Warning: There really are spoilers that follow! If you have not seen the finale, you have been warned. This is also written assuming you have seen the show.
The best television shows are like novels, and each episode is a chapter. The Wire, The Sopranos, Rectify, Breaking Bad, etc. all feel like great novels, with deep characters, great storylines, and some surprises along the way.
Prestige shows like these are how HBO built its reputation as something of a PBS of cable, and for a show like Succession, that means that it has a lot to live up to. Going into last night’s finale, Succession was like a gymnast doing a twisting, spinning, flipping impossible vault and we were all waiting to see if it could stick the landing. And it did.
Succession is a tale of a Rupert Murdoch-like figure, his right-wing media empire, and which of his adult children will take the throne. At its heart, the show is about a bunch of screwups screwing up. It is a cliche to note that the same qualities that make someone a psychopath also make them great at business, and Succession astutely made that point.
It also makes the point that these people exist in a system that enables them to be idiots and weirdos and still succeed. Matsson, the Scandinavian tech bro tycoon looking to buy the Roy family empire, sends his ex-lover/company’s top communications executive frozen blocks of his own blood. Something Elon Musk would do.
So, we enter the finale with a big question on everyone’s mind, and that is which sibling, or siblings, wins. And the answer is none of them, with one caveat (more on that in a bit). We spent weeks believing that Shiv had the inside track, the upper hand given her knowledge of Matsson’s blood deliveries. They seemed to be building a formidable partnership until the show’s resident dork and comic relief Greg uses a translation app to eavesdrop on a conversation Matsson is having with his Swedish lieutenants about the deal and learns that he is planning on screwing Shiv over.
The finale is extra-long, fitting for a great show. There’s a lot to cover! This additional length made this final episode feel both leisurely and rushed, all in excellent ways. The show gave the characters the relative luxury to experience a little joy in the scene where they are making an awful concoction to drink on a dare in Mommy’s kitchen. They are joyless characters who were born into a joyless world, and it gave us a little view into what the relationship might have been like if Pop wasn’t the Dark Overlord of the Universe.
It also felt a little rushed in Kendell’s sudden turn to violence. He was the least violent of the siblings, and his crazed attack on Roman seemed like a sudden and rushed character development. But I also realize that sometimes people snap, and act out of character when desperate. I also realize that about, oh, 63% of everything that happens these days can be commented on with “if this was in a show no one would buy it.” Weird, unexpected, out-of-character things happen in the real world So, sure, Ken attacks Roman. Things were falling apart.
That takes me to Shiv’s decision to not vote for Kendall, handing the deal to Matsson and the CEO position to her husband in name only, Tom, and betraying her brother. Great shows are often open to interpretation, and why Shiv did this can be debated. Was it taking out Matsson’s betrayal of her on her brother? I do not think so. Was it protecting her brother, because she spoke the truth when she said that he was not up to the job? I guess so, but the clearest reason to me was self-interest and business calculation.
The dead waiter from season 3 likely loomed in Shiv’s decision-making, she pummels Kendall with it in that climatic sibling fight-in-the-glass-walled-office scene. But also she knows that Kendall’s personal life is a mess beyond a hidden manslaughter in his past, and he is as shallow as a puddle. Kendall IMPERSONATES his father, thinking that is enough. See the babbling pep talks he gives his employees, and contrast those with Logan’s “I FUCKING LOVE IT HERE!” speech he gave on the ATN ops floor right before he croaked. Also, see his funeral speech.
But that is not enough. Kendall is a pretender, not a player. Shiv knows this deeply.
So, the siblings end up not getting what they want. Shiv makes a choice to be the wife of a petty CEO in a loveless marriage, perhaps destined to become her mother. The other choice was to tie her destiny to another less-than-great man, her unstable brother. Roman, in a way, gets the best possible ending. He gets to be a do-nothing shit child of wealth, free to do whatever. The costuming in this show is incredible and Roman’s is no exception. He always looked like a prisoner of his own clothes, like nothing fit him, and his stoner bro on vacation at mom’s palatial tropical estate look during the scenes at mom’s (complete with hemp bracelets) suited him. So he gets relief, sort of.
Conner, I guess, never gets to be the overlord of an Eastern European country, so the show rightfully does not care about him in the finale (there are a few hints in the finale the election will be overturned so Conner’s gig was doomed anyway). But Kendall, a great Shakespearian tragic figure, is who we are left with at the end, walking alone with his bodyguard in a prolonged state of shock.
He is getting sums of money beyond anything 99.9% of us can even imagine, but this is not enough when you were so close to the throne. We end with Kendall staring out across the water, and we wonder if we will see him jump in (the shot of the water here is ominous, with a strong tidal current quite obvious just over the railing). But we don’t.
Where do the characters end up in a post-show world? My guess is Roman becomes steady tabloid fodder for various failings and poor behavior. Shiv divorces Tom at some point, and perhaps recovers to make her own life. She is a pretty smart woman. As for Kendall, I feel like he tries to make a comeback and fails spectacularly, making bad investments and launching various dumb schemes.
All of what I wrote is my own interpretation, and sometimes what makes a show great is there are many ways to interpret the plot. Succession is certainly no different, and there are plenty of theories flying around the Internet. In any event, it likely will be remembered as one of the all-time greatest shows, and while none of the characters were anything close to likable, we will miss them.
The last word goes to Succession’s opening credits. Most great shows also have great opening credits and theme song combos, and this is very true about Succession. Goodbye, you sad rich little bastards.