‘Succession’ Review: A Provocative Series Finale Hammers Home Hard Truths — Spoilers

[Editor’s Note: The following review contains spoilers for “Succession” Season 4, Episode 10, “With Open Eyes” — the series finale.]

Gerri was right.

Back before the Living+ pitch, when Roman (Kieran Culkin) gets a little trigger happy with the firing gun, he poses the possibility of cutting ties with his sister’s godmother, aka Gerri (J. Smith-Cameron), aka the most competent and accomplished person at the company. In doing so, he lets slip he may not need the approval of Lukas Matsson (Alexander Skarsgård) to send her packing, which indicates to Gerri — again, not getting anything by her! — that he’s planning a coup. Immediately, she tries to warn him. She tries to tell him, in no uncertain terms, this whole “reverse viking” strategy Kendall (Jeremy Strong) is plotting will not end well.

“Oh no, no, no,” Gerri says. “You cannot win against the money. The money is gonna wash you away. Your dad knew. Tech is coming. We are over!”

Again, Gerri was right. In the “Succession” series finale, the Roy siblings unite one more time, ever so briefly, before the board vote swings against their anointed king and in favor of Matsson’s tech takeover. The deal Logan (Brian Cox) struck as a “gut feeling” goes through (so, technically, you could say Logan was right — even that Logan “won” — if you wanted to), and the old media giants of Royco are put out to sea. They are over. As for the kids, the would-be successors hoping to keep a business they inherited yet don’t fully understand, they are what they always were, which is “nothing.”

“You are bullshit. I’m fucking bullshit. It’s all fucking nothing,” Roman says to Kendall, after Shiv storms out to cast the deciding vote in favor of the GoJo deal. “I’m telling you because I fucking know it: We’re nothing.”

Perhaps Roman knew it then, when his pretend girlfriend/mommy spelled it out to him (even as he was trying to fire her). And perhaps audiences should’ve recognized the wisdom in Gerri’s appraisal when it happened. After all, if her word alone wasn’t enough to go on, then truth of the matter should’ve been obvious from her water imagery — of which there was plenty in “Succession’s” shrewd, quietly devastating series finale.

I expect certain fans to be disappointed by Jesse Armstrong’s chosen ending — or endings, really. Modern television viewers can struggle with ambiguity, or any conclusions that lack absolute finality. Theorists can also grow frustrated when all the “clues” they’ve studied don’t add up to the answers they expect. (Though some really did pay off.) The “Succession” finale embraces both of these unpopular options in its final feature-length episode, but it does so with purpose — and purpose, above all, is what endings really need.

Let’s start with Kendall, everyone’s favorite sad boi who does indeed end up quite forlorn. At the start of “With Open Eyes,” Kenny is all confidence and bluster. “Let’s carpe the diem, people,” he tells his staff, strutting through an office he’ll slink out of in disgrace the very next day. To his credit, he plays these 24 hours about as well as you can play them. He courts votes. He wields information just as Tom (Matthew Macfadyen) once instructed. As soon as his inside man (Greg the Egg!) tips him off to Shiv’s impending ouster (way to use that translation app, Greg!), he smashes the news over her face, blindsiding the mother-to-be long enough to get her in his corner.

For a brief, beautiful night, all things are right with the sibs. They return from a swim (water imagery!) to “cook” Kendall a “meal fit for a king,” which he giddily, greedily slurps down — even smiling as Roman dumps the potent mixture of pickles, Tabasco, raw eggs, ranch dressing, and “knobby” bread on his head. Watching the perpetually at-war trio laugh, smile, and joke with each other isn’t even bittersweet; it’s painful. This bond has never been able to last with these three, and there’s no reason to think it will now — not even when it appears that Kendall has crossed his T’s and dotted his I’s, a king waiting to be crowned.

“This is going to be all right,” he says before sipping from his blender chalice. “Like, we’re all right?”

“Succession”Courtesy of Sarah Shatz / HBO

No, they are not. So much of “Succession” was spent waiting for the other shoe to drop that everyone watching had to know the pivotal board meeting to crown an actual successor would not go as planned. (It keenly draws on our memory of the first season’s fateful board meeting, when Kendall’s inaugural attempt to replace his father goes haywire, mainly because Roman chickens out.) Still, I doubt many predicted Shiv backing out at the last second, fleeing to a conference room, and stunning Kendall into a desperate, vengeful stupor before burying his dreams at the bottom of the Hudson.

