“Succession” creator Jesse Armstrong recently announced that the fourth season of HBO’s zeitgeisty drama will be its last. It’s appropriate, then, that the new season — which starts airing Sunday, March 26 — focuses like never before on the title topic: Who will succeed Brian Cox’s monstrous patriarch Logan Roy as head of the Waystar/Royco media empire?
In the first quartet of episodes provided to reviewers, a tone of serious business emerges over the sometimes goofy, ever-morphing equations of loyalty, favoritism and backstabbing that have been so wickedly entertaining since the drama series’ 2018 premiere. Though that formula hadn’t run out of morality melting steam, one did wonder how many more combinations could be made from it before the template got tiresome.
A more serious sense of finality does the trick. Along with, maybe, hints of decency on the parts of some Roys. Which is not to say Logan has dropped his “F— everything, all the time” attitude or speech patterns. Or that his children, especially addled rebel Kendall (Jeremy Strong) and provocative perv Roman (Kieran Culkin), aren’t still taking the toilet mouths they inherited to hilariously lacerating extents. Now far more their own pop culture figures than the Murdoch-lites they were initially conceived as, the Roys all seem a bit more reflective than we thought they could be, perhaps as a byproduct of all the crap they’ve put themselves and each other through.
Of course, any newfound sincerity could be fake, as has happened many times in the past. But anything that makes Strong’s extreme method acting, so good for portraying Ken’s delusional ditziness for three seasons, settle into a compelling naturalism is welcome, whether the character’s being honest or not. Cox may still consider Strong’s acting style “f—ing annoying,” but Kendall isn’t as irritating as he used to be.
Though she’s still the closest thing to this ice-blooded show’s heart, Siobhan (Sarah Snook) hurls penetrating verbal darts as well as her brothers. Especially at her husband Tom Wambsgans (Matthew Macfadyen) — when, that is, she’s not in palpable despair over the corporate climbing weasel’s latest betrayal. With her volatile immediacy, Snook remains the series’ most versatile actor.
At the end of last season, Tom warned Logan about his childrens’ scheme to block Waystar’s sale to Alexander Skarsgård’s Swedish tech mogul Lukas Matsson. True to his nature, Logan made moves, cutting the siblings out of the company altogether. Season 4 opens with Kendall, Roman and Shiv courting investors for a rival media startup called The Hundred, which Ken describes as “Substack meets MasterClass meets The Economist meets The New Yorker” with typical misapplied grandiosity.
Despite such silliness, along with ongoing internecine sniping and distrust, the threesome acts with newfound purpose and even a Roy variant of respect toward each other. Waystar’s sale to Matsson’s GoJo is 48 hours away and the Kids (or as Logan now calls them, the Rats) have signed their resignation forms. There’s a businesslike sobriety, if not great financial judgment, to the Kids’ efforts to get back at Dad while they all wait to get their share of GoJo money.
A risky gambit puts the sheer mastery of both acting ensemble and behind-the-lens team on full, extended display. In an early episode, Strong, Snook and Culkin deliver their deepest, most empathetic performances of the entire series. Complex, often contradictory feelings lead to grace notes and behaviors we never believed these characters were capable of displaying, while each remains true to their fundamental natures.
There are also pragmatic but nonetheless humanizing portrayals from the Waystar executive players: Peter Friedman (vice-chairman Frank Vernon), J. Smith-Cameron (general counsel Gerri Kellman, who has no time for Roman’s special needs so far), David Rasche (CFO Karl Muller) Dagmara Domińczyk and Fisher Stevens (P.R. pros Karolina Novotney and Hugo Baker).
It all settles into a superb array of the show’s signature strengths: Machiavellian plotting, comic rationalizing and withering put-downs. The whole gang is at their calculating best, with a survivalist urgency to the business and emotional stakes at hand.
The season could continue in several directions. If somehow Logan has engineered his greatest power play of all, can Armstrong and company pull it off without the show’s entire audience feeling screwed over? That might at least approximate something a Roy would do, but now that the younger ones have revealed some tenderness and maturity, would it be more satisfying to make those qualities the source of anyone’s final triumph or downfall? Will Matsson turn out to be more like Elon Musk or Peter Thiel?
As always, one of the few things we can be certain about regarding “Succession” is we’ll be watching anxiously until the bitter end.
“Succession” Season 4 premieres Sunday, March 26, at 9 p.m. ET/PT on HBO and 9 p.m. ET/ 6 p.m. PT on HBO Max.