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Succession series finale: The kids aren't alright

Succession ends with a reminder that these were terrible people who should never actually get what they want—and why that might break your heart

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Kieran Culkin, Sarah Snook, Jeremy Strong
Kieran Culkin, Sarah Snook, Jeremy Strong
Photo: Sarah Shatz/HBO

It’s telling that one of the last things we see Kendall Roy do, before his world collapses, is hurt his little brother. Kendall, who, even at his most broken, would throw himself between his monster of a father and his sensitive, semi-sociopathic little bro—tonight, he deliberately, and calmly, makes Roman bleed. Weakens him, so that Kendall can be strong.

If Succession was a show about a son slowly learning to become his father—internalizing the man’s cruelties, his evils, and, yes, his terrible, vital force—then that moment would be the one where Kendall finally, actually succeeds. Where he finally becomes Logan Roy, unleashing the monster inside him to seize the reins of the world. Selling his soul for power.


But Succession has never been that show. It is not—despite the incredible con job that Jesse Armstrong has done with his beautiful scripts, and that Mark Mylod, and all of the show’s incredible crew, have done to present these gorgeous worlds of opulence and influence—a prestige drama about the terrible things people do for power. No: It is, and always has been, a show about idiots, fucking up. And so “With Open Eyes” doesn’t end on that moment of awful moral compromise, on The Selling Of Kendall Roy. It instead ends with two idiots fighting like kids on a playground while a third idiot blows up the world, and two more idiots fail upward into running what’s left of it. Hell, Connor doesn’t even get to take over Slovenia, or whatever!


Those playground vibes shoot through both the finale’s darkest and its warmest moments: That final, awful confrontation where Kendall tries to tantrum his way into getting Daddy’s magic chair, of course. But also the earlier moments with Kendall, Shiv, and Roman in their mother’s kitchen, teasing and joking with each other, laughing happily as Roman mimes oral sex on step-father Peter’s special cheese. Joyful moments between people who almost never get to express joy, united for once without all the bullshit and insecurity breaking through. Glimpses of who these people could have been if Logan Roy had been content to just run a fucking newspaper in some pissant little corner of America, instead of trying to own the entire thing.

If there’s a benefit to the supersized length of Succession’s final episode, it’s in the grace with which it approaches those moments, the willingness to spend time on the least terrible versions of these horrible, horrible people. And also, yeah, on the worst: Shiv and Roman in a glass-walled office, hitting Kendall with the lowest possible blows—the waiter, his kids—that they can muster to try to finally break his desperate need to win; Kendall swinging back with all the dignity of a teenager begging not to be grounded. (God, the way he screams that they’re being dumb, that they’re not making logical sense; the ways he tries to spin the Tetris piece of Andrew Dodds’ death into a form that still lets him get the treat that Daddy promised him when he was 7 years old.) Succession’s fourth season has made an art out of rhyming itself with episodes from the show’s earlier seasons; we come at last, tonight, back around to the first season’s breaking point, “Whose Side Are You On?” and the result turns out to be exactly the same, even without Logan there to loom over things and screw Ken over.

Matthew Macfadyen and Sarah Snook
Matthew Macfadyen and Sarah Snook
Photo: HBO

Shiv’s decision to turn on Kendall in the boardroom is the pivot of the show’s final minutes, and one that’s going to come in for a lot of analysis, I think—especially since the show avoids telegraphing it until it’s her actual turn to vote. No one in Succession ever acts without some measure of self-interest, but for what it’s worth, I believe her when she tells him she’s acting on an almost instinctual gut revulsion: She knows her brother well enough to know that, for all that Matsson is a psycho and Tom has no soul, the world (including Kendall) will not be better off with Kendall Roy as its king. She’s too Shiv, probably, to reach the point that Roman ends up at, to grasp the fundamental truth that all the Roy kids are “bullshit,” and that none of them should have the reins. But it’s hard to fault her for taking her ball and going home. Strip away the vote counts, the superfluous mentions of the Vaulter guy, Matsson’s double-dealing; the final dramatic turn of Succession is this: Whether Shiv Roy believes in her brother. And he’s proven, time and time again, that she shouldn’t.


