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One Last Curtain Call for ‘Succession’

In its four-season run, ‘Succession’ has given its audience the thrill of being along for a unique and deeply felt ride

HBO/Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Just like his character Roman Roy on Succession, Kieran Culkin has been struggling lately to cope with the finality of a giant goodbye. “I knew this wasn’t the kind of show that could keep going and going,” Culkin told film director Taika Waititi recently, in a celeb-on-celeb conversation arranged by Interview magazine, but “I always thought five seasons. It was just a number I had in my head.” (This weekend, Succession will instead come to an end following Season 4.) In another chat, this one a Hollywood Reporter actors roundtable, Culkin admitted: “I would’ve liked more, but I feel really good with what we’ve done.”

Culkin isn’t the only actor on the show who has expressed the desire for the Roy family to keep on creeping on. This past January, when showrunner Jesse Armstrong told the cast at the table read for the upcoming series finale that this would indeed be it, having vacillated between four and five seasons for some time, actress Sarah Snook wept. Brian Cox, who played Logan Roy, told the BBC recently that when his character was written off in the third episode of this season—a bold and compelling choice for a series that had always revolved around the Roy family patriarch—he found the decision to be “too early” and even “looked on it, wrongly, as a form of rejection” for awhile.

Culkin didn’t always feel this way. “I remember, toward the end of Season 3, going, ‘I’m worried we’re going to enter a territory where we’re becoming Succession-y,’” he told Waititi, adding that he felt the show had settled into its own grooves when he read the first two scripts of this season.

But when Armstrong moved the show ahead with one sudden plane bathroom lurch in Season 4’s third episode, Culkin’s old worries were replaced by a new and bigger one. “This season is very, very different, which is exciting,” Culkin told Waititi, “but it makes me feel like, ‘Couldn’t there be a [Season] 5, now that the show is kind of different?’”

At its loathsome best, Succession is a show about a mean, mighty father and the toxic tumult he seeds in his four quippy, quivering adult kids. Its plot is as serious about four-letter words as it is cavalier about ruining lives. It is a series that shows you the money, even when all those pennies look dreadful. It features a set of performances that have the immediacy of theater and the spark of improvisation. And, perhaps most of all, it is all wrapped up in a production that has always felt like the best kind of work-in-progress, one viewed by an audience that has come to fancy itself as some small part of the whole craft.

What distinguishes Succession from many other shows is the way its creative minds iterate on their ideas and even disagree in front of everyone, trying some things and abandoning others, and not being afraid to let seams and rips and smirks and the occasional Aussie accent show. The Jeremy Strong New Yorker profile launched one of the great cultural conversations of this century and instantly added a fascinating new dimension to any scene involving Strong, Cox, and even Culkin. The additions and deletions of guest stars ranging from Holly Hunter to Red Scare Dasha lent the show a dreamy “remember when?” quality. Cameras that capture actors who would normally be offscreen in a typical shoot make each episode feel as though it is being performed and broadcast live. Each script is so full of notes and references and callbacks that it feels as though it’s speaking a language tailored specifically to a global community of Royheads.

Because of this, over the years, the experience of following Succession has come to feel not just like watching a TV show, but also like watching a comedian work on her act, or like following a band as they bicker and tinker with a new album. So many big voices and so much creative chaos! So many cities viewed exclusively from within greige indoor spaces! All of it worth it for the sweet, sweet music that ensues, and for the feeling—however fleeting—that having followed along so closely helped make the whole experience sing. Sunday night will feel like one last curtain call, one farewell show.

“Tag yourself,” goes Maris Kreizman’s popular weekly Twitter prompt at the end of every Succession episode, with joyously parasocial responses rolling in along the lines of: “I’m Caroline’s pursed lips,” or “I’m the Aztecs,” or “I’m Stewy’s 95-year-old father’s neighbor whom he’s threatening to sue.” All of the answers mean the same thing: I see the show, and I get the appeal, and while I theoretically know I’m not part of the Royverse, I also feel as though I kind of am! Of course, not everyone has that reaction.

