Warning: the following article contains spoilers.
Succession, HBO’s searing indictment of late capitalism, has finally ended for good. And what an ending.
The warring siblings Kendall (Jeremy Strong), Shiv (Sarah Snook) and Roman (Kieran Culkin) are reunited at their mother’s Caribbean retreat. The location is suitably lush, the fridge is poorly stocked (their mother, far from the nurturing type, never has anything to eat) and Kendall has just revealed that Swedish GoJo mogul Matsson (Alexander Skarsgård) has shafted Shiv on his promise to make her CEO of the family business, Waystar Royco.
The Roys bicker and bait each other, but finally Kendall is able to persuade his reluctant siblings that he is the only one who can lead the company. They put aside their differences for once and agree to present a united front. They’ll block the GoJo deal at the next day’s board meeting and keep control of the business.
The siblings go for a swim and goof around in the kitchen. It is a major psychological and narrative breakthrough. Back in New York, they share another touching moment with half-sibling Connor (Alan Ruck) who has found footage of their father Logan (Brian Cox) hosting a rare good-natured dinner party. This is as close as creator Jesse Armstrong gets to a happy ending.
Back to reality
The final act plays out rather differently. Despite having all their “ducks in a row” (a favourite saying of Kendall’s), the vote doesn’t go to plan when Shiv changes her mind at the last minute.
This leads to one of the most gut-wrenching scenes in television history. The three siblings verbally slug it out in an adjacent room, their insults painfully audible to the assembled board, culminating in Roman and Kendall brawling on the floor. So much for a dignified and united front. The GoJo deal goes through and the Roys are out of Waystar Royco.
In the end, none of the three siblings come out on top and no one gets what they want – but they do, arguably, all get what they deserve.
Kendall in particular, a centrifugal force in the drama, emerges in the finale as a Shakespearian tragic hero. Despite all his soul searching and self-loathing he remains in denial about his culpability for the tragic death of a waiter in season one.
This terrible event seemed to haunt him through subsequent seasons, right through to the scene in season three when he admitted it to his siblings. The moment he chose to retract his confession and lie to Shiv and Roman to secure their backing was the moment he lost the moral right to lead the company.
‘Lady Macbeth part two’
But why did Shiv change her mind after agreeing to anoint Kendall? She explodes when husband Tom (Matthew MacFadyen) tells her that Matsson is planning to appoint him CEO instead. In the boardroom however, perhaps she realises that she does still have a dog in the fight if the deal goes through.
We know that she had been considering reconciling with Tom when she tentatively broached the subject in an earlier scene – albeit when she thought she would be the one stepping into the CEO role.
Perhaps she thought of her pregnancy. Tom as CEO could be the best way to secure her child’s future. Channelling her inner Lady Macbeth, Shiv’s vaulting ambition seals the fate of Waystar Royco and destroys the Roy family’s power over the business forever.
Lest audiences invest too heavily in the idea of Shiv’s maternal instincts, there are reminders that her child is going to grow up with parents who hate each other. They may even grow up amid a “throuple” (a romantic relationship between three people). Matsson’s pitch to Tom, after all, included an admission that he wanted to “fuck” his wife.
Although Tom gets his place in the sun, it comes at a terrible cost. In agreeing to be Matsson’s “pain sponge” – his frontman but not his partner – he abandons any semblance of integrity. Tom, previously dismissed as “servile” by Shiv, is anointed CEO and now has the upper hand in the relationship.
It is a testament to the quality of the writing that many reviewers are making comparisons between Succession and Shakespearean and Greek tragedies. These are justified because the characters are finely drawn, each distinctive and compelling.
Audiences have followed Succession’s cyclical family trauma over the four seasons. The final episode reinforces the suffering of each character without exception – they are destined to a life of misery despite their extreme wealth and power. Shiv is trapped in a loveless marriage. Roman is alone. And Kendall has alienated his allies and lost his sense of purpose. A fitting end.
But arguably Succession’s greatest triumph is that, throughout, the audience have rooted for these deeply unlikable characters despite their flaws. That’s an incredible dramatic sleight of hand.