The final episode of Succession, HBO’s epic satire of power, privilege and patriarchy atop the fictional media and entertainment empire Waystar Royco, airs on Monday. Tickets for the 2am premiere of the special movie-length episode at the BFI Southbank – timed to coincide with the US broadcast – sold out before tickets hit general sale.
So what? It is an exquisite irony that Succession, a dark, fictional comedy, has rendered the monstrous workings of power in post-2016 America with more devastating accuracy than most newsrooms have been able to muster. In 2023, only the deadliest comedy can stoop low enough to touch the truth.
The other Succession family tree. The show’s intimidatingly talented writers’ room includes showrunner Jesse Armstrong, who brought us Peep Show and British political satire The Thick of It with Armando Iannucci, Georgia Pritchett (The Thick of It, Veep and more), Lucy Prebble (Secret Diary of a Call Girl, I Hate Suzie) and Jonathan Glatzer (Better Call Saul). Co-exec producer Adam McKay, who directed the pilot episode, was the lead sketch writer on Saturday Night Live before buddying up with Will Ferrell to form Gary Sanchez Productions (Gary Sanchez is not a real person). Jeremy Strong, who was cast as Kendall Roy only after Kieran Culkin was swapped into the role of younger brother Roman, featured in McKay’s movie The Big Short.
Logan Roy isn’t Rupert Murdoch. At least, not only him. In 2010, Armstrong wrote a screenplay – still unmade – called Murdoch, in which members of Rupert’s family wrangle for control of the family trust at their father’s 78th birthday party. But he’s not single-minded about the Murdochs. To create the Roys, Armstrong researched William Randolph Hearst, publishing tycoon and inspiration for Citizen Kane, the late media mogul Sumner Redstone (who controlled Viacom, Paramount Pictures, Nickelodeon and more) as well as Robert and Rebekah Mercer, who founded far-right news website Breitbart.
Life imitating art imitating life. That said, the real Murdoch has proven a potent marketing machine for his fictional counterpart. When season two aired in August 2019, Murdoch was happily married to Jerry Hall and preoccupied with his freshly slimmed down, news-focused organisation following the sale of 21st Century Fox to Disney. “Fox News is probably the strongest brand in all of television. We are pivoting at a pivotal moment,” he said at the time. By season four, the world could watch Logan Roy roar at ATN’s “fucking pirates” with one eye while reading Murdoch’s 2020 election emails to Fox News executives with the other. No wonder US long-term ratings for season four are more than double those of season two, at 8.2 million per episode.
Succession is televisual antimatter. Growing audiences have been drawn hopelessly and gleefully into its gorgeously dressed, deeply carpeted void. In the show, the country is a metaphor for the company which in turn is a metaphor for the family. It’s a system in which everything that matters – truth, liberty, democracy, love, even life itself – collapses under the weight of its own greed, cynicism and paranoia. A billion dollar deal, the end of a marriage, a new president, is just a four-letter phone call away. In the antepenultimate episode “America Decides”, demented little brother Roman’s hot take after calling the election for extreme right-wing candidate Jeryd Mencken is: “We just made a good night of TV. That’s all, nothing happens.” Except when it does, Rome.
Sorry, no spoilers. Armstrong has promised a “muscular, complete” conclusion but HBO haven’t released any previews of the final episode. Eagle-eyed fans have spotted that the title of every season finale is taken from John Berryman’s poem Dream Song 29 – the very last episode being “With Eyes Wide Open.” Vanity Fair, as reliably obsessed with the Roys as it is the real life Murdochs, has obliged with a close read of said poem but failed to find convincing clues.
Is it really the end? Yes. Probably. Maybe. Culkin has said: “Couldn’t there be a [season] five, now that the show is kind of different?’ I want to see what else happens. And there very well could be. Jesse knows that.”
Thank you and farewell special: top five Succession moments
“Would you kiss me if I told you to?” (season 1, ep 1) Even they didn’t know it yet but Tom and Greg’s – AKA the disgusting brothers – magnificently deranged, dysfunctional bromance began with this, their very first conversation. Buckle up, boys.
“There are no fucking rules.” (season 2, ep 3) Logan at his magisterial nastiest as umpire of the world’s most fucked-up team building game, Boar on the Floor. The winner (Gerri, in this case) takes it all.
“What’s popping, Malala Roy?” (season 2, ep 7) As Shiv works up her supercool strategy to wokewash Waystar Royco’s reputation, Roman lands this gorgeous specimen of casually brutal sibling trolling. Chef’s kiss
“It shouldn’t look like an asshole’s party.” (season 3, ep 7) Bad news for Ken-doll at the baddest, saddest 40th birthday ever, replete with faux crucifixion and VIP treehouse. For he’s a jolly good felon, and so say all of us.
“Are you a sicko?” (season 3, ep 8) Should have come with a warning: viewers may cringe themselves to death when Roman accidentally sends his own father a dick pic in the Waystar Royco board meeting. We’ll sure miss those guys.
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Photograph courtesy Sky/HBO