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How ‘Succession’ Pulled Off a Season of Near Stasis

By the end of Sunday night’s finale, things had changed drastically for the Roys and their circle. But to get there, the show managed to navigate a season in which almost everything stayed the same.

It’s a great irony of Succession that the plot is set in motion by an insistence on standing still. If Logan Roy had simply celebrated his 80th birthday, handed the keys to Kendall, and moved on to retirement, the show could’ve ended with the pilot. Instead, the patriarch refused to budge, a stubborn opposition to substantive change that set off a series’ worth of schemes, betrayals, and shifting alliances.

On a scene-to-scene basis, Succession is frenetic and fast-paced, driven by rapid-fire insults and roving, ever-shifting cameras. But when it comes to long-term plots, the show is practically glacial. The hostile takeover Kendall unwittingly starts by bringing his college friend Stewy into Waystar Royco is still an ongoing concern two dozen episodes later; the cruise scandal Tom Wambsgans inherits early on plagues the company well into Season 3. On a show where business is family and vice versa, its characters’ relationships are similarly stuck in a loop. Logan dominates his children and employees, who in turn dominate their partners (Shiv condescending to Tom) and subordinates (Tom ritually abusing Greg). Succession may have elements of a soap opera, but it avoids the constant reversals that define the genre.

For a while, Succession’s frantic style belied, or at least complemented, its unmoving status quo. But in the show’s third season, which concluded on Sunday night, viewers began to take notice. Multiple critics penned essays positing Succession as a sitcom—a testament not just to its humor, but its constant reversion to a baseline for episodic adventures. Meanwhile, there were grumblings on social media that the nine-episode season was treading water, leaving fans, to quote my colleague Aric Jenkins, “a little bored.” Critics still raved, and ratings continued to climb. But for the first time, there were hints of discontent among the fan base, even if they fell short of a full-blown backlash.

These complaints, or observations, were not without merit. The main conflict of Season 3—Kendall’s open rebellion against Logan—was largely a redux of Season 1, plus the added weight of manslaughter, blackmail, and a document leak to the Department of Justice. And as the weeks went on, the fight seemed to resolve itself in Logan’s favor, as most things tend to do. Kendall’s cruise files didn’t actually incriminate his father, so the federal probe ended in a mere fine. Gerri Kellman became “acting” CEO, but Logan never stopped running the show. An overly aggressive pressure campaign may have cost the president, Logan’s political ally, his job, but the mogul simply handpicked another, even less savory, partner in power. Nothing stuck; everything remained as it was.

Such inertia serves a dual purpose. On the one hand, Logan’s endless winning streak underscores a primary theme of Succession, and in fact many character-driven shows: that change is all but impossible, and the patterns encoded in us at an early age are monstrously difficult to break. (Think of Don Draper, repeatedly latching on to a new relationship only to be left with his lonely, alcoholic self.) Kendall may have mustered the courage to break with his father, but only for selfish reasons, and only because Logan yanked away the carrot first. When he summons his siblings to his ex-wife’s apartment in an attempt to get them on his side, the effort is doomed to fail. Their fear of their father is too deeply ingrained, their trust too eroded by a lifetime of conditional love.

On the other, there’s a self-serving aspect to TV shows that avoid major shake-ups—which is to say, most TV shows. The longer a series sticks to its initial setup, the longer it can draw out its story and conserve what made the show work in the first place. There’s less pressure to stay in place on a prestige cable drama than, say, a broadcast series angling for syndication, but that doesn’t mean it’s nonexistent. The trick is to make sure the material concerns of a show don’t contradict the needs of its narrative, or exhaust the patience of its audience.

Perhaps this was why so many observers, myself included, let themselves believe Kendall would die in the finale, drowning in a pool to atone for the waiter he let drown at his sister’s wedding. Maybe this season of stasis was actually preparing us for a truly seismic change—the kind of twist that would actually force the Roys to reconfigure themselves for good. In retrospect, the furor of speculation leading up to the finale said less about Succession (though the PR department gamely played along by excising Kendall from previews) than its audience and their pent-up desire for something, anything, to give. The pandemic also added to the sense of claustrophobia, building anticipation for an extra year and slightly constraining Succession’s ability to distract us with exotic field trips, apart from the final episodes in Italy.

In the end, the finale did move Succession forward, even if that movement didn’t come from Kendall Roy. With the takeover resolved via settlement and the Justice Department appeased, Waystar was in need of a new, external threat. Succession supplied it in the form of GoJo, a Swedish tech company that Logan initially set out to acquire, only for founder Lukas Matsson to propose the reverse. Logan accepts the offer, a sudden and seemingly definitive end to the question that gives the show its title. Which of the kids will formally inherit the family business? None, because the business will be sold to someone else!

The professional upheaval comes hand-in-hand with a personal one. At first, the Roy siblings band together in an attempt to stop the sale and go “full coup,” fulfilling Kendall’s game plan seven episodes after he laid it out. The newly formed triad is practically heartwarming, giving Kendall much-needed allies and Roman the spine to stand up to his dad. But they’re ratted out by Tom, who actually listened to his wife when she said she doesn’t love him. Shiv and Tom’s union is built on the premise that Shiv is a proxy for Logan, and that by marrying her, Tom is ingratiating himself with his boss. Once Shiv and her father are at odds, she learns the hard way that her behavior has consequences—and that her interests and her own husband’s are no longer in sync.

These are two meaningful realignments, the kind that rebut the suspicion that Succession is unwilling to advance the plot or let its characters grow. But they’re also paired with instances of regression and refusal that suggest this is still, in large part, a show about denying the inevitable. Going into the finale, some hoped that if Kendall weren’t dead, he would at least advance his redemption by coming clean about the waiter’s death, possibly via an investigative podcast teased in Episode 8. He does come clean, to Roman and Shiv—but when they console him, in part with pitch-black jokes about waiting for a gin and tonic, it’s all he needs to throw himself back into the fight that’s eating him from the inside. In the space of an episode, Kendall goes from wanting out of Waystar to fighting the deal that could liberate him and his siblings once and for all—two steps forward, one giant slide back.

Finally, as significant as Tom’s heel turn may be, it’s in the service of reifying Succession’s one ironclad law: Logan always wins. He may be fallible, doubling down on old media when he should’ve been pivoting to tech, and he may be mortal, succumbing to a UTI at the worst possible moment, but he wins regardless. In some ways, “All the Bells Say” is a complete 180 for the show’s resident King Lear, ending the total unwillingness to give up control that made him cling to power in the first place. Still, he cedes that control on his own terms, steamrolling his children one last time in the process. Succession may be willing to chip away at some of its core truths, but it’ll be a good time yet before one of the Roy kids gets one over on their dad, or looks in the mirror long enough to realize the full extent of what he’s done to them.

Succession isn’t stagnant, as some feared it might become by showing its characters running in circles. It is, however, stubbornly resistant to fan service, especially the kind that offers a Band-Aid solution to deep psychological damage. We wanted the euphoria of Kendall’s declaration of war to last; when it didn’t, we at least wanted him to free himself from his father’s clutches, possibly in the most definitive way anyone could. Succession denied us that fulfillment, because it wouldn’t be rooted in truth. If the GoJo deal goes through, any of the Roy kids should technically be free to walk away, their shares divested and pocketbooks full. But as the show keeps teaching us, vicious cycles don’t end that easily.