[Editor’s Note: The following review contains spoilers for “Succession” Season 3, Episode 9, “All the Bells Say.”]
Never has a ride in a luxury automobile across the Italian countryside at freaking sunset felt so agonizingly unending. Yet as the Roy siblings finally gathered to speak as honestly and directly as their abusive upbringing could allow, as they forged a bulletproof plan to wrest the company under their control, as they made a plan to “kill” (metaphorically, though literally wasn’t off the table) their toxic father once and for all — you knew it was taking too long. Time is rarely the ally of those attempting a coup, and it, along with the well-seeded betrayal of one Tom Wambsgans (Matthew Macfadyen), proved to be their undoing once more.
The same could not be said for the “Succession” hive, who jumped all too quickly on last week’s haunting final shot — and any seemingly related clues — to predict a death that never was. Did Kendall (Jeremy Strong) drown in the pool? Is he already dead, and if not, would he be by the end of “All the Bells Say”? The title, pulled from John Berryman’s poem “Dream Song 29” — the same poem that supplied names for each of the previous season finales — is a snippet of the line, “All the bells say: too late.” But it wasn’t too late for Kendall. He did nearly drown, but Episode 9 sees him taking baby steps toward recovery. Shiv (Sarah Snook) and even Roman (Kieran Culkin) rally around their brother in Episode 9, restoring his sense of purpose just enough to confront Logan (Brian Cox)… only to learn they’re all too late. Logan, once again, has won.
Or so he claims. The weeklong build-up to the finale worked as a microcosm of reactions seen throughout Season 3. Each new episode launched new theories (some of which were encouraged by HBO marketing). Yes, keeping Kendall out of the Episode 9 teaser-trailer played into speculation that he died in the penultimate episode, but as far back as the premiere, characters were being shifted between promotional posters to tease various power pairings. Whose side is everyone on? Do we even know? And besides Kendall, is someone cooperating with the Department of Justice investigation?
As fun and diverting as some of these questions can be (and I took great delight imagining Tom wearing a wire), “Succession” has never been that kind of show. The surprises are based in absurd situations — like the masterful fifth episode, when Logan’s missing medication makes him “piss mad” and sends his minions scurrying — and indelible character development. Take the Season 2 finale’s major “twist”: Kendall turning on Logan in the press conference. Without re-litigating the whole affair, the motivation for Kendall’s choice is all onscreen. It’s in the discussion he has with Logan when asked to take the fall for the company’s scandal, and it’s layered in throughout the season, as Kendall seeks to do whatever will make his father happy. For a while, it’s being his errand boy. In the end, it’s proving he’s a killer.
In the Season 3 finale, the most notable twist has been similarly layered in all year via character building. Tom is unhappy at work. Tom is unhappy in his marriage. Tom is pushed to the brink like never before, obsessing over an impending prison sentence (at least partially orchestrated by his wife) and deciding “not to tarry too much with hope.” Outside that same diner, he tells Kendall, “Having been around a bit, my hunch is that you’re going to get fucked. Because I’ve seen you get fucked a lot, and I’ve never seen Logan get fucked once.” So why did Tom share Shiv’s plan of a takeover with Logan? Because he believes Logan will win, yes, but also because Shiv literally told him “I don’t love you” last week, and he finally “listened to things [she] says directly to [his] face.” There is a lingering question of how long Tom has been feeding Logan information, but he’s had ample reason to since his beachside conversation with Shiv last season (at least).
Therein lies the beauty of “Succession” Season 3: For all the complaints about it being repetitive — that the pieces keep moving around the board, but no one gets knocked off — its emotional arcs are incredibly precise, pointed, and harrowing. Real growth is evident every season, if not every episode. That growth isn’t positive. We’re not watching the Roy kiddos become better people. We’re seeing how their father, their parents, their lifestyle, and their business affects their mentality and their actions. They are trapped, so there will be cycles, but they’re still changing. Part of me thinks the only reason theories exist for “Succession” is because otherwise the show would be too bruising to dwell on — and people do want to tarry a bit in this very painful show about hurt people hurting people (because it’s also one of TV’s most reliably hysterical comedies).
Graeme Hunter / HBO
Take, for instance, Kendall’s back alley confession. Invited to talk about the business by Shiv, Kendall gets one look at the caterers taking out the trash and has to sit down. The memory of the server who who died in the Season 1 finale is too raw, and he tells his typically affectless family that “there’s something really wrong with me.” As Kendall spills his guts — “I’m bad,” “I killed a kid,” “It’s fucking lonely,” “I’m all apart” — Shiv tries to stay with him, offering what reassurance she can while taking his despair seriously (or, at least, seriously enough to get him back in the game). But Roman can’t go that far. “Lighten up, glum glum” and “Who hasn’t clipped the odd kid with Porsche?” are the best solace he can offer. (My god, Roman.)
