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'Succession' returns for a fourth and final season of family back-stabbing

<em>Succession</em> has always been a sharply written show, but there is a delicious restraint in this final season that feels new. Above, Sarah Snook as Siobhan "Shiv" Roy.
Claudette Barius
/
HBO
Succession has always been a sharply written show, but there is a delicious restraint in this final season that feels new. Above, Sarah Snook as Siobhan "Shiv" Roy.

Succession began on Logan Roy's birthday, with his first medical emergency. It had him nearly dying in his own helicopter, and it raised the question of what might come after Logan. Who would take over Waystar Royco? Who would run things? What would Logan have wanted? Since then, we've learned that this was an utter misdirect: Succession is not about following Logan Roy at all. It is about surviving Logan Roy. Can he be endured? Can his caustic influence be undone? Can he ever be outwitted, outplayed, or outlasted?

Despite dialogue so acerbic that it puckers the cast's mouths like a salt and vinegar chip, and despite the dynamism of performances that harden, soften and harden again, stasis has always stalked the story of the Roys. Kendall, after all, has been vanquished in four separate rebellions against his father, each time ramming his quavering, sad-boy face into a different immovable object.

At the board meeting in Season 1, it was weather and midtown traffic. At Shiv and Tom's wedding, it was the dual grip of his own addiction and his cowardice in the face of consequences. After the press conferenceat the end of Season 2, it was systemic indifference to the wrongdoing of the billionaire class. And at the end of Season 3, when his siblings finally joined him, it was Logan's legend itself. Tom had seen Kendall lose to his father before, believed he would lose again, and wound up bringing about that result in an effort to end up on the winning team (and spite his wife). Kendall had thought that an orderly approach could work, that the brutal truth could work, or that a united front could work. They didn't.

'Succession' can look like it's stuck in a loop, but the way this conflict between Logan and his three youngest kids changes in shape but never in result served to establish the show's central truth: Logan always wins.

Succession can look like it's stuck in a loop, but the way this conflict between Logan and his three youngest kids changes in shape but never in result served to establish the show's central truth: Logan always wins. If that's the case, though, there's a story problem with one final season to go. If the kids do finally beat him, you've cheated on that truth. If they stop trying to beat him, the conflict is over. If they fail again, the family has just made one last round through the same cycle. And the last thing Succession could ever end in is any sort of compromise. So what's a storyteller to do?

Critically, though, atthe end of the third season, something else changed in a way it never had. It wasn't the dynamic between Shiv, Roman and Kendall and their father one-on-one, but the dynamics among the three of them. Logan, even in winning again, had become so galled at their effort to defy him that he took his eye off the ball. He gave up his greatest advantage, the one he'd been using to control them all their lives: playing them against each other. He told them all that they were fools. He had spent decades trapping them in separate emotional cells and giving them different information and different promises. Now, he had effectively shut them in a room together and walked out.

Wisely, the fourth season begins a while later, rather than dwelling on the immediate aftermath, which seems to have played out as one would expect. Family relationships? Busted. Shiv's marriage? A wreck. The sale to GoJo? About to close. What's more, it's Logan's birthday again.

We find Roman, Shiv and Kendall hanging out at a compound somewhere beautiful, looking at mountains and blue sky through enormous windows that emphasize their opened-up world — particularly compared to the dark-wood family home, where Logan is celebrating another trip around the sun with his usual joyless scowl. The siblings are working on a terrible but brutally plausible idea for a new company, and their fixation is mostly on making fun of proposed logos. They are eyeing each other suspiciously now and then, wondering whether anyone is going to break with the group, but they are together, truly, more than we've ever seen. Meanwhile, only two members of the family remain in Logan's circle: Tom, who proved his loyalty to his father-in-law by shivving Shiv, and Greg, who was won over by Tom's appeal to the utter irrelevance of the human soul.

So while his kids are still trying to survive Logan Roy, they are oddly, suddenly, liberated from him.

Maybe. Sort of.

The first episode of this final season (of the four offered to critics) asks a new question, and hints at the way this story problem will be solved and stasis avoided: Without their father setting them against each other in the way he always has, and without the dynamic they have all known since birth that has prevented them — Shiv, Kendall, Roman and Connor — from developing durable and meaningful relationships with anyone as adults, who are these people? What will drive them, if not that competitiveness for his approval? And without them as his playthings, will Logan somehow manage to ... miss them? Can torturing Greg and being exasperated by Tom ever give Logan anything close to the visceral pleasure he gets from emotionally abusing his children?

The first episode also introduces an important choice that comes back over and over in the first few episodes: the comedy and the tension that's inherent in the unseen. There is a discussion between Logan and Greg that sounds so funny, the kind of exchange that the writers would dig into and that the actors could devour like a Christmas ham — but we don't see it, we only hear Greg describe it. There is a series of telephone conversations where we seem to be watching the wrong side, the less important side — the listening side rather than the speaking side. Information arrives first via a telling flicker in the eye of a person who's receiving it, who only later makes explicit what was said. Succession has always been a sharply written show, but there is a delicious restraint in this season that feels new.

To do less, to say less, and to leave out scenes that could have been dramatic or comedic or both, requires confidence in both the writers and the cast. Jeremy Strong, Sarah Snook, Kieran Culkin and Alan Ruck have in common a talent for summoning both childlike, love-me expressions and loathsome, snide, ice-cold ones. They can sneer and snivel with only seconds separating the two.

And doing without much in the way of contact between Logan and his children in the early going requires him to be surrounded by people who give his character shape. There's Tom, and there's Greg, but critically, this season also sees new opportunities for Logan's cadre of suit-wearing opportunists played by the genius supporting cast. Gerri (J. Smith-Cameron) (whose relationship with Roman seems to be far less complex to her than it is to him) has managed to stick around even after the Photo That Shall Not Be Named, and she remains a ruthlessly efficient cipher. Karl (David Rasche) and Frank (Peter Friedman) continue to be the dry-witted Weasel-Dee and Weasel-Dum of corporate goobers, and poor Hugo (Fisher Stevens) and Karolina (Dagmara Dominczyk) are over and over forced into the position of translating this family's disasters for the entire world. They are uniformly divine when called upon in new ways.

This is a season the creators are holding close to the vest for obvious reasons. But in the early going, it's off to exactly the emotionally complicated, darkly funny, backstabbing, bantering, betraying, bewitching, tragicomic punch-packing start that the people who have followed the Roys since Kendall first sang along in the back seat of a limo are craving.

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Linda Holmes is a pop culture correspondent for NPR and the host of Pop Culture Happy Hour. She began her professional life as an attorney. In time, however, her affection for writing, popular culture, and the online universe eclipsed her legal ambitions. She shoved her law degree in the back of the closet, gave its living room space to DVD sets of The Wire, and never looked back.