King for a Day: Inside the Brilliant, Brutal “Succession” Series Finale
“I love you, and I can’t f**king stomach you.” This sentiment, expressed by Shivon Roy (Sarah Snook) to her older brother Kendall (Jeremy Strong), captures the essence of the Roy children’s pain and confusion and the seed of the self-destruction that they’ve tended, with varying degrees of attention, ever since they were old enough to understand just how messed up their family was. Shiv delivered these lines in the climactic final moments of Jesse Armstrong’s pitch-perfect series, revealing that the answer to the question posed by the show’s title is this; it won’t be a child of Logan Roy (Brian Cox).
The battle for who would succeed Logan Roy at Waystar turned out to be one long, bitter joke on the children he so deeply wounded with the intensity and intermittency of his attention. While Shiv’s words were the death knell for Kendall’s dream of becoming successor, it might have been Roman (Kiernan Culkin) who finally broke through to him; “We are bullsh*t,” Roman says to his brother. “We’re nothing.” These are very similar to some of the last words their father ever said to them; “I love you all, but you are not serious people.”
Is any amount of money worth all this psychic pain?
The patriarch and power-hungry world builder-and-destroyer Logan had toyed with his three kids (Connor was never in contention) for years, dangling the possibility of running WayStar after he stepped away or was laid to rest just close enough to their noses they’d run through every wall he erected in their path. Instead, in the end, with the crown tantalizingly at hand for Kendall, Shiv couldn’t stomach giving him the vote that he needed. The board voted in favor, by the slimmest of margins, to hand the company over to the gum-chewing, reptilian-blooded Swedish billionaire Lukas Mattson (Alexander Skarsgård).
And it had looked so promising for Kendall for a decent part of the finale’s run time. “With Open Eyes” began with Kendall and Shiv heading to Barbados to their mother’s Caribbean estate to track down an emotionally wrung-out Roman sporting fresh facial wounds from his run-in with Mencken protestors in the penultimate episode. The kids all go for a late-night swim, and it’s there that Shiv decides she’ll be the deciding vote. They swim over to Kendall and tell him, with mock pomp, they anoint him. For first the time in forever, Kendall smiles from actual joy.
“Finishing production in Barbados, on the one hand, it was magical; on the other hand, it was so incredibly sad,” says finale director and series executive producer Mark Mylod in HBO’s “Inside the Episode” video. “The only way I could do it was to be somewhat robotic, actually. Because I kept getting hijacked by the tsunami of, ‘Okay, that’s the last time we’ll do that…I think the actors felt that as well; there was an odd emotional tension.”
After anointing their brother, the Roy kids take the meager provisions stored in their mother’s fridge and create a disgusting meal—they fix up a smoothie from things that should not go into a smoothie, and then Roman has Kendall dump it on his head. They are acting like children. Like siblings. Like they’re happy.
“We called that ‘The Meal fit for a King,'” Mylod says of the sequence, “that sense of recaptured innocence, kids being kids no matter their income, everything seemed possible, and yet my understanding of the show is always been that it’s a tragedy, and therefore everyone moment of hope like that is so cruel because you’re just waiting for that shoe to drop and for their essential natures to be exposed and to break your heart again.”
While Lukas Matson has been the obvious threat as far as Kendall and Roman are concerned, it’s been Tom Wambsgans (Matthew Macfadyen) who has proven to be the source of Shiv’s most horrific pain. So for Lukas and Tom to come together and join forces would seem like the thing to bring all three Roy siblings together, and this is what looks like is shaping up. Lukas takes Tom out to dinner and propositions him in the only way Lukas knows how; by debasing and humiliating Tom while simultaneously offering him the ultimate prize—Tom, not Shiv, will become the new American CEO of Waystar—but the reason is that Lukas’s relationship with Tom’s still-wife is complicated by the fact that they have the hots for each other. It’s the cruelest way possible to make the offer, but Lukas has been around the Roy family and their hangers-on long enough to know that Tom will accept this humiliation for the bauble.
“The idea of Tom being the eventual successor, that had been something that I thought had been the right ending for quite a while now,” says Jesse Armstrong. “Even though he’s not the most powerful monarch you’ll ever meet, his power comes from Matson. Those figures who drift upwards and make themselves amenable to powerful people are around.”
And yet the crown would still have been Kendall’s had Shiv kept her promise and voted in his favor at that last, final board meeting. But Shiv cuts her brother down at the moment of what would be his literal crowning achievement, and Roman, as Roman has always done, casts a sour eye upon all their efforts and finds them all lacking.
“As with Tom’s betrayal at the end of season three, everything was always working towards this idea of Shiv sabotaging herself and sabotaging the deal,” says Mylod. “Jesse stuck the landing with this climatic showdown with the three siblings. This final ripping off of the bandage to expose that terrible, terrible truth said so succinctly by Roman was such a heart-rending moment and yet so inevitable. Good tragedy should feel inevitable, shouldn’t it? It’s the essential truth of these characters and the consequence of their nature and upbringing; everything led to that one moment. On that level, it’s perfect. Perfectly painful.”
Armstrong explains that while the story of the Roy children will still go on, the show’s interest in them ended when the prize they’d been seeking was finally out of reach. Roman ends up at a bar, drinking a martini, another sad billionaire boy with a head full of snakes. Shiv ends up, as Armstrong explains it, still in play, “in a rather terrifying frozen emotionally barren place, but she has got this non-victory, non-defeat. There’s still going to be movement there, there’s still game to play out, but that’s where we leave it. It feels like it’s going to be hard to progress emotionally, given the things they’ve said to each other.”
And for Kendall? Armstrong’s outlook for him is bleakest of all. “This will never stop being the central event of his life… Maybe he could go on and start a company and do a thing, but the chances of him achieving the kind of corporate status his dad achieved are very low, and I think that will mark his whole life.”
Check out the “Inside the Episode” here:
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Featured image: Matthew Macfadyen, Sarah Snook. Photo courtesy HBO.