The second season of Succession seemed poised to end how it began. Once again, Kendall (Jeremy Strong) was hauled in front of the cameras at his father’s request. Once again, he was prepped with talking points by an anxious Karolina (Dagmara Dominczyk). Once again, Logan (Brian Cox) looked on, confident his erstwhile heir apparent would do what he was asked. But this time, of course, Kendall didn’t.
“This Is Not for Tears” is an episode full of callbacks. The finale to Succession’s bravura second season, written by series creator Jesse Armstrong, takes care to create a sense of the cumulative. There’s a shot of Logan from behind at the head of a table, an echo of the opening credits. There’s a group summit where Logan disingenuously floats the idea of stepping down as CEO of Waystar Royco, a reprise of a near-identical set-up from the season premiere. (That meeting took place in the Hamptons, this one on a yacht in the Mediterranean. Both proposals were met with a chorus of oh-no-you-can’ts.) There’s another face-off between Kendall and his friend-foil Stewy (Arian Moayed), though with the power dynamic reversed and Logan as a literal, not just metaphorical, presence. Succession is a portrait of people in purgatory, and the repetition of their lives only enhances their tragedy.
But in its final moments, “This Is Not for Tears” seems to break Succession’s mold. A popular fan theory holds that Succession is setting itself up for each season to focus on a different Roy scion taking, then inevitably missing, their shot at Logan’s throne. Season 1 belonged to Kendall, the Don Jr.–Lachlan Murdoch hybrid we pitied and loathed in equal measure; Season 2 zeroed in on Siobhan (Sarah Snook), or “Shiv” for short, gradually dismantling our image of her as the likable one. Roman (Kieran Culkin), fresh from a hostage situation in Turkey, looked to be up next, and much of “This Is Not for Tears” worked to confirm that hunch. Professionally, Roman’s candor about the shadiness of their company’s prospective buyers earned his father’s respect, and his romance-alliance with Gerri (J. Smith-Cameron) appears to be going strong. Personally, Roman’s brush with mortality brought out something like maturity, asking for a heart-to-heart with his jeering siblings and protesting Kendall’s selection as the fall guy. (Kendall did come to his defense when their dad slapped him in the face, after all.)
Even if Roman does eventually assume the captain’s chair at Waystar Royco, though, he might be steering a ghost ship. Roman may well be the new Iron Man of Succession’s Avengers-like ensemble, giving Culkin the showcase in Season 3 that Strong and Snook have enjoyed in seasons 1 and 2. But Kendall’s decision to (accurately) blame his father for the years of abuses on the company’s cruise lines, and assassinate his character in the process, actually alters the show’s status quo. It’s a reversal that Succession has been flirting with all season: Logan, the only man brutal enough to master the formalized brutality known as capitalism, has finally sustained a critical blow. Having made its point about the system that rewards Logan and the behavior he, in turn, brings out in others, Succession can finally explore a post-Logan universe, or at least a universe that’s proved Logan isn’t omnipotent.
Kendall’s betrayal opens up all kinds of narrative possibilities for Season 3, which HBO announced almost as soon as Season 2 began. Where does this upheaval leave Roman and Shiv, who respectively risked their life (Roman) and likely sacrificed their marriage (Shiv) for what suddenly looks like a rotting corpse? What does Kendall do now that he’s the only Roy to have actually, meaningfully broken from the family patriarch? Will Logan fall victim to the shareholder revolt that’s been haunting him for months, and if so, who will he take down with him?
Yet Succession is a show that has use for plot only as a vehicle for emotion. Whereas Billions, its obvious counterpart and most frequent comparison, revels in the details of high finance, Succession deliberately hand-waves the micro until the macro—both the bird’s-eye view and the primal foundation—is all that’s left. Logan loves to insist that Waystar Royco is a family company; it’s a lie in the sense that Logan invokes family only when it suits him, but a truth in that all of Waystar’s high-level maneuverings are little more than an amped-up sibling squabble. And like us mere mortals, the Roys tend to be trapped in the same dynamics for years on end, repeating them ad nauseam but unable to change—until all of a sudden, they’re not.
Kendall’s turning on Logan is not, in and of itself, new. All of Season 1 hinged on his unsuccessful coup against his aging and potentially addled father, provoked when Logan walked back on his promise to retire and hand over the reins. Logan broke Kendall with some good old-fashioned blackmail, then returned him to the fold as a deputy even more trusted than before, allotting his pills like Game of Thrones’ Reek once shaved Ramsay’s neck. What’s different about this second, much more fundamental split is that Kendall isn’t doing it with an eye toward replacing Logan as the head of Waystar Royco. He’s burning that bridge, though doing so ironically makes him the kind of “killer” Logan can respect, hence the final-shot smirk. Hopefully, his approval won’t undo Kendall’s emotional progress. There’s a genuine note of moral outrage to his denunciation of his dad, and a Roy with enough awareness to see—and reject—Logan for what he truly is has been a possibility so tantalizing it’s almost hard to believe. Shiv’s short-lived independence turned out to be a (literal) red herring, and the mistrust she’s learned the hard way is a tough instinct to shake.
The hour leading up to Kendall’s would-be sacrifice contains one of Succession’s most well-worn scenarios. Logan gathers his family and deputies together, then has them turn on one another with a minimum of prompting, unleashing the self-preservation and venality he’s trained into instinct. As everyone takes turns throwing everyone else under the bus, one can’t help but flash back to the Summer Palace brainstorm, or Boar on the Floor, or any of the other umpteen times this backbiting has played out, leaving everyone except Logan in tatters. This time, however, “This Is Not for Tears” presents an alternative ending. Much like Logan, Succession keeps us on our toes, conditioning us to expect one outcome so it can better surprise us with another.
Familiarity is one of television’s most powerful tools. It’s what draws us in week after week in search of comfort, and what gives writers a blueprint for replicating a successful formula for years on end. On Succession, it’s also shown just how deeply ingrained the Roys’ need for Logan’s approval, and distrust of one another instead of solidarity against their shared tormentor, truly is. But familiarity can also turn stale and predictable; as we start to anticipate what a show has in store for us, boredom sets in, and our eye starts to wander. “This Is Not for Tears” deploys familiarity and novelty in equal, and expert, measure. The episode intentionally invokes what’s come before to set up, then subvert, our expectations. Succession’s characters may be trapped in a loop, but headed into a months-long hiatus, the audience has no idea what will happen next.
Disclosure: HBO is an initial investor in The Ringer.