The critically acclaimed “Succession” has been compared to HBO’s other major hit, “Game of Thrones.” And to be fair, both shows revolve around the heirs of a patriarchal family structure fighting for dominance over a perceived birthright. But where “Game of Thrones” was a product of the Obama era, when the arc of justice was supposed to bend towards justice, “Succession” is very clearly post-Trump storytelling. This was, it seemed, an anti-fantasy, where the only people more awful than the rich were the toadies chasing them for a crumb of clout.
(Spoilers for the series and series finale below.)
The final trio of “Succession” episodes added up to a stunning repudiation of the era that birthed it.
However, in what has been the series’ strongest season yet, the final trio of “Succession” episodes added up to a stunning repudiation of the era that birthed it. It’s an impressive thematic pivot most political shows never manage. Sunday night's tragic ending also added an extra twist. Shiv, the daughter Logan spent his life undermining, was handed a pyrrhic victory of sorts — or at least, less of a losing hand than her brothers.
Political series that hit it big with audiences usually subconsciously (or sometimes consciously) help viewers process their contemporary landscape. From “Murphy Brown” to “Spin City” to “Veep,” these shows have worked as long as the actual political climate they’re commenting on remains stable. “House of Cards” and “Scandal,” two shows that allowed viewers to mock Washington’s most venal and stupid instincts, struggled and ultimately ended when Obama’s relatively stable eight years abruptly smashed into Trump’s corrupt chaos.
Inspired by the real Murdoch clan, “Succession” debuted two years into the Trump presidency in 2018. The Roy family was full of miserable, rich, dysfunctional jerks who audiences could pity and hate in equal measure. Logan Roy (Brian Cox) and company were based on Rupert Murdoch’s first three marriages; however, the leading faction — two sons and a daughter — mimicked Trump’s family just enough to scan with any Americans unfamiliar with the Australian-born media mogul. But by 2021’s season three debut, audiences had witnessed January 6. The stakes were now higher, and showrunners recognized it. After the surprise announcement that season four would be its last, series creator Jesse Armstrong turned the lens outward, showing how the Roys were able to wreak havoc without consequence.
Armstrong offed Logan Roy early, in one of the show’s greatest episodes. With Logan out of the picture and his three children, Kendall (Jeremy Strong), Shiv (Sarah Snook) and Roman (Kieran Culkin), deep in untherapized grief, Armstrong started twisting the knife.
The choices these deeply broken people made to self-soothe can quickly start turning the world upside down.
The choices these deeply broken people made to self-soothe can quickly start turning the world upside down. This theme was reinforced in the “America Decides” episode, where Armstrong staged an all-too-familiar election nightmare. Logan’s fearmongering attempt to turn the network into GOP propaganda leads to Trumpian candidate Jeryd Mencken (Justin Kirk) getting within striking distance of the White House. Roman and Kendall, desperate to prove themselves, have Mencken declared the winner by ATN before the official election results are certified.
In the penultimate episode, “Church & State,” Logan’s estranged brother, Ewan (James Cromwell), steps to the podium to deliver a blistering denunciation of his own morally bankrupt family. The only comeback the kids can muster is to triple down on capitalism and the markets. Meanwhile New York City continues to erupt with rage over an election these baby moguls stole, not because they cared about it themselves, but because their father never cared for them.
American democracy upended by the rich and powerful for no real ideological or even political purpose. Suffering driven by a single human’s insatiable id. It’s hard to imagine a more blatant condemnation of the final four years of the 2010s.
American democracy upended by the rich and powerful for no real ideological or even political purpose.
The series finale, which will go down as one of the show’s finest hours, continues that theme, as Kendall and Roman are forced to face the truth behind Ewan’s condemnation. In a conclusion befitting an anti-fantasy, the “happy” ending comes when Shiv betrays her brothers, saving them from their own lust for power they are not equipped to handle, and agrees to sell the company. All three are robbed of the titular prize. Capitalism wins out over primogeniture.
All of Logan’s children losing (sort of) is a reminder this country has no actual royalty. A quasi win for democracy destroys a family. Kendall is left a broken shell and grieving the future he believed was his since he was a child. Roman returns to being a drunken, wastrel party boy. Some might argue Shiv wins by proxy; her betrayal ensures Logan Roy’s successor is her husband, Tom, giving her access to power with none of the responsibility. Originally introduced as the “family altruist,” whose rebellion managed to never cost her a single bespoke suit or ludicrously capacious bag, it seems fitting her act of self-sacrifice ensures she maintains her place in the hierarchy. But arguably, she also loses the most. To remain close to power, she must remain married to a man she hates, stuck in a broken, emotionless void of a relationship, estranged forever from her siblings.
You’re welcome, America. Let’s never do this again.