Watching the three of them talk is like watching the three parts of “Succession” negotiate for space. Shiv is trying to save the company (a near-constant and easy-to-appreciate source of drama). Roman can’t stop himself from cracking jokes (everyone loves a good comedy). And Kendall is lying in between them both, broken, begging to be acknowledged — the shattered core of the Roy family and the Roy family business, the barely breathing consequences of both overlapping entities. Like Roman, looking directly at that much anguish can be uncomfortable; Kendall just wants out, which is the closest he’s come to doing what’s best for him, and even that simple request gets shot down. His dad denied it last week, and this week he has to buy back into the business if he wants to bond with his siblings.
Kendall hasn’t been in this place before. Suicidal thoughts have long been pulsing through his head, but he never did anything public enough to merit an intervention. Roman, too, hasn’t been here before. Always the black sheep, expected to fuck-up because he so often did, Roman ascended to his dream spot next to Logan in Season 3 — only to side with Kendall and Shiv instead? The Roy kids have never been this united; not as adults anyway, and Roman’s remark about “water pistols in Bali” (where they all agreed to shoot their father, only for Roman to end up firing alone) implies their distrust goes back to the beginning. Could they have conquered Logan had they found similar ground earlier in the season, when they met in Kendall’s kids’ bedroom? Maybe, but they had to go through everything they went through in Season 3 to establish that level of trust.
Now the question becomes: Will it last? In the face of adversity (to put it kindly), can Kendall, Shiv, and Roman navigate a path forward together, or will they fall back to their old ways? After Logan hangs his family out to dry, Lukas Matsson (Alexander Skarsgård) is on the cusp of taking the reins at Waystar Gojo (or whatever they call the new company). Kendall sees the board clearly, it seems, but who knows what he’s capable of at this point. Roman turns to Gerri (J. Smith-Cameron) for a last-ditch stay of execution, and she stays true to her interests. (Never end up against Gerri, folks.) Shiv takes even less pleasure in the faux-comfort from her husband, as Tom plays dumb and puts an unwelcome arm around his furious wife. The look in Shiv’s eyes promises to make “The War of the Roses” look like “Love, Actually” come Season 4, but little else is teased. Audiences have to sit in the defeat and think about the man who would do this to his own family. Or, on the contrary, should the Roy children be forced to “make their own pile”? Do they deserve the company founded by their father? Did they earn it simply because, at one point, it was promised to each of them?
Those answers aren’t hidden in a puzzle. They aren’t hidden at all. “Succession” presents a no-win scenario for everyone, even Logan. Well before the Roy children walk into his Italian war room carrying “guns” that “turned into sausages” the second they were bested, there was no love to be found there. Just a bitter old man, adding another “bill” to his pile because he doesn’t know what else to do. But the kids are similarly disillusioned. They think they’ll find happiness in the top chair, too, since that’s what their father raised them to believe. It’s why, to open the episode, they take their Monopoly game so seriously, yet they’re still fine with Shiv cheating. They think if you can rig the game in your favor, then you deserve to win. In reality, there are no winners. Just an evil company on its last legs and a broken family who can’t escape each other.
Shortly before the board game, right at the top of the finale, Logan is reading a book to his grandson. In it, Mog the cat is so tired she wants to sleep forever — so she does, simple as that… except for a little part of her that stays awake because she just has to see what happens next. In the moment, Mog seems like a stand-in for Kendall, who fell asleep in the pool and nearly never woke up. But Logan is a little like Mog, too — refusing to bow out completely, even when his body is failing him. The Roys kids fit, as well — too curious to take the money and run, even when they’re so very tired of their dad’s games. And then there’s us, the viewers. After three seasons of tragedy, anyone could be weary of these unwinnable wars. But I can’t wait to see what happens next.
Graeme Hunter / HBO
“Do you want to make a deal with the devil?”
Rarely is such an offer telegraphed so clearly, yet Tom makes no effort to disguise his motives in offering a renewed alliance — a proposal, if you will — with his chosen Sporus. And Greg accepts! Imagine! Saying yes to that statement with a smile, no less! Tempted by becoming “the bottom of the top,” our aspiring prince (or king?) (or grand duchy?) commits to Nero, even with the allusion to castration, saying, “What am I going to do with a soul anyway?” What a crushing sentiment. What an inspiring reunion. I hate this for Greg and Tom individually — this is as doomed a union as any other on “Succession” — yet I love it so much for all of us. Long live Nero and Sporus. Long may they reign.
The A+ F-Bomb (Tie)
“We just walked in on mom and dad fucking us.” – Shiv, astutely summing up how Logan and Caroline (Harriet Walter) screwed their children out of their inheritance.
“Fuck it. How bad can it be?” – Willa (Justine Lupe), with what may very well be the worst-ever acceptance of marriage.
Best Line that Could Still Air on ATN
“I have some beef with Greenpeace. Long story, but… they’re bad.” – Greg, continuing his one-man attack on the protectors of our planet.
“Succession” Season 3 is available to stream in full via HBO Max.