In the 25-odd years that HBO has been serious about producing original programming, the pay cable giant has given us some of the greatest comedies and dramas television has ever seen. Succession, in whatever genre box you choose to place it — and I think of it more as a dark comedy with pathos than a drama with jokes — has certainly earned its place in that pantheon. But as it begins its fourth and final season this weekend, it has a chance to do something that very few HBO shows have before it. By choosing to wrap things up relatively early, Jesse Armstrong has the opportunity to offer a great finale, while also getting off the stage before anyone begins to feel the show has lost a step.
You can’t really say that about most of its predecessors, and certainly not the most iconic ones. (The Leftovers hit both benchmarks, but it ended so soon in part because barely anyone was watching.) There was a lot of grousing about the last two Sopranos seasons, and the end remains divisive. The Wire fans consider the final season’s newspaper/serial killer plot to be that show’s one big misstep. Veep stumbled just a bit once real-world politics somehow got even stupider than the Selina Meyer administration. While the Six Feet Under finale is universally loved (the last 10 minutes especially), there wasn’t a lot of enthusiasm about the drama’s later seasons prior to that one. And it’s hard to find anyone willing to defend most of the Game of Thrones home stretch.
Given how much Succession has dominated both the Emmys and the TV conversation over its previous seasons, HBO surely would have let Armstrong keep making it for as long as he wanted. But he comes from the UK, where television trends more toward short runs that don’t overstay their welcomes. He no doubt could see what many of us saw in Season Three: that despite a spectacularly high level of execution on all fronts, Succession was just telling different variations of the same story, again and again. The kids go after Logan (Brian Cox) in some combination, he wins, and the game of musical chairs resumes. You can get away with that level of formula for a really long time if you’re as good at it as Succession is. Eventually, though, hitting these same notes over and over — “Different, but the same,” as Shiv (Sarah Snook) says in an upcoming episode — was going to fall flat, maybe as soon as this year.
Instead, Armstrong and company find a way to make this final season feel the same, but also very, very different. The notion of ending hangs over everything from the start. The season begins two days before the planned sale of Waystar Royco to Swedish tech mogul Lukas Matsson (Alexander Skarsgård). Shiv, Kendall (Jeremy Strong), and Roman (Kieran Culkin), having been banished by Logan after their failed coup, already have plans in the works for a new business that they’ll fund from their shares of the sale. Logan leaves his latest birthday party early, the occasion making him painfully aware of how little time he has left to rule this planet.
Logan knows the end is coming, and so does Succession. Without spoiling what happens in the episodes sent to critics, the way that events unfold, and the impact that they have on Logan and everyone else, never plays like a rehash of what’s come before. Significant choices are made, by both the characters and the creative team, that cannot be taken back. It is full steam ahead to the end. Much of what happens is shocking and/or shockingly poignant, especially since it is a show about the absolute worst human beings alive.
The one aspect that remains unsurprising is how incredibly funny the show is. Whether characters are caught up in dumb ideas — Connor (Alan Ruck) debates whether it’s worth spending $100 million just to avoid polling under 1% in the presidential race — or swapping insults, every moment and line is a gem. Tom (Matthew Macfadyen) and Cousin Greg (Nicholas Braun) dub themselves “The Disgusting Brothers,” and do everything they can to live down to the nickname. When Logan makes an unexpected visit to the ATN newsroom, terrifying everyone as he prowls from desk to desk, Greg suggests, “It’s like Jaws, if everyone worked for Jaws.” And when the abnormally tall Greg attempts to hug the diminutive Roman, Roman sneers, “We’re not playing Chutes and Ladders, OK?”
Armstrong and company also continue to demonstrate a marvelously deft balance between the yuks and the tragedy of it all. The second episode features a rare scene of Logan and his four children in a room together, relitigating old grievances, and it’s as amusing and as sad as anything the series has done to that point. And there remains an enormous amount of nuance in showing the varying scales of awfulness between all these people. We are reminded, for instance, that while Roman is the most outwardly cruel and gross of the siblings, he’s also the only one of the four capable of demonstrating empathy, even briefly, toward people outside his immediate family. And Snook and Macfadyen do some absolutely incredible work at showing how Shiv and Tom are dealing with each other after his betrayal of her in the Season Three finale
Obviously, all of this could fall apart in the coming weeks, but Succession has, like The Wire and The Sopranos, historically finished seasons even stronger than they start. And these early episodes already put us at the loftiest of levels.
After wandering out of his birthday bash, Logan asks loyal bodyguard Colin (Scott Nicholson) if he believes in the afterlife. Colin isn’t sure, while Logan says, “I think this is it, right?” However we come to think of Succession after it’s gone, it’s doing absolutely everything it wants to in the here and now. Enjoy it while you still can.
The fourth season of Succession premieres March 26 on HBO and HBO Max. I’ve seen the first four episodes.