In the second episode of Succession’s final season, Logan Roy once again wriggled his way out of a jam. After his children arranged a series of multibillion-dollar media deals that would finally put him into financial and familial checkmate, he showed up at their premature celebration party. That was all he had to do: physically appear. Such are the Roy children’s emotional issues with the patriarch; they are the anchor of the series, its north star that leads always back into its pit of glued-down pathologies. Shiv and Kendall teed off on their father, centering their grievances while ignoring the sober calculus he was, in a rare moment of mercy, trying to offer them. When they rejected his truth, Logan called off a big board meeting they needed to make their machinations come to life—and just like that, their dreams were dashed anew. They can make the most brilliant chess move available, but he still owns the board they play on—he still has the ability to flip the table over anytime he wants.
It was just the latest exhibit in what’s now an accumulation too large to ignore. Succession has dangled radical change in front of us so many times, but transformation has never gotten any closer. The show is not, as its likely ironic title suggests, a story of evolution. It is not the momentous epic that its grand, opulent score portends, nor the cathartic metamorphosis that its world-class performances may imply. Though Brian Cox spoke of his lead role in the series, years ago, as the stuff of Shakespeare—comparing Logan to King Lear, Julius Caesar, and Titus Andronicus—the actual trajectory of the show pulls much more from Samuel Beckett.
In Beckett’s most famous work, Waiting for Godot, two men named Vladimir and Estragon blabber on to each other existentially as they wait for a third man who never comes. Interpretations vary, but the play is usually set in blank, bleak landscapes that could certainly be interpreted as purgatorial. The rooms occupied by the characters on Succession are, to an extent, similar: They are defined by muted color palettes, and every design choice hedges away from definition or distinction, not toward it (fans of the show have joked that its visuals are often similar to those of generic stock photos portraying Business Situations). And of course, in these drab places, the thing that everyone’s waiting for never happens. In “Rehearsal,” the Roy children seemed to think they had bucked this uniform trend when they met Logan in a colorful karaoke room with morphing rainbow lights, but instead, he brought them back into the relentless gray, letting them know their fresh schemes were for naught.
In Succession showrunner Jesse Armstrong’s previous work, stasis was the norm as well. Peep Show, a British sitcom that Armstrong cocreated and wrote from 2003 to 2015, starred Mark and Jeremy as his Vladimir and Estragon. What exactly this pair of selfish, solipsistic adult roommates waited for the entirety of the series, without ever quite experiencing, is hard to pinpoint. Romantic love comes and goes, but mostly, their prospects collapse as quickly as they develop, and they end up back with each other, miserable in their man-child London flat. Like most sitcoms, the show takes on the logic of a comic strip, in which the status quo is parried but never gives, and everything always retreats to zero before the next episode begins.
If you think hard enough about the concept of sitcoms, their unchanging Möbius strip nature becomes a bit haunting. Why has Bart Simpson been a child since the ’80s? Do Norm and Cliff really have nowhere else to be but a bar every day? No one has an arc, which is frightening to think about. Sitcoms are not made to evoke such ghosts, usually. Their stilled plots more generally make for episodes that are accessible on their own, so as to be digestible as stand-alones in syndication. And the built-in expectation that things won’t change is a balm to the audience, in the same way as knowing that Sherlock Holmes will always solve the murder mystery by the end. At the conclusion of a hard day, most people tune into their stories for a dose of the familiar as opposed to the surprising.
This is nothing new for anyone, but Succession has nevertheless confused audiences with its hybrid of sitcom stasis and grandiose, operatic aesthetics. Is this a series on the shores of a new world or merely an expensive comedic story in which we happen to experience the characters’ pain more than we ever felt Jerry Seinfeld’s? Do its first three seasons amount to a singular dramedy sensibility, or is the tonal execution just sort of fuzzy? These questions exist under the impression that the show has made an errant move when Armstrong’s uncanny reinterpretation of sitcom structures has been entirely intentional, if Peep Show is any indication. In that series, the inevitable movement back to the original circumstance was not just a convenient storytelling method, but also a means of reinforcing a thesis about Mark’s and Jeremy’s inability to change. And on Succession, such an ambition has been applied to our historical moment, when sickening levels of inequality remain unchallenged by anything but gestures.
That’s the world that Succession’s characters live in. They’re on top of it, sure, but their struggle to feel alive is made no easier by their gross wealth. It has coddled them into a constant state of Freudian anguish. The gerontocratic sludge has enmeshed us—but them, too. It seems like Daddy should let go or die soon, but he keeps on not going anywhere. And so all anyone around him can do, like the mad ranters of Beckett, is try to gin up language potent enough to make their changeless days exciting. Money, and the material struggle it represents for most, is no issue for these people, so their currency is the poetry of business deals and locker room talk, pushed to its entropic extremes. As with Waiting for Godot, the delicacy of watching Succession is not about how the plot develops, because it won’t; the game, the story, is in seeing what shape the fight to escape the unbreakable gilded cage will take.
The Sisyphean thrashing against those bars, in “Rehearsal,” was well summarized by how Cousin Greg described Logan’s sudden presence at the ATN studios—a “terrifying moseying.” Pacing yet again in dreadful place, never going out on a walk to new places. The most propulsive occurrences among the main characters of Succession are nothing more than team shifts and mood swings—like Tom and Shiv entering litigation gridlock instead of getting divorced, and like Roman getting stuck, once more, between his dad and his siblings. His “betrayal” is not a knife in the back as in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, but a text message. Theirs is a war of manners, not weapons. Despite its Sunday night HBO time slot and its magisterial dressings, this is not Game of Thrones. There will be no mass-extinction event, no real revolt or coup. The most shocking occurrence on Succession has been a dick pic.
One could say that it’s all a bit cruel, really. Armstrong can be seen as leading viewers on. But Succession has never told audiences that its characters would be in for a nice time, and anyway, people seem to love walking face-first into a rake over and over again—as it’s become clearer and clearer that no torch would be passed down from Dad, ratings have improved. Succession has struck such a chord not just because of how funny and well made it is, but because of how effectively it reflects the fixed, underwhelming political and cultural themes of our daily reality. And even if Logan were to die or give up, what then? His children, like the architects of our society, have such limited imaginations that all they can think up is stuff like The Hundred or, worse, just buying someone else’s media empire. The same disappointing loop will simply continue. This show isn’t, and won’t be, about escaping that torment. It’s about finding perverse joy in the barren, craven absurdity of a waiting room that you never get to leave.