Succession review: Kendall’s wretched past comes back to bite him in poetic, violent finale

The board has cast its ultimate vote, and one character has at last grasped Logan’s poisoned chalice with both hands

Philippa Snow
Thursday 01 June 2023 09:36 BST
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Succession season 4 finale preview

Ten years ago, you might remember the cultural conversation being dominated by the question of whether Don Draper, the well-tailored antihero of AMC’s period drama Mad Men, would die in the show’s finale. The clues, people would say, were always there, from the cartoon of a man in a suit falling from a skyscraper in the opening credits to the ad Don (Jon Hamm) pitched which seemed to hint at death by drowning, and there was no other place for someone who had burned so brightly and brooded so cinematically to go but crashing down. This was not, of course, what happened; in fact, Don ended the show at a retreat, dressed in white and meditating, coming up with the idea for an iconic ad for Coca Cola, in a twist that turned out to be just as ugly as a death. No escape, no enlightenment, just commerce – a snapshot of a man’s interior life revealing nothing but an ad spot, another alluring lie.

Fast forward to this morning, and those viewers who remember the discussion about alleged signposts for Don Draper’s death may be experiencing déjà vu. As all Succession-heads know, the titles of each of the show’s season finales are drawn from a poem by John Berryman, “Dream Song 29”, and that poem is a dark one. “There sat down, once, a thing on Henry’s heart/só heavy, if he had a hundred years/ & more, & weeping, sleepless, in all them time,” it begins, “Henry could not make good.”

Berryman himself died by suicide in 1972, jumping off the Washington Avenue Bridge between St Paul and Minneapolis and plummeting into the Mississippi River. The series’ references to Berryman’s poem, along with several scenes that have flirted with the image of Kendall as a drowning man, have been Succession’s version of the falling ad executive in Mad Men’s credits, giving fans a reason to believe that Kendall Roy (Jeremy Strong) – arguably the show’s protagonist – would meet a tragic end.

For the majority of this week’s episode, I firmly believed that Kendall would instead receive his very own Mad Men ending: a spiritual death in disguise as a professional victory, his long-awaited appointment as the CEO of Waystar Royco leaving him both ruined and triumphant, perpetually chasing after Logan’s (Brian Cox) ghost and coming up short for the rest of his (undoubtedly unhappy) life. Instead, perversely, by the end I felt a little hope for Kendall; maybe it’s because I’m writing this at 4am and feeling faintly mad, but as I watched him look out over yet another shimmering body of water, his face slack, I could suddenly imagine a world offscreen, unseen, where he finally moved on. He may suggest to Shiv in the climactic scenes that he is a cog built for one machine, but viewers know that he has never been a great fit for that particular mechanism, and even when it felt for him as if things were turning smoothly, it rarely appeared that way from the outside.

Of course it is Tom Wambsgans – Matthew Macfadyen’s slimy, desperate outsider who has never had an issue with propelling himself forward via marriage or machination – who succeeds, helping the GoJo deal through and securing his place as the US CEO. Several times during these recaps, I have suggested that the Roy siblings cannot ever live up to their father precisely because they do not have his history – born into the lap of luxury, coddled and neurotic, they have no idea what it requires to drag oneself up from the very bottom by one’s very fingernails, and given that Logan was once poor, we have to imagine that before he was all-powerful and terrifying, he might have been slimy and a little desperate, too. Tom has grasped a poisoned chalice with both hands, and in doing so, he has become the show’s new falling man – a social and professional climber tumbling upwards, somehow, into hell.

It’s money, honey

What seemed like it was going to be one of the most crucial mysteries of the episode – Roman’s (Kieran Culkin) whereabouts, after he took a beating at the protest and then ran into the night last week – is solved more or less immediately, and the solution is fairly obvious if one really thinks about it: Roman’s with his mother, Caroline (Harriet Walter), the closest thing he has to a love interest now Gerri (J Smith-Cameron) is no longer on the scene. At Waystar Royco, Kendall is attempting to drum up enough support to block the GoJo deal at the board vote; with Matsson (Alexander Skargard), Shiv (Sarah Snook) is doing the same, albeit a little more smugly and with what appears to be a little more security, offhandedly assuring Matsson that her husband-or-ex-husband-or-perhaps-now-husband-again-f***-knows Tom is “a highly interchangeable modular part”. (“And I would say that to his face,” she adds – something for next year’s anniversary card, perhaps, or for a future sext now that “orgasm Olympics” is no longer up for grabs.) When Caroline calls Shiv to let her know that Roman has turned up, she decides it would be prudent to go “nail Roman as well” in order to improve the “corporate narrative” and to prevent herself from looking like “Lady Macbeth part II”. That she calls her mother an “associate” when speaking to Matsson is chilling, but in fairness it is probably a sweeter term than the first three or four she thought of when Caroline’s name first appeared on the display of her phone.

