‘Succession’ Finale Delivers a Masterful, Feel-Bad Ending
This post contains spoilers for the Succession series finale, “With Open Eyes.”
A lot happens over the course of the 90-minute Succession series finale, “With Open Eyes.” Alliances are made, broken, and made again. Votes happen, fortunes rise and fall, losers become winners, and vice versa.
For all intents and purposes, though, the only part that matters is a five-minute sequence toward the end.
Up until then, “With Open Eyes” is an almost shockingly chill episode of this show. Yes, there are insults aplenty, and the requisite amount of backstabbing. But a lot of it is just the three main Roy siblings(*) getting on the same page one last time, telling jokes, making plans, even shedding tears together. For a very long time, it seems as if the denouement of Jesse Armstrong’s saga of the absolute worst of the One Percent might be heading for… a happy ending?
(*) Connor’s big farewell involves him trying to give away most of Logan’s remaining possessions, inviting everyone to make “two sticker perambulating circuits” to claim what they want, so Willa can then redecorate the apartment. And even that is mainly a set-up for a joke not involving Connor at all, when we see Tom place one of those stickers on Cousin Greg’s forehead, choosing to keep him even after the rest of the family has been booted from the company.
But of course, this can’t be how things would end, and it isn’t. If we have learned one thing from four seasons of this great show, it is that anytime someone seems like they’re up, they are soon to be down. The only exception to this rule was Logan Roy, but he’s enjoying his eternal slumber over in Cat Food Ozymandias. His children are just as susceptible to the roller coaster of fate and dramatic necessity as everyone else on the series, so of course it’s not going to end as well for them as they all think when they arrive at Waystar headquarters for the big board vote.
For a few minutes, though, it almost feels nice to fantasize about a world in which they win. Yes, these are among the most despicable characters ever depicted on television. Yes, Roman just tried to help a Nazi get elected president(*). Yes, Kendall killed a guy — and we will get back to that shortly — chose his company over the safety and emotional well-being of his daughter, and has generally destroyed anything he’s ever touched. Yes, Shiv can be just as toxic as her brothers, if not more, and recently chose her own professional fortunes over country. They have done nothing to engender our sympathy, other than having the terrible fortune to be the children of Logan Roy and Lady Caroline Collingwood.
(*) Because this season took place over a span of a couple of weeks, we do not get to find out the ultimate results of the election. Perhaps Shiv’s comments about the “hiccup” with the Wisconsin results is just her way of taunting Willa, or perhaps Mencken will lose in the courts. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter: Mencken is a symptom of the disease Logan unleashed on the world, rather than the disease itself.
But that last part does an awful lot of the heavy-lifting, doesn’t it? However monstrously each of them has behaved over these four seasons, we know they have been damned to be this way by both nature and nurture. Logan wouldn’t have it any other way. While the siblings are at Caroline’s Caribbean vacation home, trying to figure out which of them should be CEO if they can outmaneuver Lukas Matsson, Roman claims it should be him, because Logan told him so not long before he died. Kendall’s story trumps his little brother’s — emotionally, if not contractually — because Logan told him the exact same thing when Kendall was only seven years old, inside a Candy Kitchen in Bridgehampton. Kendall, who is more desperate than any of them to take over for their father, at first tells this story as a way of establishing the job as his birthright. But even as he’s saying it, he recognizes what a horrible thing that was for any parent to say to a child at that age. “He shouldn’t have done it,” he acknowledges. It is an incredibly vulnerable moment in the midst of a stretch where he is otherwise unapologetic in his insistence that he is the only choice to run the company if they win the vote. And it’s enough of a reminder of the impossible circumstances in which the three of them grew up — abandoned by a mother who never wanted them, raised by a man who saw them as disappointments at best, playthings at worst — that it’s possible for a moment or twelve to forget about all their abundant past sins and hope that they can finally just get along.
