[This article contains spoilers for Sunday’s series finale of Succession. Duh.]
It was always going to get Biblical on Succession.
It was always going to come down to birthrights and which Roy sibling, or possibly in-law or maybe distant relative, was going to maneuver the selling of the family birthright — or, rather, corporation — for somewhere between a mess of pottage and several billion dollars. Or a fancy title at a dead-on-its-feet company. Or the token promise of a social media empire.
So yes, Succession was always going to be a show about the corruption of 21st-century business empires and the complicated and corrosive connection between the media and politics. It was always going to be a show that we had to discuss in terms of How We’re Living Now or, rather, How We Want to Believe the Horrible People Who Run Everything Are Living Now. But what is that show’s cultural shelf life? Three months? Five years? Until a society with a short attention span either forgets about the name “Murdoch” or represses the name “Trump” or decides that it’s too unbearable to have to be reminded of those things. Currency is transitory, whether we’re talking about relevance or money.
If that were all Succession was, maybe it would be a great show, but would it be a GREAT show? I’ll say “no.” It’s the reason “America Decides” was maybe my least favorite episode in the 40-episode run of Succession, followed by “Whatever It Takes,” the season three episode at the Future Freedom Summit. Because Succession was always about the things that were moved front and center in those two episodes without telling you that it was about them. Those were lethal and scathing episodes, but they were over-indicated episodes. They were episodes that said, “Yes, we ARE a political satire and yes, this IS going to confirm everything you’ve ever thought or feared about Fox News and the Republican Party.” [Disclaimer: “America Decides” and “Whatever It Takes” would be the best episodes of 95 percent of the 600-ish television shows that aired in the past year.]
For me, the reason we’re going to be talking about Succession as long as we talk about anything in this medium — a medium that Succession asserted, without any conditions, is pouring poison into the ears of the American people — can be summed up in three little words: Sticker Perambulating Circuits.
Alan Ruck’s Connor Roy was, for me, the heart and soul of the first half of this season and he didn’t need to be a major part of the series finale because, even at 90 minutes, the finale had very little place for a heart and soul. But Connor got one scene and he introduced us to Sticker Perambulating Circuits, or SPCs, as Sarah Snook’s Shiv appropriately shortens it. I’m going to wager that no more than one or two people reading this commentary know what it’s like to own a media empire, to have to make the heartbreaking choice between maintaining your grasp on a global company or losing everything with only billions of dollars to show for that defeat. But nearly everybody reading this commentary understands the process of going through a loved one’s house or apartment with stickers or post-it notes or, in a virtual world, clicking through an online database of images.
I can see a wooden menorah and a carved stone loon from where I’m typing this. They’re things I once put stickers on. Maybe you put stickers on a painting of a person you can’t identify anymore or a samovar badly in need of polish or a leather-bound collection of books you keep on display.
The Roys put stickers on a presidential election, on a company with tendrils stretching into every aspect of American life and, in a key moment toward the end of the finale, literally on people. And yes, it was Tom Wambsgans who technically put the sticker on Cousin Greg, but if there was anything to be taken away from the finale, it was the two-pronged assertion that the Roys are/were the worst of people and Tom beat them at their own game. Briefly. Pyrrhically.
It was a requirement of the Succession Thinkpiece Industry that, at some point in the past few months, everybody with any investment in the show weigh in on who would be sitting on the Iron Throne when the show ended. I weighed in with several answers at different points, including Connor. I never cared. Not even for a second. The truth was always that whoever was going to be atop the Waystar RoyCo hierarchy at the end of the finale, it wouldn’t matter. It was a corporation built on a foundation of sand and held up with lies.
Feel free to gloat a bit if you predicted Tom. He’s in the PR pictures standing next to Lukas Matsson and everybody came to kiss his ring and so as the show ends, he’s kinda in charge. I mean, he’s ostensibly the empty suit serving as American CEO for regulatory reasons, but if you’re Tom Wambsgans, that’s the ultimate victory. Will he still be in that position five weeks or five months or five minutes after that cut to black? Of course not. But who cares about hypotheticals? I’ll always believe Tony Soprano might have died two seconds after his show’s fateful cut to black, but that’s the equivalent of asking AI to reproduce or fabricate things happening outside of the cinematic frame. And it’s a different argument.
