The purpose of great drama is self-revelation. Through moments of epiphany, characters come to realise who they are and what they can or cannot do. In a comedy, this knowledge comes just in time for redemption. In a tragedy, it is all too late. The latter is the case with HBO’s Succession (streaming on JioCinema), one of the finest dramas of our times, which came to a fitting end on Monday morning with a perfectly painful finale.
For four seasons, Succession has alternated between hope and despair for its protagonists, especially the three Roy siblings, who want to take charge of their father Logan Roy’s media empire. And yet, it is only in the last episode of the show’s last season that all three of them come to terms with what they really want, and more importantly, whether they can get it or not. The result is a compelling and cathartic conclusion to a story that will be difficult to match as much for its intrigue as for its inevitability. Spoilers and heartbreaks ahead.
Winners cannot be choosers
After weeks and months of speculation through feature articles, Twitter threads, Tiktok reels and just about anything that draws attention online, the winner of Succession is… Tom Wambsgans. Or is he? On the surface, Tom wins by becoming the new CEO of Logan’s company (taken over by Lukas Matsson’s GoJo) because everything else aligns for him. Matsson opts for a puppet American face who can be a “pain sponge” and chooses Tom’s unquestioning servility over Shiv Roy’s more imposing candidature. Shiv, for her part, opts to cast the tie-breaking vote at the all-important board meeting in favour of GoJo because she does not think that Kendall can lead, even if it means resigning herself to a marriage with Tom where he has all the leverage and very little love.
Tom wins because others make crucial choices out of naked self-interest, a sense of self-sabotage and pure convenience. But does his victory matter? Is there any pride, let alone joy, in dancing to the tunes of a Swedish maverick by selling your soul and your dignity to the bottom line? For an amoral careerist like Tom, the answer does not matter. What does is that Tom survives to fight another day, all the while denying the Roys a shot at what they thought was their birthright. In doing so, he retains the services of Greg Hirsch, who both slaps Tom and lets him down, because Tom still needs his own Tom.
Meanwhile, the Roys, after patching up midway through the episode, have one final implosion, as past traumas come back to haunt them. Having persuaded Shiv and Roman to anoint him with a “meal fit for a king” at their mother’s (Caroline Collingwood, Logan’s second wife) retreat somewhere in Barbados, Kendall is betrayed by Shiv with all their futures hanging on her vote. In the end, Shiv sees that Kendall is too self-absorbed to take up what he feels is the only thing he is cut out to do.
In voting for Matsson, who “played” her “like a pregnant cello”, Shiv does both the right thing and the wrong thing. She sticks the knife into Kendall (ironically, one of Shiv’s etymological meanings is ‘knife’) when he least expects it, but she also liberates herself and her siblings from the curse of being Logan’s children, the curse to hold on to power just because they were born with it.
A succession of compromises
If Shiv makes the ultimate compromise in siding with the backstabbing Matsson and continuing a marriage with Tom where their fingers, just like their hearts, will never quite interlock, there are others who also accept their fates for what they are. Connor Roy knows that he will never be President or have any remotely meaningful job, which is why he finds solace in Logan’s heirlooms. His wife, Willa, trades romantic hollowness for material comfort, even as she knows that her plans to convert her marriage with Connor into a long-distance relationship may never come to fruition. And then there is Roman, who ends the show having a drink at a bar with an expression that suggests he knows he has run his race. By compromising with his dreams, however manufactured they may have been, he can, potentially, enjoy his reality. He is no CEO, but at least he can go back to being a weirdly pleasing pervert.
The final compromise of the show happens when Kendall sits down to stare at the sea with Colin (Logan’s former and Kendall’s current bodyguard) looming in the background, just in case Kendall tries to jump into the water. But he does not, he merely sits on a bench with a vacant expression that neatly distils the essence of his character. Three out of four seasons of Succession have ended with Kendall defeated. This time, however, his defeat is decisive, one beyond redemption. Kendall knows there is no coming back. His compromise is to keep on living, knowing that, as his father had predicted, he is not a “killer”. Killing a man (in the first season) does not prove enough for Kendall, who can never quite kill the doubts within.
An all-time classic
Before its fourth season, Succession had already achieved cult status. All that remained was to provide an ending that did not polarise its audience, as Game of Thrones managed to do in 2019, and seal its place in history. But over the course of 10 magnificent episodes, Succession has done much more. It has brought back the age of slow storytelling, an art form that seemed doomed to death in the age of breakneck, binge-worthy television. It has proved that time is the most pivotal character in any drama. If you let time play out gradually and deftly, it both unspools and unites the numerous threads of a plot, making the story both brilliant and believable. Time also lets protagonists grow into people, whose journeys become as memorable as their destinations. Above all, time allows scope for art to be absorbed, analysed and assimilated into reality, making a show like Succession resonate through the gulf that separates the world that we should have and the world that we do.
In the show’s finale, there is a moving sequence where Kendall, Shiv and Rome are cooking the aforementioned “meal fit for a king”. For a few minutes, they are joking, pranking and having fun with one another. There is no animosity or ambition, just simple amusement. But the sequence ends and the consequent boardroom chaos consumes any possibility of a happily ever-after for the trio. This, perhaps, is Succession’s enduring legacy. A teaser into what innocence looks like before it is corrupted by power. A glimpse of familial fulfilment before it is snatched away by the conflicting needs and wants of selfish individuals. A reminder of how, in a tragedy, as often in life, those that love each other are condemned to hurt each other.