‘Succession’ Tricked a Sliver of America Into Thinking That It’s a Good Show | Commentary

Nearly 3 million people were duped into watching the finale of a terrible series about spoiled brats

Jeremy Strong in a still from "Succession." (HBO)

The debates about the finale of “Succession” go on and on, and yet few have the perspective to say the obvious: From the start, this was a bad show, and a misconceived one. In a world of peak TV and oceans of post-”Sopranos” high-end work from around the world, this was an endeavor made by people not quite clear on the concept. There were no adults in the room. “Succession” was very much like what you would get if the Roy children themselves tried to do a grown-up HBO series.

Indeed, only they would think that they were worthy subjects of a TV show, just as, in “Succession’s” fictional world, they’re the only people who think they’re qualified to run an international media company. The problem is that “Succession’s” real world creators didn’t get it either.

There were three crucial things wrong with “Succession,” and they all came together to make the ending both preposterous and offensive.

Problem No. 1: The sibling trio have no credibility

The first problem is the characters of the three siblings at the heart of the show. Kendall, Roman and Siobban had quite a way with words – they spouted whip-smart dialogue filled with cultural and social allusions and corporate jargon. As with Showtime’s “Billions” and its flip deep-cut references, I’m sure there were poor souls in the writers room whose job it was to front-load the kids’ chatter with as much of it as possible. The characters were mot machines and had a way with the clever little twist as well, like when, in the last episode, Kendall says, “Carpe the diem.” (Arma virumque cano, Kenny-boy!)

But… where did they get this from? None of them seem to read or to have read. They don’t do research, hold meetings, evince curiosity or seek out information. They aren’t Type A folks with finely tuned intellects dispensing barbs at their inferiors as they get things done. They’re literally three idiot kids of a successful businessman, nothing more. That’s probably why Kendall didn’t know what carpe diem means. (And why Shiv doesn’t understand what Lady Macbeth did.)

As also with “Billions,” this is a show based around billionaire porn. We’re supposed to ooh at the polished interiors, the private planes, Kendall’s four-figure hoodies. “Succession’s” nice twist to this is to set its characters now and again in somber black SUVs rumbling down gray financial streets. Things aren’t as glamorous as one might think for billionaires, the color palette whispered. But in “Billions,” which is a pulpy show and knows it, we see the seething Axe, and see in him the determination that put him there, and see what he does day to day to maintain it. In “Succession,” we see… spoiled, and soiled, brats who literally never do anything.

No competent business operation would take a second look at this trio. Kendall is a bush-league sociopath with visions of grandeur. He talked a word salad, but has no perceptible command of business. He’s an addict, has the unfortunate mien of an addict even when he’s clean, is in and out of rehab, and as often as not turns his public pronouncements into a complete s–t show. With the attention span of a hamster, he displays none of the qualities of a successful business leader, and has a thoroughly unpleasant personality.

Kieran Culkin, Sarah Snook and Jeremy Strong in “Succession.” (HBO)

As for Roman, he’s [waves hand].

Siobhan is, of course, the only interesting character of the three. We’re told she’d left the family to join liberal politics and as I recall she was billed as something like a chief of staff to a presidential candidate. I’m going to go out on a limb and say she seems a little… low-energy for a position like that. It’s another one of those times when you get the feeling that the creators of the show are the Roy children themselves. (“I want to be a, a, chief of staff to a presidential candidate!” ) She too thinks she can run a massive corporate entity. Constantly put out and overlooked, she finally makes her moves by scheming behind the scenes against her brothers… and comes up with bupkis.

Problem No. 2: It’s narrative Groundhog Day

The second problem is the emptiness of the narrative at the show’s core. In the first season, we see a business titan have a stroke and then watch the broadening chaos caused by his inability to designate a successor. Turns out his kids are idiots! So far so good. Four seasons later, he’s dead and his company is sold off to the highest bidder, because… his kids are idiots. This isn’t a tragedy. There aren’t fatal flaws or consequences. It certainly seemed like Logan Roy’s actions were unreliable in the first two seasons, but his three kids working together or apart were simply not a match even for a guy who’d had a stroke. They were dumb in season one, episode one, and flailed about like beached flounders once they lost their daddy’s support.

