Television

What’s Left for Succession After That Finale?

Breaking down the tumultuous end to Season 3.

Matthew Macfayden on Succession.
Matthew Macfayden on Succession. HBO

Sam Adams: First things first: Kendall’s not dead. The internet may have spent a few days roasting Jeremy Strong for taking himself a wee bit too seriously, but his Succession character has emerged from his drunken self-submersion unscathed, at least physically. The fear that Kendall might have drowned turned out to be misplaced, but the concern wasn’t: As the show’s third-season finale, “All the Bells Say,” makes clear, Kendall was actually trying to die by suicide, and it was only quick action by his publicist Comfrey that kept him alive.* (As always on this show, it’s the minor functionaries who do most of the real work.) The episode imparts this information in a slightly strange way, skipping over the incident entirely and revealing it obliquely in a conversation between Kendall’s siblings: When Roman referred to his brother as “Kurt Cobain of the fucking floaties,” I had to pause a moment to process what that meant. It’s a deft way of ironizing Kendall’s low point—and also saving his real breakdown for later in the episode—but it also introduces a slight note of mockery: Kendall’s such a fuckup he can’t even kill himself properly. What did you think of how the show handled the incident, and—since you were blissfully off the week everyone else lost their minds over whether Succession was killing Kendall off—whether this felt like a satisfying response to the previous episode’s cliffhanger?

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Lili Loofbourow: I may have been off, but I was still reading everyone’s guesses! I have to admit I didn’t expect much from that cliffhanger—I thought Ken would live—because this season has pretty aggressively punished any expectation of plot payoffs. It felt like a kind of meta-joke on the season’s anti-cathartic approach that Kendall’s spectacular singing-from-a-crucifix (an obvious follow-up to Strong’s unforgettable “L to the O-G”) was planned but also called off in-universe. So many plot points that came out of nowhere were billed as very high stakes in the moment, but then their significance dissolved into nothing. There was the desperate need to curry favor with Josh, followed by his subsequent irrelevance during the shareholder vote. There was the dominant threat of Sandy and Stewy over multiple seasons, culminating in the deal Shiv negotiated that we sort of never heard about again, which has made its goodness or badness hard to judge, but which undoubtedly gave them more power than ever. Shouldn’t they be involved in this sale somehow? (Incidentally, I didn’t think Shiv would actually get that board seat she wanted for herself, and I was interested to see what relationship she and daughter Sandi would develop! Oh well). Then there’s what I guess you could call the psychological plotting: Shiv very uncharacteristically chose Tom over her own brother and her own ambition in the S2 finale when she asked Logan to spare him; I’ve been baffled ever since by that plot point since no one seems to know or remember that it happened (least of all Tom, on whose behalf she made what is, for her, a pretty big gesture!).

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Adams: There’s lots to talk about in the finale itself, which I thought was pretty great. But you raise an important point about the rest of the season, and the show as a whole. Succession presents as a show about corporate intrigue, which usually tends to mean a lot of careful plotting and intricate financial maneuvers. But this season especially, the approach to plot has been—let’s say, loose? So many possibilities have been raised and discarded, often when it felt like there was a substantial amount of juice left. (I for one could do with quite a bit more of Justin Kirk’s fascist presidential contender.) All this show really cares about, for good or for ill, is the characters, and it will move them wherever it wants them to go, no matter what has to be invented or forgotten in order for that to happen. The last half of the finale was a bravura showcase for the show’s core cast, especially Jeremy Strong—say what you will about his methods, but like a cop in ’70s action movie, he gets results. But I’m left wondering, just a little, if the season actually held together at all, or if it closed on such a high that it doesn’t matter.

