wed 19/06/2024

Succession Season Four finale, Sky Atlantic review - a glorious bonfire of the vanities | reviews, news & interviews

Succession Season Four finale, Sky Atlantic review - a glorious bonfire of the vanities

Succession Season Four finale, Sky Atlantic review - a glorious bonfire of the vanities

The Roy family saga comes to a satisfyingly bruising end

Half-corporate snake, half-buffoon: Matthew Macfadyen as Tom HBO/Sky

Hey-hey! Alright! The standard greeting of Kendall Roy will be much missed, along with all the other regular joys of Succession. It wasn’t always 100% perfect, thank goodness, it was all too human: changeable, moody, ultimately self-serving, just like its characters, especially as it powered to a climax.

But its finale was television writing at its best, daring to slow down, even veer towards sentimentality, before hustling its audience to the finish line with a series of bruising twists and satisfying emotional contortions (a few spoilers lie ahead). Inside Waystar's glass palace the action was heated, but the showrunners’ grip was icy cool.

They have always known how to pace this series, which comes at you like waves of nausea, calming before the next onslaught. After the episode nine dramatics of Logan’s funeral, suddenly we were a private-jet flight away in the relative peace of the Caribbean, at the leaky beachside house owned by the siblings’ mordant English mother, Caroline (Harriet Walter), where Roman (Kieran Culkin) fled to nurse the literal wounds he received from pointlessly fighting demonstrators outside Royco’s HQ. 

But sympathy for the Roys has a short shelf life

What followed was the only scene in all four seasons where the siblings displayed an unforced tenderness towards each other, uniting behind Kendall (Jeremy Strong) in their bid to keep the family firm. Kendall actually broke into a radiant smile, gasp! He playfully patted his head with a wooden spoon! He joined in the game “making a meal fit for a king” that clearly had its roots in younger, happier times, when the three’s rivalries didn’t have the power to make society’s tectonic plates move. Tabasco, cocoa powder, milk, raw eggs, Shiv's spit… Everything in the fridge was blended into an excremental sludge that Kendall agreed to drink; what he didn’t down ended up poured over his head. It was a great metaphor for what his life had been, and what was about to happen to him.

This was the moment the water recedes from the beach before the tsunami hits. You almost felt sorry for the siblings with their fatally poor grasp of hubris, just as you did when earlier Shiv (Sarah Snook) was planning her future as the US CEO of the new Gojo-owned Waystar and blithely promised her estranged husband Tom (Matthew Macfadyen) a big role in it. But sympathy for the Roys has a short shelf life. In a tellingly phrased question, she asked Tom for a “real conversation”: did he see “any positives” in their ailing marriage? The bankruptcy of the Roy family's business school vocabulary, where every emotion is transactional, couldn’t have been clearer.

It was an episode of several “real conversations”. For once, Tom, half-corporate snake, half-buffoon, didn’t give a reflex yes-man answer to Shiv’s question and responded ruminatively that he “didn’t know”. As Shiv had just told Gojo’s boss, Lukas Matsson (Alexander Skarsgard), that Tom “will suck the biggest dick in the room”, you felt Tom was finally resisting, even outflanking her with his honesty. Indeed, you could see his triumph in the finale as his finest hour. It was also his lowest ebb, the brutal fruits of his toadying and shiftiness. Macfadyen’s face visibly hardened as he exerted his power over Shiv, over the hapless Greg, over all the Waystar crowd. He was ready to be Matsson’s “pain-sponge”, as he had been Logan’s and Shiv’s. Shiv, too, would reveal just what she was prepared to tolerate in the name of survival, Lady Macbeth in a chauffeured limo, her hand resting on, but not actually holding, her stoney-faced husband’s. The siblings had spent so much time ripping each other to shreds, they hadn't noticed the cuckoo cheerily feeding in their nest.

Kieran Culkin in SuccessionTo say Kieran Culkin (pictured left) had a good innings in Succession is an understatement. He seemed to inhabit Roman in an impossibly total way, and to learn that he supplied a lot of his own quickfire dialogue is no surprise. But he dug deeper than acid one-liners. At Logan’s funeral, in front of a vast congregation of the powerful (and the future president), he reduced Roman to an overflowing bowl of inconsolable misery. No promise of future gain could stop the flow. At the siblings' pow-wow, shockingly, Roman crumpled in Kendall’s arms, much as Kendall had gone, crying, into his father’s hug at the end of Season One.

But Roman turned out to be the only Roy with something approaching clear-sightedness, though it was the bastard child of his cynicism and his warped mindset. The Roy empire was “bits of glue, broken shows, phoney news,” he told Kendall, “It’s nothing, nothing, we are bullshit,” this last a summation Logan might have approved of. But he didn't entirely believe it, and his vanity was unassuaged. He headed off to a barstool and a martini, a half-smile flickering on his face before it became a sad, sour mask again. A world of pain waited unexplored behind it.

Jeremy Strong, too, continued his assault on our softer feelings as the Ken-Doll, almost tragic, sadly ridiculous, the zombie-like rejected son trudging like a little toy soldier through the outsized interior of his NYC offices. His frequent bouts of staring into vast open spaces – the desert, the Manhattan sky from scores of floors up, the sea – didn’t suggest good things about his future mental health. In the very last shot, the figure of Logan’s “best-pal" bodyguard lurked protectively behind him.

What was it all for? Logan’s business life was reduced for us to a swivel chair and framed portrait of him with Ronald Reagan. At his flat were tablefuls of fancy glassware and racks of sports coats for the family and hangers-on to lay claim to, a visual correlative of their loss. HIs children had waged an internecine war for political and financial ascendancy; now they were stickering vases and occasional tables. Their eldest brother, Connor, and his former high-class-hooker wife had bought Logan’s apartment; a gum-chewing freaky Swede was buying their family company; and Kendall’s big bad secret surfaced and holed all his last fantasies about himself. There was a pungent, rewarding aroma of chickens coming home to roost, mixed with the acrid tang of a bonfire of the vanities. We had witnessed the fall of Valhalla, the death spasms of a dynasty. Now a new baby Roy was on the way, though it would be called Wambsgans.

The last word, as always, went to Nicholas Britell’s exceptional score, here transformed for the final scene into an exultant major-key baroque version of the lighter season-two theme, a key that resolved all past tensions, though not for the Roys. (Fans of the music should check out Beethoven's piano sonata No 8 in C minor...) Then for the end credits it segued into a celestial choir, in a tongue-in-cheek requiem for a lost patriarch, business empire and television milestone. Thankfully, Succession is so rich, it rewards being watched all over again.

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