The lack of an actual story arc made life very hard for “Succession’s” writer’s room. I lost count of the weddings that were, inevitably, disrupted by family and corporate crises of one sort or another, or the various Kendall Rube Goldberg plans that would have ultimately made him CEO (They’re just not that into you, Ken!), or, sigh, the innumerable times dumb, halting Greg just happens to be in a place where he hears something, and then tells someone else, and then either confesses or is caught out. (And yet for some reason in seemingly every episode someone says, “Hey, let’s bring Greg along!”) The writers had to keep ginning up events, and increasingly outlandish twists and turns, but they all remain episodic, because none of them, in the end, could upend the reality of the show, which is that it’s about three feckless idiots.

And maybe I missed it, but the financial dynamics aren’t all that interesting either. Companies like Fox, I mean, Waystar, are worth what they are because the shareholders don’t have that much say given the mechanics of the family’s ownership. That structure allows Murdoch/Roy to do amazing things, and also do a lot of other things that are in the family’s interests but not the shareholders’. That’s why it would be valuable in a sale — removing the Roys would unlock value. Who would want to buy the company but keep the kids, or, given the opportunity, what savvy shareholder or board member would want to proceed with a new generation of Roys in charge?

This aimlessness came to the fore in the final season when, amid much other stuff, the kids manage to take charge and negotiate a deal to sell the company off at an unexpected premium — and then change their minds! It’s like that scene in “The Godfather” when Michael decides at the last minute not to kill all the other mob bosses while his child is being baptized.

Problem No. 3: Character confusion

The third trouble with “Succession” is the raft of inconsistencies and implausibilities in all the characters. Gangly Greg is completely miscast. I could envision him in the guise of an oddly ingratiating and disarmingly ambitious guy whom the family just gets used to. Instead, he lacks the sophistication of all the other characters, abuses what trust is placed in him and makes virtually all the various errands he was tasked to do a mess. Why do these people want to have a towering dips–t wandering around their living rooms, bumping his head on various literal and metaphorical lamps?

Similarly, I could imagine a different Connor who, detached from his siblings, turns into a substantive political thinker with an actual base and a longshot but nontrivial claim at a presidential run. (I’m going to go out on a narrative limb and suggest that his girlfriend not be a sex worker.) (And that he not blow $100 million on staging her play.)

Matthew McFadyen, Sarah Snook in Succession "With Open Eyes"
Matthew McFadyen, Sarah Snook in Succession “With Open Eyes” (HBO)

All of this came together to make the last episode a nightmare of incoherence. You wouldn’t hire Tom Wambsgans to organize a paper route, much less a contentious and scandal-filled international news organization. But then Mattson, the Swedish billionaire, closing one of the biggest business deals in history and with a world of corporate titans at his beck and call… hires Tom to run it!

Meanwhile, Shiv finds out that Mattson has taken her for a ride, and she gets mad… for about 10 minutes. She then turns around and screws her brother Kendall instead. That plot device was prompted by cousin Greg, who, having violated the confidence of both Tom and Mattson… is kept on at the new company.

The final and biggest insult of the finale involved Shiv. The show’s conception of her was sexist at its heart. She had detached herself from the family, but then essentially came crawling back home for a shot at the big chair. This supposed chief of staff to a presidential candidate became insincere and grasping, and for some reason attaches herself to a guy who couldn’t even wear a suit and whom you’d be embarrassed to introduce to your boss, the presidential candidate, because he never says anything interesting. She ends up completely used and manipulated by Mattson, and outmaneuvered and humiliated in an entirely different way by her estranged husband.

So she… f–ks over her siblings and, instead of taking her billions from the Gojo sale and having her baby and new life in peace, goes back to play second fiddle to the spavined Tom. None of this has anything remotely to do with the character we’ve watched over four seasons, and came about solely because the writers were desperate for some resonating twist at the end.

