By Archie Elliot
WARNING: MAJOR SPOLIERS AHEAD
Succession may well be the pinnacle of modern television, defying the worryingly slackened standard of entertainment that is produced today, with each season topping the last. The final season was no exception. With the weeks flying past and the finale’s premiere on the 28th May drawing increasingly nearer, the one question troubling every viewer was: how will it end?
Now, I don’t say ‘troubling’ lightly, because, as any fan of the show will know, there was absolutely no certainty throughout as to how each character’s story might end. Time and again, the writers of this show, led expertly by its creator Jesse Armstrong, proved that no character was safe. Even when they were on a high, their happiness, always overshadowed by their complacency, resulted in their inevitable and eventual fall from grace. Season after season, we watched as the Roy children struggled and fought and deceived those around them, especially and detrimentally their own family members, in order to be their father’s successor. Yet, just as the audience thought one character would come out on top, they were always swiftly and often brutality brought back down to rock bottom. The final season, especially the hour-and-a-half finale, delivered this in spades, returning aptly to the Shakespearean origins of the show, initially imitating King Lear, latterly resembling the destructive ending of Hamlet, in which all Roy family members meet a bitter and despairing end.
This show is a masterpiece in every sense, from the cinematography, which perfectly frames our perspective as voyeurs into this world of excess and destruction, to Nicholas Britell’s genius in the iconic score, which draws influence from both traditional classical symphonies and contemporary 808s beats. In ending the show on a high, instead of dragging it out for financial benefit, Jesse Armstrong ensured that the series remained a truthful and first-hand reflection on the today’s Trumpian era, with the show never failing in its reminder of the cutthroat hierarchical reality in which we live.
Yet he had not fully convinced one person and in the end, there was one character who didn’t, or just couldn’t, believe in him (“I love you, but I cannot stomach you”) and who would “Shiv” him in the back. Shiv’s doubts about Kendall’s capabilities were not only justified, but prevalent throughout the entirely of the series, from her opposition to his promotion after their father’s sudden hospitalisation in the initial episodes, to her brutal press statement in the third season, exposing to the world his instability, absence as a father, and excessive drug use.
It is worth noting that, at that moment in season three, Shiv was completely unaware of Kendall’s Achilles heel, which tracks all the way back to the season one finale, in which Kendall, drunk and in the search of cocaine, crashes a car, drowning a waiter on the night of Shiv and Tom’s wedding. This secret is instead told to Shiv in a heartfelt moment in the season three conclusion as a distraught Kendall, during his mother’s second marriage, (again like Shakespeare, Armstrong deftly deploys wedding after wedding as the backdrop to tragedy and business schemes) reveals his ‘skeleton in the closet’ to his siblings.
Thus, when it came to the final moments in the boardroom in last week’s episode, as the votes were tied, with it all depending on Shiv, she changed her mind, turning on Kendall, and their agreement to support his proposal to take over, stating simply “I don’t think you’d be good at it”, because he (and here it is) “killed someone”. This stark reminder of Kendall’s past cleverly links Shiv’s doubts, in the final scenes, to the show’s opening season. Through Kendall’s inescapable secret and haunting flaw, the writers simultaneously ensure, thankfully, that no plot lines are forgotten (cough cough! Game of Thrones).
Truth be told, Kendall has never proven himself as a competent leader and a promising successor to his father’s empire. Despite occasional glimpses of potential, throughout the past four seasons, he has been unable to define his own position or identity, as one that could ever complete with his father’s overwhelming omnipotence. Thus, Shiv’s decision was undeniably justified, as she would have been placing not only her future but the future of her father’s company in the hands of Kendall, who’s dependency on the now dead Logan continuously underlined his true inability as a leader in his own right. How does she know if he will cope without the crutch of his father’s support? How does she know that he won’t retreat in the face of defeat, spiralling into self-sabotaging behaviour, like he has always done? And thus, before we knew it, the decision was made, the final vote was cast, and the company was sold, irreversibly.
Even as Shiv’s vote was in question, instead of rising to the task to pull the family together and win her support one last time, Kendall further proves his undeniable ineptitude. While many see this as a petty and yet another backstabbing move from Shiv, bitter that she will have to relinquish the crown to one of her siblings, it is actually a legitimate concern, as the company would, with Kendall as their new CEO, rely on the stability of his reputation. A reputation that has been proven unreliable time and time again, far beneath that of his father’s. In that moment Kendall had one last chance to prove himself, to his siblings, and win the throne. And he blows it. Spectacularly. He handles Shiv’s issue with the same spoilt and childish behaviour one is now used to seeing between the Roy children, as he starts screaming that he’s the “eldest boy!” (he isn’t), exposing himself as an entitled child only out for his own success and willing to say anything to ensure it. This scene ends with them ripping each other apart emotionally and physically, the only trait they’ve really mastered from their father.
Throughout the entirely of the show each child sees themself as the centre of this world, claiming the company as their own and believing themself to be the rightful and legitimate successor. Yet, eventually, as they all get overpowered by this great tidal wave of a deal, we see illustrated how none are of any necessity to the company at all.
In the end, the show demonstrates how their father’s company was just a toy to them, something over which they could compete, to steal from one another and control. This theme has been laid out right from the opening season, with Marcia telling Shiv that “[Logan] made you a playground and you think it’s the whole world”. None of them can accept that truth he told in his final days: Logan didn’t trust any of them to take over, as he didn’t believe any of them to be “serious people”. Only in the final moments do any of them truly realise this. Faced with the immediate selling of the family company, Roman aptly states “we are bullshit”, a cutting reminder of their true insignificance. With “open eyes” the characters themselves are presented with the core message of the show, that those who are born at the finish line will never know what it takes to compete with those who are racing to get there.
And therefore, Tom’s victory and appointment as the new American CEO makes perfect sense. Underestimated throughout the show, Tom played the game strategically, posing himself as a loyal servant, nothing more, allying himself always with the person he knew would come out on top. Thus, Mattson chose the unquestioningly obedient Tom over a Roy child, who would have stepped into the role as a competitor, not a loyal employee. Mattson doesn’t want to be a puppet in another one of the Roy’s schemes and maneuvers; he wants someone safe and trustworthy, who he can manipulate himself. This position fits Tom perfectly.
While the Roy siblings automatically assume they’ll win, Succession proves, that these people, born into wealth and privilege, are completely blinkered and ignorant to the reality of competition. From birth, handed to them on a golden platter, has been every opportunity, a key directly into the board room. As a result, their false belief in their superiority, prevented them from ever fully understanding what it takes to succeed. All of this highlights how their father, Logan, was ultimately unable to teach them the skills and the fight he had when building this empire from scratch.
Jesse Armstrong perfectly captures how success, unlike wealth, cannot be inherited. While the Roy children seek, like all of us, a sense of purpose and accomplishment, in the face of true power, they, like all those handed everything from nepotism, cannot prevail against those who acquired power through their own merit. Thus, the characters themselves, with their schemes and ambitions, manipulations, and deceits, are ultimately reduced to insignificance, becoming a mere chapter in the history of Waystar Royco, by the everlasting cycle of power, competition and succession.