(spoilers for the series finale of Succession)
It’s been a tragedy all along. A knee-slapping one at times, but a tragedy through and through. None of this is changed by the fact that much of the suffering is self-induced; it is, I would argue, one of the features that makes the series so compelling, a carrot labeled “any of these people can change their fate at any given time” tied to the end of a 40 episode-long stick. As I discussed last week, it’s dispiriting to see family members with genuine love in their hearts allow those very feelings to be overshadowed by wealth and power. But like many great tragedies, the inherent sadness belies how triumphant Succession as a whole truly is. I had little doubt Jesse Armstrong would stick the landing, but how it would happen was a mystery. At long last, we have the answer: leave as many people as possible, the audience included, as unhappy as can be.
I’m being slightly glib, though it’s an accurate assessment. Shiv’s arc alone has been enough to leave segments of the internet in tatters, with fans and detractors alike seeking to either understand or rationalize her shocking pivot in those final minutes. Is she a victim of the patriarchy or a Lady Macbeth-esque figure? But when it comes down to it, these five-words-or-less labels do little service to what is one of the most dynamic, multi-dimensional women in film within the last decade. Her circumstances pertaining to her gender and state of affairs are a point of interest—certainly destined to be the stuff of many a future essay examining things such as maternity juxtaposed against career ambitions—but her foibles are just as, if not more, engaging.
Since her turn from a liberal political strategist to a wannabe ladder-leaping corporate maven, Shiv’s acquired few, if any, wins. In fact, one of her most notable attributes, aside from her toxic marriage (more on that shortly), is her ability to constantly be foiled thanks to her inability to anticipate surprises; she loses constantly, which is why hearing her gloat at Kendall (“I won. And I’m sorry for winning. But I did”) at Caroline’s sumptuous (but food-deprived) Barbados vacation home is so cringeworthy. Her fall is imminent, merely a matter of seeing what exactly lies ahead that trips her up.
It’s Matsson, of course. The tech-bro showman with the fake numbers and abominable way of treating women. “She’s Lukas Matsson’s total puppet,” Shiv half-joked just before the funeral, but one magazine illustration of Shiv operating a marionette Matsson later soon proves to be emblematic of his issues with her. At the end of the day, however, it comes down to the fact that Shiv has outlived her usefulness.
What’s disturbing about Matsson isn’t so much that he’s a fool with too much power and resources granted to him, but that beneath his cocaine-fueled buffoonery is a sly ability to draw information out of people without them realizing it. Like a mosquito sucking blood from an unaware victim, when Matsson confesses to Tom that he would like to sleep with Shiv, it’s not blunt honesty but a means of gauging just how pliable Tom is. Telling a man you want to have sex with his wife only for him to respond to your cuckolding locker room talk with, “We’re men,” says far more about what he can do for you professionally than any sort of workplace evaluation. It’s a glowing recommendation for a “pain sponge,” and like Hugo’s affirmative “Woof, woof,” Tom is more than ready to be Matsson’s mascot. Matsson is the means, but Tom is the result. His obsequiousness has finally hit the jackpot (Shiv: “Tom will honestly suck the biggest d*ck in the room”). This is what it takes to win in corporate America.
For a brief, beautiful time, the sibs work alongside one another, their mutual distrust and animosity set aside to stop an external threat. Kendall has never smiled with the same joy and warmth as he does on top of that floating dock. His brother and sister, at long last, supporting his dream—never mind the sardonic jokes about murdering him only minutes earlier. Still, their mutual bond was as real as can be while they played in their mother’s kitchen like the children they once were. By the time Kendall asks, “This is gonna be all right. Right?” I can’t help but wonder about that very thing. Seeing them walk off the plane and onto that tarmac together, each wielding their cell phones like soldiers preparing to do battle, gave me hope despite myself.
Of course, it has to all go wrong. Much like how ghosts are confined to the houses they haunt or a superhero has to save the day, the rules in the world of Succession dictate that a board meeting will always go horrifically wrong. It is all too easy to forget that peace can rarely ever be held, even if there is genuine love behind it, with such a hostile past. Roman resents Kendall because he’s been groomed his entire life for Logan’s role, even if Kendall was rejected by him later. Roman, on the other hand, has been rejected his entire life; the closest thing to a bone he was offered was a management course. That is, until he became useful as a pawn against his older brother. Kendall’s assessment is correct: Roman doesn’t truly want the job; he wants their father’s prized possession (Roman to Kendall: “Enjoy your bauble”) now that he’s gone.
A lifetime of Shiv being rejected by her brothers, however, is part of the motivation behind that jaw-dropping moment in that boardroom, when she holds off on her tie-breaking vote. Those glass walls were always a terrible idea, but never more so than when these numbskulls proceed to physically fight in view of dozens of people, employees and board members alike (admittedly, that crack about his niece and nephew was, hands down, the worst thing Roman has ever said). Despite a life of feeling on the outside, Shiv may have still been able to pull that proverbial lever were it not for other factors, including Kendall—in his growing panic—cajoling her long enough for his stance to deteriorate into an argument that grows more pitiful by the second before climaxing with an infuriated, “I’m the eldest boy!”
Kendall’s desperation is harrowing to witness. When we see him sitting at the edge of Battery Park, his claims that, “it’s life and death,” suddenly seem all too plausible. Yes, he is now wealthier than most of us can possibly dream, but even if he chooses to continue breathing, it’s hard to imagine Kendall ever truly living. Roman undergoes the opposite transformation: the option to move forward in Waystar now gone entirely, he’s free. It’s impossible to know what, if anything, he may have been thinking as that bartender poured out that martini (Gerri’s drink of choice), but it’s by far the closest thing to happiness that any of our primary players get to experience.
As for Shiv, she never did this for Tom, yet his offered, “I got a car in 20, if you want to join,” may as well be the most seaworthy ship at port. Shiv isn’t replicating Caroline’s fate—it’s impossible to imagine Caroline ever possessing the wrath and naked ambition of her daughter, while Shiv could never wield her mother’s flighty affectation—as much as augmenting the lineage left to her from her father: she’ll use her Roy name and aspirations within the role of wife and eventual mother. If it’s the closest she can get to Waystar, so be it. Tom and Shiv’s limply clasped hands is the perfect symbol for their continuing union now composed solely of money, ambition, and at least one individual sharing both of their genes.
I wanted the siblings to make it through this together (Greg getting his comeuppance ran a close second). Of course, this couldn’t actually happen. Because what we want doesn’t necessarily make for good television, which is why having Roman reconcile with Gerri, or Shiv successfully girlbossing, at last, was never in the cards. The pleasure is in upending our wants and expectations. There’s no fan service here, just a work of art that succeeded in staying true to the story it sought to tell. Out of this series’ numerous spectacular qualities, this is perhaps the most impressive feat of all.
Caroline: “There’s something about eyes. They just kind of, ugh, revolt me.”
Shiv: “Eyes? Like—like human eyes we all have?”
Caroline: “Yeah, I don’t like to think of all these blobs of jelly rolling around in your head. Just…face eggs.”
Kendall: “C*nt is as c*nt does.”
Stewy: “Chair? Guys? I like weird sex. I like bad drugs. I’m a very complicated individual.”
Kendall: “Bullshit. Bullshit. You like pancakes and waffles, and you kiss guys on Molly.”
Kaleena Rivera is the TV Editor for Pajiba. When she isn’t thankful to everyone who has read her coverage of this magnificent show, she can be found on Twitter here.