August 6, 2018

SHOWBUZZDAILY Season Finale Review: “Succession”


The most tantalizing question of the Summer 2018 TV season is whether Jesse Armstrong, the creator of HBO’s slow-boil triumph SUCCESSION, knew what he was doing all along, or if the first 3-4 episodes were as uncertain as they seemed at the time.  In that beginning phase, Succession felt like Billions for The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight, or a Veep (on which Armstrong worked as a writer) that took itself inordinately seriously.  But somewhere around the halfway point of the season, Succession either reached what it was aiming for, or figured itself out, and it eked out a territory all its own:  what might be called Pitiless Compassion.

Succession is concerned with the scheming super-rich, like Billions, and its characters are mostly narcissistic idiots whose strategies fail disastrously, as on Veep.  But Armstrong views his protagonists as all too human beings, whose arrogance is balanced–and barely disguises–their epic insecurity.  They’re excruciatingly aware on some level that although they appear to 99% of the world to be fantastic successes, they’re actually blundering fools, and the bubble of their lives, while protecting them from the consequences of their actions, only exacerbates their tendency to rot everything they touch.

The central storyline of Season 1 has been the repeated attempts to unseat patriarch Logan Roy (Brian Cox) by his son Kendall (Jeremy Strong) from Logan’s throne atop the family corporation (one that markedly resembles the Murdoch operation), and that came to a head in the season finale, written by Armstrong and directed by Mark Mylod.  Almost every episode of Succession has revolved around gatherings of the entire clan, and the conclusion took place at the wedding of Kendall’s sister Shiv (Sarah Snook) to pathetic but ambitious Tom (Matthew Macfadyen).  Kendall, backed by outside investors, finally seemed to have a realistic chance to rlaunch a hostile takeover of the company, but in a sequence that couldn’t help but recall Teddy Kennedy at Chappaquiddick, he was responsible for an auto accident that took the life of an employee (recently fired by Logan), and his father was able to blackmail him into dropping the offer, cloaking his ruthlessness with parental concern.

Although the Kendall plot was the focus of the finale, there was room for Shiv and Tom’s marriage to get off on the worst possible foot, as she decided to tell him on their wedding night about the affair she’d been conducting, attempting to argue that there’d been a tacit deal between them of an open relationship, although Tom’s obvious heartbreak made that ludicrous.  We also had the satellite launch supervised by brother Roman (Kieran Culkin) turn into a fiery disaster, because of course it did, and oldest brother Connor (Alan Ruck) decide to run for President on a platform against usury and masturbation, which was perfect for all the wrong reasons.  And, inevitably, there was Cousin Greg (Nicholas Braun), in the episode just long enough to unintentionally guide Kendall to his fate.

Succession is cringe comedy of the highest order, but it doesn’t step back from the horror of watching Kendall realize that he’s been checkmated by his father, or Tom’s impotent attempt to salvage some dignity by throwing his bride’s lover out of their wedding party (which included making the man pour the wine Tom’s parents had paid for from his glass back into the bottle).  The tightrope walked by the actors in expressing both the misery their characters cause and the misery they feel is a remarkable one, and Strong, Snook and Macfadyen, in particular, have been giving some of the performances of the year.  As the behemoth in all of their paths, Cox (once Logan recovered from his early-season stroke and dementia) has been a force of nature.

Succession is a pleasure to watch, ornate in the way that HBO and only a few other services can buy, and brilliantly written.  Despite the swelling praise over the course of the season, the ratings have stayed fairly low, but this seems like a show that should be ripe for discovery before Season 2 arrives.  The nature of that season is rather unusually unclear:  after the way Season 1 ended, the show can’t really go back to Kendall trying to overthrow his father over and over again, so a new direction may be on the way.  It will also be increasingly difficult to contrive reasons for the entire family to gather together in each episode.  After watching Armstrong and his team assemble their pieces to form one of the best shows around, though, there’s every reason for confidence that they can do it again.


About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."