Two of the most singular shows to ever air on HBO—which is to say, two of the most singular TV shows, period—ended their runs on Sunday night. Succession offered an emotionally draining and devastating finale (because of course it did) with “With Open Eyes,” a 90-minute installment that saw a lot of characters’ fates flip-flop. Immediately after that, we were treated to Barry’s sendoff, “wow,” an expertly directed episode by Bill Hader that had a final sequence we didn’t see coming. So let’s answer that admittedly kinda ridiculous question: Which show had the better series finale, Barry or Succession?
Yes, we know Barry and Succession can’t be compared, aside from how HBO managed to end two of its top originals at their peak on the same night. We’ll mourn for a long time. But that twist of fate allows everyone to weigh in on how their finales fared.
For most of its final season, Barry forgot it was primarily a comedy. Don’t get me wrong: There’s dark humor in there, but Alec Berg and Bill Hader’s series mutated into a stellar but depressing drama about the real world. The series finale culminated with strong commentary on the culture of glorifying violence and Hollywood. As I tried to predict last week, I thought Barry could defy expectations by not killing Barry Berkman (Hader) and turning him into a “hero.” While he does die—I also muttered an “oh wow” at the sudden execution—of course we see the movie wrongly depict and basically celebrate Barry’s crimes. The episode was undoubtedly exciting, but it also felt anticlimactic. Even NoHo Hank’s death felt a little unearned, if not surprising—at least the departing frame of him holding Cristobal’s statue hand remains unforgettable. Overall, I enjoyed the half-hour, and I’m proud of Sally (Sarah Goldberg) for attempting to break a traumatic cycle. The Barry series finale, in the end, met my expectations.
Now, let’s talk about Succession because, for me, it was the better series ender. Despite its hourlong episodes and the longer 88-minute finale, this drama often felt like an acerbic comedy. I’ve paused to chortle, cringe, and literally laugh out loud multiple times during any given episode. I’ve joked that Succession should be slotted in the comedy category at the Emmys. But underneath its layered sarcasm, the show’s writing and performances always remind you this is a serious—dare I say prestige—drama about a rotten, rotten family of fools. And “With Open Eyes” cut my heart in all the right ways. It had me on the edge of my seat and made me question my emotions; how dare they make me care about the Roy siblings as the three idiots chant “Meal fit for a king.” It’s safe to say my anxiety heightened in the last 20 minutes, which made it clear yet again that Logan was right: His kids are not serious people. They are fuck-ups. Sarah Snook, Kieran Culkin, and Jeremy Strong topped themselves in the final conference-room scene. Shiv, Roman, and Kendall might as well have stabbed each other with daggers. Instead, they used their words and information for wounds that may never heal. There was no other way for it to end. What a legacy.
As Saloni has already pointed out, the only reason we feel compelled to compare these two very different shows and their distinctive finales is because HBO aired them on the same night. I think the only criteria we have for determining which show had a better ending is to look at what each of them was trying to accomplish, and how well each of them accomplished it.
Let’s start with the Succession finale, which I preferred. In its fourth season, the show broke through in a way that few others do in this era of peak TV. For the last 10 weeks, it felt like everyone was watching Succession and had an opinion about where it was going and how it would end. Maybe being too close to those conversations is an occupational hazard when you’re writing about it every week, but it has been fun seeing all the speculation and theories after each episode. That just brings into focus the monumental task Jesse Armstrong and his team faced to come up with a satisfying conclusion that made it clear to the audience what story they wanted to tell all along without pulling out the rug beneath them.
As many of us expected, Armstrong wasn’t going to let any of the deeply fucked-up Roy siblings walk away with a clean win. What came as a surprise were the episode’s lighter moments, with Kendall, Shiv, and Roman united in their mother’s sparsely stocked kitchen, goofing around and actually smiling for once. Anyone who’s watched this show knew it would all come crashing down by the end. Where they all finished up was heartbreaking, but it felt right for the characters we’ve come to know. And every creative decision, from the direction to the costuming to the outstanding performances, supported that vision. It was an ending “fit for a king.”
Moving onto Barry: This show was also burdened by the weight of expectations, but perhaps had a little more wiggle room from an audience willing to give Bill Hader the benefit of the doubt. This season proved divisive among fans for its darker turn and a time jump into a bleaker narrative landscape. I have to admit that I preferred the earlier seasons of the show to this last one. I appreciate that Hader was building to a conclusion that made a statement about violence and the way institutions like the military and Hollywood perpetuate myths that continue the cycle, but in the end I feel like it swerved a little too far from the Barry I started watching in season one. Hader is a gifted storyteller and a filmmaker with a very clear and interesting point of view—I can’t wait to see what he does next—but for me the finale felt like a welcome relief (as I suspect it might have also also been for Hader) that this story and these characters were finally put out of their misery.
I’m going to agree with my colleagues that Succession, for me, was the better series finale. (Also, apologies for asking this pretty ridiculous roundtable question—and many, many thanks to William Hughes and Matt Schimkowitz for their stellar, insightful recaps each week on Succession and Barry, respectively.) So, anyway, Succession. I was distracted by two things while watching “With Open Eyes”: 1.) that these would be the last moments that I’d be with these characters who I’ve spent years watching—and rewatching, and 2.) that this show really has perfected the flipping-the-script season finale—so how would they top those? As far as the latter, with only two days of reflection, I’m not sure that they did. (The last finale, season three’s “All The Bells Say,” is, in case you’re keeping score, my fave finale closer. Just a remarkable hour of television.) But. Succession’s series finale, of course, was remarkable, with bits of everything I wanted to see in it: little moments of levity with the sibs at the beach palace as well as truly gutting moments of desperation (Ken ripping open Roman’s wound, the shouting matches, the look on Shiv’s face in the car with Tom, Ken staring out at the water in Battery Park) to remind us that this was always going to be a tragedy. It will be interesting to see days, weeks, and years from now how my estimation of this finale changes. But again, it is an incredible achievement for an incredible show.
As for Barry, “wow” is another episode I’ll need, I think, to take in a few times before I get a handle on it. But one thing it drove home—in a show that drove this home all season—was Bill Hader’s remarkable direction. Two very different scenes stand out to me: Sally and John, both facing away from the camera to start things off, having that big discussion about who Barry, and Sally, are; and Barry walking through a superstore, guns strapped to his back, stomping hios way past that most milquetoast of American environs. The show ended, as it probably always had to, with a creative left turn with that legacy-movie montage. It’s a reminder that, not unlike Succession, there won’t be another dark comedy quite like Barry.