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‘Succession’ Review: Season 2 Finale Crowns a Killer and Comes for the King

A beautifully choreographed finale highlights execution over twists, as Jesse Armstrong closes out an intricate second season with authority.

HBO Succession S2  07.23.2019 Croatia S2 Ep 10 - Sc45/46 INT YACHT - OWNER'S DECK - SALON Shiv and Logan talk about Kendall  Succession S2 | Sourdough Productions, LLC Silvercup Studios East - Annex   53-16 35th St., 4th FloorLong Island City, NY 11101 Office: 718-906-3332

Brian Cox and Sarah Snook in “Succession”

Graeme Hunter / HBO

[Editor’s Note: The following review contains spoilers for the “Succession” Season 2 finale, Episode 10, “This Is Not For Tears.”]

Kendall didn’t win a kiss from daddy, so he gave him one instead.

Fredo’s kiss was the final piece of an intricate puzzle that began and ended with Kendall Roy giving an awkward press conference at the behest of his father, Logan (Brian Cox). When the season began, everyone in the Roy family just hoped Kendall could keep it together on camera for the duration of a vacation-interrupting interview, but in his latest direct address, he delivered a death blow: telling the media gathered and the world watching that he wasn’t responsible for the company’s cruise-line catastrophes — his father was. Kendall walked into the room as the family’s blood sacrifice, but he walked out as the one holding the knife.

Who would end up the unfortunate son (or daughter) drove most of the discussion leading up to Jesse Armstrong’s Season 2 finale, as the final line of the penultimate episode made it clear that someone was getting fired, sent to prison, or both. While the debate raged, it was fairly clear that Kendall was the most likely target: He’s been in a position of authority within WayStar Royco the longest. He’s not an obvious patsy like some of the other employees. (Sorry Karl, sorry Laird.) And his father doesn’t take him seriously as a successor, so he’s expendable.

But where the finale thrived was in the same arena the season consistently dominated: Even when the expected happened — Shiv (Sarah Snook) was denied the throne, Rhea (Holly Hunter) swooped in for crown, and, ultimately, Kendall stood up to his father — the impact was tremendous. Armstrong laid out the pieces well enough to reward those paying close attention and shock those with more casual viewing habits, but more importantly, he put characters first, twists second, and never betrayed the story he’s telling. It all fit into place so perfectly, and when you can make those pieces click while investing in more than just the puzzle (“Westworld,” take note), the resulting satisfaction is immense.

Just look at the finale, which aside from a long-in-the-works blow-up between Shiv and Tom (Matthew Macfadyen) was completely driven by the reveal of Logan’s sacrifice: How many signs were there that he would choose Kendall? Setting aside what we knew before boarding Conner’s nice-smelling Venetian yacht, there’s Logan’s rejection of Kendall’s idea to go make a deal with Stewy (Arian Moayed). Then there’s Logan’s dismissal of Kendall’s partner for the trip, Naomi (Annabelle Dexter-Jones), because he can’t have her around once Kendall hears the bad news. Throw in the dinner scene where every name gets put on the list except Kendall’s — which is either foreshadowing by omission for the audience, or an acknowledgement by everyone present that Kendall was the most likely choice, and they simply couldn’t bring themselves to say it — and it’s becoming unavoidable.

HBO Succession S2 07.21.2019 Croatia S2 Ep 10 - Sc 34 I/E YACHT - OWNER'S DECK - DINING AREA (DUSK 4 DUSK) Tense atmosphere before dinner, it's Kendall Succession S2 | Sourdough Productions, LLC Silvercup Studios East - Annex 53-16 35th St., 4th FloorLong Island City, NY 11101 Office: 718-906-3332

Jeremy Strong and Brian Cox in “Succession”

Graeme Hunter / HBO

Armstrong then starts dropping more obvious indicators toward the inevitable. He tells Kendall “What I oughta do, I don’t want to do,” and then meets with Shiv where they discuss their previously agreed upon route: Kendall gets the axe. He has to take the fall for the company, before the shareholders’ meeting, and they both know it.

Moreover, looking back, it was obvious he was always going to choose Kendall, even before the many seaward discussions. Not only did he and Shiv come to that choice themselves, but Logan knew his efforts to avoid it were futile. (Hence dismissing the visit to Stewy at first request, while eventually relenting for Kendall’s sake.) In his bones, he felt Kendall didn’t have the killer instinct. And when someone like Logan Roy believes that, there’s really no coming back.

Except… for this. Kendall took the news well, but everything shifted when he asked his father why not him — why couldn’t he have just been named the successor, and they avoided all these problems? “You’re not a killer,” Logan says. “You have to be a killer.” In those few moments between the words and Kendall’s kiss, he formed a plan. And you can’t have one family member kiss another when they’re at odds without bringing to mind “The Godfather: Part II,” so any viewer born before 2000 knew what that scene meant: Kendall was going to turn on his father, and he did.

But was it a mistake for Armstrong to telegraph what could be considered a twist ending? Of course not. For all the fun to be had trying to predict the erratic behavior of eccentric billionaires, “Succession” isn’t a show built on twists. It’s built on tension.

Be it the squirmy giggle fits induced by biting insults or the stomach-turning abuse inflicted by each member of the Roys, Armstrong’s satiric drama strikes a nerve at every opportunity. Each of those elements is carefully constructed to elicit a specific reaction, whether it’s Kendall’s quipping to Greg, “Sails out, nails out, bro” or Greg saving Kendall’s ass with the cruise documents he ripped out of Tom’s bonfire. “Succession” is precise, and you better believe the Season 3 war between father and son will deliver more brutal family crossfire paired with vicious takedowns of the single-minded 1 percenters. (Even that shot of Kendall walking away from the press conference carried a reminder of who the real victims were, as reporters shouted for an apology from the son who only cares about fucking over his dad.)

Or… was he proving himself? Kendall didn’t win a kiss from daddy, so he gave him one instead — a death signal to be sure, but also the only way he’d ever prove himself to be the killer his father wanted. Armstrong knew as much all along. Maybe you did, too. But didn’t it still feel great to watch it happen?

Grade: A

“Succession” is available to stream on HBO Now. Season 3 has already been ordered.

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