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Jim McDermottJune 01, 2023
Three actors from the HBO show Succession sitting in a patio overlooking the oceanJeremy Strong, Sarah Snook, Kieran Culkin in the final episode of ‘Succession’ (photo: Sarah Shatz/HBO)

Am I the only person in the world who got to the end of “Succession” and wanted a happy ending? I know, why would you even want those three awful children and their dimwitted older brother to somehow overcome every horrible thing they had said and done for four seasons? Before this season, I found the show totally unwatchable for its lack of a single likable character.

Now I think what I found most uncomfortable over the course of the series was the characters’ lack of self-respect. Their need to win the approval of their father, after he stripped them of their dignity again and again, felt pathetic. Each season would end with some new power arrangement and one or more of the three children trying to seize some autonomy for themselves. But then Daddy would come a-calling with promises of their future glory and they would get pulled right back into the nightmare he created for them.

Am I the only person in the world who got to the end of “Succession” and wanted a happy ending?

Has there ever been a more hateful, more emotionally vicious character than Logan Roy? At times the series tried to complicate his cruelty with tales of a harrowing upbringing, and in the penultimate episode his brother, who hates him, tells such stories. But no amount of context could justify or explain his absolute lack of affection for his children. That may be why some viewers have ridiculed the moment in the finale where his children watch a video of him and the old guard of his company sitting around singing an old Scottish tune as unrealistic. But to me that moment is essential. It shows that Logan was capable of letting his guard down and being a human being. It’s just that when it came to his children he chose not to. And so the three grown siblings sit watching that video wide-eyed, like little children.

That’s been a repeated idea this last season: Beneath all the cutting quips and groping for position, Kendall, Roman and Shiv Roy still have the vulnerability of children. We saw it when Logan died, the way they gathered one another in and protected each other, orphans who had lost their dad, and again as Roman fell apart at the funeral. But we confronted it most clearly in the finale, as Shiv and Roman fix Kendall “a meal fit for a king” made from milk, a whole egg, frozen bread, bottles of Tabasco, cocoa powder, some kind of pickle, sunflower oil, a maraschino cherry and Shiv’s saliva (ew), all while Kendall giggles and talks in funny voices. It’s as though they have had to spend their entire lives clenched, and when they are able to release, what emerges is the kids they were before the trauma of Logan Roy set in for good.

“Succession” was never about who would succeed Logan Roy. It was about whether any of them would be able to succeed in escaping his brutal undertow.

When we are allowed to see the Roys like that, it becomes much harder to write them off. It’s a crucial element of series creator Jesse Armstrong’s genius: He never let us fully give up on the characters. There is much more to them than their worst moments. “Succession” was never about who would succeed Logan Roy, and at what cost. It was about whether any of them would be able to succeed in escaping his brutal undertow.

So, yes, I wanted the show to move from “Roy Kids Play With Food” to some kind of happy resolution. I was willing to overlook how empty and lame Kendall almost always turned out to be when he was in charge, or how hard Shiv had been fighting all along to get the top spot, and believe that they could make it work. I was willing to believe that the broader business community in which they lived—a community that saw in Roman’s weeping at his father’s funeral not humanity but weakness—would not matter.

Even now, having seen how it all played out, having watched Kendall lose his mind in front of his board after Shiv betrays him, and Shiv returning to Tom after he ascends, some part of me resists that ending. Is it because I’m afraid that Armstrong is right, and it really is impossible to escape the training of your upbringing or the groove set by your own past choices? Is character truly destiny?

Or is it because I believe that fatalism is just despair that’s had a college philosophy course? That is not to say we are not capable of driving ourselves into the ground. But there’s more to our world and our lives than us, some kind of spirit out there that can overcome our greatest flaws, our deepest sins.

Maybe in the end, the way I understand the conclusion of “Succession” is to see it as the story of what the world looks like without God, of the mazes without exits in which we can entrap ourselves—the substitute divinities waiting, if we let them, to eat us alive.

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