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The Succession twist that probably doesn’t exist, explained

Attempts to “solve” Succession’s season 2 finale misunderstand what makes the show so good.

In the TV show “Succession,” Logan watches Kendall on TV.
Logan smiles. But does it prove anything?
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

TV and the internet were made for each other.

There’s a reason the rise of so-called prestige drama parallels the growth of the internet. Getting online after each episode to talk about it with your friends, or to read recaps from your favorite critics, only really became possible once the internet entered our homes.

The internet made the office water cooler global for just about any TV show. I can tweet about some obscure program and there will inevitably be somebody who wants to talk about it, something I have proved time and again with my beloved Borgen, a Danish political drama few Americans have seen but many people on Twitter would love to discuss.

But the internet unfortunately also popularized the idea that TV shows exist to be solved. This sad trend was perhaps inevitable. The first major show to really see internet discussion take off was 1993’s The X-Files, a series built around an ongoing alien mystery, and the biggest boom in online TV discussion directly parallels the 2004-2010 run of Lost, perhaps the definitive mystery show. Trying to solve a show became a popular pastime for a very good reason, and the decentralized nature of the internet — where puzzle-solving can be crowdsourced — made it an ideal platform for this form of consumption. See also: Tony Soprano, dead or alive?

The idea that your favorite show is keeping something from you, that you need to figure out its secrets, is now applied to basically every show on television. And not without reason! Shows like Mr. Robot and Game of Thrones withhold key information from the audience to enhance their surprising plot turns; even Breaking Bad uncharacteristically kept the audience in the dark to preserve one of its most shocking twists (the identity of a certain poisoner).

Not every TV show is built in such a twisty fashion, but online discussion too often fails to acknowledge as much. Think back to how many weirdo Mad Men theories popped up as that show approached its ending, or consider how often viewers tried to outguess something as relatively straightforward as The Americans.

I don’t want to call these theories “wrong.” They’re often a fun way to engage with a TV show, and on that level, I’m glad they exist. But they often also badly misunderstand TV shows in ways that undercut the shows’ central themes.

And that is exactly what’s happening with the season two finale of Succession.

The season 2 finale of Succession presents a straightforward series of events. Or does it???

Jeremy Strong plays Kendall in Succession.
Kendall prepares to drop a huge bomb.

The current fan theorizing about Succession largely concerns the final five minutes of its season two finale, “This Is Not for Tears.”

To explain what happens there, I’m going to have to spoil everything.

Image reads “spoilers below,” with a triangular sign bearing an exclamation point.

The action of the finale involves nearly all the members of the Roy family and most of the executives directly involved in the innermost dealings of Waystar-Royco, the media conglomerate at the series’ center. They’re attempting to figure out who among them should be fired from the company to prove that it means business about cleaning up its act after a massive coverup scandal concerning serious crimes aboard the company’s cruise ships.

By episode’s end, it has been decided that middle son Kendall (Jeremy Strong), the closest thing Succession has to a core protagonist and the saddest boy alive, will take the blame and leave Waystar-Royco. Kendall’s dad, Logan (Brian Cox), assures him that he’ll be taken care of. Kendall asks if the old man could ever have imagined his son in the CEO chair, and Logan says no — Kendall just isn’t the killer he would need to be for the job.

Later, while en route to the press conference where Kendall will take the fall for Waystar-Royco’s sins, Kendall and his cousin Greg (Nicholas Braun), an extremely tall bundle of nervous comic energy, have a veiled discussion about how bad Greg feels for what Kendall has to do. And if you remember that during Succession’s season one finale, Greg told Kendall that he’d stolen some documents pertaining to the cruise ship scandal, documents he’d been asked to destroy that could blow the company wide open, then you might see what’s coming next. But probably, like me, you forgot. (This little detail will be important!)

Kendall shows up at the press conference. He starts to explain that he is to blame for the coverup. But then he quickly pivots: Logan is the one at fault, and Kendall has documents that prove it. (Cut to Greg holding the folder that contains said documents, which has been haunting the proceedings all season long.) As the room erupts with questions from reporters, Kendall rips up the prepared statement that Waystar had wanted him to read and strides offstage like a boss. His other family members, who are hanging out with their dad, react in open-mouthed shock to what they’ve just seen on TV. The company is now in serious trouble.

The final shot of the episode cuts in close on Logan, watching the chaos caused by Kendall’s announcement. His lips curl into the slightest of smiles. And if you’re me, you read this scene as Logan realizing his son is a killer after all and respecting the kid’s game at least a little bit, while surely resolving to destroy his No. 1 boy.

But if you’re a lot of other people, you might have interpreted Logan’s subtle grin as a reveal that he was in on the plan all along.

The “Logan was in on it” theory has some validity to it, but it’s also based in a fundamental misunderstanding of how Succession tells stories

Kendall and Logan have a heart-to-heart.
Does Logan tell Kendall that it’s one big scheme? Eh, probably not.

