At the wrap party for the final episode of Succession, Jeremy Strong – who played Kendall Roy, the cursed sibling at the heart of this tragi-comic melodrama – had his head shaved by Kieran Culkin and Sarah Snook. An infamous method actor (he actually drank the vile “meal for a king” of cacao powder, eggs and tabasco), he seemed to be casting off the toxic mantle of a character he had inhabited for the last five years.
His final scene ended, perhaps inevitably, with the haunted, middle-distance stare that’s become emblematic of his character.
Having put together another unlikely deal to take control of his father’s media company, it was Shiv who plunged the final shiv. Following a boardroom bust-up that was unbearably tense even for a series known for its unbearably tense boardroom bust-ups, Shiv cast the deciding vote against her brother, handing Waystar Royco to the deranged tech billionaire who had double crossed her only a few scenes earlier, creating an unlikely puppet king in her on-off husband Tom Wambsgans.
It was a hell of an ending, a series of stomach-drop moments, awful and inevitable and terribly, terribly final. After the political crescendo of election night and the emotional crescendo of Logan’s funeral, the show returns to the faceless, airless vacuum of the boardroom, with each contender to the throne totting up votes, anticipating betrayals, making plays.
Most characters in Succession have believed, at some point, that they might fulfil the promise of the series’ title: Kendall, Shiv and Roman, of course (Connor dreamt even bigger, thinking he might succeed the President); corporate suits Frank, Gerri and Karl; even cousin Greg, I suspect, flirted with the idea.
Everyone apart from Tom. He was the archetypal middle-man, the “interchangeable modular part” (Shiv’s description), merely protecting his miserable little fiefdom, expecting it all – wife, career, freedom – to vanish at any moment.
There’s an undeniable nihilism to Succession, which ends with a takedown of both the cult of personality and the kind of empty suit that’s able to thrive in corporate America. Perhaps most damning for the Roys, however, is the manner in which they were undone: they fought amongst themselves until the bitter end, only to see the company snatched by a buffoon, albeit a sexy one.
And therein lies a criticism of Succession. For all its caustic wit and poetic brilliance, it never really goes anywhere. It ends where it began, its characters having learned little and changed even less. Only Roman seems, in the end, to grasp the hopelessness of it all – “We’re nothing,” he says to Kendall from behind those glassy eyes, amazed his brother hasn’t worked it out yet.
In a way, it didn’t matter who “won” Succession – you could re-rack the finale like a game of snooker, potting the balls in a slightly different order and the super-heavy pit at its heart would remain the same. There is no happiness for these characters, no redemption.
But watching them is always a joy. No matter how bleak things get, series creator Jesse Armstrong is always armed with a gag, whether it’s the way everyone keeps forgetting that Connor exists – a hanging punchline to Kendall’s anguished line “I am the eldest boy!” – to the sadistic bonding sessions between Kendall, Shiv and Roman, the latter two joking (but also not joking?) that they would have murdered their brother had it not involved so much planning.
But tragedy ages better than comedy and it’s the bleak final scenes that will come to define the series – Kendall, flanked by Logan’s former bodyguard, a dull shadow of his father, gazing into the Hudson, with its echoes of past sins and its implications of suicide. Roman drinking away his sorrows, totally alone. Shiv the lesser half in a marriage to half a man.
It feels like these scenes could have been filmed alongside the first episode, the inevitable final destination, with all the politicking and scheming and wins and failures amounting to so much hot air.
It’s brilliant. It’s perfect. I can’t believe it’s over.