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The final season is a fascinating exercise in history repeating itself
As Season 4 of Succession begins, Logan Roy (Brian Cox) is unusually somber. In an echo of the baroque HBO drama's first episode, he's in the middle of his own birthday party and dissatisfied with the festivities. This time it's not because he's been tastelessly gifted a watch by his future son-in-law, and he doesn't quite make for the sad birthday boy his second-born son Kendall (Jeremy Strong) was last season, but Logan is a year older and none of his children are there to celebrate with him. (Aside from his eldest, Alan Ruck's perennially ignored Connor, who has taken on the role of peacekeeper in the blood war between his father and siblings.) Birthdays, weddings, holidays — traditionally happy events are never harbingers of anything good on Succession. Nothing catastrophic happens, unless you consider Greg's (Nicholas Braun) date posting relentless updates from the party to be catastrophic, and yet Logan is unhappy. It strikes an appropriately reflective note for the beginning of the end of a series that deals so much with the thorny concept of legacy.
Such a sense of despondency is nothing new. In my review of Season 3, I wrote about the melancholic haze that hung over the episodes as Succession seemed to be inching toward something big. As we now know, "something big" ended up being Tom's (Matthew Macfadyen) backstabbing of Shiv (Sarah Snook). When we catch up with the Roys and Roy-adjacents, the dust has somewhat settled, but, as is typical of this family, no one has made any strides at sorting through their feelings about it. In the first episode, Logan is days away from finalizing the sale of Waystar Royco to Lukas Mattson (Alexander Skarsgård), and has his hand in the looming election after throwing his support behind far-right fascist Jeryd Mencken (Justin Kirk). He adopts a disaffected tone while asking Tom, who has officially been bumped up to favorite son, whether he's "heard from the rats" (he is of course talking about his kids).
For their part, the rats — Kendall, Shiv, and Roman (Kieran Culkin) — are posted up in Los Angeles as they plan their new business venture, an incomprehensible "global media start-up" called The Hundred. That lasts for approximately three seconds before they abandon ship when they learn of Logan's latest attempt at an acquisition of Pierce Global Media and decide to disrupt it by trying to purchase it themselves, setting into motion this season's chess game. (What an amazing excuse to bring back the great Cherry Jones as Nan Pierce.) Kendall and Shiv insist they simply like the idea of having such a big stake in culture and news, but Roman sees through them: "You wanna f--- Dad, you wanna f--- Tom, I'm the only one who wants to set up a business as a business and doesn't want to f--- anyone."
If all of this — the birthday, the PGM deal — seems a bit familiar, that's because it is. For its mesmerizing final outing, premiering March 26, Succession returns to where it started. The characters are cyclical too: At one point, Roman allows himself to be ensnared once again in Logan's web; at another, Kendall angles for Stewy (Arian Moayed, who thankfully has more to do this season) to support him in a business deal. Succession has always played it fast and loose with the concept of time (even creator Jesse Armstrong admits that the series' timeline exists in "a weird TV reality"), and although one of the most popular criticisms of Season 3 was its tendency to tread water, the repetition works very well here, especially as it becomes clear what Armstrong and his collaborators are doing. "I don't want to live in a haunted house," Kendall tells Stewy, unaware that he already is, oblivious to the ghosts lurking around them both.
Unless the format suddenly switches halfway through, the season seems to be set across roughly one week, with each episode unfolding over the course of a day. (Four out of ten episodes were provided to critics for review.) The series retains its fondness for sticking to only a small handful of locations per episode, which makes room for some fantastic character work. As time dwindles for the show, the characters seem to feel the urgency, creating a locked-in feeling among the ensemble that reveals itself in fascinating ways.
This is best highlighted by the scenes in which Strong, Snook, and Culkin, who have always made a glorious trio but have never been bonded together the way they are in Season 4, get to play off each other. Snook does career-best work here, and the show's signature home video-style camera zooms magnify her subtle choices as she vacillates swiftly between the many levels of Shiv's teetering emotional state. Culkin is incandescent as Succession's most misunderstood character; Roman is still the Roy with the softest heart, and Culkin mines new depths while making the show's signature caustic one-liners sound natural. ("Stop ganging up on me like you're Lennon and McCartney and I'm f---ing George. I'm John, motherf---ers… He's still Connor, but he won having drinks with us at an auction.") Strong is as magnetic and masterful as ever, and his ongoing reinvention of Kendall continues to make for dazzling television. This isn't the wannabe king from Season 1, nor the walking corpse from Season 2, nor the manic social justice warrior from Season 3. This is a calmer, contented (and sober) Kendall — still delusional, and apparently a newfound Buddhist, which Roman frequently mocks him for, but demonstrating resilience in the wake of his confession of vehicular manslaughter to his brother and sister.
