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Nobody wins on Succession: The devastating satire comes to a close

The bleak end of ‘Succession’ reiterates that by rooting for some rats over others in a race, the last laugh is on us—our storytelling conventions, our easily redeemed characters, our urge for a victor

A still from 'Succession'.
A still from 'Succession'.

This review contains spoilers

Succession is not a parable. You cannot have a good-versus-evil narrative if everyone—every single character—is horrible, and Jesse Armstrong’s exceptional satire ended on a sobering note. The final season of the HBO series (streaming on JioCinema) includes the death of a patriarch and the crowning of an executive, but do not mistake this for a coronation. This bleak end reiterates that by rooting for some rats over others in a race, the last laugh is on us. Damn our storytelling conventions, our easily redeemed characters, our urge for a victor. In this cynical sitcom, nobody wins.

Which is to say, everyone is a loser. Look to Logan Roy, self-made media baron, builder of empires…. As he lies in the coffin, his daughter asks his employees “how bad” her father really was. Many seasons ago, Logan’s brother Ewan had scoffed at the idea of a journalism school named after Logan—“What’s next, the ‘Jack the Ripper Women’s Health Clinic’?”—and now this disgruntled brother delivers a stinging eulogy his children can’t counter. How to defend a monster? You appreciate heft. Logan made money, Logan treated presidents like interns, Logan started wars.

Logan left behind losers. His four children, pretenders to his throne, play-acting as the cutthroats they thought would win his approval. Miserable and wealthy, starved of affection and power, the most wretched of all—headed to nowhere on chauffeur-driven motorcycles. Armstrong’s cunning writers and actors make these oafs seductively articulate: We side not with them but with the sharpness and savagery of their tongues.

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Losers are not created equal. In the first season, when asked to “eat shit” to protect a CEO, Tom Wambsgans asked for “a knife and fork, and some hollandaise”. Over the years, this servile son-in-law to the Roys—stopping but once to snatch chicken from Logan’s plate—proves a dedicated foot soldier. This season, he’s slammed by old-school executive Karl (“You’re a clumsy interloper, and no one trusts you”) while his own wife, Siobhan, describes Tom as a “highly interchangeable modular part”. Yet he serves, without conscience or vision.

Not only does Tom keep grinding—he’s too swamped to attend Logan’s funeral—but he’s bland enough to be unthreatening. This makes him the right modular part. Let them laugh at you. Logan’s grand-nephew, Greg, who engineers a betrayal at the end of the series, is called “Judas” by his boss. The room laughs, and Greg (an unnervingly good Nicholas Braun) smiles back. In boardrooms today, Judas would get a promotion. Greg gets the season’s cleverest line: “It’s like Jaws,” he says of Logan on the prowl, “if everyone in Jaws worked for Jaws.”

Succession wanted to make us, like Logan, choose a child. There’s the overlooked, deluded Connor, who wants to be President of America but will settle for being ambassador in a country that has nukes. There’s Roman, growing a beard to look like his father, eager to appear decisive when he is anything but. There’s Siobhan, aka Shiv, opposed to bigoted leaders who would ruin America, but not enough to avoid making deals with them. And there’s Kendall, the self-proclaimed “elder son” who believes the throne is his birthright. Heartbreakingly, this is the only thing he’s fit for.

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Brian Cox’s Logan Roy appears only in the first three episodes (save for a couple of video recordings) but, unsurprisingly, casts a massive shadow. He remains a leader of people, but where did he lead them? His last words to his children—“I love you, but you are not serious people”—haunt the series long after he’s gone, as the kids ineffectually squabble over power. Matthew Macfadyen is beautifully subtle as Tom, a dogsbody addicted to affluence, and this season he shows his merciless side, shutting down his pregnant wife’s attempts at reconciliation.

The wife, Shiv, is played by Sarah Snook, who delivers a spectacularly high-strung, vulnerable performance—she is shaken to the core when she hears of her father’s death, desperately calling him “Daddy” in a little girl voice, yet she knows how to put her brothers in their place. Alan Ruck is great as a lighter, liberated Connor, freed by his father’s death but energised by his millions, a silly man appearing wiser with each episode. Roman, played with masterful unpredictability by Kieran Culkin, is out of his depth, breaking down at the funeral and trying to broker deals without caring all that much for the outcome. As ever, his lines have zing—he tells Shiv she was played “like a big fiddle, like a pregnant cello”—but, uncharacteristically, he apologises right after.

Staying in character is Kendall, who considers himself Hamlet—or, at the very least, Al Pacino in the Godfather films. Jeremy Strong imbues Kendall with a rare transparency, letting us in on the media heir’s vacuous yet self-serious thoughts. This year he gets to smile—“Happy Ken!” exclaim the siblings—and he truly does believe the promise his father made to him when he was seven, that this is his destined empire. Kendall, in any other series, could have been the hero of the piece, but nobody told him he was in a sitcom. A sitcom without heroes.

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Succession is a sitcom not only because of jokes, but because of patterns: to maintain the status quo, to shuffle things around but keep character dynamics constant, to keep repeating elements — like cruises and exotic settings and always getting these disparate characters in the same room — that work. In episode 9, Kendall recruits someone but makes it clear that it will not be a partnership, that he will work as Kendall’s dog and feed on the generous scraps from his table. This is mirrored in the finale when Tom, given the top job, is told he will have to be a “pain sponge” and soak it up. Woof, woof.

Earlier, Connor had called his siblings “needy love sponges,” but perhaps “pain sponge” was the way to go. It’s what Tom has been throughout, and Logan—forever flagellating his children, his “mistakes”—may have been one as well.

At one point, Shiv introduces Tom to “Bitey”—a game she cannot believe they haven’t played, underscoring their lack of intimacy—where they bite each other till one flinches. To Shiv’s surprise, Tom goes harder. “The first time Tom Wambsgans made me feel something,” Shiv retorts as she recoils, ever cruel in defeat. Succession sank its teeth into us and made us bleed, for terrible people. If we can muster sympathy for these ogres, then perhaps we are capable of forgiveness and affection toward anyone—both a life-affirming and a frightening thought. This show bit us, and we liked it.

Raja Sen is a screenwriter and critic. He has co-written Chup, a film about killing critics, and is now creating an absurd comedy series.


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