Psychoanalysing Succession’s tense finale – a Freudian suspension of pleasure

Warning: the following article contains spoilers.

Sigmund Freud, the 20th century titan of psychoanalysis, would doubtless have plenty to say about the Roy family, had the characters ever plopped down on his treatment couch.

The cunning ruses of the Roys are ticking timebombs of self-sabotage. Their vaulting and faltering desires mask the fundamental human requirements they are missing: love, attention, esteem and purpose. But there is another component of the Succession experience that has a complicated relationship with pleasure and desire – the viewer.

Kendall (Jeremy Strong) and co have shown how audiences sometimes enjoy watching the desires of society’s villains unfold. In Succession, this enjoyment stems from the clever ways show runner Jesse Armstrong and his team have balanced the characters’ psyche to reveal the human inside each monster.

Each character threatens dominance at the expense of another equally unlikable character. This instability divides our sympathies. Though we desire the Succession ending we want, knowing that getting it might be bad means that we long for something that violently prevents it at the exact same time.

Narrative and pleasure

In his 1920 essay, Beyond the Pleasure Principle, Freud recalls observing a toddler throwing his toys away and then later using a string and reel to haul them back toward him, much to his pleasure.

This could also describe Logan Roy’s (Brian Cox) relationship to his children. It calls to mind their mother, Caroline’s (Harriet Walter) reflection on her ex husband in season three: “He never saw anything he loved that he didn’t want to kick it just to see if it would still come back.”

The Roy siblings sit around a dinner table with their mother, Caroline.
The Roy siblings with their mother, Caroline.
Courtesy of HBO

Throughout its run, Succession has offered an intensified version of this idea. In oscillating between alliance and discord, Succession has conditioned viewers to expect the worst outcome possible for the Roy siblings at any given moment. And yet Shiv’s (Sarah Snook) boardroom betrayal of her apparently CEO-elect brother Kendall in his moment of triumph was chilling to watch.

This betrayal has been seeded, foreshadowed and returned to throughout the fourth series and yet its eventuality still had the power to paralyse. Viewers are increasingly media literate and savvy. If we expected it, then why did it still affect us? And if the Roys are all so horrible, why are we so conflicted?

Moments between moments

Part of the success of the fourth and final series of Succession has been the way in which it explores paroxysm (sudden flurries of activity and emotion) while the narrative is paused at uncertain moments. For example, the episode of Logan’s death or that of the Wisconsin call on election night.

Exploring these moments between moments and stretching them out to transmit their texture and feeling, has increasingly become part of complex television like Succession.

The Roy siblings embrace each other.
The Roy siblings after losing their father.
Courtesy of HBO

In the final episode, there is extended pleasure before the pain. The reconciliation of the Roy siblings in Barbados – leading to Shiv and Roman (Kieran Culkin) anointing Kendall with “a meal fit for a king” and the shared observation of their father on video in a rare moment of lightness – realigns the trio and suggests the beginning of recognition of their own traumatic past.

Greater weight, particularly heading toward the show’s conclusion, had been placed on restoring unity between the Roy siblings. A final moment of ecstasy was neatly ordained. Kendall would return to the site of his frequent humiliation to conquer.

Even the final boardroom sequence replicated this as the first three votes were in Kendall’s favour. The tide quickly turned, however, and viewers squirmed, but by now we’re used to the discomfort.

Complex TV shows with large ensembles often favour a general “team” which adjoins the shared fantasy between viewer and protagonist. Game of Thrones wanted justice for “the North”, The Wire wanted good police. The expert crafting toward Kendall’s success in these final minutes, despite his complicity and weakness, fed such a fantasy. But Shiv’s decision exploded it.

Jeremy Strong stares into the ocean while the sun sets.
Jeremy Strong as Kendall in the closing scene of Succession.
Courtesy of HBO

Overly neat endings risk revealing the world within television shows as utopias. Succession neatly avoided this by not showing the moment of Shiv’s betrayal in order to make it into a replacement fantasy. Instead, we swoop in during the aftermath and observe vultures pecking the carrion. Shiv is already gone, her deciding vote already placed and our pleasures are cut off mid-flight.

But this suspension, as Freud might observe, is what we secretly enjoy the most. Desire is stimulated by what we cannot quite possess. We are left to delight in the ambiguities of Succession’s ending.

Jesse Armstrong has form for leaving viewers to observe his characters squirming on the head of a pin. Unlike his Peep Show creations, the Roy family has a clear cut chance to break the cycle that returns them to their issues.

Their ultimate destinies are ambiguous. Kendall remains trapped within a narrative of his own creation, psychologically devastated in sight of his personal Everest. But Shiv’s apparent reconciliation with husband Tom (Matthew Macfadyen) and Roman’s bitter and bruised acceptance over a drink appear to be the beginnings of difficult new roads.

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