Under the guise of letting Tom know Roman’s whereabouts, Shiv decides to ask her husband-or-ex-husband-or-perhaps-now-husband-again-f***-knows if they can get a few things straight. “Well, I thought it might be worth raising, are there any positives about the nightmare we’ve shared?” she says hopefully, adding that if there were, it would be “so convenient”. “Well, it would be incredibly convenient,” Tom “highly interchangeable modular part” Wambsgan grins, “because then you’d be married to your husband. You’ve fallen in love, finally. You’ve fallen in love with… our scheduling opportunities.” Correctly, he identifies Shiv’s renewed interest as a side-effect of her allergy to appearing to have “failed a test”. That cynicism and ruthlessness, of course, is the very thing that makes them horribly perfect for each other, and the rest of this episode will bear this out with such queasy obviousness that it is almost gruesomely romantic.

Although Roman lashes out against the allegations that he’s “fragile” when both Kendall and Shiv descend on him at their mother’s place, we know he’s lying because he is in a t-shirt – a terrible blue and yellow number that one has to assume belongs to his kindly buffoon of a stepfather, Peter Munion (Pip Torrens). (Pouring one out here, metaphorically speaking, for the fact this is the very last time I will have a reason to type the name “Peter Munion”.) It would be nice to believe that Shiv and Kendall had turned up to ascertain that Roman was alright after getting into a “very violent fight” that he definitely “won, by the way”, but it soon becomes clear that they are going to scrap over his loyalty like two dogs with a particularly tattered toy, instead. When Kendall informs Caroline that they can’t stay for a family meal because they have a huge board meeting to attend, she responds as if she is writing a tweet about why Succession is boring – “Huge board meeting!” she gasps, mock-alarmed. “Gosh, what an event! That’s never happened before in my life!” – and somehow, as is often the case with maternal guilt, the siblings end up staying before they even realise what has happened.

Harriet Walter’s Caroline briefly brings the children together in ‘Succession’
Harriet Walter’s Caroline briefly brings the children together in ‘Succession’ (©2023 HBO. All Rights Reserved)

Logan mark II: Sexy Logan boogaloo

At a gallery private view with Matsson, on a strange job interview that also resembles a date, Tom is fretting about whether observing that the “colours go well” in a painting is impressive enough art criticism to win the Striking Viking over. “If he wins, you’re f***ed,” he tells Greg (Nicholas Braun). “$200k, the highest paid assistant in human history. You’re gonna get bumped down to $30 or $40k.” When the Matsson meeting shifts to an intimate dinner, Tom is tasked with selling himself, and he does so in his classic mock-submissive style, presenting himself as an empty vessel to be filled, an attack dog to be trained on anyone that Matsson likes. “I’m a grinder,” he shrugs, plainly, in a line that I presume is destined to become a meme beloved of tired millennial Twitter users everywhere. “I grind because I worry. I worry all night about everything.” Allow me to speak for everyone when I say, in this specific context only: Tom Wambsgans, c’est moi.

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Matsson reveals that he has two problems with the idea of Shiv being the CEO: the first is that she has a lot of ideas, but that actually running the company is “f***ing easy,” and so he does not believe he needs them; the second is that he feels that they “clickety click”, and he thinks that “under the right circumstances” they’ll have sex. “What if I hired the guy who put the baby inside her,” he asks Tom, “instead of the baby lady?” It’s a truly, truly indecent proposal — not only will Tom be required to f*** over the wife he has supposedly just tentatively reconciled with, but he’s also going to have to let his new boss literally f*** her. Tom, however, does not hesitate, and Matsson calls him, with no apparent irony, “Logan mark two—only this time, he’s f***ing sexy.”

