Well, the Succession Season 2 Finale Exceeded Expectations

How the best and buzziest show on television is avoiding the Game of Thrones trap.

The Waystar-Royco team gathers on a yacht for the season finale of Succession.
A relaxing Roy family vacation. Graeme Hunter/HBO

For a prestige TV season finale, there’s nothing harder to clear than high expectations. But Succession finished up its sterling second season as the best and buzziest show on television—maybe there’s some juice left in the whole, Paleolithic air-one-episode-a-week method— with an ending that was as satisfying as it was unexpected. At the end of Succession Season 2, the Roys gathered on a yacht larger than an apartment complex, kicked off their shoes, and took a few joyrides down a giant inflatable slide, all a decadent warmup for shanking one another in the front—only for the episode to end with a gloriously placed knife in the back.

The season-long pressure on Waystar-Royco came to a head in last week’s congressional hearings, when it became apparent that some kind of “blood sacrifice” would be necessary in order for the family to convey to the public and the shareholders that the Roys understood the extent of their corporate malfeasance. (Even though they don’t really.) This week, the family and their apparatchiks meet in a ludicrously outsize pleasure boat to feign relaxation as they putter around the Mediterranean sipping Burgundy and Champagne while scheming about who should take the fall. As culture editor Adam Sternbergh noted on Twitter, it was an Agatha Christie setup where no one dies, but everyone wants to be a murderer.

The pretend vacation culminates in a bravura scene at the breakfast table that’s a traffic jam worth rubbernecking: Everyone gets tossed under the bus. Everyone gets something delicious to do and say—“Greg Sprinkles”—even as the sequence makes a joke of everything they are doing and saying: The conversation is a farce. None of the blood Roys are ever seriously considered for sacrifice. Logan Roy (Brian Cox) begins the conversation by “suggesting” it should be him who takes the blame, which no one can do more than half-heartedly pooh-pooh, because it’s a half-hearted suggestion.* Instead, as in all meetings with Logan Roy, everyone is triangulating. The non-family members of the team run one another down first, but none of them are bold enough to point fingers at actual Roys. Pathetic Connor (Alan Ruck) offers to sacrifice himself but has no takers. The group ultimately gangs up on heinous buffoon Tom Wambsgans (Matthew Macfadyen), who is almost family, but not quite family, as his wife, Shiv (Sarah Snook), notes, and so is the perfect consensus fall guy, even to Shiv. To protect himself, Tom will later eat a piece of Logan’s chicken, a territory-pissing announcement of his unhinged nature that Logan sees as some gauche breach of decorum—way weirder and worse than, you know, gathering people in paradise for a show trial.

There’s always been the dangerous possibility that Succession could fall into a kind of Game of Thrones trap, where the audience becomes fixated on who will “win” the throne. But creator Jesse Armstrong and his staff have made assiduously clear that the Waystar-Royco “throne” is a porcelain crapper. Every single person on the show would be better off if they walked away, and their inability to do so is a moral indictment of them and the crusty pull of obscene wealth and power.

Though she went into Season 2 as the crowd favorite, one of this season’s major storylines has been the degradation of Shiv for exactly this reason: She keeps walking closer. Formerly the sane-ish, decent-ish Roy, she flushed her strategic skills and vague vestige of morality down the toilet by reversing her lifelong course of distancing herself from her father. After committing a series of strategic errors because she wanted Logan’s public approval (in the shape of the CEO chair) so desperately, she also tampered with a witness because—best-case scenario—she delusionally believed in her own future power. She ended the season by betraying her brother Kendall, and being so cruel to her husband that she made him—the deranged gas bag Tom, the guy who uses other people as a footstool—look emotionally sensitive. He’s “not a hippie” looking for three-ways with his wife and, you know, it is pretty janky to spring an open marriage as a fait accompli on your wedding night. At least he loves her. Maybe Season 3 will be Shiv’s redemption arc.

Meanwhile, Roman (Kieran Culkin), the adolescent cutup, finally stops being a smart aleck and tries being grown. He tells his dad the truth about a questionable deal. He asks his siblings if they could have a normal adult relationship. (They make funny voices in response, because, no, they can’t.) Like Shiv, he doesn’t want to announce his emotional affiliations to anyone, but unlike Shiv, he’s willing to stand up for the people he cares about: Gerri, who he romantically defends during the breakfast table scene, and then Kendall, in a moment that is the flip side of the brotherly bond we saw when Kendall instinctively defended Roman after Logan smacked him in the face a few episodes back. Roman’s now COO of a company that the Roys probably won’t hold onto for much longer, but, hey, kid brother came a long way.

And then there’s Kendall (Jeremy Strong). The finale is a kind of mirror image of last season’s: Both orbit around Kendall’s rapidly reversing fortunes. In the previous finale, Kendall accidentally killed a man just as he was about to take the company from his father. Logan pounced on this horrible accident as a strategic advantage. Kendall’s decision to act for himself went so badly, resulted in such tragedy, that he seemed to decide to stop doing it. For this entire season, at times tearful, at times suicidal, at times bed-crapping, Kendall has let go and let Logan run him. He has been his father’s mercenary, his unfeeling lieutenant, slicing and dicing Vaulter, screaming at whoever needs to hear it in the back of the plane, and crushing at the congressional hearings. He’s a person who no longer makes decisions of his own. He’s Logan’s killer.

But in the waning minutes of the finale, the use of that actual term “killer” seems to jolt Kendall out of his season-long stupor. (Or maybe it was before: When Kendall actually turned against Logan is a good one to chew over in the off-season.) Logan explains to Kendall that he has to be the blood sacrifice. Kendall is gracious. He accepts it. He gives his father a Fredo kiss. And then he asks: Did you ever think I really could have run this company? Logan hems and haws, but then says, no, because to do so “you have to be a killer.” Logan is speaking metaphorically, but Kendall is a killer, and it has been haunting him for months. That’s instantly where his mind goes: Maybe being the blood sacrifice is what he deserves, he says, for the accident. Logan reassures him that’s not true: The guy he killed, he wasn’t even a “real person.”

So Kendall, seemingly at his most pathetic, heads to a press conference where it appears he will take the fall for all that has gone wrong at his family’s business. He will say that he knew about everything, and that no one above him knew anything. And then he says the opposite.

At the press conference, Kendall betrays Logan, with an assist from that lanky, benign fungus Cousin Greg, good old Greg Sprinkles. In an immensely satisfying, surprising turn of events, Kendall is, actually, a killer in the way his father meant it. Or is he? Is Logan’s smile in the final minutes one of pride or one of collaboration? Is that smirk because this was the plan all along or because Logan finally sees what he’s been waiting for: a true successor? It’s a wonderfully rousing ending that, this being Succession, I’m willing to bet by the end of next season, will no longer seem quite like a happy one.

Correction, Oct. 14, 2019: This post originally misspelled Brian Cox’s first name.