This article includes Succession season finale (season 4, episode 10) spoilers.
One facetious lesson to be taken from the Succession series finale is that Kendall Roy should never go anywhere near water.
Recall the drowning death of a young waiter who drove Kendall (Jeremy Strong) to get cocaine in a remote part of the English countryside and Kendall’s near-death in the family swimming pool. These are the memories that come back at the very end of the series following a brief, idyllic period where Kendall and his siblings Siobhan (Sarah Snook) and Roman (Kieran Culkin) seem to reunite in almost child-like happiness. Shiv and Roman agree to back Kendall in his bid to wrest control of Waystar Royco, the corporation once run by their late media titan father Logan Roy (Brian Cox). They are on a Caribbean beach at which they have arrived by private jets, it is night, and Roman worries about sharks but Kendall swims away, unafraid, and hoists himself up onto a wooden floating platform and waits for them. Given his past and the eerie atmosphere, I held my breath, wondering if a shark might in fact rise up and devour him.
Kendall escapes unscathed that evening and the three siblings return to New York City to take back their legacy. But water and sharks are not far behind, even on dry land. In the luxurious villa owned by their mother Caroline (Harriet Walter), to which they had retreated (“the only place in Paradise with leaks”), the three have to fend off the greedy economic advances of her new and unctuous husband Peter (Pip Torrens), who brings an unexpected guest to try and score some kind of a deal.
In the end, what brings Kendall down — and what causes the siblings to lose Waystar Royco to Lukas Matsson (Alexander Skarsgård), the Swedish billionaire — is a combination of blood and water, a metaphor for how everyone in this riveting and original series circles around — and hunts — each other. In the end, it’s Tom Wambsgans (Matthew Macfadyen) who gets to be CEO under Matsson’s control but, really, it could have been anyone — Shiv, or either of her two brothers, or anyone else from a long list of contenders. As Shiv says angrily to Tom’s face, he’s just “an empty fucking suit.” Capitalism and capital flow unimpeded, flitting from one body to the next. One monster will do just as well as another.
It is unfair to blame nature’s sharks for simply doing what they are programmed to do, and it is notable that the humans in this series — who do have choices — behave like the animals they so often stigmatize. None of the people in the nosebleed-inducing upper echelons of the Roy megacorp world know how to relate to each other except by extruding “the money, the corpuscles of life gushing around this nation, this world, filling men and women all around with desire,” as Kendall puts it in his eulogy for his father in the previous episode (season 4, episode 9).
Blood is what ties the Roy clan together, even as it also tears them apart. When Roman appears to balk at voting against Matsson in the series finale, Kendall hugs him, pretending to offer comfort and instead grinds his brother’s head so hard into his suit that the stitches on a fresh wound come undone, leaving Roman crying in pain and with blood trickling down his face, forcing him into contrition. And these are literally blood brothers.
Water returns when Shiv unexpectedly changes her mind about Kendall becoming CEO and reminds him that his part in the drowning of the waiter could come back to haunt and destroy the corporation.
All of this is monstrous behavior by the children of one of the most monstrous men on the planet (quite literally: Logan Roy commanded kings and governments with his influence). And yet, the greatest strength of Succession (it garnered 2.3 million viewers in the first episode of this last season alone, and the numbers rose after that) is that it has consistently presented one of the most clear-eyed representations of capitalism, unflinching in its refusal to sift through the humans who occupy this world in order to find the good capitalists and separate them from the bad ones.
Many commentators and viewers have remarked that Ewan Roy (James Cromwell), Logan’s older brother who never misses a chance to criticize him, is the much-needed moral center of the show, a counterpoint to his monstrous brother. In the penultimate episode, Ewan delivered a fiery — what shall we call it, an anti-eulogy? — at Logan’s funeral, a mass world event where political leaders, including the new (putative) president of the United States Jeryd Mencken (Justin Kirk), are gathered not simply to mourn and pay tribute but to see how the Roy heirs might handle a world without a man whom Shiv refers to, aptly, as a “world of a father.”
In fact, Ewan’s presence and his words — and his appearance in the last episode — only help to prove Succession’s central point: under capitalism, the monsters, the sharks, aren’t just the ones like Logan whom we might see in plain sight. Capitalism needs the contradictions and hypocrisies of people like Ewan to sustain itself.
Ewan forced himself onto the stage at Logan’s funeral to denounce his brother as a man who had “wrought the most terrible things … a man who has, here and there, drawn in the edges of the world. Now and then, darkened the skies a little, closed men’s hearts.” Referring to the ways in which Logan made his millions, Ewan continued, “He was mean, and he made but a mean estimation of the world. And he fed a certain kind of meagerness in men.” Ewan does all this even after revealing the most painful and mostly unknown details of Logan’s life, including his lifelong and tragically held belief that he killed his baby sister by transmitting polio to her. This, as is clear from their stunned and shocked faces, is new knowledge to Logan’s children.
“What kind of people would stop a brother speaking for the sake of a share price?” Ewan asks of the funeral attendees. But we might well ask: what kind of man reveals such tragic details to a man’s children — no matter how monstrous they are — publicly, in front of a world of television cameras, for the first time?
