Succession season four: the stakes of this camp tragicomedy have never been higher

With one episode to go, there’s now all to play for

May 22, 2023
Image: Image: Macall Polay/HBO
The Roy siblings at their father’s funeral. Image: Image: Macall Polay/HBO

This article contains major spoilers for the first nine episodes of Succession season four

In episode six of the latest—and final—season of Succession, Logan Roy (Brian Cox) shuffles into view, via videolink, to join the launch of Living+. On the stage in front of him is his son Kendall (Jeremy Strong). “Good to see you dad,” Kendall says. “Let’s get on with it,” Logan replies. This would be an unremarkable interaction, were it not for the fact that Logan died three days earlier. The video was pre-recorded. Now it’s being wheeled out to promote the launch of a luxury care home enterprise offering life extension services.   

This scene taps into a key theme of season four: afterlife. But it’s equally interesting for the way it marks a shift in the show’s power dynamics. On one hand, it symbolises the way Logan looms over the rest of the season: he may be dead, but he haunts his children like the ghost of Hamlet’s father—a more powerful force than ever. On the other, after a lifetime of being manipulated by his father, now Kendall can manipulate him. He can edit old videos of him and market his company in a way that Logan definitely wouldn’t approve of. And Logan can’t do anything about it. He died from a heart attack on a plane, or, according to gossipmonger Tom Wambsgans (Matthew Macfadyen), “fishing his iPhone from a clogged toilet.” 

In an interview on HBO’s Succession podcast, Cox suggests a different death for his character. “I would see Logan retiring in Scotland,” he muses. “He would be with Kerry and Colin [his bodyguard]—the people who love him… He would pass away gently in his sleep.” It’s a nice, indulgent fantasy. But, of course, it’s fitting that Logan died on a plane. There’s a symmetry with his heart attack in the very first episode of season one and the prominent role that transport plays in Succession. In “Connor’s Wedding” alone, we see helicopters, taxis, private jets, yachts. Death is, by its nature, inconvenient—it always happens when you’re on the way to somewhere else. 

Succession’s characters are always on the way to somewhere else, and they’re always thinking about how to get there. As the title suggests, the show spins on the idea of legacy. Nothing is enjoyed in the present, it’s all about the future: where am I going, who will I become, how will I be remembered? Now it’s reaching the end of its final season, the question of Succession’s legacy is coming into focus as well. Where is it going, who will the characters become, how will the show be remembered?

Each episode of this season has provoked an onslaught of feverish think-pieces, and speculation for the finale has reached a pitch not seen since the end of Game of Thrones. Memes, parodies and fan accounts have splattered across timelines like so much batter. Episode three, “Connor’s Wedding”, is now one of the highest-rated episodes of all time on IMDB. So long as Roman (Kieran Culkin) doesn’t pull a Daenerys, the finale has a good shot at being up there too.

It’s taken a while for Succession to reach this point. Despite winning an Emmy, the first season went virtually unnoticed by the public; the second ruffled some feathers after scooping up more awards; but traction properly accumulated—with the fandom—by the time of the third.

Part of the reason it escaped mainstream attention early on is its beige aesthetic. The marketing makes Succession look like a dry drama about businessmen, when in fact it’s a camp tragicomedy.  

I’ve written before about how Succession is a comedy, drawing specifically from cringe comedies such as Peep Show and Alan Partridge. There are multiple parallels with Peep Show, in particular, which was written by the show’s creator, Jesse Armstrong. Writer Emily Bootle has pointed out how—alongside the jaunty camera angles and deflationary awkward jokes—even certain jokes are similar. “It’s like Jaws, if everyone in Jaws worked for Jaws,” says Greg in Succession season four. “The shark isn’t called Jaws, Jeremy, the film is called Jaws,” says Mark in Peep Show season six. In the most recent episode of Succession, Roman’s fluffed funeral speech is reminiscent of Jez’s best man babble at Super Hans’s wedding.

There’s a sense in both Peep Show and Succession, as in many comedies, that characters are stuck in a cycle that they’re trying and failing to escape from. The key notion here is “trying”. Although the characters in Succession work hard to seem like they’re not trying at all—that would be gauche—every action is calculated to a degree that is tiring even to contemplate. “Information, Greg. It’s like a bottle of fine wine,” Tom tells his sidekick. “You store it up, you hoard it, you save it for a special occasion and then you smash someone’s fucking face in with it.” But the perfect moment never happens, or it does and you get a shard of glass in your eye. Being rich has never looked so stressful.

Succession’s characters release stress by way of temporary fixes: fine wine, fancy holidays, jibes, drugs, and—above all—swearing. The show is famous for its vulgar catchphrases: “fuck off”, “cocksucker”, “the cunt of Monte Cristo”. Many memorable quips from this season are, as ever, replete with sexual references: “Lip balm Tom Wam, who’s lubing up his lips to kiss my butt,” “Tell her you could hear her better if she took Dad’s cock out of her mouth,” “Discord makes my dick hard.” It’s no coincidence that the dialogue is so phallocentric, nor that the dynamic between Tom and his assistant Greg is startlingly homoerotic (wet-mouthed, whispering dirty talk, so close they could kiss). It speaks to the homoeroticism inherent in macho spaces; the constant obsession with what the other boys are packing. If you’re not swinging yours, you’re getting someone else’s slapped in your face. 

