Succession: Season 4

Succession’s Final Season of Satire and Calamity Offers No Parting Panacea

Succession, HBO’s most lauded release of the decade solidifies its place as one of TV’s best dramas, even though it shares nothing positive about our capitalist world.

'Succession: Season 4' Balances Satire and Calamity
Jesse Armstrong
26 March 2023

For the notorious Roys, the world definitely ends with a bang, with the occasional whimper dutifully chucked away to private, secluded zones. Having just recently confirmed that Season 4 would be the last, creator Jesse Armstrong and the show’s creative team knew what to do: detonate everything right away, spare no one, and leave characters and viewers in a stupor, gasping for air. You already know this will be Succession’s overall best season, etching its name in gold in the pantheon of contemporary cultural canon. It’s also bound to be the most devastating one, not because there’s a massive change coming, but because, by now, we’re aware that, when it comes to these people, change is impossible, no matter what they do.

There’s been plenty of blowup regarding the sudden news of the show’s ending, including reports of cast members being shocked to find out about the curtain call, but Armstrong arguably couldn’t have made a better decision. Succession is famed for tight plotting and deep reverence for its theatrical roots. We’ve been treated to three meaty acts of this extended, laser-focused, televised play. Seeing how the Roys come together and again fall apart at the start of Season 4, one can hardly argue against their imminent collective coup de grâce being an appropriate denouement.

Armstrong, too, understood the perils of overstretching narrative arcs or attempting blind ventures into new storylines; from the very first moments of the final season, cracking writing and ferocious but deliberate pacing make it clear that the team planned for the show’s end, all along. They carried it off brilliantly. The n-th and final standoff between the Roys in a palpitating, claustrophobic setting wraps up one of the finest dramas of all time neatly… and bombastically. In the pompous, disgustingly oblivious words of the patriarch Logan Roy: “the Night of the Long Knives is coming”. 

Succession: Season 4 kicks off with both a fresh start and a mirror image of the story’s very beginning, smartly eliminating the hurdle of tailing the hurt and presumed bickering that followed Logan’s (Brian Cox) latest maneuver against three of his children, Kendall (Jeremy Strong), Roman (Kieran Culkin), and Siobhan, aka Shiv (Sarah Snook). Several months have passed, and we start where the series began five years ago – at Logan’s birthday bash. In the pilot episode, pater familia celebrated his 80th birthday at an awkward party laced with his collaborators’ and family members’ bootlicking and vitriol; it was also the occasion on which he announced that he wouldn’t be stepping down and would control his media conglomerate, Waystar Royco, for as long as he sees fit.

This time around, not much has changed. Logan is even older and more resentful, barking at virtually anyone who addresses him while cockily flaunting his empire’s impending sale to Lukas Mattson’s (Alexander Skarsgard) Gojo. His latest faux eminence grise, Siobhan’s treacherous husband and oft-flagellated commoner Tom Wambsgans (Matthew Macfadyen), doubts his place in the hierarchy and reverts to taunting Cousin Greg (Nicolas Braun) in ways even more excruciatingly hilarious than in previous seasons.

Logan’s eldest, Connor (Alan Ruck) is there, again pushing his agenda to become the first US President with no work experience; however, there’s barely any mention of Logan’s other three children, whom he now occasionally refers to as “rats”. In the Season three finalé, Kendall, Roman, and Siobhan (Shiv) come together for the first time against their father, trying to stop his sale of Waystar Royco to Mattson. Yet their self-righteous plan is relayed to Logan by Tom, and the elder counterattacks promptly, bribing his ex-wife Caroline (Harriet Walter) into diminishing their children’s voting power, humiliating them in the process.

Meanwhile, said children have substituted their beloved Big Apple for Los Angeles. Morbidly grandiose New York lofts and suits have been swapped for expansive haciendas, suntan, and linen. Roman and Kendall look more focused than ever, happy even, hard at work to establish their own media platform, while Shiv flutters around, rightfully worried about her brothers’ competence.

More concerningly, the word’s out that Logan is looking, again, to acquire another media giant, Pierce, something the siblings never considered up to that point. Plenty of sideway glances and bumbling verbal sparring between the three quickly confirm what we’ve always known: their father is again three steps ahead, molding public discourse and media landscapes while they play Entrepreneurship 101. 

