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Succession’s Song of Ice and Fire

Photo: HBO

Succession’s penultimate episode, “Church and State,” presents three eulogies for series patriarch Logan Roy. The initial plan, outlined by the Roy siblings earlier in the season, is for Roman to give the eulogy — a united front offering a single, straightforward reading of who Logan was and what his legacy leaves behind. We hear bits of it as Roman prepares before the funeral: Logan was “a great man,” he keeps repeating. It’s the one line he manages to get out when he actually reaches the podium. A great man indeed. But at its best and most exciting, Succession is a show that thrives in ambiguous spaces. It loves conditional phrases and letting its characters talk about deals but rarely mustering the courage to make any. The pleasure is in the negotiation, where all possibilities remain open and many interpretations could still be valid.

So of course, Roman’s one, sweeping, obliterating eulogy blows up on the launchpad, and instead, Logan ends up with three different eulogies — one from his brother (Ewan), one from Kendall, and one from Shiv — each with their own vision of who he was and how to summarize his life. The speeches are tipped against one another — with Kendall’s intended as an opposing viewpoint to Ewan’s, and Shiv’s a softening of Kendall’s. In classic Succession form, though, every eulogy contains its own hairpin turns and attempts to navigate contrasting ideas. Even after Logan’s death, Succession refuses to land on any single idea of who the man was.

The first eulogy is Ewan’s, and it establishes the framework for all three. He begins with childhood trauma — a story about how he and Logan came to the U.S. on a ship during WWII, forced to stay silent for days after the engines “let go” in order to stay safe from U-boats. He then explains that Logan lived with the belief that he’d caused his sister’s death by bringing polio home from school. (That’s one “water is dangerous” and one “Logan creates death” image for those of you keeping track at home.) Then Ewan shifts to the idea he’s most focused on: Logan as a man who “has, here and there, drawn in the edges of the world.” The picture of Logan becomes a contrast between heat and cold, and Ewan describes those two poles as a zero-sum proposition. Logan “fed that dark flame in men — that hard, dark, hard-relenting flame that keeps their hearts warm while another goes cold,” Ewan says. “You can get a little high, a little mighty when you’re warm.”

Shiv’s eulogy, the last one in the set, is a mirror to Ewan’s. She begins with childhood pain, although in this case, it’s her own. “We used to play outside his office,” she says, “and he was so terrifying. Oh God, he was so terrifying to us.” Shiv’s eulogy takes Ewan’s image and twists it, attempting to soften it toward generosity. He was terrifying because his work was so important, she says. “He kept us outside … but he kept everyone outside.” Then, in another echo to Ewan, she turns to imagery of warmth and cold and again tries to reshape her uncle’s idea into something else. Rather than just the warmth of selfish privilege, Shiv suggests, Logan’s warmth could radiate onto others. “When he let you in, when the sun shone, it was warm. It was really warm in the light.”

It’s a back-and-forth game of apocalyptic metaphors with Shiv noting how much she misses Logan’s fire while Ewan insists that because of him, the world is ending in ice. They’re alternate versions of the same man, but even within each eulogy, Logan’s family cannot wholly commit to one portrait over another. For Ewan, Logan was a monster and a product of tragedy. For Shiv, he was a loving father who could never see her (or any woman, in fact) as a whole person.

The centerpiece is Kendall’s eulogy, and, like Shiv’s, it develops within the framework Ewan first provides, then flips that language on its head. Ewan suggests that Logan believed he caused death. Kendall describes Logan as an indomitable font of life. “He had a vitality, a force that could hurt. And it did,” Kendall says. But the pain of it didn’t matter, because he made so much money, and money is “the lifeblood, the oxygen of this wonderful civilization that we have built from the mud.” It’s all pregnancy and birth images for Kendall: corpuscles gushing, quickening ambition, “bloody, complicated life.” Logan was the engine of creation, and birth always comes with pain. A future with none of Logan’s life force, meanwhile, would be akin to death: “sluggish and gray.” And, of course, because Kendall does not know how to have a meaningful moment without driving into a pond, floating in a pool, or charging into the ocean, his description of his father is decidedly watery. The money gushes, Kendall says. It feeds into “great geysers of life.”

As ever with Kendall, there’s still a question about what exactly he’s doing in all of that water. Is it a wellspring or a flood? Is it birth or drowning? But whatever else Kendall may be, he has a history of standing on a stage and knowing what to say, and buried in the middle of the eulogies, he finds a way through all of the fire and ice. “He was comfortable with this world, and he knew it. He knew it, and he liked it,” Kendall says of his father. It’s that Succession equivocation again, that attempt to keep all of the options open at once. Logan was fire, he was ice, but he was temperate too. He could find a middle path.

The last moments of “Church and State” pivot toward Waystar’s future, so these eulogies may be Succession’s last significant depiction of Logan. It’d be a hell of a way to go out, not just because it’s a thunderous piece of writing from Jesse Armstrong but because even its one moment of apparent peace is really full of thorns. “He was comfortable with this world” is such a damning thing to say about Logan Roy. It’s the one thing no one else around him could ever be. In the mausoleum after the funeral, Connor wonders whether all the siblings should eventually share his tomb. “A chance to get to know him?” Shiv says. “I had trouble finishing a scotch with him,” Kendall says. Roman’s is the most gruesome: “He made me breathe funny.”

It’s so often what Succession wants its viewers to feel like we barely know it, like we cannot relax into it, like we’re breathing funny. And, like the Roy siblings, despite the unending geyser of discomfort, we might find it very hard to say good-bye.

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Succession’s Song of Ice and Fire