And for a while, they do! Roman and Shiv bust out note-perfect impressions of Kendall — which Kieran Culkin and Sarah Snook must have had plenty of experience doing off-camera over the years — before yielding to his desire to be crowned king. The scene in their mom’s kitchen, where Shiv and Roman mix up a disgusting smoothie for Kendall, while Roman defiantly licks his stepfather’s cheese(*), is by far the happiest and at peace we’ve seen all three of them to be in each other’s company. (Even the mausoleum scene from last week’s episode had Roman still spiraling from the funeral, even as Kendall, Shiv, and Connor cracked jokes.) The siblings’ high spirits continue back in New York, including a lovely, sad scene where Connor shows them a video of a recent dinner with Logan — a dinner they were not invited to after their failed coup at the end of last season — and they get to witness their father at his most charming and relaxed. The man on Connor’s TV isn’t the brute of myth who damned his children to keep pushing the same rock up the same hill, day after day, year after year. He’s just… their dad, and as we see each of them begin to cry, and to reach out to one another, we’re reminded of the part of Shiv’s eulogy where she talked about how great it felt in those rare moments when Logan shined his light on them.
(*) Not a euphemism, though with Roman, one never knows for sure.
It is a magic trick — one last one conjured up by Succession creator Jesse Armstrong and director Mark Mylod — that, for a long part of the finale, it becomes almost easy to root for Kendall’s latest harebrained scheme to work? Maybe, we can let ourselves imagine, with Logan out of the picture and the siblings finally on the same page, they can actually do this right. Maybe we spent four years down in the darkest depths of humanity just so, like Shiv, we can properly appreciate the sunlight when it comes poking through?
But of course that’s not how it’s going to go, because that’s never how it’s going to go. Kendall Roy will forever be Wile E. Coyote trying to kill the Road Runner, always plummeting down to the hard ground below upon realizing that he has walked off yet another cliff. And, just like every other time, it will be entirely his own fault.
Which brings us to those five minutes. I could write several thousand words about the rest of “With Open Eyes” — about Greg selling out Tom in a futile bid to make “The Quad” into reality, about Karolina trying to throw Hugo overboard, about Kerry as a second-tier mourner, and about Roman sobbing in Kendall’s arms before the board meeting(*) — but that scene is the one Succession has been building to for its previous 40-plus hours.
(*) OK, a few words about that moment, which is brilliant in how you can read Kendall’s hug as both a sympathetic, brotherly gesture and as another dominance move. And the way Culkin plays it, you can tell Roman is thinking it’s both of those things at once, and probably more the latter than the former.
As Frank goes around the conference room table to get a yes or no vote on the GoJo deal, things seem to be going the way Kendall had maneuvered it. Stewy and Ewan are in favor, for instance, while Sandy and Sandi are opposed. Roman hesitates for a moment, perhaps unable to let go of the pain of being passed over, before finally voting yes. It’s a classic piece of misdirection setting us up for Shiv to be the one rethinking their vote. She steps out of the room, her brothers follow, and Shiv finally says the thing we have all implicitly understood from the start of the series:
“I just don’t think you’d be good at it.”
This is the worst thing anyone has said to Kendall Roy since that fate-sealing trip to Candy Kitchen. It is not another of Shiv’s triple-layered insults, designed to entertain as much as they are to wound. It is not a taunt, or a move. Shiv is not trying to get anything out of this conversation. She knows she has already lost the chairmanship, no matter how the vote goes. She knows that her terrible Peter Principle doofus of a husband is about to get the job that she has always felt she deserved. She gets no personal benefit from this vote, nor from explaining to Kendall why she is going that way. The only reason to say this is because she believes it.
I just don’t think you’d be good at it.
This can’t be true. Kendall Roy can’t allow for it to be true. Isn’t this what his whole life has been building toward? Hasn’t this been his destiny since he was seven years old? Doesn’t he deserve this?
