Review: Succession was worth the watch

For five years, the series and the question of who would end up in charge captivated a chatty swath of the TV audience. But did anyone really win in the end?

For nearly five years now, certain homes and offices and the punchier corners of social media have dilated around a billion-dollar question: Which wounded nepo baby would succeed Logan Roy, the founder and CEO of Waystar Royco, as the head of a baleful empire that includes cruise ships, theme parks and ATN, a scaremongering media conglomerate? Turns out: None of them.

On Sunday night, with the second son, Kendall, poised to take it all, his younger sister, Shiv, betrayed him. The company would be sold to Lukas Matsson, a Swedish tech anarchocapitalist, with Shiv’s husband, Tom Wambsgans, as CEO.

And while the problem of who had won the presidential election was left open, the show’s fans were reassured that Willa, the wife of Connor, the eldest Roy scion, planned to redecorate Logan’s town house with a cow print sofa.

In its final season, Succession drew fewer than half the viewers, across all platforms, of The Sopranos or Game of Thrones. So if this was a water cooler show, that water was filtered. Yet its queasy, stinging satire of the ultra-wealthy exerted an outsize influence on its audience.

If you hardened your heart, or if your heart came pre-hardened, it made for a mutinous kind of comfort viewing, in which pleasure, envy and outrage could twine.

You could have watched the finale wearing a black Waystar Royco baseball cap (though the characters prefer the USD525 logoless Loro Piana version) or gulped your morning-after coffee out of a mug, available in 11 ounce and 15 ounce sizes, emblazoned with Tom’s email, “YOU CAN’T MAKE A TOMLETTE WITHOUT BREAKING SOME GREGGS.”

There are Succession memes, GIFs, drinking games, remixes of Nicholas Britell’s hypnotic, brittle theme. There’s a subreddit devoted to gossip and fake sightings. A sample post describes a rumor that Kendall has small feet: “Small small small feet.”

Saturday Night Live created a parody, Black Succession, though the sketch was cut for time. On Twitter, viewers have thanked HBO for scheduling the finale on the Sunday of Memorial Day weekend, guaranteeing most workers a full day to recover, or complained bitterly about its disruption of holiday plans.

Since Season 2, nearly every episode has inspired concomitant think pieces. Writers have argued that we love Succession because of what it says about America, what it says about class, what it says about money, family, trauma and abuse. These characters are just like us. They’re not like us at all. They’re fake. They’re real. We hate them. We love them. We’re rooting for them. Are we? Did we? Why?

Because now we know: Some of the wealthiest people in the world got just what they wanted. Some didn’t. None of it really mattered.

Still, the pull was undeniable. For a few moments, sometimes even for an entire episode, the show could entice a viewer into the orbit of a particular character, then a line or a look would break that gravity, leaving that same viewer lost in space.

Perhaps you allied for a time with Alan Ruck’s libertarian dingbat, Connor; Jeremy Strong’s rap fan Narcissus, Kendall; Sarah Snook’s knives-out girlboss, Shiv; or Kieran Culkin’s red-pilled Pinocchio, Roman, the youngest son, still dreaming of becoming a real boy. They were all wounded. They were all suffering. They were all mostly terrible.

Opposites of Midas, they injured anyone they touched, unless those anyones were also armored in their own wealth and privilege. Another show might have offered characters to contrast this — an innocent, someone genuinely good. Not this one. Everyone was venal. Everyone was for sale. Nearly every relationship was a transaction. This was a place where altruism went to die.

If the characters did not encourage loyalty, neither did the plotting reward much scrutiny. Although certain episodes — the season finales in particular — had more switchbacks than an Alpine mountain pass, the show was, at its core, almost entirely plotless. When it began, Kendall was poised to supplant Logan as CEO, but Logan shreds that plan in the first episode. What followed were four seasons of machinations, intrigues, betrayals and reconciliations, none of which changed the characters or advanced the story.

For its mostly middle-class viewers, Succession offered both a backstage look at the lives of the ultrawealthy and the comforting assurance that maybe those lives, despite the expensive trinkets that adorned them, weren’t especially nice. (Recent research has challenged the idea that the wealthy aren’t any happier than the rest of us, which makes Succession a cozy fantasy.) These characters still got stuck in traffic in their hulking town cars or inconvenienced by decomposing raccoons in their lavish vacation homes. They were ignored, insulted, belittled.

Yet the excellence of the writing and acting meant that viewers couldn’t dismiss them entirely. Lesser scripts would have reduced these men and women to caricatures, but Succession insisted on complication. And the actors could find midnight-zone depths even when the siblings and their retainers were at their shallowest. These were awful people, but they were also damaged people, with Culkin, Snook and Strong all able to show flashes of startling vulnerability just below the cashmere plate mail.

In making these characters easy to watch and difficult to hate, the show ultimately encouraged a kind of cheerful nihilism, a gleeful desire to see what they might break — democracy, one another — in each new episode. Beneath the Shakespearean insults and the Upper East Side penthouses, there was something empty at the heart of Succession.

This was reassuring, yes, as viewers could tell themselves that our lives were richer, no matter our bank balances. But were you to watch too many episodes in a row, you could feel the show doing to you what Ewan Roy, in his eulogy at his brother Logan’s funeral, accused Logan of doing to his ATN viewers: feeding a dark, mean flame in their hearts. In the series finale on Sunday night, as we have on so many other Sunday nights, we watched sister turn on brother, brother on brother, husband on wife, Greg on Tom — interactions that confirmed and suckled a belief in human nature as hollow, grasping, void. Four seasons was probably enough.

Perhaps there was no better illustration of that emptiness than in the funeral episode. After the eulogies, a cortege of town cars fast-tracks Logan’s body through the Manhattan grid to a mausoleum purchased from a onetime pet food mogul. All that wealth, all that privilege, delivering an embalmed meatsack to a perpetual nowhere.

And the worst part or the best part: You had to laugh.

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