Before the deluge hits next week, after the Succession series finale “With Open Eyes” airs on May 28, here are some thoughts before the show ends right on time. No television show can end too early, unless it’s cancelled before things can be resolved. Jesse Armstrong’s four-season HBO hit is one of the most popular and acclaimed “prestige” shows of the last decade, and depending on how the ongoing WGA strike goes, and how it effects streamers, it may be the last of its kind. Four seasons, 10 episodes each (nine in season three, a pandemic year). A writer’s room, but small; Armstrong’s voice, along with Mark Mylod’s direction, is evident even in episodes they’re not credited for (Armstrong keeps a close eye on all scripts as show runners, and there’s only been a few moments in the series when it felt like someone else was being tapped in—in fact, it was just a few episodes ago, during an exchange that ends with Fisher Stevens saying “We’re snakes on a plane”).
In its 39 episodes, Succession is one of the most consistently strong television shows of the last 25 years. Unlike so much TV, and many films, the writers are able to say so much with so little, so few words that come like gut punches: Brian Cox’s bodyguard warning Jeremy Strong “I know you,” referring to the Chappaquiddick incident that ends season one; Cox telling Kieran Culkin “that’s not something I do,” referring to the ending of the previous episode where he smacked his son in the face; and all of the close-ups and inserts that allow actors like Strong, Cox, Sarah Snook, Matthew Macfadyen, Zoë Winters, James Cromwell, and Scott Nicholson as the bodyguard, looking lost and vulnerable for the first time in the series moments after his boss died mid-air on a private plane.
The only thing preventing Succession from entering the pantheon is the horrific handheld jittery zooming camerawork, reminiscent of a lightweight network comedy like The Office or Arrested Development. Perhaps without the goofy zooms, the creators are worried the audience won’t understand that this is a comedy (to be fair, even Strong didn’t think it was a comedy, was “worried people would think it’s a comedy”). At the same time, the idea that Culkin breaking down at his dad’s funeral, unable to deliver the eulogy he prepared for, is simply “hilarious” rather than pathetic, sad, and understandable—all of the binary reactions to Succession betray how those that call the Roys “horrible people” would act just as callously in their position.
Who wouldn’t? Born into wealth, that’s the water you’re swimming in. The “kids” on Succession are cruel, self-centered, and proudly ignorant, but again, what do you expect? That all rich kids are going to run away and rebel, like James Cromwell’s rejection of his own brother? (Another great note about multi-faceted characters on the show: Cromwell may have given a moving speech in the penultimate episode, but keep in mind, this a guy that disinherited his own grandson, and is a multi-millionaire himself). And not all “yachters” like Justine Lupe are “heartless gold diggers.” Another great example of the show’s (unique in 2023) ability to show nuanced characters is having Lupe get her sweet wedding moment, followed in the next episode by her measuring the drapes at the Roy mansion at Logan’s wake.
Before it ends, I’ll say again: Succession is not Shakespeare. It doesn’t touch most movies. At four seasons, it’s too long and unwieldy to ever warrant revisiting, unlike David Lynch’s Twin Peaks: The Return. Like so many other HBO and some Netflix shows, Succession is the Chipotle of TV, gussied up and “prestige,” but nutritionally no different than disposable network television. I’m glad it’s almost over so I won’t “have to watch” anymore.
—Follow Nicky Smith on Twitter: @nickyotissmith