“I might’ve changed my mind,” Shiv says, by way of explanation. From there, the conversation devolves quickly. Shiv tries to think of any reason she can to justify her instinctual position, but the act of doubting Kendall is all it takes for him to hang himself. “I am like a cog built to fit this one machine,” he says. “It’s the only thing I know how to do.” To Shiv, that’s strike one. Whether she can articulate it or not, whether she even knows it or not, hearing Kendall say he’s been shaped, molded, and jammed into the perfect shape to run this company is enough evidence not to give it to him. It’s not healthy — not for the leader of anything as big as Waystar Royco, and not for Kendall as a human being — and it’s exactly what Shiv is rebelling against: the idea that Kendall is the one true heir, when it’s clearer than ever that Roman is right, and Logan “didn’t want to give it to any of us.”

“Logic, where’s the logic?” Kendall shouts, eliciting a hurtful sneer from his sister. But it’s not about logic. It’s about a feeling, and Shiv’s bad feeling about her bro proves out when Kendall becomes Logan right in front of them. As soon as Shiv brings up the man Kendall killed — at her wedding, way back in the first season, which she knows about from last season’s finale when he broke down and told them — his first response is, “Which?” But even more telling is what he says next: “That didn’t happen.” In the moment, he tries to pivot into insisting he’s clean, so they don’t need to worry about his drug problem, but what he ends up saying is that he lied. That there was no man. “I false-memoried it,” Kendall says. From that point on, his bid for power is doomed. He’s essentially admitting to betraying his siblings, and when a betrayal is found out in this group, everyone turns on the betrayer. Just as Roman and Kendall did to Shiv on election night, Roman and Shiv do to Kendall here.

Even as it was happening, I couldn’t help but think back to the Season 2 finale, when Kendall is told he has to take the fall for Logan, for the company’s wrongdoings, and he tells his dad, “It’s good to pay? You know, for the boy?” To this, Logan says no. He may be sending his son to the firing squad, but he won’t abide that kind of guilt. “Don’t beat yourself up,” he says. “No real person involved. It’s nothing.” Is that really different than the series finale, when Kendall insists to Roman that “[the crash] did not happen”? Or has Kendall become the worst parts of his father by believing his flaws and failures don’t matter as much as his perceived value to the company? If he is a cog only capable of doing one thing, then he’s the cog his father made him.

With that in mind, is it a surprise when Shiv says, “I love you, I do, but I cannot fucking stomach you”? Everyone should be on her side by then, and that’s really the end of the impromptu meeting. Kendall returns to the boardroom after the deciding vote has been cast, and he walks out of the building just as the new CEO, Tom Fucking Wambsgans, walks in. Ending the series on Kendall staring out into the ocean, his soul as adrift as the rest of him, makes for a fitting final shot. We’ve seen Kendall this way time and time again, and Episode 10 makes clear he hasn’t grown over the course of the series. He hasn’t learned anything. Maybe he will, now that his dream is dashed, but the implication is he’ll just keep spinning his wheels, trying to prove to himself and to the world that he’s every bit as smart as his daddy was. That, if given the chance to run a company like Waystar, he could’ve done it.

Kendall’s is but one of the open-endings Armstrong chooses for his characters, and it will likely be the one to nag at people who prefer clearer closure. After he gets up from that park bench, what will Kendall do next? What happens to him and to his family? To his relationship with his siblings and in the future with his kids? Those are all valid curiosities, but after four seasons, we know who Kendall is now. He is the son of a business titan, and he inherited every opportunity that came his way. He didn’t earn anything, and he’s desperate to prove that he did, that he could, that he will. Yet he’s stuck in an endless loop — and the world might be stuck, too.

The choice Kendall represents as the “logical” next CEO is a false conceit. Yes, in that moment, maybe he’s the best option among his siblings — as he laid out clearly enough to convince them both to “anoint” him — but he’s not the best man for the job. Tom isn’t either, nor is Lucas. They’re all bad options, which has been at the heart of “Succession” all along. We laugh at their vicious insults and gasp at their monstrous actions, as we get pulled into their wake by the vast power these backstabbing, rapacious people wield over so many lives.

