Off With Their Heads

A farewell to "Succession" and its broken little monsters.

Off With Their Heads

I can’t let “Succession” disappear into the pop-culture distance without offering a few notes on one of the most dramatically satisfying series finales I’ve ever seen. (Warning: Spoilers ensue.)

I was wrong about Kendall (Jeremy Strong) inheriting the throne – boy, was I wrong. (I was right about the reappearance of Chekhov’s Dead Waiter, though.) But it was the way he lost the inheritance he believed he’d been promised since he was 7 that took the breath away – that revealed how there was nothing inside this man aside from the need to show his father. Show him what? Just show him. Make him see, even from beyond the grave. With that chance gone along with Waystar Royco – gone forever – Kendall has lost it all: wife, kids, future. Siblings. Soul. In Jeremy Strong’s words, he’s a wraith. In Roman’s words, he’s “nothing.”

And how weirdly touching is it that Roman (Kieran Culkin) became the one Roy child granted self-knowledge at the end, not that will do him any good, which is also something he knows. That crooked smile in the penultimate scene, as Roman sits at the bar and orders a martini – Gerri’s drink – is the smile of a man who has found peace at last in his irrelevance, his nothing-ness. In a show about the delusions of power that come with obscene wealth, he’s the last character you’d have expected to break through to clarity. In the end, he’s the only one who did. I predict he’ll drink himself to death within the decade.

Shiv (Sarah Snook)? You can argue whether she turned on her older brother because she knew what a disaster he’d be as CEO, to twist the sibling knife one last time, or only because she saw her one remaining avenue to power as the rich, smart wife of a mediocre corporate puppet. That final image of Shiv in the Escalade with Tom (Matthew Macfadyen), her hand placed diplomatically in his outstretched palm, has been read as different things: Submission, reconciliation, the death of a marriage, the delay of revenge, an acquiescence to co-rule. But you could also argue that Shiv is the ultimate loser of the war between the three siblings – a war that turned shockingly physical more than once in the final episode – in that she’s the only Roy still foolish enough to think she’s Something. (First son Connor? Played by Alan Ruck as the designated comic relief, he has never been crucial to this show’s drama of character and comeuppance.)

The final episode of “Succession” had any number of skin-crawling moments where people revealed their moral bankruptcy: Lukas Matsson (Alexander Skarsgård) confessing to Tom he’d forego hiring as CEO the “woman with the baby” for “the man who put the baby in her"; Tom hearing this and blandly pleading his case rather than punching Matsson in the nose; Shiv telling Matsson that her husband always “sucks the dick of the most important person in the room” and thereby sealing her own fate, since that’s exactly what Matsson wants in a CEO. Such horrible, broken people, but the bleak pleasure of this show – and it was a pleasure to watch for a lot of us – was that it never lost its own moral bearings even as it gave us characters with no morals whatsoever and asked us to pick sides. Well, it didn’t ask us. It just knew we would.

“Succession” was never a lecture on why You Shouldn’t Be These People, though, even if some viewers would have preferred to feel more daylight between themselves and the Roys. No, it was simply a comedy about the corruptions of money – how the closer you are to the black hole of wealth, the more completely you’ll be warped by its gravitational pull. Over four seasons of this show, there was no one who was not complicit, no one who wasn’t working an agenda that would put them in a more powerful position at the expense of other people, often people they professed to love. (And, no, I’m not letting James Cromwell’s Uncle Ewan off the hook. But, okay, maybe Natalie Gold’s Rava and the kids – the ones Roman reminded Kendall weren’t his.) That “Succession” worked at all was a testament to the quality of the writing, the directing, the acting, and, above all, to the grand conception of show creator Jesse Armstrong that the rich aren’t different than you and me, they just cause more damage and are able to buy their way out of it more easily, which has no effect on the damage they carry around inside themselves.

I’m going to miss some of these characters, even the minor ones, whose throwaway lines and facial expressions could illuminate a scene more clearly and brutally than anything the principals were doing. The bickering brain trust of Frank (Peter Friedman), Karl (David Rasche), and Gerri (J. Smith-Cameron); Hugo (Fisher Stevens), the VP with the collapsible spine and metaphorical dog collar; Dagmara Domińczyk’s ever-pragmatic Waystar PR head Karolina, waiting until the very last episode to drive a knife into someone’s back. (It was Hugo’s). Think of the gifted actors who rolled through this show, biting into the fresh steak of their dialogue: Cherry Jones, Holly Hunter, Sanaa Lathan, Danny Huston, Hiam Abbass, Arian Moayed, Eric Bogosian, Jeannie Berlin. I don’t know that I’ll ever be able to regard Matthew Macfadyen without a shiver of revulsion, so completely did he embody the toadying of a certain type of passive aggressive corporate shitheel. I don’t know that Jeremy Strong will ever be able to shed the shadow of Kendall Roy, the character that made him famous and whose on-the-spectrum lust for daddy’s love or, failing that, world domination or, failing that, his siblings’ destruction he embodied with such chilling empathy. I fell for Kendall, too – fell for the lost boy – until I was reminded of how much he would give away of his family, of his country, to be found.

There was an odd moment in the “Succession” finale, when the Roy children arrived at their late father’s townhouse to divvy up his spoils and found themselves watching a video of a convivial meal shared by Logan and his immediate Waystar underlings – wine and camaraderie and song. What real families do when they get together. Everyone tells a joke and, when his turn comes, Karl softly sings the Scottish folk song “Green Grow the Rashes,” with its words by Robert Burns:

The worldly race may riches chase
And riches still may fly them oh
And though at last they catch them fast
Their hearts can ne'er enjoy them oh

Green grow the rashes oh

It may have been the only obvious moment in four seasons of “Succession.” But it was a beautiful one, too, and a human one, sung as it was by a secondary character who, like everyone at that table and everyone watching the video (and, who knows, maybe everyone watching the show), heard and knew the truth of those words and was still helpless to learn from them.

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