It fell to Kendall to recover the day — whatever comes after Ewan’s words has to present what he calls “the other side,” to rally investors and reignite their faith that the Roys are not about to destroy the corporation amidst family infighting but to, yes, draw in the edges of the world. It’s Kendall, then, who takes up the mantle of Chief Mourner, and in the plainest but most effective language, makes a gigantic pitch for capitalism itself, couched inside a magnificently wrought eulogy. Looking at his uncle, sitting glaring at him from a pew in the front rows, Kendall says, “And now people might want to tend and prune the memory of him to denigrate that force. That magnificent, awful force of him. But my God, I hope it’s in me.”
What Ewan regards as horrific (and it is) is in fact exactly what guarantees Waystar Royco’s success, according to Kendall’s words. In the end, Kendall is deeply successful in bringing back the investors and Mencken, watching keenly, to reassure them that he has the power to revive the company. But, ironically, the point he makes is that the corporation is robust — and that it can survive with or without him. Any monster will do.
In an interview with The Guardian three years ago, Cromwell claimed he had successfully pressured the creator of Succession, Jesse Armstrong, to make his character oppositional to the rest of the family — and especially to his brother and the show’s central, towering figure, Logan Roy — on account of the character’s politics and the damage he did to the world.
Cromwell is known for his animal rights and other social justice activism and clearly drew a parallel between the fictional show and real life. “I’ve played crooked characters, but it’s one thing to be the bad guy and chew the scenery up when it’s a totally fictive situation. This is not a fictive situation. There’s a family living in Australia that [they] epitomize.”
In a nod to Cromwell’s oppositional force, Armstrong (in season 2, episode 8) has Ewan describe his brother (who appears to be heavily modeled off Rupert Murdoch), as possibly “worse than Hitler.” “In terms of the lives that will be lost by his whoring for the climate change deniers, there’s a very persuasive argument to be made,” Ewan says in a scene to his grandson Greg Hirsch (Nicholas Braun) who is part of the family entourage gathered to celebrate Logan’s life and career in his Scottish hometown.
Cromwell went on to tell The Guardian that “we are all aware that we live in a society where there is such wealth inequality that we would sort of like to know: ‘Who are these people?’ I think what Jesse is saying is: ‘Take a good look.’… It is a criminal enterprise.”
Consider now, the fleeting moments where we see Ewan’s face in both the season finale and in the previous episode. As Kendall delivers his eulogy, looking pointedly at him, Ewan’s face is a combination of disgust and anger, and also shock. While it’s tempting to see this as the reaction of a man horrified that his attempt to thwart a major force of capitalism has not succeeded, we might consider instead that it is here, finally, that we see Ewan as the small, mean and pompous man he has always been.
We might think about how well Ewan fits into the meanness of the universe he has just described, and that his acknowledgement that he too may be mean does little to erase the force of that spite. Ewan has spent all his life eviscerating Logan as the monster who wrought a heartless world, even though he too is incredibly rich, worth $250 million, because of his brother’s corporation — on whose board he occupies a prominent seat. And despite all his blustering about capitalism, he doesn’t exactly step away from all the money (and the harm he claims it does, which it does) — and doesn’t hesitate to use an enormous, promised inheritance to make his own grandson Greg dance for it before finally actually disinheriting him. Instead of using his fortune to control people, he could have easily given away, say, even $200 million to organizations and lived ostentatiously for the rest of his life. Instead, he is the most flint-hearted among the lot and only shows up to needle and bruise Logan at every opportunity. As for his politics: He’s at best a tepid liberal, and never articulates a critique of U.S. values which he actually upholds. And, as we see, in the end, he’s not much more than a placater of capitalism: voting in his usual pompous way, he supports Kendall not with a simple “No” (to Matsson’s bid) but with a short speech about how it’s important to “first do no harm.” This completely evades the fact that capitalism does nothing but harm.
We are fortunate that Armstrong never took Cromwell’s admonition/demand so seriously that he let the show become a standard-issue moral fable. Instead, Succession ended as brilliantly as it did because it correctly pointed out that capitalism is an abstract, mobile entity, a shape-shifter doing what it must to survive. The Roy children are, in the end, surrounded by faceless, blurry suits with barely identifiable faces — Frank and Karl and Hugo all fade into each other. In the car heading away from his triumphant investiture, we see that Tom has managed to persuade Shiv to join him, and they hold hands like a Royal couple who hate each other but must practice affection in private before they show any to the public. Matsson, at least for now, emerges in a sharp mustard-colored turtleneck and dark brown pantsuit, a fashion choice he can indulge in because he’s the billionaire in the room who now owns everything — but even his team is clad in the same attire of dark clothing. Kendall cries that “this” is all he knows how to do — but he has never been tested in anything else: like a baby shark, told by his father at the age of 7 that he would inherit it all, he has grown into a role that he never had to question.
In the movie Alien and its sequels, the zoomorph enters various bodies, staying in stasis until it is ready to burst forth once again. Succession showed us with startling clarity that capitalism doesn’t need specific individuals to carry its charge: any monster will do, including the one who speaks in such anodyne terms of “doing no harm.”
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Yasmin Nair is a writer, academic, and activist. She’s an editor at large at Current Affairs, on the editorial board of the Anarchist Review of Books, co-founder of the radical queer editorial collective Against Equality and the (Volunteer) Policy Director of Gender JUST. She’s currently working on her book Strange Love: A History of Social Justice And Why It Needs To Die. Her writing can be found at www.yasminnair.com.