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Succession’s brutal finale cemented Shakespearean tragedy as one of this century’s greatest works of art

Jesse Armstrong’s blackly comic drama, which has the most Emmy nominations of any show this year, came to an end in May after four sensational seasons. It wasn’t just a compelling piece of television, writes Louis Chilton – it was a towering artistic achievement

Monday 15 January 2024 13:48 GMT
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About a Roy: Sarah Snook as Shiv Roy in the ‘Succession’ finale
About a Roy: Sarah Snook as Shiv Roy in the ‘Succession’ finale (HBO/Sky)

HBO’s peerless drama Succession, set among the venom and venality of the corporate uber-rich, came to a resolute close last May, after five years and four glorious seasons. Its final season, which earned 27 Emmy nominations, was a masterclass in the art of TV; by the time the finale rolled around, I don’t think anyone was doubting that creator Jesse Armstrong would stick the landing. And he did – Succession wrapped up with a 90-minute instalment that was moving, propulsive and unsparing.

While it will take some time for the dust to settle, for Succession to be judged and situated within the history of television, a few things were soon apparent. First and foremost, this was one of the best TV series ever made. This is not some woolly hyperbole or even, really, much of a subjective opinion. TV is still a young and emergent medium; there have been only a handful of series to have ever really achieved the layered depth and creative ambition of a truly great work of art. Succession did this, in its writing and in its execution. It deserves to sit beside series such as The Wire, The Sopranos and (the slightly lesser-seen but no less masterful) Deadwood at the very top of the pantheon of TV dramas.

Throughout this last season in particular, Succession has seemed to relish being television’s Top Dog. The other three dramas mentioned above all ran concurrently, during what is sometimes referred to as TV’s “golden age” in the Noughties. Later greats, such as Mad Men and Breaking Bad, had to compete with each other, as well as an increasingly congested TV landscape. But throughout its run, Succession’s supremacy has never really been in question. It was simply better written, better acted, funnier and more profound than any of its competitors. Art is not a competition, of course. The sporting-type hypothetical – “Would Djokovic have won quite so many grand slams if he had been forced to compete, as Nadal did, against Federer in his prime?” – has no power here. But throughout those final 10 episodes, the sense of confidence, of Succession’s cast and creators knowing that they were channeling something brilliant and unique, was palpable.

The word “Shakespearean” gets thrown around a lot when it comes to Succession. At the most obvious level, this comes from the echoes of King Lear that suffuse the show’s very premise: a power struggle between the heirs of wealthy, waning patriarch Logan Roy (Brian Cox). There is no good-hearted Cordelia here, though – just Gonerils and Regans, with flashes of Iago and Macbeth thrown into the mix for good measure. Yet it is not just these villains who the children embody; they are tragic and complicated, and capable of contradiction. What is particularly noticeable in the episodes following Logan’s death – which occurred, shockingly, just three episodes into the season – is that, for all the in-fighting and vitriol, Logan’s children were pretty much the only people to love him, in any real and marrow-deep way. When Shiv (Sarah Snook) asks Logan’s long-term associates Frank and Karl (Peter Friedman and David Rasche) at the funeral how “bad” her father really was, they respond only with empty platitudes: “He was a salty dog... but a good egg”; “What you saw was what you got.”

But Succession was Shakespearean in more specific ways. Armstrong has described it as a tragedy: it was only in the finale that this descriptor took on its full, haunting resonance. All three of the main Roy siblings, Kendall (Jeremy Strong), Roman (Kieran Culkin) and Shiv, are quite literally tragic figures; the ending had the perfect tragic ring of inevitability – all the while reframing everything that led up to it. Succession’s language, too, evokes the Bard in its use and choices of metaphor. How many other shows could have a character utter a phrase like, “Maybe the poison drips through”, and it not sound madly overwrought? If it shoots for grandeur in some of its language, then Succession proves just as adept at evoking the playful side of Shakespeare: the constant wordplay, the ingenious rhyming. It’s a linguistic dexterity that most TV shows would never even attempt to capture, let alone nail this hard.

Perhaps the only area in which Succession proved anything less than untouchable was in its visual flair, or lack thereof. After a pilot (directed by Vice’s Adam McKay) that leaned a little too hard on the pseudo-documentarian tropes – crash zooms, camera shakes, etc – the series soon settled into a steady but unshowy aesthetic. This was perfect for the bland sterility of the show’s ultra-rich locales – but pales in comparison to the striking visual inventiveness of series such as Better Call Saul or Atlanta. Nonetheless, Succession made up for this with a superb eye for memorable and potent images. Think of Kendall standing atop the Waystar Royco building, his once-sublime refuge obscured by glass suicide barriers. Or Logan emerging from a swimming pool, his back covered in scars. These stay with us more, perhaps, than any mellifluous line of dialogue.

It is also a testament to Succession’s greatness that it was able to drown out the more superficial readings of its material, to render irrelevant the kind of banal social media mewings about being #TeamKendell or #ShivHive. The question of “who wins” is ultimately reductive. Yes, Tom (Matthew Macfadyen) emerged as the ostensible victor but also, who cares? The point of Macbeth is not that Macduff becomes king at the last. This is the story of a failure, and the poignancy lies in the hows and whys.

Succession season 4 finale preview

In the penultimate episode, Kendall delivers a speech eulogising his late father. In it, he attempts to wrestle with – and justify – his father’s monstrous public and personal legacy. “People might want to tend and prune the memory of him, to denigrate that magnificent awful force of him,” he says, “but, my God, I hope it’s in me. Because if we can’t match his vim, then God knows the future will be sluggish and grey.” The future of television without Armstrong’s creation sometimes seems sluggish and grey, too. But Succession has reminded everyone that there is still fresh brilliance to be found in the medium – that TV can still be as vital, and profound, as art can hope for.

‘Succession’ is available to stream on Sky and Now

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