My real point was that Jesse Armstrong was never going to make the climactic assumption a triumphant one. It was always going to be the most desultory of triumphs. In what started as a typo, I referred once to the character who would conclude this series sitting on the “Irony Throne.” Tom works. But Kendall would have worked. Lawrence Yee, who at least got to play a major off-screen role in the finale after being positioned in the pilot as the series’ key adversary, would have worked. Guess what? Almost anybody would have worked because everybody would have been awful. Wonderfully awful.
The test was always going to be how we got to the Irony Throne and the Succession finale passed that test with flying colors. Even if the icy series of conclusions — Roman enigmatically almost-smiling into a martini, Shiv placing her hand on Tom’s in a gesture that made the end of The Graduate feel lusty and romantic, Kendall staring into the middle distance, as he’s always done best — hadn’t been perfect, the finale’s series of scenes, some heartbreaking and some disarmingly light, leading up to the ending would have made this a finale to remember.
Pick your favorite, all directed by Mark Mylod with a trademark impeccably wandering eye that will have his biggest Emmy competition this fall coming from Mark Mylod and Mark Mylod.
Was it Shiv and Tom’s latest gut-wrenching conversation in a season of gut-wrenching conversations, with Shiv pleading “I thought it might be worth raising: Are there any positives about the nightmare we’ve shared?” and Tom correctly assessing she was motivated by her hatred of failing tests more than love?
Was it Lukas sitting with Tom and frankly telling him that what he needed wasn’t a partner, but a “pain sponge” and explaining that he couldn’t make Shiv the CEO because, among other reasons, he wanted to screw her? Alexander Skarsgård has played undead bloodsuckers and dead-eyed spousal abusers and he has never been scarier or grosser than he was on Succession this season. A master-class in charismatic repugnance.
Much likelier, it would be a choice of several scenes at Caroline’s house in Barbados. I wouldn’t even make you pick between the Shiv and Roman conversation on the beach, each impersonating Kendall as they tried to decide if they could live with Kendall being CEO, and then the three siblings calling back to a family ritual and making a Meal Fit for a King. That was my favorite because once we weren’t going to get a callback to the pilot’s key scene of The Game, this was an equally valid reminder that for all the horrors of the Roy childhood, they were still a family with silly rituals — including throwing everything they could find into a blender and forcing somebody to eat it. Plus, Roman got to lick Peter’s Special Cheese.
Maybe after those scenes you actually believed the three Roy siblings — sorry, as always, Connor — were going to form an uneasy alliance that would hold together long enough to fend off Lukas, kill the deal and hold onto the family birthright. Maybe you were fooled by the swell of emotions as the kids watched that video of Logan, with Karl of all people singing “Green Grow the Rushes.” But you knew that wasn’t going to last, no matter how truly spectacular Kieran Culkin, Jeremy Strong and Sarah Snook were at making you believe or maybe even want to believe.
So your favorite scenes then had to be the ones that hurt — the ones that restored the show’s natural order, one in which the smiles and laughter of the Meal Fit for a King scene curdled like, well, a Meal Fit for a King spiked with Shiv’s spittle.
Was it a haunted Roman, staring at his imperfect reflection and healing scars from last week’s Day of the Locust conclusion and then accepting a hug from his brother, which, intentionally or incidentally, was designed to pop his literal and spiritual stitches? Or was it the nadir? Shiv recognizing that she couldn’t vote for anything that would put Kendall in charge — and then in a stone-throwing conflagration held in a glass office if not a glass house, turning to the most potent weapons at her disposal: Secrets. The whole “manslaughter” thing didn’t take. Kendall squirmed away. The death blow, the spiritual fatality, came in the form of — as I said at the top of this expanding novel of a commentary — the issue of birthright.
“I’m the eldest boy!” Kendall protested, reduced to the tears of a petulant, too-long-overlooked-and-underloved child, one promised his inheritance at “The Candy Kitchen in Bridgehampton.” What broke him, though, was Roman’s comment about Kendall’s children, about the legitimacy of his bloodline. Kendall’s assault on Roman was the end of things. The end of Shiv’s vote. The end of his birthright. The end of the Roy dynasty.
For now, I mean. As horrible as things seem at the end of this episode for many of our protagonists, they will always be rich as Croesus and you will not, which is the ultimate takeaway from Succession. You might think you relate to the comic tragedy of their lives, to the quaint process of adhering stickers to the things that help you remember the things and people you love, but their stickers aren’t your stickers and their tragedy isn’t your tragedy.
That’s a sublime end to a sublime television show.