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Farewell ‘Succession,’ HBO’s Grand Amorality Play
A happy ending was never really in the cards for the Roy clan.
[Editor’s note: Spoilers ahead, obviously.]
THE AMERICAN-BORN HALF OF ME, invested in our collective fairy tale of optimism, independence, freedom, and love triumphing over cynicism, greed, and deception, was hoping the Roy siblings would band together, defeat the GoJo invaders, and bring peace, harmony, and justice to Waystar Royco land, cleaning house of its corruption and depravity while maintaining the Roy line of “succession.” But as the daughter of a vibrant, charming, and witty, yet deeply sardonic and narcissistic Brit myself, my other half acknowledges in retrospect that the bleak and brutal series finale of Succession couldn’t have ended in any other way.
Multiple times during the run of Succession, we were set up to believe that love might conquer all in the Roy family, before reminding us that those involved were never taught how to love in the first place. “Everything I’ve done, I’ve done for my children,” Logan Roy (Brian Cox) publicly proclaimed, but this was never backed up by his actions. We find out during his family “celebration” in Dundee, Scotland and at his funeral what may be the origins of his stony heart: his penniless mother shipping him off to his austere relatives in Canada, and his little sister Rose dying of polio that Logan may have given her. But this is not an excuse for all the emotional and societal devastation he and his dying empire wrought upon his family and upon the world.
As Logan’s children Kendall (Jeremy Strong), Shiv (Sarah Snook), Connor (Alan Ruck), and Roman (Kieran Culkin) were repeatedly duped as to his feelings and intentions, we in the audience were also repeatedly duped that they deserved our love. The reality is that each was a weak, corrupted, ridiculous failure in his or her own particular way. Other than a few billion dollars, their nurtured frailties are the totality of what their father wills to them. His love was merely transactional. The love they felt for him was a form of Stockholm syndrome. His sociopathy and rapaciousness made him incapable of allowing his kids to be successful individuals on their own. So the line of succession stopped at his death. He’d rather his kingdom fall into the hands of marauding invaders—Tom Wambsgans (Matthew McFadyen) and Lukas Matsson (Alexander Skarsgård)—than his children, because he knew he’d raised them to be catastrophes. It’s no coincidence that Romulus, the name Logan sometimes calls Roman, was the emperor defeated by a conquering Germanic leader, the first barbarian to rule Rome (Wambsgans means “big-bellied goose” in German), nor that Vikings from Scandinavia conquered the north of Britain.
Jesse Armstrong and Succession’s brilliant writers, actors, and directors enthralled us with such rich and powerful storytelling that we empathized with each of the Roy siblings and their significant others. One’s sympathies undoubtedly shifted as needed. Roman: the wry truth-teller and id of the family! Connor: the neglected child who only needs to be loved! Kendall: he could rise to the occasion and become the paterfamilias that is his due! Greg: just a bumbler trying to protect himself swimming in a sea of sharks! Tom: a witty whipping boy who genuinely loves Shiv! And Shiv: the smartest, and the Roy with the purest conscience who might be the child with the best chance of transforming Waystar Royco into a company with integrity!
We were foolish. We were seduced, corrupted, and abandoned just like the Roy children.
ROMAN IS A SADOMASOCHISTIC, PETTY TYRANT, his caustic wit used as a defense mechanism against his ruinous self-hatred. His father knew he could use Roman’s cowardice and his sexual perversions as leverage. Logan mocked and physically abused Roman, and then pulled him closer with promises of affection and power, and it always worked. Roman is a mess of physical tics and contortions, trying to joke away his pain. When his father dies, Roman feels somewhat free. He acts the dictator he’s always wanted to be. Believing he had formed an unholy alliance with the white nationalist presidential nominee Jeryd Menken, he is puffed up with false confidence and preens and sneers at everyone around him at ATN. And yet Roman falls apart in whimpering cries when he tries to speak at his father’s funeral. All his inarticulate grief, rage, disgust, and confusion pour out of him. Like his inability to have sex with anybody who isn’t his hand, he is unable to perform any task to fruition, including his dad’s eulogy. Immediately afterward, he throws himself into a crowd of protesters, taunting them to beat him, which they are more than happy to do. He wants his outside to match the way his father made him feel inside: a scarred, impotent, pathetic little man-child. At least in the end, right before the Roys lose their company to Matsson, Roman has the self-awareness to know who they really are: “We’re bullshit.”
Connor isn’t just a sad sack who yearns for love. His neediness and the inferiority complex with which his father infected him are pathologically dangerous. Logan never treated him as the eldest son he is. He was just an afterthought, the absurd offspring of the ex-wife Logan sent to the “loony bin.” Connor feels undeserving of love on his own merits, so he buys it instead: first, his girlfriend, Willa (Justine Lupe), then a third-party presidential candidacy. As Willa goes blonder and blonder, befitting a certain kind of political spouse, Connor’s candidacy inevitably fails, and he is willing to give his 1 percent support from “Conheads” to Menken in exchange for an ambassadorship to Slovenia, a brilliant tip of the hat to the birthplace of another political spouse married to a raving idiot. Logan’s neglect helped make Connor into someone who would sell out democracy for an infinitesimal bit of relevance. His nihilism rivals Roman’s, except it goes down more smoothly, like a glass of Puligny-Montrachet.
