When HBO’s Succession first season kicked off in 2018, many audiences were not too effusive about it. The main argument had to do with the question: who wants to watch another show about the 1% of white millionaires who dominate and control the world? Well, it turns out, millions of people!
The HBO series created by the British-born Jesse Armstrong changed everybody’s mind with a perfect combination of Shakespearean drama about the passing of power in a family that controls a media conglomerate and a sometimes-nonsensical comedy about the very actions of these same characters.
The mix is not easy to achieve, but Armstrong did it exquisitely in HBO’s Succession with the skill of a veteran. Politics, business, absurd situations, and family drama intersect with such elegance and naturalness that the screenwriters seem to have played on the same team all their lives. The brilliant script also didn’t fail to include the underlying message that despite being filthy rich, all the children are traumatised by a despotic father who loves money more than he loves them.
However, this being true, their individualistic and self-centred attitude makes it impossible for us to empathise with them, although we are amused by their misadventures and freak-outs. In the midst of this great plot, there is room for absurdity and humour, but the balance is always kept just right! Now that HBO’s Succession has come to an end after four seasons of greatness, let’s break it down season by season!
Succession Season One: The Game Begins!
In the first season of HBO’s Succession, we see the players in this power puzzle start to move their chips in increasingly aggressive ways, and the family and dramatic tension grow, making us wonder: can the son get his father, whose physical and mental state seems dubious and whose political ideas and business shrewdness are decades behind him, out of the way? Or will the very pressure of this decadent but still powerful king sway him in his attempts?
Despite his mental instability and questionable business decisions, the father, Logan Roy, is still the kind of guy who shakes the ground he walks on, and few dare to challenge him. His relationship with his son Kendall is the heart of the season, perhaps even the series. The son wants to follow in his father’s footsteps and improve the work, but while his business vision may be (slightly) more lucid, he has neither the aggressive personality nor the killer cold-bloodedness of his father. Logan knows this very well, and he doesn’t have much more to do than stare him down to keep him in check.
Throughout the first season of Jesse Armstrong‘s masterpiece, it seemed that Kendall is always in the black and is a victim of Murphy’s Law (Anything that can go wrong will go wrong), but when it seemed that the series does something to make us at least feel sorry for him, it does something crazy that puts him back on the side of the barely bearable characters.
There are, of course, the other siblings: the eldest son, Connor (Alan Ruck), who is out of action and is one of the few comic devices— that honestly doesn’t always work— so it’s down to the other two heirs, Shiv and Roman. Shiv (Sarah Snook) seems more interested in politics than in the family business and, in fact, supports a progressive candidate who opposes everything her father stands for.
Roman, the youngest (Kieran Culkin), the wayward and somewhat clownish son, is one of those capricious and spoiled millionaires, very acidic and shrewd but unfit for important tasks. He is one of those “daddy’s boys” who were given a few million to play being big, something Culkin did in a very self-aware, funny and effective way.
What’s remarkable about HBO’s Succession is how well put together it is. The plot, the characters, the combinations and relationships between all of them and the situations that were generated with a completely organic naturalness. Rarely did one feel the scripted punch that usually serves to force a dramatic situation.
In fact, the only not-so-great moments for us would be in the last episode of the first season with the introduction of two elements that the series had avoided until that point: the appearance of a corpse— there is hardly a series that doesn’t have dead bodies to deal with and investigations into them, and HBO’s Succession had avoided that throughoutthe first season— and how forced the situation that led to the death seemed.
However, the incident was not entirely out of context here; we have all heard and read about cases of powerful American families who have dealt with this kind of situation. In any case, the resolution to that incident was so good and opened up so many new avenues to explore in the upcoming seasons.
Succession Season Two: Reality-Check!
After a first season marked by the cerebral haemorrhage of Logan Roy and by the character that seemed at times as if he was the favourite son, Kendall, the drama of the HBo’s Succession second season somehow moved away from the plot that was presented at the start of the series and became closer to reality.
In the second season, the Roys face serious external threats that can endanger their very existence—even more so than in the first season. It’s no longer all about the Shakespearean term that gives the series its title and choosing Logan’s successor. There are bigger threats at hand now, and the Roys must begin to fight for their livelihood as a powerful family.
There is also a new perspective to each character; Kendall is confirmed as a man who thinks he’s a prodigious talent at times and a human wreck at other times. The character dominated the plot from an early point in the second season of HBO’s Succession despite becoming an entity that navigates during the new season between two waters: the one managed by Logan Roy and his own character that was sinking in murky waters with an inappreciable background.
Kendall’s conflict is a big focus of this plot, a focus shared with the main storyline of Shiv, who, this time around, also gets her hands dirty trying to figure out what’s fact and what’s fiction in her life.
Overall, it is now more evident than ever that all the main characters and members of the Roy family are going through various identity crises, revealing themselves once and for all as characters adrift, archetypes playing 24 hours a day to the (supposed) tastes of the conductor, Logan Roy, who is lost in his ego and bad character as the rest.
Although the satirical tone of the series is based on the stereotypes of billionaires with first-world problems, it is true that the direction and narrative style of HBO’s Succession, close in some scenes to the mockumentary, helped the supposed business reality that the series reflected on gaining in intensity.
This is not only underpinned by the assumption that there are more incompetent people in positions of power than professionals but also by how the series drew on the world beyond fiction, with the second season’s talking points being fake news, sexual harassment and malpractice, public whitewashing using women and the new politics of impropriety.
A good example of that is the dialogue between Logan Roy and his daughter Siobhan in episode two when they were talking about how she will make her way to be C.E.O., and Logan said that she had to start training from the very bottom to make her way to the top because she is “a young woman with no experience”.
