Actors Jeremy Strong, Sarah Snook, and Kieran Culkin in a scene from HBO’s Succession.
Jeremy Strong, Sarah Snook, and Kieran Culkin in HBO’s Succession. | Claudette Barius/HBO

The show’s final season begins Sunday. Which Roy will rise to the top is anyone’s guess.

Note: This article contains spoilers for the first three seasons of Succession.

The last time we saw Kendall, Shiv, and Roman Roy, they were reeling from the betrayal of both their parents. Usually, it’s only their father, Logan, who slips the knife between their ribs.

There have been countless backstabbings in Succession, but none quite like the one that punctuated its season three finale, when Logan revealed he would be selling the multibillion-dollar family company and ensured, with the help of their mother, that his children couldn’t stop him. It was a double-cross sadistic enough to achieve something unprecedented: the three siblings stopped trying to destroy one another long enough to join forces against their father.

This fragile ceasefire among the Roy children is where we find ourselves as the fourth and final season of Succession begins airing Sunday on HBO.

For the last three seasons, Succession has closely followed the Roy family, a powerful, conniving clan running the media and entertainment conglomerate Waystar-Royco. At the heart of the drama is a bloodthirsty battle for the throne; patriarch and formidable CEO Logan Roy (Brian Cox) won’t be running Waystar forever, and the emotionally stunted Roy children — who see their father as the sun around which the universe revolves — have ambitions to take his place.

A funhouse-mirror version of the world’s real media dynasties including the Murdochs, the Redstones, and the Hearsts, the Roys have an enormous sphere of influence on media, politics, and even democracy. Their dysfunction doesn’t just create tension at the family dinner table — their war of attrition disrupts the lives of everyone who happens to get caught up in their path.

The show’s seasons have been packed with drama, comic absurdity, and breathtaking cruelty, but the temperature is now at a boiling point. Succession creator Jesse Armstrong revealed in a New Yorker interview in February that the fourth season would be the show’s last, confessing that he didn’t want the show to outstay its welcome. With only 10 more episodes left, everything that happens now will carry extra heft.

The final episodes also arrive at an oddly perfect time in the broader culture, amid existential questions about the influence and motivations of billionaires. In a moment replete with financial scandals and failures, and a whole lot of rubbernecking around Elon Musk’s tumultuous acquisition of Twitter, Succession paints a believable portrait of how people can be driven to the brink by their hunger for power.

Or, in the case of Logan Roy, by the refusal to give up even an inch of power, because he believes only he deserves it. For all his obstinacy, Logan isn’t an immortal god. The show is not about a man in his prime, but an aging monarch whose kingdom is in decline. More than once, various characters (including his children) compare Logan to a dinosaur — terrifying, but soon to be extinct — and lament the downward slide of their legacy media empire, which consists of newspapers and broadcast TV.

The central question of Succession has, from the very first episode, been which Roy kid (or, maybe, which wild card from outside the family) will take over from Logan. At various points over the years, each of them (except the eldest, Connor — played by Alan Ruck — who only wants to be president of the United States) have floated close to the top or sunk with a thud.

Here’s the state of play as we enter Succession’s fourth season: Throughout season three, Kendall (Jeremy Strong), the second-eldest son, tries to topple Logan by shining a spotlight on an ugly scandal in Waystar’s cruises department. By the end, he appears beaten down by the fight. His father seems indomitable, and Kendall tells him he wants to cash out his company shares and never look back. “I’m a ghost,” Kendall says. “I won’t even speak at your memorial.” He acts as if he’ll disappear completely, but ghosts have a tendency to haunt the living.

Instead of cashing out, he bands together with his sister Shiv (Sarah Snook) and brother Roman (Kieran Culkin), who have realized that something is afoot. At the end of season three, as the entire Roy clan is in Italy to attend the wedding of Caroline (Harriet Walter), mother of the younger three Roy children, a marriage between Waystar and streaming video company GoJo is supposedly underway. Logan is trying to survive by pivoting to tech. Shiv and Roman are both hopeful that one of them will be rewarded for their effort and loyalty with the top job at the new company.

It turns out that there is no merger. Logan quietly plans on selling Waystar outright to GoJo, which means none of the Roy children will ever wear the crown, because there will be no family kingdom to inherit. Kendall, Shiv, and Roman think they can lean on the terms of their mother’s divorce settlement, which would block their father from getting a supermajority of shareholders to approve the sale. They believe they finally have a bit of power against their tyrannical dad. Caroline, however, secretly has agreed to change the settlement. What’s worse, Logan is tipped off about the kids’ plan to stop him by none other than Shiv’s husband, Tom (Matthew Macfadyen). Logan unleashes his fury at his progeny for their unforgivable insubordination. “I fucking win,” he roars.