How I would have written the show

I’m not a big Hollywood showrunner, but let me propose two alternative story arcs.

One: Siobhan is actually the smart one. She is a liberal, and was detached from the family. But she shares Logan’s soul, she comes back into the fold, and, feeling her way, with increasing ruthlessness maneuvers until she staves off outside offers, and grabs for the top spot and board control. In the climax, she shivs both her brothers, and reinstalls her husband back as head of the right-wing news network — and tells him not to change a thing.

Two: Siobhan is her dithering self, but Tom isn’t a buffoon. He has a way of parrying confrontation and seems a bit milquetoasty, but mostly keeps his own counsel, and we see why Logan Roy hired him as he adeptly sidesteps the cruise ship scandal and does his best to corral the loonies at the news network, once in a while ably defenestrating someone, the way Ailes or Murdoch did, some time ago, to Glenn Beck and, more recently, Tucker Carlson. When, in the last episode, Mattson gives him the once-over and asks him to tell him something he doesn’t know, he says something like:

“No one sees this yet, but ATN is like Wile E. Coyote. [Mattson gives him a blank look] He chases a roadrunner: He’s off the cliff, his legs are churning, but there’s nothing beneath him. It’s a cartoon. OK, never mind. Our median viewer age is 63 and going up. The Baby Boomers are dying off, and there’s not enough Gen X’ers to replace them. Our advertisers are all denture creams and annuities. The money is in the carriage fees, and it is a lot of money. But: Cable subscriptions are going down 2, 3 percent a year, and that might double any time. Logan cared about all of this right-wing bulls–t. You don’t, and I don’t. And we don’t want the stink of it to hurt the studio or the cruise ships. We don’t want to be holding this racist baby when the music stops. So. We polish this turd up for a year, make it look as good as possible and sell it to a Thiel or Musk. They will overpay and, high on their own bullshit, will think they can turn it around.”

That could have been the thing that gets Tom the job, and symbolize the debauching of Roy’s personal construct after his death. It would have made the actual ending somewhat more probable. It would still be sexist, but it would also give Siobhan a reason to go back to Tom. After all, a lot of decaying dynasties bring in new blood. Instead of this, in the moment, at his big chance talking to Mattson, Tom dispenses his usual burbling nonsense. He’ll raise revenues, he says, and cut costs! 

By its end, the show became so full of itself it began to pack episodes with those gloomy chauffeured SUV rides through the city. They became overdone and overbearing. You began to think, “You know what? NYC is actually not gray like that.” And to read all the keening about Kendall in the days since the finale, it gets overlooked a lot that he too is left with many billions of dollars to, you know, do something with. Only in the upside-down world of “Succession” could his ending be treated with such solemnity. The media class in America became infatuated by “Succession,” of course. The New Yorker website, to cite just one example, has posted five stories on the show in the past week. You and I both know a lot of people who watched it, but that’s because we live in a bubble. The finale drew a series high for the show — a big 2.9 million viewers. (Compare that to the finale of a show that had much wider appeal, such as “Game of Thrones,” which attracted 19.3 million viewers).

Some shows are about things that happen and why. “Succession” was about what didn’t happen. The show didn’t valorize its characters, of course, but it also didn’t do the hard work of trying to at least make a case for their existence. Every day, in business, certainly, but in every other endeavor in American life as well, decisions are made, the winners proceed, and the losers fall by the wayside. As a case study in this process, “Succession” couldn’t have picked less worthy examples, and ultimately paid the price with a hapless ending that tried to gin up drama in a foregone conclusion.

p.s. And the last scene is this: A dark SUV pulls up in front of a house on a cozy and bright suburban street. Greg gets out, dragging a rolling suitcase. He pulls it to the front door, and his mom opens it. He walks past her without a word, and she closes the door after him. The SUV silently pulls away and drives off down the street.

Bill Wyman is the former arts editor of Salon and National Public Radio.