Succession is not actually a very sexy show, which makes it unique for a series about The 1 Per Cent. We rarely see a moment of sexual tension being consummated: no one is grabbing an arse in the lobby, Matt Hancock-style, or banging in a bathtub full of champagne. From a viewer perspective, we’re inside the family, so it would be awkward and weird to see Kendall naked. But it’s also because these characters don’t allow themselves any form of release that would make them appear vulnerable. The quippy dialogue functions as a deflective mechanism, protecting the characters from engaging with their own principles or emotions. Roman, the most quick-witted Roy, has erectile dysfunction. Tom and Shiv (Sarah Snook) get off by dirty-talking about power.  

When it comes to love, there’s even more of a block. Whenever love is mentioned in Succession, it’s undercut by punchlines or insults: “I love you, but you are not serious people.” “I love you, but you’re kind of evil.” The only time the word “love” is said in the first episode of this season is Tom: “I could try… and make love to you?” Shiv replies: “Mm, I don’t think so.”

Given its bleak outlook, Succession draws striking comparisons with two recent hit shows: HBO’s White Lotus and Netflix’s Beef. Succession is entirely focused on super-rich characters—the only glimpses we get outside the Roysphere are side-characters such as Colin, or nods to Tom’s background. By contrast, White Lotus and Beef braid together the narratives of wealthy people and those who work for them, or who are otherwise less well off. Beef gives equal weight to its two central characters: Silicon Valley billionaire Amy and Danny, a struggling handyman. White Lotus, similarly, focuses as much on the staff at its luxury hotels as it does the minted guests. (Although, arguably, the rich characters are the most memorable and iconic. Money wins.) It will be interesting, once Succession is gone, to see how this trend pans out—if TV can manage to spread itself further across the socioeconomic ladder. 

White Lotus and Beef also differ from Succession in the sense that they are more plot-centric. Beef operates on a much smaller canvas, which makes the drama feel more intense, strengthening the pull toward conclusion. Meanwhile, each season of White Lotus is self-contained: the format necessitates that one character will die in the finale, and it’s designed to regenerate with an almost entirely new cast every season. Succession, however, is at its best when it isn’t playing into the hands of plot. It’s designed to go on and on—a dramatic sitcom, rather than a comedic drama, so the vibes are more important than the plot.

This is the problem with season four. The first four episodes were phenomenal—subtle but hard-hitting drama, with sprinkles of comic genius. But after episode five, following the immediate aftermath of Logan’s death, it begins to lose its way. Sentiments are worn heavily on the characters’ sleeves, as though the writers are forcing them to externalise their inner thoughts. “I really, really, really, love my career and my money,” says Tom. “I love my suits and my watches.” We know!

Everyone is unravelling, so from an emotional standpoint it may make sense to have them prone to making obvious, bludgeoning statements. Yet the writing can nevertheless feel rushed and compromised in service of a confected plot. This is especially true of episode seven, where Kendall and Roman seem a bit too unplugged. To borrow from Matsson: it’s giving tribute act. 

Thankfully, the writing sharpens up by episode nine. A show like Succession was made for a funeral, with all its potential for social awkwardness, emotional posturing and Shakespearean speeches. Logan’s send-off was intended to be a buttoned-up, stately affair. It ends up being the therapy session the Roys needed. 

 Roman’s “pre-grieved” chippy exterior shatters in a devastating public meltdown. Knocked off kilter, Shiv gives a speech that feels strangely spontaneous for such a composed operator. Meanwhile, Kendall’s masterful, apparently improvised eulogy finally gives him impetus to finally act like Logan—“To be, to be seen and to do.” Sometimes, people speak of experiencing a liberating energy when a parent dies; that seems to be the case here:

“[My father] had a vitality, a force that could hurt and it did, but my God the sheer… lives and the livings and the things that he made… The corpuscules of life gushing around this nation, this world, filling men and women all around with desire, quickening the ambition to own and make and trade and profit and build and improve. I mean, great geysers of life he willed. Of buildings he made stand. Of ships, steel hulls, amusements, newspapers, shows and films and life. Bloody, complicated life. He made life happen.”

In interviews, Jesse Armstrong has sometimes compared Kendall with an early career Roger Federer—“having all the shots, but not knowing when to play them.” (Rhea also describes Kendall this way in season two). All along, Kendall has been competent on paper—but he keeps messing it up. Until now. Watching him here, you get the sense that the shots are finally aligning, and we could be witnessing his 2003 Grand Slam. His face contorts and flickers, his voice wavers and evens out, as though he is finally being possessed by the ghost of his father. It’s in this penultimate episode that Kendall truly becomes Logan, with all the brutality and heartlessness that entails. Perhaps the most revealing lines are spoken to the company executive Hugo, just after the funeral: “You know, life isn’t nice. It’s contingent. People who love you also fuck you. So this is a plan to fuck the deal, and me rule the world.” Woof, woof.

With only one episode to go, there’s now all to play for. Kendall’s and Shiv’s knives are poised to turn on each other. Roman is set to go AWOL. The stakes have never been higher. 

But the stakes were never really why we watched the show. We watched it for the unforgettable one-liners and gut-punch emotional twists. We watched it to plumb the psychological depths of its unpredictable characters. We watched it for the banger theme tune and the spotless acting.

That’s what the show will be remembered for. And as it passes into the burial vault of TV history, it leaves a ludicrously capacious hole. So farewell, Succession. Fuck you and god bless.