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‘Succession’ Knows Exactly What’s at Stake. Do Its Characters?

In its fourth and final season, the HBO drama will look to cement its legacy among the greats. Meanwhile, the Roy family fights over control that may not exist.

HBO/Ringer illustration

What made The Sopranos a hard break in the history of television was not simply its quality, but its willingness to use the shape of the medium as a means to a thematic end. No matter how mundane David Chase would have tried to make Tony’s house, marriage, and tax returns seem within the confines of a two-hour film, the finite nature of that story would undercut his intentions and make it at least a little profound. And with The Sopranos, the mundanity was the point, a point which can be felt only after 20, 60, 80 hours. The thing that had made television ephemeral and insignificant was finally its strength. The same reversal could be found in Mad Men and its interest in tracking peoples’ decay and self-delusion over time or in the effect The Wire strove for, of a camera forever zooming out.

Succession, which begins its fourth and final season this Sunday, is not quite as open-ended as even the shortest of those shows. (The Wire ran for five seasons totaling 60 episodes, while Succession will not even reach 40.) But to this point, it has made the case for its inclusion alongside those totems of the form by striking a delicate balance between classical TV storytelling and a prioritization of characters over plot that is more familiar in film. Where so many shows suffer from an accumulation of plot—the creeping sense that a show has become about itself, rather than about whatever it nominally depicts, where there’s no room for anything but beat after dutiful beat—Succession has dug deep into the family and corporate world it introduced without losing sight of its goal: to render this world ethnographically, not just narratively. This is probably best evidenced by looking at its trio of nearly perfect season-ending scenes.

At the end of its first season, after Succession has moved from the States to England for Siobhan’s wedding, Kendall—post-relapse, mid coup attempt—is in a car when it swerves off the road and into a lake in the countryside. He escapes, but the waiter who had promised to help him score drugs drowns. Kendall runs back to the reception, believing he was unseen. Of course, his father, Logan (and the quasi-anonymous security apparatus that surrounds him like he’s a small European state) knows all about it. He promises to protect his son—provided, of course, that Kendall comes back into the fold, abandoning the hostile takeover he had concocted with Logan’s rivals in private equity. So that immediate threat to family control over Waystar Royco is parried, at least in the short term. But what matters—what lingers—is the final image of a sobbing Kendall wrapped in his father’s arms, more vulnerable yet more protected than ever.

Next, after an entire season about Kendall being brought to heel—after Logan has dispatched him to take the fall for the company’s yearslong practice of facilitating and covering up sexual assault and manslaughter on its cruise line—he pivots, placing the blame at his father’s feet, stolen documents in tow. A massive reversal in the course of the scandal, sure. But the cut to credits is preceded by Logan, watching the press-conference backstabbing from his yacht, cracking the slightest smile at his son’s killer instinct.

And the last time we saw the show, in the Season 3 finale, Succession had finally given the audience the simple, inevitable alliance between siblings and against their father that it had long promised—for a moment. Kendall, Shiv, and Roman unite in a plan to veto a sale of the company that would end their chances at taking control of it, citing an arcane clause in the divorce settlement between their parents. But when they arrive at Logan’s villa to confront him with this, he has already paid off their mother to amend the agreement—after having been tipped off by Tom. The countermove by Logan obviously has wide-ranging implications for every character on the show. But again: The final shot is a zoom in on Shiv’s furious and tearful face as her husband, from behind her, puts comforting (read: taunting) hands on her shoulders.

In all three instances, creator Jesse Armstrong and the writers’ room deliver the sort of cliff-hanger that could theoretically sustain a show in perpetuity, though as we know—from comedies like Silicon Valley and even hard-boiled crime stories like Breaking Bad—too many dramatic reversals too quickly can fry an audience’s nerve receptors. By couching every board meeting and shareholder vote in a sort of Freudian anguish, the show makes unimportant the occasional illegibility of its financial maneuvering.

This all makes Succession sound like a tightly wound drama, which it is; it’s also the funniest show on television, with its barrage of insults stylized, but just barely, and its acute attention to the remorseless behaviors and garish tastes among the rich frequently astonishing. You could throw out more superlatives: to Armstrong and casting director Francine Maisler for finding radically different actors in Jeremy Strong, Kieran Culkin, Sarah Snook, and Alan Ruck, who nevertheless seem like siblings; to whoever in HBO’s accounting department approves the show shooting on film and on location, producing something that looks far better than most features that hit streaming services these days; and even to executive producer and pilot director Adam McKay, who established for the show a visual language that hints at documentary, with its sometimes trembly handhelds and improvised zooms, while allowing space for more ambitious, static shots. (Think: the one in “Lion in the Meadow” that makes it appear as if Shiv is stepping out of a skyscraper and into the abyss when she enters an office, or the one that implies Kendall’s drowning at the end of “Chiantishire.”)

Succession so far has been a marvel of acting, writing, and virtually every technical aspect of filmmaking. Nevertheless, on the verge of its final season, there are dangling narrative threads and seeming roadblocks in the drive toward answering the pilot’s question: Who, if anyone, will succeed Logan Roy at the helm of Waystar? I don’t have a crystal ball or a reliable contact at HBO, but there are a handful of things we can safely assume will be addressed in the show’s final season.