This dialogue is evidence that the connection of HBO’s Succession with what’s outside the small screen is much stronger, addressing the issue of how the world of bigwigs hasn’t changed that much and how the female characters strive to play by the same rules as their male counterparts.
HBO’s Succession was revamped and grew even stronger in the second season. It elevated the conflicts to succeed Logan Roy without betraying its philosophy of keeping an ace up its sleeve and also added fuel to the fire of Waystar Royco’s reprehensible ethics and the business crisis, sponsored by the loss of news value in favour of technology, which ate up everything in its path in the industry.
The Roys’ game of, on the one hand, watching the veteran Logan choose a successor; on the other, how they combat these external threats in various possible ways was fascinating to watch in the way one watches a complicated classic family saga. They may be kings, aristocrats or nouveau riche, but what is certain is that the logic is the same; the siblings are fond of each other but can at any moment send each other to the lions.
Succession Season Three: The Peak!
It was clear from the first season of HBO’s Succession that the Roys, the billionaires at the centre of Succession, were not an example of a healthy, well-adjusted family. But the third season of HBO’s Succession decided to dive deep into the wounds left by tycoon Logan on his children, revealing a family tragedy marked by betrayal and contempt.
In the end, there’s no need to mince words: if there’s one thing that became clearer than ever in the final episode of the season, “All The Bells Say”, it’s that Kendall, Shiv, Roman and Connor don’t have their father’s regard or respect, even though they do everything they can to get into his good graces and receive the approval they so desperately seek.
Between the conflicts with shareholders, competitors or the American justice system, the great driving force of the season, especially in its final stretch, was its emotional component, something that the plot rightly explored little by little to realise the extent of the damage caused by the patriarch.
It didn’t matter whether the episode revolved around politics or business deals: in the end, Logan’s will prevailed – even at the expense of his children. It’s no coincidence that the climax of the year was a painful scene in the finale shared by Kendall, Shiv and Roman, the three of them realising that they were never going to win in the games proposed by their father.
None of this is used, however, to turn them into “poor little rich kids”; HBO’s Succession recognised that its protagonists are detestable on many levels. But the season got it right by pointing out how these attitudes were intrinsically linked to a dysfunctional and abusive family dynamic. Logan’s children, from the start, never stood a chance.
In opposition to the Roy heirs, the dynamic duo formed by Tom (Matthew Macfadyen) and Greg (Nicholas Braun) shone even brighter. The two outsiders of the family delivered comic moments and, recognising the vulnerability of their positions, worked out their own strategies and let their masks fall in one of the most interesting twists ever delivered by the series.
Everything in the series had hinged by now on Logan Roy’s decision as to which of his children he would eventually cede control of Waystar to, making it clear throughout that he was always one step ahead and even capable of bouncing back from what could have been a lethal blow.
It wouldn’t be an exaggeration if we said that HBO’s Succession hit a peak with its third season, thanks, of course, to the brilliant writing, which was able to steer the plot patiently and leave little clues as to what was to come. Tom’s mention of the Roman emperor Nero is the most emblematic example of this.
Nonetheless, it was not the writing that was brilliant; there was also the equally brilliant work of the cast: from Brian Cox’s ferocity to Sarah Snook’s restrained and slightly debauched performance, the idiosyncrasies that Jeremy Strong and Kieran Culkin brought to their characters and the mixture of humour and sadness that Macfadyen gave to his Tom, the actors in the series delivered some of the best performances of the year, and perhaps even the decade!
HBO’s Succession Season Four: The Grand Finale!
With Jesse Armstrong and the writing team taking things to the next level with each season, the stakes were extremely high for the fourth and final season of HBO’s Succession. How would this piece of art come to an end? Would it be a good end? Will we finally find out which of the children gets to be the new heir?
These were only some of the questions we all had in mind before the fourth season, and the creative mind behind HBO’s Succession didn’t fail to impress! The series’ fourth season had its first ending in the third episode (Connor’s Wedding) with the surprise death of patriarch Logan Roy!
However, there were still seven more episodes to go before we knew what was going to happen with the sale of the traditional media group Waystar Royco to the Royal tech giant GoJo by the anarcho-capitalist tycoon Lukas Matsson (Alexander Skarsgård) and who was going to be left in charge of operations in the United States.
After a thousand and one plots, traps, conspiracies, betrayals and cross revenge, it was time for the vote, and it was Shiv who, at the last minute, voted in favour of the transfer, and to the shock of many of us, the one who was left in charge as the flamboyant C.E.O. was someone as rambling, upstart, devious, faint-hearted but at the same time cynical and ruthless as Tom Wambsgans.
The devastating last three shots of the series finale, “With Open Eyes”, another remarkable episode directed by filmmaker-emblem Mark Mylod, were the perfect summation of the three main characters.
Roman going to a bar for a Martini, Shiv getting into Tom’s van but with the two of them not even able to shake hands properly and looking the other way; and Kendall walking like a zombie through Battery Park towards the Hudson River with his face unhinged and followed a few yards away by Colin, his bodyguard “friend”.
Neither that eternal teenager Roman nor that pretended girl boss Shiv, nor that narcissism-ridden being Kendall got the prize they expected and for which they fought with so much energy (and misery). Sad, lonely and final, a magnificent finale to a magnificent series!
Watching HBO’s Succession has been a treat that’s hard to beat. HBO’s Succession has always handled, with enormous judgement and intelligence, an ambivalence that made it a satire on cynicism and a denunciation of media-political manipulation, and at the same time, a family melodrama with Shakespearean overtones and an unleashed black comedy, in high culture but with a tone and rhythm.