Succession Was a Race to the Bottom, And Everybody Won

9 minute read

Spoiler alert: This article discusses the series finale of Succession

Ladies and gentlemen, pregnant cellos and pain sponges—we finally have a winner! Congratulations to Tom Wambsgans, Midwestern milquetoast turned American CEO of GoJo Waystar Royco. (Maybe they’ll just call it GoWay?) Who would’ve guessed? Well, as that iconic chronicler of Hollywood power plays Nikki Finke would’ve put it: Toldja! Just kidding. Honestly, by the time last week’s penultimate episode of Succession ended, I was coming around to the Cousin Greg theory. Not that Greg should be complaining about the events of Sunday’s hilarious and harrowing finale. And not that it really matters who the successor is. What’s more important is who the successor isn’t, and that’s all three of Logan and Caroline’s monstrous adult children.

Kendall, Siobhan, and Roman Roy were never actually competing for money or power or a seat at the head of the conference table. What they wanted was their father’s approval. But he died without granting it to anyone, more alienated than ever from kids he seemed to love in his own coldhearted way but could never respect. His story ended at a personal and professional nadir—abandoned by his family, surrounded by sycophants, the deal that would’ve put a capstone on his career undone. In the excellent series finale, “With Open Eyes,” each member of the Roy triumvirate fulfilled their true destinies. Which, unfortunately for them, meant winning not the role of successor, but their own personal race to the bottom. And they took a lot of people down with them. If you believe, as I’m pretty sure we’re supposed to, that Jeryd Mencken’s presidency is a done deal, then the figurative casualty toll could be as high as the entire U.S. population.

A new path for Waystar Royco beginsCourtesy of HBO

It was, after all, the election that revealed the real, skyscraper-high stakes of Succession. Even as episodes and seasons unfolded with finely orchestrated precision, I worried about where it was all heading. Three spoiled adult children vying for control of their father’s company in increasingly degrading ways was certainly entertaining. As scripted by creator Jesse Armstrong and his team of writers, the character arcs curved with Shakespearean grace (and, indeed, borrowed quite a bit from the Bard). Dialogue both devilishly funny and gut-wrenchingly devastating never failed to land. But what was the point? The super-rich are monsters? That much was conveyed by the end of the first season, when a drug-addled Ken accidentally drove a waiter to his death, partied all night at his sister’s wedding, and allowed Logan to clean up his involuntary-manslaughter mess. Crowning a successor would resolve the plot but not necessarily make a larger statement.

While there had been hints of what that statement might be throughout the show’s run, it wasn’t until the third-to-last episode, “America Decides,” that Armstrong’s endgame really emerged. Shrewd as it had been on the vicissitudes of the media business and dynamics within obscenely privileged families that live in the public eye, Succession was always, in large part, about the impossibility of democracy amid our country’s current age of billionaires. It’s just that—with rare exceptions like season 3’s “What It Takes,” set at a CPAC-like conference at which Logan anoints Mencken, then just a far-right upstart, as his chosen candidate for the GOP Presidential nomination—the portrait took shape in the negative space surrounding the Roys’ conflicts.

Tom and Greg, sorting out their differences in the series finaleCourtesy of HBO

Succession loved nothing more than dramatic irony. Accordingly, what’s funny and also fitting is that none of the Roys ultimately benefited from their casual betrayal of the democratic process. It was not just Jeryd “Something Clean in This Polluted Land” Mencken and Tom “Pontius Pilate” Wambsgans, but also Greg “Just Following Orders” Hirsch and above all Lukas “Politics Is Easy” Matsson who emerged victorious from that battle in the Roys’ endless civil war. As the kleptocrats divvied up the spoils (Waystar, America), the Roy kids just kept fighting—sometimes in a scarily physical sense, as Ken and Roman did during the finale’s climactic board meeting. Coddled and cloistered for their entire lives, it’s the only thing they ever really learned to do well.

It was Logan who planted the seeds of each of his children’s destruction, but they finished the job together. Once horrified by his father’s coldness, Ken ended up embracing and, in his eulogy, endorsing Logan’s cruel pragmatism; in fact, by handing Mencken the election in a simple quid pro quo transaction, he arguably strayed farther from his ethical obligations as a steward of the free press than his dad ever would have. It was Roman who, through his dubious friendship with Mencken and the pressure he exerted on his brother, created the necessary circumstances for Ken to debase himself. And it was Shiv’s betrayal of the CEBros to Matsson that allowed Ken to justify his own betrayal of the democratic process—a choice that just happened to complement his own burning ambition to run Waystar.

