In 2018, the company that was then known as HBO— recently rebranded, for questionable corporate reasons, as the infinitely more generic-sounding “Max”— released the pilot episode of “Succession,” a King Lear-inspired tale of the corporate machinations of the ultra-wealthy and morally questionable Roy family, owners of a gigantic globe-spanning media corporation. And while the show did not immediately click with viewers, it would eventually go on to become a massive hit, winning not just critical and commercial acclaim, but also numerous accolades, including a staggering 13 Emmy Awards, 9 Golden Globes, and even a Grammy.
When it was announced that the fourth season of “Succession” would also be its last, viewers were excited… but also concerned. After all, many fans of so-called “prestige TV” still harbored vivid memories of “Game of Thrones” (also from the erstwhile HBO), a series which featured a final episode so soul-crushingly terrible that millions of disgruntled fans— myself included— still shudder at the mere mention of it. Would the finale of “Succession,” arguably the best TV show in years, manage to stick the landing?
The answer is yes. A resounding, exultant, triumphant yes.
Everything in this episode— nearly everything, in fact, in the entire series— just works. The plot is gripping, with numerous twists and turns; the characters are three-dimensional, and all behave like living, breathing people; the dialogue (much of it, amazingly, improvised) is whip-smart and electric, while also steadfastly refusing to spell things out for the audience; the camerawork is engaging, with the whole show shot on 35 mm film (rather than digitally) with a handheld documentary feel that puts the viewer right in the middle of the action; the numerous locations are gorgeous and— crucially— mostly real places rather than CGI; the music is simple yet evocative; etc. etc.
And the acting! Every episode highlights the main Roy siblings, expertly played by Jeremy Strong (Kendall), Sarah Snook (Siobhan), and Kieran Culkin (Roman), alternately backstabbing each other, insulting each other, and yet— very clearly— also loving each other as only siblings can. A bit outside the core group of characters, Matthew Mcfadyen (Tom Wambsgans), and Nicholas Braun (Greg Hirsch) hold their own in some of the show’s most darkly comic moments. Rounding out this virtual masterclass of acting is a roster of brilliant character actors like Alan Ruck (Connor Roy), Alexander Skarsgård (Lukas Matsson), Hope Davis (Sandi Furness), and James Cromwell (Ewan Roy), among countless others.
If the finale is missing anything, it is the larger-than-life presence of the inimitable Brian Cox, the Scottish actor who played the fiery patriarch— and main antagonist— Logan Roy until [SPOILER ALERT] the character’s death in Season Four, Episode Three, “Connor’s Wedding.” Rarely has there been a small-screen death so shocking, so consequential, so far-reaching in terms of plot. “There are seven episodes to go,” we all said, flabbergasted. “What the hell is going to happen now?”
And while the pace of successive episodes slowed somewhat after Logan’s passing, with scenes that were just a hair too long, it all picks up again at the end. That same tantalizing “How on earth is this going to end?” feeling suffuses the entire “Succession” finale, keeping us in the audience glued to the screen with each new plot twist and each unexpected— yet totally earned— character beat. Would things go badly for our protagonists, as they have been going from the start, or would there somehow be a happy ending? With characters this complex (and often hateful), what would a happy ending even look like? And frankly, would these people even deserve one?
Suffice it to say that British showrunner and creator Jesse Armstrong (“The Thick Of It,” “Peep Show”), aided by producers Adam McKay and Will Ferrell (yes, that Will Ferrell) have fashioned the best kind of series finale: one that ties up all narrative threads but feels as much like a beginning as an ending. Some characters switch places in terms of power and status; others get exactly what they want, but only at the cost of their souls; some don’t get what they want, but get something else that might be a little bit better for them… or a little bit worse. It’s all, quite simply, pure genius.
If you have not seen “Succession,” I suggest you put down your device, forget all the spoilers I’ve shared here, and start watching all 39 episodes of the show right now. (You can thank me later.)
5 crowns: a must-see