to make the show’s fourth season its last, viewers reacted with variations on “Are you kidding???” Why voluntarily end a series so successful and Zeitgeist-defining, the rare program that could still monopolize our collective attention each week? I had a somewhat different reaction: I hoped that the show’s impending end might finally make it more watchable. For a long time, I’d been keeping up with “Succession” mostly so that I could understand the endless references made online and in my various group chats. I’d found very little pleasure in it, but people would often tell me that the lack of pleasure was the point—that “Succession” was a satire of the vapidity and moral corruption of the very rich, and that I probably just didn’t get the dry humor and cutting wit on display.
Yet my disinclination had nothing to do with whatever ambiently satirical impulses were at work in the series. It stemmed, instead, from the fact that “Succession” always seemed ill suited to the format of an ongoing series. It could have been a great miniseries, I thought, but had been dragged out and diluted by the demands of serialized storytelling. In an ongoing series, the status quo is never quite disrupted, and at the end of each season the board is reset. There is vast variation within this format, of course, from the purely episodic nature of “C.S.I.” to the season-long arcs that defined the middle period of “Grey’s Anatomy.” (There are exceptions to the rule, too, like “Game of Thrones,” which at least wasn’t afraid to lop the heads off its main characters.) Yet the ongoing series, to some extent, arrives at a new season ready to begin again, and “Succession” especially seemed to be riding a loop. Its compulsion to repeat itself led Naomi Fry to wonder, in a review of Season 3, whether it might be the “best sitcom” on TV.
Over the first three seasons, this iterative quality left me and other viewers frustrated. After all, the show is premised on the suspense of a single dilemma: an old patriarch, the Murdochian media mogul Logan Roy (Brian Cox), must decide which of his children is most suitable to inherit his empire. Kendall (Jeremy Strong), the eldest son from Logan’s second marriage, has been groomed to take over but has been perpetually sidelined by his father’s oppressive parenting and by his own struggles with substance abuse. Roman (Kieran Culkin), the younger one, is a neurotic edgelord desperately trying to prove himself equal to the big kids. Siobhan, a.k.a. Shiv (Sarah Snook), the only daughter and the family’s lone “liberal,” is ambitious and savvy but ultimately lacks the business experience to make a real run for the top job. (Logan’s oldest child, from his first marriage, Connor—as played by Alan Ruck, the best embodiment of large-adult-son energy on television—is not a candidate for the stewardship of Waystar Royco, so he’s turned himself into a sham political candidate instead.) Amid the bumbling and scheming of courtiers and advisers, Logan plays the younger kids off one another for profit and for amusement, and lashes out when they disappoint him. The kids, in turn, fight among themselves for control of the company and of the “narrative” of events unfolding around them, and also for that most elusive of rewards: their father’s respect and love. We watch to see which sibling, if any, will prevail.
But, for three seasons, “Succession” avoided settling this question. Big things happened—hostile take-overs, failed bids to buy rival news stations, cover-ups, etc.—but, in the end, there was no movement on the core problem. Each season ended with Logan repelling some challenge from his kids, and the next opened with some combination of kids scheming to oust the old man and disrupt the nervy truce established at the end of the previous one. Though “Succession” is most obviously modelled on “King Lear,” I’ve found that in execution it’s closer to “Richard II,” a play about a man who refuses to give up power and must therefore be deposed.
I may have felt less impatient with “Succession” if the very first episode hadn’t dangled the promise of an imminent changing of the guard. In the première, Logan suffered a near-fatal medical crisis that became the inciting incident for intrafamilial power struggles. By rights, the pilot should have ended with Logan’s death or permanent incapacity. Instead, the series seemed to show some crucial lack of nerve. Rather than expiring, Logan, like Lazarus, shook off the ailment, and then spent several more seasons stymieing the plot. “Succession” began to feel like a series of stranded, rote exercises in which brilliant character actors flashed their talents amid lush backdrops and first-class business attire.
