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‘Succession’ Review: A Tense Season 1 Finale Draws a Clear Line Between Warring Parties and Defines the Drama’s Purpose

What the finale's narrative reset means for the future is open-ended, but Jesse Armstrong's debut season kept hearts racing as few other dramas can.

Succession Season 1 Episode 10 Hiam Abbass, Brian Cox

Hiam Abbass and Brian Cox in “Succession”

Colin Hutton/HBO

[Editor’s Note: The following review contains spoilers for “Succession” Season 1, Episode 10, “Nobody Is Ever Missing.”]

For the second time in Season 1, Kendall Roy took an ill-advised trip, and all he found was catastrophe. Jeremy Strong’s lead character (and Logan Roy’s “No. 1 boy”) has a flaw, and it’s not drugs. It’s not anger, or greed, or any of the other obvious vices he keeps indulging. It’s discipline. His father has it, he does not, and it may have just cost him a fortune.

This is hardly a revelation, and for as surprising as certain elements of the finale proved to be, the ultimate takeaway is reaffirmation. After a rocky start, “Succession” has found sure footing in its characters and conceit. Creator Jesse Armstrong knows the people in this world very well and has found effective means to make sure the audience understands them intimately. Moreover, their internal fight for power creates casualties that are minor to this family of one percenters and massive to 99 percent they profit from; people’s lives are destroyed and lost while those consequences barely poke the Roy family’s fortified bubble. That contrast makes for some lacerating commentary, while the glimpse inside such obscene wealth is illuminating unto itself. What’s been set up for Season 2 looks an awful lot like where the show started, except now everyone understands the game.

To say the Season 1 finale is packed with drama would be an understatement; only Episode 6 (“Which Side Are You On?”) wrings more tension from 60 minutes. But the two entries’ parallels also highlight the latter hour’s weaknesses. Both episodes featured Kendall on a wayward journey prefacing a failed attempt to dethrone his dad. Both felt like final blows to the would-be successor, and fairly easy parries by the king of the castle. (Side note: That Episode 10 took place in an actual castle marked just one of many delicious visual metaphors, such as Roman literally washing his hands after witnessing the spaceship explosion).

"Succession" Season 1 Episode 10 Finale Jeremy Strong Nicholas Braun

Jeremy Strong and Nicholas Braun in “Succession”

Colin Hutton/HBO

These repetitions are what critics point to when they say “Succession” is a little too content watching bad men do bad things, as opposed to magnifying their internal struggle (or lack thereof) and lambasting any external ramifications. Much of what happens in the first season’s final chapter only emphasized pre-established dynamics, making it a touch too passive. Armstrong basically hit the reset button in the season finale, returning his cast of characters to their intended original states.

Roman (Kieran Culkin) is a fuck-up who wants to believe he can run a company without ever showing enough insight to do so; Conner (Alan Ruck) is the family joke, who’s now crazy enough to think he could make a good president (and no, the obvious counter — that he’d be better than our current one — does little to make his delusion anything more than entertaining); Shiv is savvy and forceful, yet torn between her father’s greed and her own sincerity. It’s why telling Tom she’s been cheating on him while subsequently re-committing to their marriage felt simultaneously heartbreaking and static; she didn’t make a decision — she punted while keeping everything she wants.

Setting aside the tantalizing mystery behind Marcia (Hiam Abbass), who needs to be properly explored in Season 2, there’s Kendall and Logan: father and son, leader and follower. After two failed attempts at a coup, the warring parties are back where they started. It’s clear what separates the two men, whether you call it experience, ruthlessness, power, or, yes, discipline, but it’s also clear what elicits pity for Kendall and contempt for Logan. Kendall makes mistakes, and Logan makes decisions. While the No. 1 boy set an effective plan in place to overthrow his father — twice — those conscious choices are ultimately undercut by his fatal flaw.

Sarah Snook and Matthew Macfadyen in "Succession" Finale

Sarah Snook and Matthew Macfadyen in “Succession”

Colin Hutton/HBO

Logan doesn’t suffer from such errors, nor does he let anything as silly as a conscience get in the way of his ambition. That makes it easy to see Logan as a villain and his son as not a hero, but a better option. Kendall taking over the company is linked to him overcoming his father’s manipulative power, which makes his journey oddly endearing. Even though he remains a pretty lousy person, it’s clear he turned out that way and remains that way largely because of his dad’s influences.

“Succession” took its time showing audiences how it understands the Roy family. Through the first three episodes, Kendall was a little too bro-y, a little too silly to be taken as a serious threat, which made the suspense of whether or not he could take over for his dad all but moot. Only when he mounted a coup — a coup that nearly worked — the series’ power struggle turned palpable. Kendall’s plans have been solid, and while he may not have needed to screw them up the same way twice over to define what’s holding him back from his father’s chair, the finale did solidify a sense of what the HBO drama is: It’s a fight for power, much like “Game of Thrones,” and there’s finally a worthy opponent to the king.

Grade: B

Spare Thoughts:

  • Tom (Matthew Macfadyen) getting a nod from Greg (Nicholas Braun) is the culmination of television’s weirdest, most hostile bromance that still left us wanting more from them both. When “Succession” gets its “Game of Thrones” spinoff after eight seasons, there’s no doubt which characters should be leading it.
  • The line about “tension” between the wait staff and the Roy family — dropped as everyone is quietly eating from the breakfast buffet — is also an excellent summation, illustrating the broader strain between the 1 percent and the 99 that “Succession” captures so well.
  • “You little Machiavellian fuck. I see you Greg. I like it.” — more Greg “did a business” arcs in Season 2 please.
  • As alluded to above, Kieran Culkin’s rendition of Roman’s reaction to the rocket launch exploding is… outstanding. His expression is muted enough to illustrate how little Roman cares about the people lost (or, it turns out, their thumbs). He’s not going to make a big deal about it, physically or otherwise, because he needs it not to be a big deal — otherwise, he’s in trouble, and he doesn’t want to be in trouble. Culkin’s interpretation of Roman going through all this, in a few quick seconds, is exquisite. And following it all up by literally washing his hands of the situation is the cherry on top.
  • “Wife wife wife wife wife wife.” Bless you, Tom. Can’t wait for you to come back.

“Succession” Season 1 is streaming in full on HBO, and the premium network has renewed the series for Season 2.

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