Because Kendall is not equipped to accept the reality that he is a thoroughly unremarkable man — born on third base but perpetually in danger of being sent back to second — he can’t process this, can’t accept it. So instead, he pushes back on her assertions. And when that doesn’t work, he gets more pathetic than anyone we have ever seen on this show get pathetic. Worse than Cousin Greg talking about drinking things that aren’t drinks. Worse than everybody playing Boar on the Floor. As he begins to realize that Shiv is not backing down — that, somehow, she actually believes this insane lie she is trying to tell him — he tries to guilt her, claiming that he’ll literally die if he doesn’t get the job. Given the suicidal ideation we’ve seen from him in the past, this is perhaps not an exaggeration, but it is also not the kind of card an actual master of the universe puts down. But Kendall Roy is still that seven-year-old boy, believing he has earned this because his daddy told him so, and he’s been cosplaying as a lord of the realm ever since. When Shiv brings up the death of cater-waiter Andrew Dodds, Kendall at first has no idea to whom she’s referring — in this moment perched agonizingly between ultimate victory and humiliating defeat, this subject is just a body under water under a bridge — leaving his siblings incredulous that he would ask, “Which?” His denials dig him in even deeper and deeper with them both, and finally he goes full little kid, insisting he should get the job because, “I’m the eldest boy!” Like everything else Kendall does, it’s a hollow, phony sentiment: Shiv snickers rather than calling him on it, but she knows as well as we do that Kendall is not the eldest boy, even if no one would ever consider making Connor into the CEO. But once he says it, Roman can’t resist kicking his older brother further down this mortifying path, pointing to Shiv’s unborn child as the true biological inheritor of the company, and claiming that Logan never thought of either Sophie or Iverson as truly family — one as an adoptee, the other allegedly fathered by another man Rava slept with. It is such a nakedly ugly, cruel sentiment that even Roman could not have invented it — even if the colorful phrasing seems more his than Logan’s — and soon the two brothers are wrestling like the children they are, while Shiv is off voting yes to the sale.
History doesn’t always repeat with this series, but it rhymes. Once again, Kendall has called a board vote, convinced he has the numbers to take over control of the company. When he did this midway through Season One, he got stuck in traffic, allowing Logan to bully his way into retaining power. This time, the vote is much closer, and Kendall is physically present the whole time, but he’s just as unprepared as ever. And unlike all the previous instances where he tried and failed to take over, there is no regrouping from this. The family business is in the family no longer. Kendall gets a nice, fat check, but he loses all power, and any kind of home field advantage he ever had. The only way he could ever get back in would be if Matsson were to so thoroughly dismantle and devalue the company that it would be like Kendall trying to become the new CEO of Blockbuster.
And still, he doesn’t get it. Because he can’t. Because he has grown up broken — or, rather, because he has never allowed himself to grow up at all. Roman, for all his abundant faults, has a level of self-awareness that has long eluded Kendall. As Shiv leaves to vote them off the island, a delusional Kendall insists there has to be another angle, while Roman accepts that, “We are bullshit.” They’ve always been bullshit. This just makes it all official.
What an incredible scene! The rest of the finale is entertaining, albeit perhaps not as memorable as several of this season’s other installments. But all of it functions as perfect set-up for that final confrontation between the siblings — one last reminder of all the nuance and power and comedy that Snook, Culkin, and Jeremy Strong brought to characters who could have been caricatures in even slightly lesser hands.
From there, it is the feel-bad ending the show has always been building toward. Tom “wins,” but only because he is so unremarkable and malleable that he makes an easy “pain sponge” while Matsson begins slashing Waystar to the bone. He and Shiv have perhaps reunited, but it will forever be a tenuous alliance, as symbolized by the way their hands just barely touch when he reaches out to her on the car ride home from the vote. Roman is once again drinking alone, because he has no friends and no life outside a family he hates and a job he just lost forever. And Kendall? Kendall is once again out by the water, hollowed out, emotionally drowning. He didn’t get the toy he wanted. He will never get to be the Number One Boy.
Will he be able to go on like this? Will he just try to hurl himself into the river? (Colin would almost certainly save him if he tried, anyway.) We will not know, because this is where the story of Succession ends. Not with the protagonist dying on screen, nor behind bars, nor any of the other definitive ways in which other classic series have concluded. But there’s no point in following Kendall to his next steps. Like he said, running Waystar is the only thing he has ever wanted, or known how to do. He doesn’t get to do it, and thus we don’t need to follow him anymore. Finis.
Whenever a great series ends, there is an immediate temptation to wonder where it now belongs on a continuum of the best ever made, and/or to wonder how its finale stacks up against others. We’re only a few hours away from when credits first rolled on “With Open Eyes.” It is too soon, the emotions of the episode still too raw, for any kind of historical consideration to make sense. The only question we can honestly answer at this point is whether the finale felt true to the experience of watching Succession. And between that sibling argument and the concluding shot of an empty Kendall looking at the waves crashing in, it absolutely did.