There is nothing Logan Roy wouldn’t do to win — lies, blackmail, brute force, it’s all fair game. Over the course of three seasons, we’ve seen how the people around him, particularly his children, are just chess pieces, which is why he’s so infuriated when he cannot nudge them into the correct position. Even the smallest of slights can set him on the course for petty retribution. In season two, Logan plays deceptively nice to disarm rival media magnate Nan Pierce (Cherry Jones), who owns Pierce Global Media, and convince her to sell her company to him. Waystar is facing a hostile takeover led by investor Stewy Hosseini (Arian Moayed) and media mogul Sandy Furness (Larry Pine), and a PGM acquisition would have made Waystar big enough to stave off the bid. But it also would have allowed Logan comeuppance for PGM’s daring to air a negative interview about him on one of their news channels. For all of his careful courting of PGM, the deal falls apart, and Logan doesn’t take the loss well. As Nan drives away from a deal she was on the edge of inking, Logan bangs on the car door, screaming, “We haven’t finished!”

Based on the trailer for the new season, it looks like he was right. The final season begins mostly where we left off, with the impending sale of Waystar to tech genius and GoJo CEO Lukas Matsson (Alexander Skarsgård), who is young, calm, and collected — the antithesis of Logan Roy. The three siblings appear to be spending at least some of the series’ final 10 episodes fighting as a united front, potentially forging alliances with former friends and enemies. Among the familiar favorite faces making a return is Stewy, and a flash of Nan Pierce and her family. The trailer hints at the possibility of Roman wavering when his father asks for his help; Shiv and Tom fight, presumably over his betrayal of her. Meanwhile, Tom made sure to take Greg (Nicholas Braun), grandson of Logan’s estranged brother, with him as he defected to Logan’s side. Connor is still running for president, and planning a wedding to boot. Logan vows to kill the opposition — and there’s no doubt he’ll use every weapon in his arsenal to eke out a victory against his children.

It’s likely that other specters of the family’s past will throw a wrench in the plans of both Roy factions, whether that’s individual people or recurring themes and hangups. One of the biggest looming questions is whether Kendall and his younger siblings will be able to trust one another. Historically, they don’t have a great track record for working together, tending to jump ship whenever there’s a chance of being better positioned to inherit the earth. But the old alliances have disintegrated. Roman is no longer in a strange, psychosexual scratch-my-back-I-scratch-yours situationship with his father’s general counsel, Gerri Kellman (J. Smith-Cameron), after she stood by while his parents screwed him over. Shiv can no longer rely on her husband to be her lapdog. (Remember when she announced on their wedding night that she didn’t want to be monogamous? Or at her mother’s wedding, when her idea of “dirty talk” was to taunt him for wanting her even though she doesn’t love him?) And Kendall — well, Kendall hasn’t had anyone in his family in his corner for a while.

Though Logan demands absolute loyalty, trust has never been a Roy family value. The siblings tried to form an alliance once before, early in season three, but it was quickly quashed by the fear of their father and each child’s hunger to be crowned his one and only favorite. In this family, paranoia is treated like a smart survival instinct. (Last season, during a private dinner between Logan and Kendall, Logan even suspected his son of poisoning his food.) It’s why any union of the Roys feels naturally tenuous, functional only until one of them spies a path to the top and elbows the others out of the way.

Succession has resonated so deeply with audiences in part because it offers an intimate portrait of how powerful, wealthy people behave behind closed doors to strike deals or make decisions that have ripple effects on the rest of the society. We get entangled in everything from their petty squabbles to the grand betrayals, and the show presents a world in which corporate takeovers and leadership shakeups aren’t so much about stock prices, company growth, or other such anodyne objectives, but about high emotions — most often the desire to beat someone else to the punch, or to exact revenge. It’s not just business; it’s personal.

To that end, all of the children, probably especially Kendall, have said and done awful things because they think that’s the price of attaining ultimate power. It’s never made explicit why, exactly, they covet the top position at Waystar so much.

It’s not a question of money — they can barely count what they already have. It’s not really a matter of vision, a burning passion to steer their media empire toward a new future. Wielding power is its own end. They want, in the words of their father, to “fucking win” — and they want Logan to see it. Something Succession has teased and woven through its plotlines is the constant knife’s-edge danger of Logan’s children becoming the very person they fear and, at some level, loathe, in the effort to dethrone him. They’re emotionally battered by their father; they’re also shadows of him. Can a Roy take the throne without destroying themselves? Can they ever cash out, and get off this ride?

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Author: Whizy Kim

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