The show has admittedly had a series of good streaks. It has occasionally been brilliant for two or three episodes at a time, as when Kendall conducted his manic backroom dealings in Season 1, culminating in a fantastic sequence of him literally sprinting while trying to manage a coup. Equally great were the Roy family conferences in Season 2, when Kendall was brought back into the family fold by way of a public flogging and then was later set up to take the fall for the cover-up of sexual abuse in the company’s cruises division. Certain isolated scenes, such as Logan’s sadistic country-house parlor game Boar on the Floor or the bumbling congressional testimony from Cousin Greg (Nicholas Braun), had a superb, almost Beckettian humor. But, on the balance, the series has been filled with too much of what an old writing teacher of mine would call throat-clearing or scaffolding. The third season raised the dramatic stakes in several tantalizing ways at once: there was an F.B.I. raid on Waystar, a complicated bid to acquire a rival network, and most important, an attempt to sell the company itself. Yet in the end the season landed back where it began, with Logan holding the reins and his children scrambling and scheming. The show excelled at depicting a certain kind of life style of the hyper-affluent, those who live sequestered in private jets and glassy penthouses while pulling the levers of public discourse. But it never achieved the crucial alchemy where subject meets narrative—the space in which a work offers some insight into the way we live.
With the announcement that the series was wrapping, “Succession” regained the opportunity that it squandered in the first season. In Season 4, there would be no need for a grand reset at the end. At last, I might get the propulsive series that I always wanted.
The four episodes made available to critics have already delivered on this promise. Like the first season, the latest one opens at a party on Logan’s birthday, with corporate cronies arriving to kiss the ring—among them Cousin Greg and Kerry (Zoë Winters), Logan’s assistant slash mistress, who have a surreal argument about whether Greg’s date might be a “a hostile corporate asset,” there for oppo. But, this time, the Roy children are pointedly absent from the festivities. They haven’t forgotten the cruelty of their father’s ploy in the Season 3 finale, when he outflanked Kendall, Roman, and Shiv in their plan to block the sale of the family firm by weaponizing their mother against them. That defeat had left Roman literally on the ground while a stunned Kendall and Shiv stared on. Now, finally, they seem to be refusing to play Logan’s little game and forgive him all his faults.
Instead, we find them camped out in another blandly gorgeous compound plotting a venture of their own, a “disruptor” news platform called The Hundred. (“Substack meets MasterClass meets The Economist meets The New Yorker,” Kendall explains.) The siblings’ exchanges are, as always, delightfully barbed and a bit puerile. “Your face is giving me a headache,” Roman tells Shiv by way of a greeting. But as a threesome they seem the closest, the most at ease, they’ve been around one another in a long time. All is seemingly on track for launch of The Hundred until Shiv receives a call from her estranged husband, Tom Wambsgans (Matthew Macfadyen), and we’re reminded of all that ugly business from the Season 3 finale—including how Tom’s betrayal of Shiv’s confidence allowed Logan to thwart the siblings’ plans. This time, it’s Tom’s call that tips Shiv off to Logan’s latest move, to revive his efforts to acquire a rival network. The kids decide that they’ll vie against daddy one more time and make a competing offer.
Meanwhile, at the party, Logan gets fed up with the parade of sycophants. He goes out for a walk with his bodyguard, whom he calls his “best pal,” and ends up in a Manhattan diner. What comes next might have been Logan’s raging-on-the-heath moment, the embittered cry of an alienated patriarch, but instead of wrathful he is uncharacteristically resigned. His monologue that follows starts with a lofty non sequitur: “What are . . . people? They’re economic units. I’m a hundred feet tall. These people are pygmies. But together, they form a market.” From there, Logan unspools a meditation that reveals the extent to which market-mindedness has become a world view that he cannot escape, and Brian Cox delivers one of the finest bits of television acting I’ve seen in a while. Becoming wistful, Logan continues, “Everything I try to do, people turn against me. Nothing tastes like it used to, does it? Nothing’s the same as it was.” He asks his security pal whether he thinks there’s something after “all this.” The security pal says he doesn’t know, and then Logan lands one of my favorite lines of the show: “That’s it. We can’t know. But I’ve got my suspicions. I’ve got my fucking suspicions.” Even when contemplating life’s greatest mystery, what another of Shakespeare’s doomed royals, Hamlet, called the “undiscovered country from whose bourn / No traveler returns,” Logan is ever the leery operator, convinced of his own superior instincts.