tv review

Succession Still Has a Few Surprises Left

Photo: HBO

Succession’s fourth and final season is a shining example of the best qualities of long-form storytelling, and of TV in particular. When we’ve lived with characters for multiple seasons, there’s a sense that we know them, and know them well. This is no movie-length fling. It’s a yearslong relationship that creates messy, complex investment and invites obsessive close reading. Characters are pinned down, picked apart, every line and glance and odd way of sitting in chairs noted and charted and considered. We see them. (We hear for them.) They’ve been part of our lives for years; they belong to us. That closeness is a kind of intimacy, but it’s also a way to be lulled into false confidence. How could we be taken by surprise when we’ve examined their every move? And yet, as the Roy family has illustrated over the past three seasons, there’s no better moment to zig than the precise moment when everything is lined up for a big zag.

In its first three seasons, Succession performed that zigzagging pattern over and over again, in character combinations that quickly shift and coalesce around new allegiances and stakes. The baseline premise has always remained the same: One of the Roy family children will eventually assume power of their father Logan Roy’s massive media corporation. But who? And how? And what will they have to sacrifice in order to seize the throne?

Season three ended with a sudden, sharp reorientation of the family power dynamics. After months of striking out on his own and refusing to kowtow to his father’s abusive whims, Kendall Roy (Jeremy Strong) manages to convince his siblings Shiv (Sarah Snook) and Roman (Kieran Culkin) to join forces, to make a bid that will at last unseat their father from his role as the head of Waystar Royco. The coup d’état attempt happens at a typical Succession setting: a family wedding in Italy, an event meant to demonstrate the warmth of familial bonds, but also the beautiful, luxurious surroundings that family can afford to pay for when they’re sitting atop one of the globe’s dominant media conglomerates. Instead, it’s a scene of fracture and filth. Kendall, Shiv, and Roman kneel together in a moment of grief and sibling togetherness, which can only happen next to the wedding venue’s garbage bins. And at the moment when they’re at last meant to be ascendant, the twist arrives. They’ve been outmaneuvered by the person they least expected: Shiv’s canny, sycophantic, outsider husband Tom Wambsgans (Matthew Macfadyen), who’s betrayed them in order to get in good with Logan.

It’s precisely the mechanism Succession likes best. Tom has been lurking in the background, trying to find the best way to ingratiate himself with Logan from the very beginning of the series, but Shiv and her siblings are sure they know him. They know he lacks the confidence and aggression to make a move without them. They know he’s on their side and would never betray Shiv. And because they know it so firmly, the twist that feels absolutely inevitable can also be deliciously shocking.

This is roughly where season four begins, in the continuing aftermath of that shocking continental divide. Once again, the Roy family are trying to get all their ducks in a row. Shiv, Kendall, and Roman are trying to suss out the current media landscape, to figure out how to make their own moves now that Logan has retained his grip on Waystar Royco and its news operation ATN. Logan, meanwhile, is doubling down, gripping everything he has with renewed vigor and tyranny. There’s a presidential election coming up. There’s a massive deal to broker between Waystar and GoJo, the streaming-media platform owned by the Musk-esque Swedish billionaire Lukas Matsson (Alexander Skarsgård). He’s coming out swinging, and so are the next generation of Roys. It’s not as though either side lacks ambition or power or the money to fuel it all.

As ever on Succession, the question is less about who will end up on top and more about whether any of them will make peace with what they’ve had to do in order to get there. The beginning of Succession’s final season (critics were given the first four of ten episodes) is an exercise in defining the new business battlefield while also charting the new emotional terrain. Roman, ever driven by a need for his father’s approval, finds it hard to keep pushing against Logan’s crusade for control. Shiv and Kendall stand together more firmly, but while their motivations may often coincide, their end goals aren’t always aligned.

In moments, Succession can feel like it’s tipped too far over the edge of absurdity, especially when its dialogue trends toward heightened jokiness. The season-four trailers are full of those lines — Greg (Nicholas Braun) describing Logan looming over the newsroom floor “like if Santa Claus was a hit man,” Tom explaining that some business maneuver is “like Israel-Palestine, but harder, and much more important.” There’s a runner in the early episodes that trends that way too, a faux pas that Greg commits at a Roy family event that seems like it’s only there as a punch-line-generating engine. Those elements of Succession are fun, often in terrible taste, and easy to love because they’re also easy to dismiss.

They’re not what Succession is at its core, though. One of the chief pleasures of TV that goes on for years is that we can be lured into the false belief that we know everything there is to know about a show, only to find that surprises still lurk in the places we assumed we already understood. Much more than its satire of the wealthy or florid insults, what makes Succession so fascinating and electric is that terrible, frightening, unmappable space between what we think we know and what we’ve simply assumed. The Roys are constantly looking at one another, trying to suss out what they’re capable of, trying to guess at whether the internal emotional reality matches the external armor. It’s the same thing we do while watching Succession, and it is a joy to discover all the ways these characters can still sneak up and grab us, all the ways we can still be walloped by a smile, a quick phone call, or a casual family gathering.

Succession Still Has a Few Surprises Left