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Loofbourow: Yeah, I think the defense of some of the plot sloppiness has been exactly that: This is a show about character, not plot! I have to admit that distinction doesn’t make sense to me, since plot ideally creates the conditions that reveal character. Shiv, for instance, hasn’t made a lot of sense to me this season; her brutal indifference to Tom’s incarceration doesn’t seem to square with whatever mild awakening she had then. Her rages—which seem like breaking points to someone who doesn’t tolerate ego injuries well—never seem to extend to the next episode; she seems to forget all about them and remains cordial, witty and affable with people I thought she was ready to kill. (Particularly Roman and her dad.) I also don’t really understand why Logan—whose whole driving motivation has been to keep control—has suddenly gotten lackadaisical and sees losing his supremacy as “winning.” Money has never mattered to him as much as control. (Remember the ruinously expensive Pierce acquisition he was attempting?) And sure, the Department of Justice fine is going to be big, but it still seems like a slap on the wrist relative to what could have happened; I don’t see how the Logan who wanted to defy the FBI—that’s how little he thought their actions would affect the company’s fortunes, and he’s a guy who prides himself on creating the climate—is happy to leave power to make babies with Kerry in order to turn the kids from his second marriage into Connors. He’s a dynasty guy and I don’t think he’d be so impressed with Matsson that he’d decide the “Roy” part of Waystar/Royco no longer mattered. Maybe he’s just so surrounded by cowering sycophants that he found it kind of bracing when Matsson called him old to his face? Who knows. But never mind: I loved the finale, and one bit of psychological plotting that does make perfect gorgeous sense, and was deftly threaded throughout, is Tom’s betrayal of Shiv. Such a terrific development, nicely foreshadowed by the Sporus moment with Greg (which begins with Nero killing his pregnant wife). What did you make of that incredible twist? And had it happened before? Did Tom, for instance, warn Logan the kids had gathered at Rava’s place? Is Tom indirectly responsible for the doughnuts?

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Adams: “Tom poisoned the doughnuts” is a fan theory I am definitely going to propagate during the off-season. One thing I think the finale captures very well is how centers of power aren’t always where we think they are. What gives Logan’s scheme away isn’t Matsson’s financier landing his jet at a nearby airport but a bunch of low-level M&A grunts pinging LackeySlack—what a name!—with complaints about the pillows in nearby hotels. And while the Roy kids are playing out their Oedipal drama at full volume, it’s Logan’s assistant Kerry who slips into the next room and finalizes the killing blow, stripping Kendall, Shiv, and Roman of the holding company interest they could have used to block the GoJo sale. They’re so confident in their plan to “kill Dad” that they’re not watching their backs, and that’s what allows Tom to stick the knife in.

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Tom Wambsgans has been my favorite Succession character for a while now, which I admit is partly motivated by a perverse desire to disengage from the central, and to my mind, not very interesting question of which Roy will inherit their father’s empire. But he’s also the one with the most at stake—he could end up penniless in prison, whereas the worst that could happen to the lesser Roys is they end up extremely rich and briefly unemployed. His relationship with Shiv has often not made that much sense to me. He gets proximity to power, and she gets someone who she can kick, Logan-style, to see if he’ll come back. But it’s pretty clear she doesn’t love him, and by the nth time she makes plans for the future and has to be reminded to include him, he finally seems to be grasping that. When he yells at Greg “What has anyone in this family ever done for you,” he might as well be shouting in a mirror. With Logan, at least, there’s no confusion. As long as Tom can stay useful, there’s a place for him. And when his number comes up, that’ll be that.

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Loofbourow: This is all true. I too have relished Tom’s development this season, even if he’s no less an opportunistic and calculating worm than any of them. (Remember when he used Logan’s illness to propose to Shiv—thereby securing his position in an ultrarich family—and pretended to Marcia that he wanted to “ask” Logan for permission?) I found his abjection more interesting and more moving than Kendall’s, who I’m sorry to say I got a little bored by this season. Matthew Macfadyen makes Tom’s simplest pronouncements—and they’re so often simple!—so moving and layered that even that hilarious discussion of their faintly “agricultural” wine doubled as a brilliant metaphorical analysis of their marriage. (“It’s not very nice, is it?”)

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That may be partly because Tom is one of the only characters who is developing. Succession doesn’t really believe people change, which sort of limits how much “growth” any one of these characters are likely to see. That has definite pluses! For instance, that delicious, nine-minute scene in which the Roy kids finally unite and open up to each other in front of some trash cans—and Kendall finally confesses his guilt and is immediately absolved by his tenderly amoral siblings—was followed by what to my mind is the funniest moment in the whole season: a symbolically dead Kendall resurrecting. He comes back “online” not when he confesses but when the siblings suggest going after Logan. Kendall’s suddenly ready to grab his shotgun; the idea of killing his dad puts a sparkle in his deadened eyes and a spring in his step. Strong was great in that moment, and it’s of course rooted in the joke that Kendall doesn’t change. This is what Kendall keeps trying to do.