A year from now, when I think about this show, it won’t be the corporate maneuverings that come back to me, the endless cycling of who’s stabbing who in the back at whichever minute of this massively long 90-minute conclusion. (For the record, it’s Matsson and Tom fucking over Shiv for most of it. It’s actually kind of surprising that it took Lukas this long to zero in on the endless usefulness of a guy who’ll cheerfully yes-man casual musings about wanting to fuck Tom’s wife.) All of that stuff has always been window dressing, fodder for articles where some investment banker sits you down and explains “what’s really going on in Succession’s big boardroom scenes,” while you quietly pray for death

No, what’ll come back to me are the little human moments, more precious because they managed to bubble up through the sea of awfulness. Sarah Snook and Kieran Culkin busting out their Jeremy Strong impressions to simulate how petty and righteous Ken would be if they tried to bonk him on the head with a coconut and just be done with it. Snook once again gunning for The Emmy For Acting Only With Your Eyes as she actually, honest-to-god opens herself up to Tom Wambsgans in the name of love. And, of course, that tender, whispered “I got you,” as Tom chooses his true soul mate, instead, planting a sticker of ownership on his precious little Sporus. (Not a coincidence that he earlier told Greg he was going to be “castrated” on salary, no?)


Armstrong has talked, frequently, about being unsure of whether he was going to end Succession here, and that comes through in the structure tonight, the overlong scenes of retreaded arguments, the abruptness with which the show bids these characters farewell. (As the man himself notes, in the irritating “Hey, that was the ending!” explainer tacked on to the end of tonight’s finale on Max, the camera loses interest in them the moment they can no longer get their heart’s desire.) Roman, who seems genuinely happiest tonight when the burden’s been lifted off of his shoulders, and most miserable when his drive to seem powerful revs back up, finds something resembling acceptance. Shiv is trapped in a sort of perfect hell, “wife of Tom Wambsgans” coming true at last. And Kendall, for all that he tacitly threatens it, doesn’t kill himself, or at least not where we can see. (Oh, how I stared at those big, shiny windows in the boardroom where Matsson and Roman were signing the fabled Waystar-GoJo deal; waiting for a shadow to fall.)

Is “With Open Eyes” a good series finale? I suspect that it might not be, in practical plotting terms; suspect that there’s no ending Armstrong could craft that could satisfy both the desire we all have for a dramatic conclusion to this story we’ve been following for the last five years, and the show’s inherent satirical nature (see above, re: idiots fucking up). For my own part, I have lost all interest by now in the question of who’s going to end up running this stupid company, and am quietly glad not to ever have to parse one more of these endless arguments about it. But as a showcase for character, the place where this show has always excelled, this episode serves as an exceptional farewell; I might begrudge Armstrong and co. the pain of having to review an hour-and-a-half of deeply dense TV on deadline, but never the funny, human, moving extra minutes we got with these characters tonight. Moments with Caroline, and horrible shitty Peter and his knobby bread. Moments with Tom, and Greg. And Shiv. And Roman. I’ve come to love them, these monsters. It’s kind-of, sort-of, not their fault.


And, yeah: Kendall. We end with him staring out over the water—it’s always water, with this guy—grappling silently with his loss, and left with nothing but his private bodyguard, and his fancy suit and clothes, and the billions and billions of dollars he just moved heaven and hell to try not to receive. If Succession has, ultimately, been nothing more than an effort to chart the exact heights and depths of Kendall Roy’s soul, it ends with a curtness that suggests there really is nothing left there to plumb. He was a comedy character who thought he was the star of a prestige drama, hurt people like he was the star of a prestige drama, raged against the gods with no ability to grasp his own cosmic and comic absurdities. But the waters were always more shallow than they seemed—if still deep enough to drown in.