The three episode titles that are publicly available confirm that we’ll see the show’s third wedding, this one between Connor and Willa, the escort turned playwright who has frequently stolen scenes from the siblings. (And had them stolen on her behalf: In Season 1’s “Austerlitz,” Logan’s mysterious third wife, Marcia, tells her that she once had a prostitute friend in Paris. The friend was murdered, she says, but not because of her profession—because of a restaurant “that went poof.”) Alan Ruck plays Connor on the brink of caricature, a rich layabout who imagines himself as one of history’s great men. Connor loves Willa but is not particularly interested in her; Willa’s occasional defenses of Connor betray some fondness, though not much beyond that. And yet it seems distinctly possible that the show is setting up this marriage of convenience as more sincere and viable than any of the other Roy relationships, which range from barely contained power struggles (Shiv and Tom) to base enabling (Kendall and Naomi Pierce, another media heir).

One gets the sense that Connor would have been happy marrying Willa any time, but the catalyst for his eventual proposal was a Politico story occasioned by his vanity campaign for president. Logan—like his real-world analogue, Rupert Murdoch—has tentacles reaching into numerous Western governments (as his British ex-wife’s new husband knows, begging him for ins with Parliament). But he has a special, and especially fraught, relationship with the Republican party in America. After ensuring that the sitting president will not run for reelection by publicizing, through implication, the symptoms of his mental decline, Logan and his inner circle have flirted—in Roman’s case, literally—with an internet-bred crypto-fascist named Jeryd Mencken. It is not a stretch to see this story line as a means to test the political extremes the family is willing to go to and perhaps to test the limits of legacy media’s reach in an election year.

Speaking of legacy media: Whatever takes place in Season 4 will do so against the backdrop of Waystar’s nascent partnership with GoJo, a streaming platform founded by Alexander Skarsgard’s antisocial tech genius. Early in Season 3, the Roys consider buying GoJo, but by its end, the newer company has grown so big that it could turn around and swallow them.

The biggest bullet left in the show’s chamber, however, is the waiter’s death from the Season 1 finale. It’s possible that Kendall’s role in it will be discovered independently: One of the best line readings in the show’s run is by Dasha Nekrasova, who in real life hosts the controversial Red Scare and in Season 3 plays the publicist who warns him that a “podcast” is investigating it, scoffing at the word. But if Kendall becomes a serious threat to Logan again—uncertain given how thoroughly broken he seems at his mother’s wedding, after the near drowning and the dinner where he tries, unsuccessfully, to get his father to buy him out of the company—Logan could theoretically leak it himself. But he seems hesitant to do so. As he says to Marcia when she insinuates this in “Mass in Time of War,” when you “drop some bombs, you get burned too.”

Marcia herself is a mystery box. The series begins with Logan’s request that his children sign documents cutting her into the family trust, and an investigation Shiv commissions into her background in Season 1’s “Lifeboats” turns up troublingly little. When Logan is unwell throughout that first season, she guards him closely—a reasonable thing for a wife to do, in theory, though the children grow suspicious of her motives and her transparency about his condition and wishes. My instinct is that this is the sort of intrigue Armstrong et al. thought would be helpful in a slightly different version of the show, one marked by international schisms and corporate espionage, and that she will exist from here on out as a black hole of settlement money.

At some point, though, we’re going to have to get down to exorbitantly expensive brass tacks: Logan needs to die, step down, be imprisoned, or be made king. Succession starts with an expected retirement announcement and then Logan’s near death; Succession is called Succession. Charting which siblings have fallen in and out of favor, or which outside vultures seem to have the sharpest talons, is not the way to guess at his successor. The show is going to finish on a note that reinforces its caustic view of the rich—if I had to guess, the corporate transition on which we’ll fade to black will be so smooth that shareholders will feel like nothing has changed at all.

I’m increasingly of the opinion that this sort of barely noticeable boardroom mutation is on the table—that the upheaval and palace intrigue that dominate the show are simply other hobbies the rich use to amuse themselves and kill time, like golf or art collecting. It has often been noted that Succession is modeled after King Lear, and it is—except for the fact that when Lear divided his kingdom between his daughters, his word was all it took. As powerful as Logan is, he’s subject, to varying degrees, to boards of directors, to shareholders, to lawmakers, to bankers. The very cocooning infrastructure that makes the violence of the outside world, including that perpetrated by Waystar, seem abstract to the Roys works both ways, blunting or delaying their control over the machine they’ve built. These are the most powerful people in the world, but not one of them is more powerful than commerce, than profit.

And this is the way Succession has leveraged the medium’s inherent structure: by showing how the sort of human drama that we identify with and connect to distracts from, but is ultimately subsumed by, the concerns of opaque multinationals and cobweb networks of holding companies. We’ve long suspected that we’re not in control, but maybe the Roys aren’t either. Bring back Tabitha.

Paul Thompson is a senior editor at the Los Angeles Review of Books. His work has appeared in Rolling Stone, New York magazine, and GQ.