Note: there are mild spoilers in this piece
News just in at Waystar Royco: the stakes have been raised among the warring Roys as Succession returns for its final series.
The highly anticipated fourth season of HBO’s hugely popular drama opened with a sombre episode. Creator Jesse Armstrong has confirmed that season four is the last, setting up much speculation about the details of the denouement.
Tonally, the story of the Roy family and the media conglomerate they control, is a cross between Greek tragedy and political satire. This kind of dramatic counterpoint is an integral feature of the storytelling: it is not unusual for the story to oscillate between black comedy and the profoundly dark stuff of human drama.
This is evident in the season opener at Logan’s birthday party, which sets up socially awkward Cousin Greg on a hilariously misjudged date, and ends with a bleak scene presaging the breakdown of Shiv and Tom’s marriage.
This first episode expertly seeds the plot points that will unravel throughout the final season and culminate in a finale that resolves the core storyline: who will succeed Logan Roy as CEO? One of his deeply flawed “nepo-babies” or one of the extended family such as Cousin Greg or son-in-law Tom? Who will survive the bloodletting that is sure to ensue?
Going round in circles
A powerhouse example of ensemble drama, this large cast of characters, each with their own motivations, affords a satisfying narrative complexity. The story is moving to inexorable resolution, demonstrating a willingness to play with the deferral of who will take over from ruthless father and Waystar Royco CEO Logan Roy (Brian Cox).
Over the past three seasons the plot has been going round in circles: Logan promising to appoint a successor and then demurring. Wavering indecision has become an integral part of the story structure. These are people who “talk about talking” (as son Kendall said to siblings Shiv and Roman in season four’s opening episode) – Machiavellian characters who pointedly refuse to say exactly what they are thinking because they believe it to be a sign of weakness.
Snappy exchanges between characters crack along at a pace sometimes hard to take in on first viewing. Dialogue is typically savage and brutal – a marker of the Roys’ dysfunctional family background.
Logan’s children Kendall, Shiv and Roman are each in their own way so toxic that they routinely deploy sexual innuendo to describe power games within the family – there is endless talk of “cocks being sucked”. The dialogue is relentlessly explicit and hints at underlying trauma.
The old man’s birthday party should be a joyous occasion but instead is peopled with acquaintances of little consequence. Some familiar faces do appear – Tom and Cousin Greg dominate, and Connor (Logan’s “number 1” son) and his fiancée are there, but overall the impression is of a sad, empty affair.
The “rats” (Logan’s term for Shiv, Roman and Kendall) are elsewhere, plotting. His wife Marcia is in Milan shopping “forever”. It is so depressing that Logan takes off for a walk in the park with his bodyguard.
A familiar narrative technique is then deployed: a swift pivot to “the rats” plotting on the west coast in a spectacular clifftop house. They have come up with an apparently revolutionary news outlet, featuring the 100 best commentators in various fields. But it already feels somehow behind the curve – can they make it on their own? This is a core theme throughout Succession. Logan thinks not, and has humiliated his children throughout the previous three seasons.
When they are given the opportunity to shine, they invariably disappoint. The public staging of their respective inadequacies – the corporate high drama – is really a vehicle for the exploration of the deep human drama which is a story of a deeply dysfunctional family. Each of the children desperately wants their father’s approval, a story that resonates with many viewers.
Things have progressed for Shiv and Tom. Tom’s disloyalty in season three’s finale, when he tells Logan that his children are making moves to remove him from Waystar Royco, has led to estrangement. Now they are talking about divorce. Typical of both, and symptomatic of their flaws, this deeply personal development is first expressed as a corporate move – first by Tom to Logan, followed by Shiv to Nan Pierce, CEO of Waystar Royco’s rival media company PGM.
Could they be reconciled? Might the finale resolve their conflict or can they both move on to more fulfilling relationships? What makes Shiv and Tom such compelling characters is their misery. In the final scene in the apartment, the sterile set design underscores the bleak state of their relationship.
The vultures are circling
So are we any closer to finding out who will be taking over Waystar Royco? Teasing the remaining story development, episode one seems to suggest that Tom, who appears now to have Logan’s ear, is poised to take over from his father-in-law. A measure of his growing stature is Logan conferring a petname: Tom is now “Tommy”. Perhaps the most revealing development, however, is that Tom has taken on some of Logan’s mannerisms; he is becoming Logan. This seems significant.
If Tom does take the top job then it will provide satisfying closure on a story not short of dramatic irony: he’s vulnerable yet grasping, but somehow likeable despite his flaws. He has already demonstrated ruthlessness in his willingness to do a deal with the devil, but can he live with the consequences of his actions?
And what of the others? Can Logan’s “rats” overcome their own inadequacies or will they finally succumb in the family bear pit? The conventions of tragedy demand that characters must pay for their failings – which makes for delicious Sunday night drama. But as ever, like Logan’s children, prepare to be wrong footed.