There is a moment near the end of every classic tragedy when the main character is forced to confront their tragic flaws and the consequences of their actions.
The Greeks had a word for this realization: “anagnorisis.” Lear experiences anagnorisis after the death of his youngest daughter, the only person ever truly to love him. He learns that truth a little too late. Macbeth regrets his bloody crimes after his wife kills herself, and his foes slowly approach. He is doomed, but he fights anyway.
The ancients knew that even nobles were human, so they wrote poems about men who had everything, lost everything, and went to their graves humbled. Hollowed. Haunted. They knew it was moving to watch a person fail because all people fail, even those blessed by fortune.
I was unmoved by the spectacle of grief in the third episode of the final season of HBO’s hit Emmy-winning dramedy Succession, specifically its sudden and manipulative pivot away from acidic social satire and towards melodrama. The show’s creators wanted a tragedy but didn’t earn it.
And yet, I was unmoved by the spectacle of grief in the third episode of the final season of HBO’s hit Emmy-winning dramedy Succession, specifically its sudden and manipulative pivot away from acidic social satire and towards melodrama. The show’s creators wanted a tragedy but didn’t earn it. At least, I don’t think they did.
It is evident from social media that the episode resonated with fans of the show’s brutal one-liners and bleak family dynamics. But I’m one of the fans that didn’t feel anything for the Roys. I have never felt anything for them. They terrify me if we’re being honest. The Roys scare me because they represent unchecked power in their fictional world. The 1% are like human weather systems that can blow people like me out of the way, like leaves. Yet, at the same time, I would love to take a private plane… anywhere. Anywhere.
So, minor spoiler alert: In that third episode, Logan Roy dies. He keels over out of nowhere. It would be more surprising if the show’s title didn’t already give away that this would probably happen. I guess it’s surprising that it happened this soon in the season.
The death of Succession’s barbarian patriarch was a magic trick that turned vipers into cooked spaghetti. Roy’s off-camera heart attack was a bold anticlimactic choice, but the resulting humanizing of his loathsome children was off-putting. What was funny was now sad, and not even ha-ha sad.
The transformation of the Roys into sympathetic characters gave me whiplash. It felt rushed like I was watching one of those high-speed videos of a woodland creature decomposing in the woods only in reverse.
This is the problem: The Roys are zombies infected with unimaginable riches. They are hosts for a parasite called capitalism that lives inside them and animates their handsome, witty husks. Kendall is a dead-eyed shark with baby teeth. His sister Shiv is part princess, part Marquis De Sade, and the youngest, Roman, the reincarnation of Caligula, which is cliche since his name is Roman. And the eldest, Connor? He’s some alt-right Lurch, an experiment in what would happen if you poured every resource possible into a human being except love.
They’re all so emotionally undercooked their hugs are contaminated with salmonella.
I hope the actors win Emmy Awards, but the tonal shift was dishonest. The Roys have been waiting for their dad to croak since the pilot. They’re co-dependent, that’s for sure, but the tender, gut-wrenching scenes in episode three where they’re in shock felt like they’re from some indie movie.
I resented their tears and vulnerability as they slowly learned of Logan’s passing. These characters are not equipped to mourn or grieve. They have spent the past four seasons consuming everything in their paths, like giant locusts wearing three pairs of designer shoes. There is no emotional center to Succession, just an all-consuming void.
Logan Roy’s death is treated like a tragedy, but Brian Cox’s flamboyant media mogul isn’t a tragic figure. He’s funny. Frightening. He is unwise like Lear and ambitious like Macbeth. But he is not tragic. Logan Roy got off easy. He died having the time of his life, a warrior king commanding, ordering, and fighting until his last breath. Logan was spared the truth. He was defiant until the end, and unlike actual tragic heroes, we never see him realize his selfishness and cruelty obliterated the lives of everyone unlucky enough to stand in the blast radius of his ego. Logan Roy was never held accountable, not to anyone, not to himself, not for a nanosecond.