Image for article titled Succession series finale: The kids aren't alright
Photo: HBO

Goodbye, idiot. I’m going to miss you.

Stray observations

  • Mencken fades into the background for tonight’s finale, although there’s a strong suggestion his “win” in Wisconsin will be overturned.
  • Stewie doesn’t actually do anything in this episode, but I’m not going to fault getting Arian Moayed back for a few scenes.
  • Jess Watch: Jess is gone. All hail New Jess.
  • Shiv, not realizing she’s killing herself by selling Tom as “a highly interchangeable modular part.”
  • “Well, it would be incredibly convenient, because you would be married to your husband.”
  • I’m fine with where Roman and Kendall end tonight, but I could have handled a whole extra season of Shiv and Tom working out their “scheduling opportunities.” “Once you’ve said and done the worst things, you’re kind of free.”
  • We do not deserve how funny Harriet Walter is as Caroline. Her little rant about eyes—sorry, “face eggs”—killed me.
  • The costuming on all the kids, but especially Roman, in Barbados is so perfect. Kieran in a T-shirt looks so weird, in exactly the right way.
  • “I’m a grinder. I grind because I worry. I worry all night about everything, all the threats to me, and to my division, and my physical body. I have an excess of vigilance, I think, and I have a very, very high tolerance for pain and physical discomfort.”
  • “Why don’t I get the guy who put the baby inside her, instead of the baby lady?” Sexism is never far from Succession’s mind, and Alexander Skarsgard gets one last chance to be the most vile guy in the room.
  • “If I give you something incredible, would you give me something amazing?”
  • “Well, who the hell calls us the incredible fuck-brother bandwagon?
  • “Hey Rome, guess who Kendall thinks it should be? It’ll blow your fucking mind!” Snook is so funny when Shiv gets pissed.
  • “You get the bauble. It’s haunted and cursed and nothing will ever go right, but: Enjoy your bauble.
  • I find myself wishing Armstrong had had two more episodes to play with here, because the middle half-hour of this episode, with the kids at Caroline’s, makes for such a good stand-alone mini-episode. (And a little more time to flesh out the ending couldn’t have hurt.)
  • “Meal Fit For A King” is such a perfect little family tradition thing, it’s so easy to imagine them doing this as kids.
  • The spit!
  • Not a ton of Connor tonight, but him awkwardly gesturing to Kerry as “the second-tier uh bereaved” was brutal.
  • Beautiful to see Brian Cox for a few precious minutes, Logan in a rare moment with people he’d never admit were his friends, and maybe even genuinely in love.
  • Maybe it’s just the post-funeral atmosphere, but this is the only episode this season where it hasn’t felt like Logan’s ghost is hovering over everyone. Everything they do to themselves tonight is their own fault.
  • Where does Kendall lose Shiv? Is it the feet up on the desk?
  • Some choice Kendall lines from his final breakdown: “I am like a cog, built to fit only one machine.” “I don’t even believe you!” “I wanted for us all to bond at a difficult moment.” “I didn’t even get in the car…I false-memoried it.” “Fucking vote for me.” And, of course, “I am the eldest boy!” (Shiv, laughing, and accurate: “You’re not!”) We can all argue for years about Jeremy Strong’s methods, but the conviction he brings to Kendall’s patheticness is raw and incredibly effective/uncomfortable.
  • Rome’s “You have no kids” might be the single cruelest thing anyone ever says on this show.
  • Final scorecard: Tom wins as puppet CEO, Gerri’s coming back, Karl and Frank are dead. And Greg survives.
  • The score at the end is mixed to be deliberately overwhelming: Nicholas Britell’s beautiful theme drowning out everything running in Kendall’s head.
  • And that’s a wrap on Succession. Thank you to everyone who read these reviews—I said, back at the start of the season, that this was the most intimidating review gig I’ve taken on in 9 years of writing for this site, and it’s not feeling any less intimidating now that we’ve reached the end. A show that’s going to live in my head for years—along with the lovely conversations I’ve had with you all in the comments.