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Adams: One minute Kendall is sobbing in the dirt because he thinks he’s a “killer,” the next he’s all revved about (figuratively) offing his dad. I think there is something deep at the core of that scene, which is that as much as Kendall is repelled by his dad’s monstrousness, he also envies it—not because he necessarily wants to be bad, but because he wants to be something. In retrospect one of the most poignant things about the finale is that Kendall is almost silent for the final stretch. The only thing he says in the last few minutes after he realizes the depth of his mother’s betrayal is “Hey.” His siblings are falling to the floor and hyperventilating with grief, and all he can do is stand there.

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Loofbourow: That’s such a good point. Someone pointed out the really painterly reprise of the earlier scene by the garbage cans in that last encounter that rearranges the abjection. In the first, Roman is kneeling down to comfort Ken on the ground while Shiv hovers awkwardly above. In the second, Kendall is leaning down to comfort a devastated Roman who has collapsed on the floor after being betrayed by both his father and Gerri. (Shiv hovers there too.) I really want to commend Culkin and Snook in that last scene; they were at their series best, in my opinion. Culkin shaking as he confronts Logan, and resisting his repeated efforts to break him away from his siblings, was incredible. So was his appeal to love. It almost makes you forget that he spearheaded the appointment of a fascist president! And Snook’s face as it dawned on her who had betrayed her—man, the revulsion and horror you could see in her, as someone who clearly married Tom because she thought he was safe, because she needed someone she could kick without fear of reprisals—I haven’t seen anything like it in awhile. And Tom of course has never looked better: they gave him a hell of a glow-up for his turn to the dark side. Truly sinister to watch him sidle up to her and ask her if she’s ok. Tremendous, all of it!

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Adams: And we can’t talk about Tom without talking about Greg—or should that be the Gregweiler, or Sporus? He is indeed a lackey, but that gives him the kind of knowledge the power players in their PJs don’t have, and Tom is the only one in a position to connect the two. Tom may just be offering to boost Greg to the “bottom of the top” so he can step on his shoulders—and those shoulders are very, very high—but they’re partnered in a way none of the show’s other characters are.

A friend remarked that, although Succession was renewed for a fourth season a while ago, this episode would also work as a series finale, and although I’m glad that’s not the case, I’m also left wondering where the show can go from here. Will Logan still keep his kids inside the new company, if only so he can continue to torment them? Or are they all the way out, and if so, how will his children—who can’t really seem to accomplish anything on their own—amass enough power to challenge him?

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Loofbourow: Right! Your point about LackeySlack being a secret driver of so much in this episode mirrored Matsson’s point about the slaves and might open some room for the show to escape the fascinating but hermetic spaces our ultrarich protagonists have so far almost exclusively occupied—through Greg, whose desire to brutalize other Gregs from his place at the bottom of the top might expand the world slightly.

I don’t know what happens next, but after what felt to me like a somewhat arid and repetitive season, I’m delighted by the destabilizing juiciness of this finale. Some of it is small, like Marcia’s peculiar encounter with Kerry about eating arrangements (MORE MARCIA, PLEASE!), an extremely conflicted Willa bawling at the wedding after saying yes—or at least fuck it—to Connor’s proposal, and Gerri countering Shiv’s borderline blackmail attempt by opting out of any professional relationship with the Roy children at all and instead supporting the merger with GoJo. But some of it’s huge: Logan hoping to get Kerry pregnant! Logan voluntarily decentering himself! I confess I have no idea what the latter means in practical plot terms. It sure doesn’t sound like he’s planning to keep the kids involved. On the other hand, I’m not sure what to make of Matsson’s promise to let him keep whatever power he wants. He can’t mean that, right? Nor does it seem likely that Matsson’s appraisal of Laird, Karl, Frank, and even Gerri would incline him to keep them all. So the strategic battle lines of the future seem a little murky, save for one: Logan will obviously make sure Tom is crowned king of Waystar-Royco. Maybe that’s whom the Roy kids will be squaring off against instead of their father, who will now be … kind of a figurehead? I honestly still don’t understand how giving up power is winning, or what this show would look like without Logan as chief antagonist, but I’m looking forward to finding out. (I’d also like to believe the political pick-the-president subplot mattered, but I’m not really holding my breath.)

Most of all, though, I’m excited about Willa and Connor’s wedding. Weddings are nuclear-grade disasters on Succession. Imagine the demoralizing delights that one will bring.

Correction, Dec. 17, 2021: This piece originally misstated the title of the finale. It is “All the Bells Say,” not “And the Bells Say.”

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