But Kendall may be the most pathetic of all the brothers. Throughout the series, he repeatedly insists he’s “a good guy.” Kendall needs to emphasize this because he senses he’s the opposite. He knows there’s something deficient about him, and his father makes sure to slam that point home. When Kendall tells him at the end of season three, “I’m better than you. I don’t want to be you,” Logan replies with quiet menace, “Sure. You’re my son, I did my best. And whenever you fucked up, I cleaned up your shit. And I’m a bad person. Fuck off, kiddo.” From the very first episode when Kendall forces his driver to say “You the man, Mr. Roy,” to the very last episode when he shrieks at Roman and Shiv, “I’m the eldest boy!” he needs continual reassurance that he’s the heir apparent, even though every maneuver he attempts utterly fails. I felt terrible for him as he slid in and out of sobriety; as his relationships, however auspiciously they began, wilted and died; as his father toyed with his affections, offering him the Promised Land one minute and then yanking it away the next.
But Kendall’s reprehensibility was never far from the surface. He uses his kids as pawns in his divorce proceedings and sacrifices his daughter’s safety in order to strike a regulatory deal with Menken. He is responsible for a young man’s death and then lies about it to his siblings to persuade them to vote for him as CEO. He lurches from inflated, unsubstantiated pride to cratering self-pity. He attempts to be as ferocious as his father, but everyone he deals with sees him as a little boy playing dress-up. The only real quality he and his father shared was their narcissism, and that is nurture rather than nature. In the end, he is a pale, slight imitation of Logan Roy, wandering aimlessly in Battery Park trailed by his dad’s old bodyguard and staring out at the setting sun as the Hudson River rages past him, daring him to leap into it.
I still feel sympathy for Shiv because she had the most potential to escape the Roy family curse. As the only daughter, she showed a toughness and savvy in navigating her family's toxic masculinity I found admirable. But Logan knew his power over her. Even though she tried to forge her own path in progressive politics, he used his emotional leverage to make her quit (so that her chosen candidate stopped attacking him) and dangled the promise of her being his successor. Despite her sophistication and sarcasm, Logan knew she was a daddy’s girl dying for his approval. They had the same eyes, but he could only see himself in her up to a point. Because she’s a woman, and he had no respect for women.
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So yes, I feel sorry for her. Both her parents are horrible. Her mom told her Shiv shouldn’t be a mother and that she wished she’d gotten a dog instead of having her. Shiv tried to operate as a strong woman in a world that is poisonous to women. But she isn’t actually strong. She betrayed her supposed principles over and over again. She took it upon herself to pay off the whistleblower so that the women and undocumented workers abused and even killed on Waystar’s cruise lines are kept secret. She cheated on her husband repeatedly and toyed with his affections. She had no female friends, and no male friends she couldn’t sexually manipulate. And despite her devastation at the prospect of Menken winning the presidency, Shiv adjusted with lightning speed when she realized she could leverage her power with him and Matsson, another despicable person with whom she was eager to work.
It’s still awful when she realizes that in the world in which she is fated to operate, a pregnant woman has no power. She is merely a means to an end, a receptacle for her husband’s lineage. If she’d been paying attention to the way her father treated his various wives and girlfriends and co-workers, she would have noticed that women were only there to serve his needs, and when they failed to do so or there was another distraction, he moved on. Shiv has the rude awakening that she is not exceptional. Throughout the series, she thought she was dominating Tom, telling him she didn’t love him as much as he loved her, dismissing him, belittling him, and saying she was too good for him. But the final shot of her in the limo with Tom, after Matsson swallowed up Waystar Royco and crowned Tom CEO, is Tom silently opening up his left hand, wedding ring visible, and Shiv placing her hand limply in his. Tom, the Midwestern, wheedling interloper whom all the siblings, including his wife, mocked for his lack of sophistication, has, through his eagerness to compromise and prostrate himself, won. He has been named king of what’s left of the Roy kingdom, even if he’s only a figurehead to an insatiable, brutal, and abusive tech overlord ready to seize and lay waste to everything the Roy children thought was their birthright. Matsson is an even more terrifying iteration of Logan Roy for the new era, and Tom is ready to serve.
It is a fitting and devastating end to Succession’s amorality play. And the Roy children’s fatal flaws nourished by their unforgiving father predicted it.
Zandy Hartig is an actor, writer and painter. She lives in a loud but happy house in Los Angeles with her two sons, two dogs, and a rabbit. Twitter: @zandywithaz.