The Real Succession Endgame

In the premiere of its fourth and final season, the HBO show offered familiar beats but also a hint of a new direction.

Shiv, Roman, and Kendall Roy surrounded by palm trees in Season 4 Episode 1 of 'Succession'
Claudette Barius / HBO

This story contains spoilers through the first episode of Succession Season 4.

Who is Logan Roy, really? What can we say definitively about him now, at the beginning of the fourth and final season of Succession, that we couldn’t have easily observed at the show’s start? He’s irascible. He hates his children. He “loves” his children. (“Love’s not love,” as a character observes in King Lear, “when it is mingled with regards that stand / Aloof from th’ entire point.”) After all this time, Logan still feels less like a person, with the complicated, humanizing qualities that even terrible people tend to have, than a manifestation of the id—the singular desire he has to win at the expense of others, including his own family. In their recent book, Unscripted, an extraordinary account of the final years of the media mogul Sumner Redstone, James B. Stewart and Rachel Abrams write that as Redstone’s speech began to fail, he programmed a laptop to say phrases on his behalf, including “Would you like some fruit salad?” and “Fuck you.” But with Logan, there is no fruit salad.

Since Succession’s debut in 2018, people have puzzled over whether the series is a comedy or a drama. The impulse to define its genre isn’t just about semantics, or wanting to arbitrarily fit it into one box or another. It’s also about what we can ultimately expect from a show that breaks so many of TV’s tried-and-true rules. Heading into the new season, I’m truly flummoxed trying to anticipate where things might be headed. Structurally and stylistically, Succession is a comedy: Things rarely happen; there are few real stakes and fewer real consequences; virtually every character speaks in the same cheerfully obscene, improbably clever voice. (Ask yourself whether Kendall, an adorable dodo princeling, would really use internecine in a sentence, or whether you’ve ever actually heard a person say that word out loud.)

Narratively, Succession is also as circular as a sitcom: It has a tendency to reset itself rather than shake things up in unexpected fashion. In Season 4, which takes place after Logan has wrested power away from his children in a familial betrayal, their temporary distance from him has apparently made their lives a little brighter. “Let a thousand sunflowers bloom, Romie,” Kendall said in Los Angeles, cheerfully crunching on sunflower seeds; a few minutes later, when Tom called Shiv, sunflowers were also visible in the restaurant behind him. But when the younger Roy siblings got offered the unexpected chance to best Logan by outbidding him for the media conglomerate Pierce, they couldn’t resist. He has, in so many ways, raised them for exactly this: to kill rather than grow.

The fourth season’s first episode, “The Munsters,” emphasized in other ways how little has changed since the first time we met the Roys. It directly restaged a number of events from the show’s pilot: Logan again reluctantly celebrated a birthday and weighed his mortality, taking a lonely walk in the park while flanked by his “best pal” and fixer, Colin. Kendall again overbid on a media property in order to prove his business acumen to himself and his father. Shiv again considered a job working for a politician diametrically opposed to Logan’s right-wing empire, though she has graduated from wearing exclusively beige to wearing exclusively taupe. (I’m being glib—her marriage is also apparently over, even if Shiv didn’t want to talk about it.)

Dramatically, though, the series has always had bigger ambitions. If the characters sometimes feel limited by dialogue that shows off more than it reveals, they’re enriched by Succession’s fascination with power as a corrupting influence. Dealmaking is the show’s narrative preoccupation and love language—in a family business, it emphasizes, every interaction is also a transaction. I can appreciate the layers of societal critique within this approach, the show’s clear indictment of how the outsized influence of a few emotionally stunted men can contaminate not just their own families but also the entire world.

Still, the most indelible scenes of Succession for me are the ones where business is temporarily abandoned to let the characters be vulnerable and recognizably human. In tonight’s episode, a scene that could have been a devastating autopsy of Shiv and Tom’s marriage was cut off at the head by Shiv’s refusal to participate. “Tom, I think we could talk things to death, but actually, we both just made some mistakes, and I think a whole lot of crying and bullshit is not gonna help that,” she said. Pragmatic and businesslike? Absolutely. The stuff of great drama? Not in the least; it’s too early in the season for that kind of thing.

This is not to be uncharitable about a show that’s consistently more watchable, more bleakly pleasurable than almost any of its peers. (All hail Greg’s date, “Bridget Randomfuck,” and her ludicrously capacious bag, her flat shoes for the subway, her lunch pail.) It’s to say that the promise of an ending is intriguing because it offers Succession an opportunity to do something different. For three seasons, Kendall, Shiv, Roman, and Connor have followed in their father’s footsteps like pieces on a monstrous, immersive Monopoly board, their luck and status fluctuating but their moves never changing. The script for the show’s Season 1 premiere, “Celebration,” at one point describes Logan’s entrance into a room as changing its “center of gravity.” He simply is the game—not just the nucleus but also the force by which every other character is defined.

A good few curveballs potentially still lie ahead. What of Logan’s friend-assistant-and-adviser Kerry’s fertility-enhancing maca-root smoothies? Is Nan Pierce, the neutrals-clad, left-leaning matriarch of Pierce, also the ghost of Shiv future? Is the protofascist presidential candidate Jeryd Mencken nudging America toward civil war? (If so, the chaos hadn’t yet reached Fifth Avenue.) My main takeaway from “The Munsters,” though, is that this peace surely can’t last. As lovely as it was to see Kendall, Roman, and Shiv united, Shiv kissing her younger brother with surprising tenderness when he greeted her with insults, Logan seemed too ominously bored, too enraged by a sense of his own palpable weakness, to not try to tear them apart one last time.