Kendall contemplating what's to come after the unexpected results of a board room voteCourtesy of HBO

All that moral compromise doesn’t even, finally, get him what he wants. Physically battered by Roman and figuratively knifed by Shiv, when she votes in favor of the GoJo deal, Ken comes out of four seasons of Succession in much the same predicament that he was in midway through the series premiere: so close to becoming CEO but for all practical purposes a million miles away. Except this time he isn’t going to get another shot at that title. The last time we see him, he’s gazing blankly out at the dirty river, under the eye of Logan’s old body man Colin, who has presumably placed Ken on suicide watch. Armstrong was wise, I think, to decide against literally killing him off. The melodrama would’ve drowned out all of the episode’s subtler notes of comedy and tragedy. That final water imagery was enough of a reminder that Ken will never be far from the precipice. “If I don’t get to do this,” he tells his siblings just before Shiv votes against him, “I might die.” I don’t think that is an exaggeration.

Roman, for his part, had been sliding toward chaos since Logan’s death. After a brief election night high, the funeral brought both his own self-sabotage by way of inconvenient human emotions and a swift double-cross by the predictably mendacious Mencken. He makes some “Why not me?” noises while having it out with Ken and Shiv at the vote, but—as his siblings also point out—it’s hard to believe he really wants, much less has the emotional capacity, to lead a multinational corporation. What Roman always seemed to crave was the safety of the family bubble. Now, with Shiv choosing her husband over her brothers and Ken undoubtedly stewing on Roman’s reminder that Logan never saw Ken’s non-biological children as legitimate heirs, they might never be close again. Smiling into his martini or not, Roman seems to have a pretty lonely life ahead of him.

Kieran Culkin hiding out at his mother's Caribbean home in the 'Succession' finaleCourtesy of HBO

Shiv arguably ends up in a more advantageous position than either of her brothers. For one thing, she doesn’t share their self-destructive impulses. And for a brief moment, when she casts her vote—offscreen—in favor of selling to Matsson, she gets to be the most powerful person in the boardroom. It also looks as though her marriage to Tom, warped though it has always been and will forever be, is on the mend. No longer is she ridiculously out of his league.

Yet her story line in the finale was also, in many ways, the most painful. Tossed aside by Matsson in favor of, as he puts it, “the guy that put the baby inside of her,” Shiv—who wants nothing more than to be taken seriously as one of the boys—is reduced to her roles as a wife and a sister. (What do all the men in this show have in common? Oh, that’s right: they’re sexist.) And she makes a decision that historical queens and other women negotiating a confusing mix of familial privilege and gendered disempowerment have been making for hundreds, if not thousands, of years—she bets on the next generation. If Ken’s kids are considered “randos” by eugenicist bigots like Roman then it is Shiv’s baby-to-be who will continue the Roy line. With Tom as CEO, their offspring will have money on one side of the family and power on the other.

Tom and Shiv, happily ever afterCourtesy of HBO

For all Ken’s speechifying, at the funeral, about everything Logan built, Succession was a show about destruction—of human psyches, of livelihoods and lives, and of democracy. This, the show persuasively argues, is the flip side of the capitalist coin: endless competition that yields nothing but pain. “Maybe the poison drips through,” says Ken, but there are no maybes about it. Cursed by a patriarch who eradicated every trace of warmth from his own soul, the Roy family destroyed everything it touched. The siblings were fascinating to watch because Armstrong conceived each one as a fully formed tragic hero, doomed by a combination of their own unique fatal flaw and the many additional neuroses that metastasized out of the toxic rivalry Logan fostered in them.

What’s more, even their downfall leaves little to celebrate. Sure, the Roys are out of the picture, but Matsson and Mencken and Tom aren’t exactly an attractive team to root for, either; if anything, they’ll do bad things more efficiently than the eccentric and incompetent family that handed them the keys to an empire. Broken by rapacious greed, the world of Succession, much like our world, may well be beyond repair. In the end, the only real winners are us—the viewers who got to watch the worst excesses of our new Gilded Age sublimated into great television.

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