‘Succession’ Season 4: The Rich Are Still Miserable

As the final season begins, Kendall, Logan, and Shiv are in an alliance and the question is not just can it last, but can the Roys actually find redemption in each other?

Sarah Snook, Kieran-Culkin, and Jerem Strong (from left) in ‘Succession.’ Claudette Barius/HBO

Succession, HBO’s hit dramedy about super-rich sad sacks, is drawing to a close, with its fourth and final season premiering this Sunday. It’s appropriate that the business-obsessed series should close while its stock is at a record high, coming off of two Emmy-winning seasons and a surprising amount of social media hubbub for an original property with no flashy genre gimmicks. (It is, nevertheless, unbelievably expensive to produce.) It might also be a mercy, since enjoying Succession could also be considered a form of torture, a schadenfreude edging machine.

Like the promised prosecution of Donald Trump, Succession is a roller coaster that raises our hopes that the sinister super-rich might receive their comeuppance only to remind us that they cannot experience failure in any way that matters. Their version of “losing everything” is still far more comfortable than the average person’s vision of success. The most we can hope for is that they should be miserable, and that we should get to watch. This is the service Succession provides, but how long are we really willing to do this to ourselves? One more season is probably enough.

Season 4 opens with the errant Roy “children,” Kendall (Jeremy Strong), Shiv (Sarah Snook), and Roman (Kieran Culkin) on the rebound from their failure to wrest control of media giant Waystar Royco away from their father Logan (Brian Cox). After years of being pitted against each other, with each of them being courted and then rejected for the position of CEO of the family empire, the trio is now united and more functional than ever, which is to say, somewhat functional. Though shut out of Waystar Royco, their outrageously huge payouts from the company’s forthcoming sale have set them up to launch their own premium news outlet. But when presented with an opportunity to hitch their wagon to an existing brand and stick it to the old man in the process, the Roys must decide whether to blaze a new trail or to set a collision course with Logan.

As usual, the latest episode is packed with barely-comprehensible business and finance jargon, all adding up to the laughable ease with which the Roys accumulate and spend billions of dollars and uproot the lives of countless invisible people. (That jargon is roughly equivalent to the technobabble you hear on Star Trek, which theoretically means something but which you’re not expected to fully understand.) These mammoth money moves are, of course, only the instruments by which the Roys attempt to satisfy their egos and play at being smart, important people worthy of their inherited status. The minutiae barely matters—we’re here for the backstabbing, the internal conflict, and the long strings of obscenity that remind us that if Shakespeare were writing today, he’d probably be writing Succession.

Matthew Macfadyen in ‘Succession.’ Macall B. Polay/HBO

As with many of the Bard’s works, it’d be gobbledygook if not for the strength of its performances, and luckily Succession is blessed with one of television’s best ensembles. Though the whole cast has undoubtedly shown up to work, this episode belongs to Sarah Snook and recent Emmy winner Matthew Macfayden.

Season 3 ended with Macfayden’s perpetual punching bag Tom Wombsgans selling out his wife, Shiv, to secure his place at Waystar. This relationship is Succession at its most fascinating, not only for its complicated power dynamic but for the surprising amount of sympathy it inspires for both parties. Shiv is the product of an environment that rewards cruelty and punishes vulnerability, making it difficult for her to express or accept love. Tom is a lovesick puppy whose greatest asset to Shiv is the perception that he’s too weak-willed to betray her. But now, he’s done just that, and it’s a credit to Snook and Macfayden that the fallout is so genuinely affecting. There is such sensitivity in these performances that I’m forced to feel for these modern-day robber barons. Given that I would like to see all of these characters beheaded in Times Square, that’s an impressive feat.

As for the central dilemma of the episode — whether the united Roys should move forward with their homegrown business or make yet another play for their father’s throne — I’ll admit that I have a harder time investing. Much of the fun of Succession has been in watching Kendall, Logan, and Shiv butt heads, while also hoping that they can overcome their father’s bullying. Now that they’ve realized that they are better off working together, the jeopardy of the final season becomes whether or not their alliance will last. And, as a viewer, I’m genuinely not sure what outcome I actually want (apart from the Times Square beheading, which would not make a lot of narrative sense).

What does it mean for Succession when there’s actually a “good guy” of sorts, rather than a constantly-shifting hierarchy of “bad guys?” Can the Roys actually find redemption in each other? Should they? And, on a show that lays bare the psychopathy of the ruling class, how happy of an ending should we, realistically, expect? Should a harmonious sharing of power actually triumph over the personification of cutthroat capitalism, or would that only undercut the show’s depiction of a game in which the most ruthless player always wins? Apart from the sick spectacle of watching giants slap-fight without regard for the innocents trampled below, what will be our final takeaway from Succession? We’ll know in 10 weeks’ time. ‘Succession’ Season 4: The Rich Are Still Miserable