Tom’s betrayal, and his appointment as a supposed sexy new Logan, might have remained a carefully guarded secret if it were not for the equally Machiavellian mindset of one Greg the Egg – when Tom and Matsson join their respective assistants at the bar for shots, the Swede and his right-hand man begin discussing the CEO position quietly in their native language, and Greg has the wherewithal to whip his iPhone out and begin automatically translating. (For a moment, I wondered whether this might make Tom Wambsgans someone who had actually lost their job thanks to AI if Greg successfully screwed the deal.) He learns that Shiv will not be the CEO, although he doesn’t learn who will. “Dude, I’m in the centre of the f***ing universe, with the knowledge to take down solar systems, man,” Greg pants, as he calls Kendall from the bathroom. “Basically: could you guys win? OK, buckle up…”

The incredible f***brother bandwagon

After Greg’s disclosure, things move swiftly, and they also move in exactly the direction they were always going to move in. If I may quote Caroline for a moment: a three-sibling argument over who ought to be the CEO at Waystar! Gosh, what an event! That’s never happened before in my life! Once Shiv has confirmation that she has indeed been played by Matsson “like a pregnant cello”, the same old exhausting fight begins. Kendall, who sees his suitedness for the role the same way kings used to imagine their right to rule had been ordained by God, of course thinks he is the only obvious choice; Shiv obviously believes she is tougher than her brothers; Roman obviously needs to prove himself to his dead father, and thus does not want to give in on the matter.

When I call the fight “exhausting,” I don’t necessarily mean this as a negative observation, largely because I think the circular nature of Succession’s conflict is meant to be suffocating and frustrating, and is meant to place us in the same tense, desperate headspace as the Roys. At one point, Kendall argues that he ought to be the CEO because his father promised him the job when he was seven at an ice cream parlour, and we realise that however long we have been watching this particular sibling rivalry play out, it has been bred into these people, beaten into them emotionally and – in Roman’s case at least – physically, too. The difference is that this time, an actual peaceful resolution is achieved: Shiv and Roman might joke about orchestrating Kendall’s murder, but the gags are almost tender in their silliness; as they watch their brother swim out to a raft at sea, in another of the series’ many scenes that places him in water, there is a suggestion that they almost admire his loony, full-throated commitment to the company and its future. “You get the bauble,” Roman says. “It’s haunted and cursed and nothing will ever go right, but enjoy your bauble.”

The loser list

After a scene of Shiv, Roman and Kendall playing with food in their mothers’ kitchen that is so full of actual, normal-seeming sibling rambunctiousness and stupidity that it’s immediately obvious that the Roy ceasefire won’t last – long-term viewers of Succession know we aren’t allowed nice things for very long before the next double-cross, covert phone call or incest gag comes around – we move to the morning of the day of the board meeting, with all four Roy children gathered at the former family home. Connor (Alan Ruck) and Willa (Justine Lupe), who have purchased Logan’s old place from his widow, Marcia (Hiam Abbass), have arranged for everyone to come and sticker the belongings they would prefer to inherit, and Willa excitedly announces that the couple will be adding some “spice” to their marriage by going long-distance as Connor moves overseas to work in politics, and Willa remains in the house. “The second-week itch, I believe they call it,” Roman deadpans. Shiv casually mentions that things with the Mencken (Justin Kirk) presidency have been held up in court, and that maybe Connor won’t go after all, and Willa tries not to look horrified by the idea of spending every day, ‘til death do them part, with her strange first pancake of a husband.

Arguably, the destabilising moment that sends the finale crashing into chaos and distress happens here, as Connor screens a video of Logan at the dinner table that shows him in an unusually amiable and humane mood, reciting what he calls his “loser list” and chuckling as Gerri shares a bawdy limerick. When Karl (David Rasche) does his own party trick on the recording, singing “Green Grow the Rushes”, Logan joins in, his voice surprisingly beautiful, and we see him being transported by the music, maybe to a time before he was the Logan Roy we recognise. Roman, Shiv and Kendall are all moved to tears, and just as it was obvious that his influence did not die when we saw Roman shake to pieces at the mere sight of his coffin last week, here it’s possible to see that something’s shifted even if it is not clear yet what has changed.