He died like any schmuck. His ticker just stopped ticking. He was an American titan, but in the end, he was stuffed into a body bag, like filling in a calzone. One day you and I will be zipped up, too.
Succession is at its best when it’s a hopeless time loop of lost souls trapped in a dimension of eternal affluence. The Roys are veal calves who live in a luxurious bubble floating above reality, and in that bubble, they bicker and stab each other in the backs, and the eye sockets, but the blades never penetrate too deeply because they are just not strong enough. They’re weak.
In the second episode, during another anticlimactic scene, Logan tells his children that he loves them but then says they’re not “serious people.” This is an ironic observation since Logan isn’t serious, either. But, mostly, they’re weak. The whole crew are nothing but cowards, starting with Logan. They all routinely throw their underlings, and each other, under buses driven by other cronies and other family members, like Greg, the man leech.
Like America, Succession doesn’t quite know how it feels about inherited wealth and power, and this country’s entire creation myth is a fairy tale about the common man rising against royalty. When King George met America’s first ambassador to the United Kingdom, John Adams, in 1785, he famously told the former revolutionary that he prayed the U.S. “does not suffer unduly from its want of a monarchy.”
America does suffer from its want of a monarchy. It suffers loudly and often. Our pop culture is obsessed with the rich and their offspring. We pretend to care about the working man, but we’d rather watch and elect and retweet billionaires.
The actors give poignant performances, but ultimately, those performances are betrayed by the characters as they have been written and portrayed. The cast is talented. Yes. I’m on record writing that. They may be, in fact, deeper and more multidimensional than the characters they’re playing. Actors like Jeremy Strong, Matthew Macfadyen, and J. Smith Cameron burn with emotion, but Kendall, Tom, and Gerri, who they play, are human koi ponds. And the ones who aren’t shallow are falling apart, like condemned ruins dusted with asbestos. They are incapable of connecting with themselves or anyone else.
Alan Ruck’s Connor does end episode three with the most honest relationship while his brothers and sister sniffle and maneuver. Which is hilarious. Ruck is sublime in the role. He knows marriage will not redeem Connor.
Meanwhile, Cox is a ham. A delicious ham. His Logan Roy is a one-man-thrill ride.
He knows what’s expected of him, what the people want. They want Zeus. Thunderbolts. A fat cat who is free from the restraints of democracy. Logan Roy does and says what he wants. He is not woke. He rages and blows until his cheeks crack. Cox reads the words that are written. That’s the job. He chews on those words and spits them out, and smirks. And in this final episode, the script said that’s that. Exit the stage—no protracted death scene. I bet Cox was hunky-dory with that.
But his colleagues seem to chafe at the limitations of this show’s other assorted gargoyles, and that shouldn’t insult anybody involved. I love the gargoyles. Succession is what it is, and it’s the story of a son of a bitch and his awkward brats who do not deserve all the treasure their father has diligently gathered and stolen and hoarded for decades.
This last episode is the series finale. There are seven more episodes, and I get bored to tears, wondering what could come next because Succession is over, as far as I’m concerned. The story of Succession ends with Logan Roy’s death. Done. He gets away with all of his crimes, both moral and legal. He gets to enjoy an unexamined life. Who cares what happens to his empire? Who cares what child gets what size scrap? They may as well mummify Kendall, Shiv, Roman, and Connor and seal them into Logan’s tomb like the Pharaohs buried with their cats.
Succession is about a tyrant who goes down believing he was right about many things when he wasn’t. Everything else is bunting. This show isn’t a hit because it’s about family. Succession appeals to 21st-century America because this is the land of graspers, wannabes, and juiceless influencers who all want to believe you can have it all and never have to answer to anyone. The dream is to be a billionaire who can tell the world to fuck off.
Logan Roy’s death wasn’t tragic. He was just a man who lived his life running from his loved ones. He made a fortune and learned nothing and blacked out.
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