So yes, in the end, the money wins out. Lukas has more of it, so he can offer it to the people he needs. Tech has more of it, so it consumes Royco’s dying media empire in order to become the next one. Albeit with different men behind the wheel, the cycle continues. So, too, it spins for the Roys. Money will protect Kendall, Shiv, and Roman from any real hardship, even if it can’t save their broken spirits. Money was not their way out, not their way forward, and “Succession” makes clear that even as it turns the world, money isn’t what will save it. Instead, it may just wash us all away.

Gerri was right.

Grade: A-

“Succession” is available on HBO. The full series is available to stream on Max.

Matthew Macfadyen and Sarah Snook in “Succession”Courtesy of HBO

Top-Dog Tommy

Midwest is best, baby! Let’s hear it for the Disgusting Brother! Tom Wambsgans, the man from Minnesota, Tom OfSiobhan, once destined for prison is now the warden of Waystar — or whatever GoJo’s company becomes in the coming days, weeks, and months. I won’t go so far as to say Tom will last as Matsson’s puppet CEO for years, but he’s certainly proven to have staying power, so the sky’s the limit.

Still, let’s not lose sight on the tragedy inherent to Tom’s arc. Yes, he’s the new CEO, and yes, Shiv is waiting for him in the car (despite her initial protests). But good luck negotiating that power reversal, you two. Tom ate so much shit for so many years, it’s clear by the way he holds out his hand — limply, as if he’s making no effort at all, yet still undoubtedly expecting her to reciprocate — that this man is going to relish his newfound authority. Shiv, being the daughter of Logan Roy, may not respond well to being subservient, especially after opening herself up to “a real relationship” and being soundly rejected.

Theirs is a loveless marriage — or, perhaps, a marriage where any genuine affection has been beaten into submission — but Tom still has one legitimate life partner…

Greg Sprinkles

Greg, you nearly Greg’d up your shot at real power, but you managed to un-Greg it by the skin of your teeth. After betraying Tom to Kendall and even slapping his once and future boss (Tom leading Greg into the bathroom under the guise of “corporate tactical matter” surely hearkened back to their “executive-level business”/water bottle fight), Greg earned a gold star — or a blue sticker — to prove he’s the one true love of Tom’s life. TikTok is gonna go absolutely crazy. I can’t wait.

Shiv Show at the Fuck Factory

I suspect the motivations for Shiv’s last-second reversal will be debated for some time, but only because it’s not the direct result of any one thing; it’s due to all the reasons at once. Shiv wants the job for herself, and she can’t bear being the one to hand it to her brother. At the same time, she means what she says when she doesn’t believe he’ll be good at it, and he’s not the eldest boy. (Great little joke in there about the oft-forgotten Connor.) Digging even deeper, there’s a progressive part of Shiv that can’t bear to see another old-school patriarchy take charge, nearly identical to the one that led to the cruise ship scandal and formalizing “NRPI” as company lingo. But, then again, Shiv is still someone who silences assault victims if it benefits her, so let’s not get too caught up in any nobility arguments.

The conflicted nature of her decision also speaks to her unhappy ending. Being the wife of the CEO is not at all like being the CEO, no matter how hard she tries to influence Tom, and she knows as much even before the “Godfather”-esque hand submission. She may not be literally kissing his ring, but she may as well have. The “Succession” finale doesn’t offer any happy endings, and Shiv is not the exception. Faced with bad option after bad option, she chose the only one she could live with (the most “convenient” avenue, perhaps?), even though her life just got a whole lot worse — and a lot closer to emulating her mother’s.

Do You Have Any Jokes?

“They call it the second-week itch.” – Roman, on Connor and Willa’s plan for a long-distance relationship only a few days into their marriage. (Do we think Mencken won the presidency, and thus Connor got his ambassadorship? I’m going to go with “yes,” mainly because it’s the funnier and more horrible option.)

Best Line That Could Still Air on ATN

“Don’t go down on Peter’s special cheese!” – Kendall, who I hope, along with the rest of us, can remember the good times.

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