This sums up the sizzling first ten minutes of Succession Season 4. It would be vile to spoil any more plot details, so more general comments will follow, but worry not: stellar acting, writing, and staging are all still there, this time around on more uppers than usual. The contention surrounding the acquisition of Pierce merely 48 hours before the historic merger with Gojo promptly pushes Logan’s orbit and his satellites into a frenzy of despicable one-upmanship. Billions are tossed around like lettuce, tectonic political ramifications treated like footnotes, and virtually all human relationships serve no purpose but to advance one’s economic and social capital. 

Despite the ever-uproarious dialogue (there are several scenes in which Tom manages to degrade Greg in ways even sleazier than before), one would be wise not to forget that Succession is, at its core, a solemn affair. The intense tonal shifts in most episodes are still a cunning anchor for what the creators believe viewers should feel. At the end of Episode 1, we witness a dejected Logan doubting his life’s work, perhaps for the first time. 

In the same vein, we get a much-needed conversation between Tom and Shiv; it speaks volumes about the craft of Matthew Macfadyen and Sarah Snook that we’re all but reduced to tears in the quiet aftermath of the standoff even though we know we’re watching two repulsive creatures lash out. After years of degradation and (emotional) neglect, Tom, an “ordinary” middle-class guy from Minnesota and a reliable piñata for the Roys, took a 180, betrayed his wive’s trust, and fully sided with Logan, severing the ties with her and her brothers.

Surely such a maneuver, the pinnacle of the superb third season, would not be left unaddressed. Armstrong, however, is exceptionally careful not to make the Roys or their cronies too relatable. The prospect of a failed marriage is enough to make anyone squirm, but rest assured, viewers will not be served an apologia for the shenanigans of rich white people.

Speaking of apologias, much has been said about Succession’s obsession with theatrical tropes and commitment to a certain “tragic” premise, in addition to the well-documented satirical, even farcical elements. Most scenes and even episodes feature theatrical stage compositions and overbearing bodily kinetics, not to mention that the majority of the cast are Broadway and West End veterans, from stars Brian Cox, Matthew Macfadyen, and J. Smith Cameron, to supporting players like Arian Moayed, Cherry Jones, and more. However, we must be careful with these qualifications, as they can fundamentally inform the reading of this complex work. Armstrong has been deliberate about his framing of the show, so it would only be fair to follow his lead.

With the overall narrative arcs of Succession, on the one hand, we get boisterous satire about detestable, perpetually unhappy rich people who are desperate to feel something but eternally fail to understand that more money and a higher status won’t bring them joy. Their casual disdain of the less privileged and brazenly unscrupulous scheming distance them from any reasonable viewer, making their predominantly power-related woes appear farcically comical. A rewatch of all seasons, once you’re even slightly removed from the immediate emotional potency of some scenes, shows that none of the many figures has any serious problems in their life at all.

Yes, Logan is worried about the future of his empire, but he’s still an octogenarian billionaire juggernaut of influence, having just personally elected “the next President of the United States”. Yes, the Roy kids feel betrayed because their father decided to sell the family empire (“Make your own fucking pile!”), but they still get to walk away with billions and potent economic and political connections. Even the less regal guys such as Tom and Greg, now going by the moniker “The Disgusting Brothers”, will remain atop the corporate ladder with fat paychecks sponsoring their debaucherous lifestyles. 

These are the things that make Succession a potent satirical comedy. We know that it doesn’t really matter how the battle for Waystar Royco will play out: these wealthy characters will stay wealthy, earning contempt from the rest of us while enjoy watching them squirm over bullshit. It’s not the desire to see any of the children “win” that keeps viewers glued to Succession; it’s the hope at that least some of them will receive comeuppance for their many transgressions. 

This setup, however, would not be complete without the towering, (quasi)tragic aspects of Succession’s premise, but many reviewers get this part tragically wrong. Countless accounts of the “Greek” origins of Succession’s drama are misinformed, as there is little in the way of hubris or hamartia in the protagonists, especially since it is structurally difficult to ascertain whether Logan or any other Roys are “humans” or “gods”, “the transgressors” or “the system” (more detailed analyses would be welcome here). There is no genuinely tragic act or tragic outcome anywhere in sight (yet). Above all else, with the notable exception of the cunning Logan, the Roys and everyone else are dipshits, squabbling between themselves within private confines and away from the eyes of the masses.