Tom, with Wambsganian timing, approaches Shiv immediately afterwards and accidentally, Wambsganianly lets slip that he knows that she has been s***canned, then reveals he’s going to replace her. “I know you,” he says, gently and fairly accurately, “and I know that you would do the same thing if this were reversed.” After calling him a motherf***er and an empty suit, Shiv goes on the warpath; Tom does too, dragging Greg into a bathroom to upbraid him for revealing that Matsson was not hiring Shiv, and the two of them have a very funny, very stupid slap fight. I mentioned last week how often people discuss Shakespeare and the Shakespearian when they talk about Succession – the scenes cutting between both camps preparing for the board meeting, set to stirring strings, feel like the narrative equivalent of the precursor to a battle in a history play.

Matthew Macfadyen’s Tom is the slimy new king in ‘Succession’
Matthew Macfadyen’s Tom is the slimy new king in ‘Succession’ (©2023 HBO. All Rights Reserved)

Big, big day on the ol’ salami line

It’s another quasi-ghostly presence that provides the final catalyst for disaster, as Roman spots Gerri entering the board room just before the meeting. If seeing the video of his dead father unmoored him a little, seeing the mother-lover figure who is figuratively dead to him strolling confidently onto the front lines of the war he is about to fight in floors him. “I think I’m gonna call in the vote,” he stammers, his voice taking on the speedy quality that usually accompanies a panic attack. “It looks so much better than I thought,” he adds, looking at the cut he sustained on his face in last episode’s beatdown. “I feel like people are going to be like, why isn’t it me?” His logic after this is hard to follow, maybe because he is not in his right mind: he seems to believe that because his stitches look too neat, he’ll look like somebody who pussies out, and he’ll lose the board’s respect. Kendall, seemingly understanding him better than I do, pulls him close as he begins to cry, and then pulls him too close, squeezing him so hard against his shoulder that the stitches pop and he begins to bleed.

Here it is, then – the quintessential Succession moment, driven by the secret, complex rules that govern this particular set of siblings. A love that plainly hurts and leaves you bleeding, a love that is destabilising and cruel; a love that is sometimes impossible to tell from business strategy. By the time it turns out to be Shiv who cracks in the board meeting, and not Roman, it almost doesn’t matter: there is no way this can end well, whether or not any of them “wins”. The argument the three have when Shiv exits while the vote is six to six, uncertain where she’ll land, finally boils down their previous arguments into a pure, diluted form, each of them speaking about their suitedness for the job as if it is the fourteenth century: Kendall wails that he’s the eldest boy, Roman points out that Shiv’s pregnancy makes her the genetic continuation of the Roy line, then calls Kendall’s children “a buy-in” and “half Rava and half some filing cabinet guy” respectively, and Kendall grabs his face as if he might tear out his eyes.

“You can’t be CEO, because you killed someone,” Shiv tells Kendall, referring to the young waiter Kendall accidentally killed in season one, and unbelievably Kendall is so desperate that he pretends it was a lie, a ploy to bring them all together. (Do note: The last verse of “Dream Song 29” begins with the lines “But never did Henry, as he thought he did,/end anyone and hacks her body up/and hide the pieces, where they may be found.”) “If I don’t get to do this,” Kendall says, of the CEO position, “I think I might die.” But any idiot can see that doing it might kill him, and that trying to do so is the thing killing his soul. Truthfully, the last scenes of the episode, showing Tom’s ascent, feel almost like a whimper in lieu of a bang, but surely this is the point — when it comes to business at the scale of Waystar Royco or of Gojo, the wheels keep on turning even if a cog like Kendall is removed, just as Shiv and Tom will keep their marriage going for the sake of commerce, and just as a grovelling Greg might go on to become the new Tom now that Tom is the new Logan. “Once you’ve said and done the worst things, you’re kind of free,” Shiv tells Tom at one point in this week’s episode. Everyone involved here has said and done the worst things that anyone could possibly do to each other by this point. The rest – as another sad man with a ghostly father once observed – is silence.

‘Succession’ season four is available to watch in its entirety on NOW and the finale will air again at 9pm on Sky Atlantic on 29 May

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