The love between the three siblings is palpable, and they want so badly to work together, but they haven't yet been able to shake the poisonous instincts Logan instilled in them. They're all their father's children, after all, and how can attack dogs raised by an attack dog be expected to build sincere relationships? The best episodes of this show have always been the ones in which the siblings are stuck together without their father, acting how they imagine he would want them to — in his absence, Logan is an eternal boogeyman. They try to fight it in Season 4 but can't help succumbing to those impulses. What seems like a tentatively good sign is how this season begins to crack open some of the mystery around the kids' childhoods through several honest conversations, in Succession's oblique way.
Bold decisions are made this season, some of which I imagine could be controversial, though the show's writing remains sharp and singular. Without giving too much away, it's a relatively consistent ebb and flow of thrilling and maddening ideas. For every nimble choice from Macfadyen, who is endlessly compelling as a version of Tom with his affable Midwesterner mask peeled ever so slightly back, comes a Kramer-esque plot for Greg. Macfadyen and Braun have funny chemistry, but nothing will ever beat the heights Macfadyen and Snook can reach together; one scene between them, in which Tom reminisces about the early days of their relationship, left me breathless. Cox doesn't miss a beat leaning into Logan's melancholia (the character's Achilles heel, as Cox and Armstrong have reiterated, is that he does love his children; he just won't take responsibility for his role in turning them into people he sees as unfit to carry on his legacy), but his monologues have begun to come off as obvious. The rehashing of old plots in early episodes also works better in hindsight. Perhaps if you look into the mirror the series is holding up to itself, you'll see how deliberate many of the choices are in context, but it might be a lot of patience to ask from the audience. Still, it's evident that Succession has tremendous faith in the eagle-eyed viewership of its fans.
Succession's history is littered with tragedies big and small, world-altering and personal. The show has never faltered in its narrow focus, which means that even the world-altering tragedies are only seen through the eyes of the Roys, whose money protects them from consequences. The depiction of the characters' outrageous wealth as sterile and grotesque rather than indulgent — it's all dark walls and glass offices and sinister scandal cover-ups — is what makes the internal conflicts so effective. Money can shield the Roys from scrutiny from the outside world, but it can't protect them from each other. It can't protect the kids from knowing they've disappointed their father, something they're reminded of in the second episode, which finds all five Roys coming together in a karaoke bar, of all places. (The use of a mournful Leonard Cohen classic here makes for a pitch-perfect touch.) After some back and forth, Logan hits his children with a line that hangs over their heads for the rest of the season: "I love you, but you're not serious people." It's tame coming from the same person who has called them "f---ing nobodies" on multiple occasions. But it gets to them, because there's nothing worse to these characters than honesty, especially coming from the man they desperately, fruitlessly want to impress. Money can't protect them from that either.
This is why I'm unbothered by Succession haunting itself. There's been chatter among the fans about how the series will wrap up — ambiguously, or definitively? It's impossible to say. This is not the type of show to hide things from the audience or rely on big twists, and I've never bought into the accusation that nothing in its lavish universe ever changes. So much has changed since Logan's 80th birthday party, and now the show's past stares down its present in the mirror, but the reflection has gone warped and wonky. The cyclical nature of humanity, one of Succession's main points alongside the corrosion of the soul caused by insatiable greed, doesn't mean that things don't change. It means that history always repeats itself, and that Succession has done a great job finding the humanity within these wretched people. It's deeply human for Kendall, Shiv, and Roman to want do-overs on their innumerable mistakes. They think it's possible because they've never faced serious ramifications for their actions. Season 4 tells us that you have to go back to the start to understand the end, but it can't make up for the present. Maybe the most tragic thing about Succession is that, even after all this time, the characters just can't seem to get that through their heads.
Premieres: Sunday, March 26 at 9/8c on HBO
Who's in it: Brian Cox, Jeremy Strong, Kieran Culkin, Sarah Snook, Alan Ruck, Matthew Macfadyen, Nicholas Braun, J. Smith-Cameron
Who's behind it: Jesse Armstrong
For fans of: Succession Seasons 1-3
How many episodes we watched: 4 out of 10