Their personal anxieties and claustrophobic fights do not translate well to Aristotelian and other theories of Greek tragedy, which is deeply political, nearly always public, and often signifies an impending change in the social order. If anything, the Roys are ciphers for the status quo and the regenerating nature of capitalism. Their inability and unwillingness to transcend their banal PR identities make the crux of Succession – also allowing for much farce and satire through their ludicrous mishaps. 

In the more Elizabethan sense, the many comparisons of Succession to King Lear, presumably because the protagonist is an old “king” who has children, are also misguided since there are no real narrative or aesthetic similarities between the two works. As with the Greek mythologies, there are few elements of Succession that would translate well to Shakespeare. There are no virtuous heroes here, only antagonists, and certainly no catharsis or transcendence. The Shakespearean element, however, could be observed in the lack of poetic justice and the constant thwarting of most characters’ ambitions. This, again, we could discuss when Succession‘s story is over. 

Nevertheless, if we are to follow the trail of the more inclusive theories of tragedy and drama, we could potentially label Succession as such through one crucial narrative component – abuse. Structurally, this is a show about pathetic rich people fighting over who gets to be King Potato in a company, but at its emotional core, it’s a drama about abuse; abused children and spouses, abused privilege and power.

The hardened Logan emerges from a pool early on in the series with visible whipping scars on his back. Kendall’s fraught state of mind and nearly all his actions are profoundly informed by Logan’s neglect of him. Roman’s distressed mental health and potentially even his impotence are caused by Logan’s psychological, possibly even physical, violence against him. Shiv is incapable of truly caring for anyone, including her spouse, as she unconsciously models her behavior after her detached, callous mother. All four of them, plus the unbothered, distanced Connor, abuse their privileges and powers to terrorize collaborators, workers, friends, and paramours. Logan, especially, abuses his power to arrogantly and deliberately shape public sentiment against his foes. The list goes on. As Shiv once said to a subordinate: “The thing about us, Mark — and you should know this by now — we don’t get embarrassed.” 

Some of this abuse is emotional, some economic and political, but it’s through these telling, intimate vignettes, that we understand the mechanics of Succession and its commentary about our world. Violence begets mostly violence, but here it is served as an objective necessity, a prerequisite for nearly any type of “success” in life. Succession provides painful insight into the machinations of our society, instructed by the unscrupulousness of its upper echelons, i.e., folks like the Roys, Murdochs, and Sacklers. The ordinary fella such as Tom follows suit, solidifying his false consciousness by mimicking their heinous behavior. It’s a system, our current system, that is, that is modeled on abuse and manipulation. It doesn’t thrive on it; if anything, the society, just like the Roys, is in the gutter, but the consequences of exploitation, degradation, and neglect run so deep that few seem even to be aware of the mechanisms that inform their lives, let alone muster the strength to defy and change them. 

Still, while crucial, all this isn’t enough to evoke substantial sympathy for the Roys. These powerful, whimsical folks are neither “revolutionaries” nor “pirates”, as they describe themselves; except for Logan, they are not even prominent or consequential figures, relative to the existing world order. They are mostly a pathetic bunch of spoiled and typically incapable rich kids who can’t wipe their ass, let alone envision and run a business without the generous support from their forebears. The abuse they’ve endured isn’t and never could be their fault, but while it somewhat explains their actions, it still doesn’t make them tragic heroes, as these people’s moral compass is nonexistent.

It’s wise that Armstrong is wrapping up Succession now. Succession is an acerbic, explosive series that thrives on detonations of magnificent dialogue and scene setup, but 39 episodes about a whimsical familial conflict are enough. It’s not a question of whether Armstrong could pull off another season, but whether there is anything more to convey in this particular setup (there isn’t). As much as we resent Succession‘s character, we will miss these buffoons and their tomfoolery. Like the characters themselves, we will likely not change our ways, either, but at least we got to vent our frustrations and laugh to the bitter end.

What will the final standoff bring? Who knows? Who cares? As Logan eloquently said, “Sometimes, it is a big dick competition.” No matter what the future of Waystar Royco might have been, these assholes will remain forever rich, abhorrent, and self-deluded. We’ll go on worrying if we’re next in the wave of layoffs initiated by a “Roman Roy” or a “Tom Wambsgans” of the world Succession satirizes.

RATING 10 / 10


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