From the show’s very beginnings, Succession’s value-add was its willingness to revel in discomfort, to let its characters writhe and stomp around, to let the viewer see that a character’s charisma tends to be cut with cruelty. This makes the show a lively and difficult watch, and certainly yields plenty of discourse and engagement—however repetitive it may be. (Tag yourself: Are you the person that thinks If you can just make it through the sixth episode, that’s when it gets good sounds appealing? Or are you the person who thinks Why should I care about any of these people when they’re all so bad? makes for an enlightened and fascinating retort?)

Speaking with The Guardian a decade ago, Brian Cox recalled one of the most memorable stage performances of his life: playing Titus Andronicus, a father and Roman general in one of Shakespeare’s earliest tragedies, in London in the 1980s. “It’s really the most interesting thing I’ve ever done in the theatre,” Cox recalled. “I was 40; I’d just gone through a divorce, and moved back home after living in America and wanting a film career.” (Reading this, I couldn’t help but think: Ah, so he was in his Kendall Roy era!)

“It was a play that everybody usually avoided,” Cox continued. “It’s a very difficult play to do, a young man’s play written when Shakespeare was in his late 30s; full of energy, joie de vivre, and laughter that often strikes people as ludicrous. I don’t think anybody wanted to play Titus on this occasion, either; but I decided if I was going to do it, I might as well go for broke and not try to cover my ass.” All these years later, Succession works because every single person involved in the show operates with this exact spirit, giving its audience the thrill of being along for a unique and deeply felt ride.

Succession is often spoken of, including by its principals, in grand Shakespearean terms, and there are frequently moments of stunning precision in which it feels, say, like all the world is Kendall’s stage. (Between shareholders’ meetings, testifying to the feds, his dad’s funeral, and “L to the OG,” he’s really getting in the performance reps.) But sometimes the most Shakespearean thing about Succession is how bawdy and uncouth it is, a whole bunch of dick (and, newly, lactation) jokes that would make the ol’ Bard proud. Which means that it’s not always Kendall or Frank or Uncle Ewan who have the most Globe Theatre–worthy lines. Often, it’s Culkin, as Roman Roy, who delivers them.

Waititi, who interviewed Culkin, has no professional connection to Succession. But, just like the rest of us normie enthusiasts out here in the world, he has strong opinions nevertheless. “I’m sad that it’s the final season,” Waititi told Culkin. “But Americans do too many episodes of things. If you love it so much, watch the whole thing again and again.”

This was bossy advice, but in the case of Succession, it has already begun to occur. When the HBO series wraps up this weekend (along with, ah, the whole HBO brand itself?!) its run will be a brisk 39 episodes long. (By comparison, The Wire ran for 60 episodes; The Sopranos for 86; and Sex and the City for 94.) Fans have been looping back to Succession’s beginnings for years now, seeking GIFable moments or tiny insights into characters’ pasts (Banana hammocks! All the men in Sausalito!) or the answers to open questions (whither Grace?!).

Viewers have constantly sought out supplemental material, like a biography of Sumner Redstone, or Shakespeare SparkNotes, or A++ rare Jeremy Strong interviews, to help give context and clues to each episode watched anew. And there’s about to be a lot more supplemental material to parse as if it were new Taylor Swift lyrics. At the end of this month, all of Succession’s complete scripts—including deleted scenes and alternative line suggestions and snarky stage directions—will be published, adding substantially to the Waystar Royco universe’s lore and our understanding of the Roy family and its inner circle. (Snippets that suggest longtime, family-wide disordered eating and rifle-pointing and much, much more have already started to circulate.)

As Succession closes out its run with some of its strongest episodes, it is a bittersweet pill to swallow. A close read or a rewatch are all we really have to cover the Sunday night void that is about to open up, but those can fill only so much! Maybe the long game for Succession is four seasons plus Broadway. Who’s to say? Maybe someday, playing the parts of Roman or Shiv or Kendall Roy in a splashy London theater production of Succession: Stages of Grief will be like playing Titus Andronicus: an actor’s great fear and greatest honor; a role that works only if you go absolutely techno-Gatsby on it. It’s so hard to say goodbye to Jesse’s play, but for now, all we can do is enjoy the fact that for one night only, here in America, the show must go on one last time.