There’s one big and obvious argument for why Logan might have directed Kendall to take him down: The first half of the finale is largely informed by a phone call Logan receives from important shareholders who want him to step down in the wake of the scandal. But when he presents this option to his family at the all-important meeting where they snipe over who should get fired, his children immediately reject the idea, with Kendall objecting the most strenuously. (To be sure, many of them don’t seem that upset by the thought of Logan stepping down and are likely protesting because they think they’re supposed to.)

Is it possible that Logan then schemed with Kendall to present the old man as so toxic he had to leave the company, distancing Waystar-Royco from its founder but allowing it to stay in the hands of a Roy family member (namely Kendall)? Sure.

But is it probable? I’m not convinced.

Most of the argument that Logan had a hand in what transpired rests on Logan’s final smile, which is admittedly ambiguous. But this argument also ignores a ton of other things that happen in the episode. For instance, if Succession ultimately reveals a secret scheme between Logan and Kendall, it will lessen the emotional impact of Shiv (Sarah Snook) — Logan’s only daughter, who has been at the heart of much of the season — deciding to prioritize her husband’s survival at the company over that of her brother, Kendall.

Similarly, a secret scheme would mean that the scene where Logan breaks the news to Kendall that Kendall will be Waystar-Royco’s blood sacrifice fundamentally makes no sense and exists only to mislead the audience.

And while I wouldn’t call this evidence of a twist, per se, if you don’t remember the scene from season one where Greg tells Kendall about the documents, his involvement in Kendall’s turn against his father feels like part of a massive twist — because Succession deliberately didn’t show you the scene where Greg and Kendall start scheming. The Greg “twist” then makes it seem like there may be bigger shoes to drop, which primes you to look for story turns that may not exist (like, say, Logan being in on the scheme).

But there’s one huge piece of evidence against the idea that Logan planned Kendall’s apparent betrayal: In general, Succession doesn’t tell stories predicated on twists. Its focus isn’t on plot but on character.

For an example of a show that really did attempt a twist that was hidden from viewers in plain sight, consider Game of Thrones. In that show’s seventh season, sisters Arya and Sansa seem to be at odds, including in scenes where they are the only two characters present. But the season finale reveals that for at least some of that season they were actually hatching a plan to take out the duplicitous Littlefinger. The resolution of their feud is twisty enough, I suppose, but the buildup to it (especially the scenes where Arya and Sansa are arguing with each other to keep up a charade solely for the audience) fatally undercuts everything else the show is trying to do. The storyline becomes nonsensical.

Succession doesn’t hide stuff from the audience. Its plotlines usually proceed along a fairly straightforward A-to-B emotional arc. And those arcs are usually self-contained: Each episode takes place at a time when most or all of the Roy family can be in the same physical space, and the story is usually closed off, with the conclusion of one leading into the start of the next.

For instance, in a sequence of late season two episodes, Shiv gets screwed over by a rival in one episode, plots her revenge in the next, and then sees that revenge come to fruition in the next. These three stories build off each other, but they are not straightforward continuations of a single emotional thread in the way they might have been on Game of Thrones.

Succession also doesn’t keep secrets from its audience across episodes. In the season two premiere, Logan offers the CEO job to Shiv once he retires, saying it’s time to start training her to take over. At the time, some viewers speculated that he had also offered the job to her brothers and we just hadn’t seen those scenes, to make it more devastating for Shiv to eventually realize that her father’s promise was a false one.

But as the season progressed and more characters learned about Logan’s offer to Shiv, it became clear that he hadn’t extended a similar offer to her brothers, who were upset that Logan had apparently favored their sister for the role. Succession had shown us exactly what we needed to see to understand the emotional ramifications of what would happen across the rest of the season, which rises and falls on Shiv’s chances at becoming the new Waystar-Royco CEO. (Indeed, almost its exact center is Logan refusing to name Shiv as his successor when presented with the opportunity.)

It’s a lot more common for Succession to raise a particular plot point — those cruise ship documents of Greg’s, for example — and then to seemingly forget about it for a while, only to bring it back at the least opportune moment. This approach can make certain events feel like twists because they rely on maintaining a deep memory of the show. But they’re not actually twists. Succession is always careful to make sure you see every single step of each character’s emotional journey.

Thus, while it’s not impossible for Logan and Kendall to have plotted something together that the audience still isn’t privy to, if that turns out to be the case, it will be a fairly substantial break from how Succession has told stories up until this point. The show could make such a break. But it’s not immediately obvious what Succession might gain from doing so, beyond a momentary distraction of its viewers for a one-off twist.

And anyway, there’s a much more dramatically interesting option in the scenario suggested by this ending at face value: All of the Roys and their associates having to choose between Logan and Kendall.

Many fans of Succession want Logan to be a mastermind. But the show undercuts this reading at every opportunity.

Kendall is probably listening to the rap he performed about Logan.
Kendall tunes out the world.

At the core of the “Logan planned it!” theory is the idea that the man is a mastermind who sees eight or nine moves ahead and always has a master plan, with several alternative plans on deck should any or all fall through. It’s a reading steeped in two decades of drama antiheroes who behave in just such a manner — Breaking Bad’s Walter White was this sort of character — but it doesn’t really make sense in the context of Succession’s focus on Logan as an abusive asshole who is so disgustingly rich that he can essentially bully the world into letting him keep his power.

Throughout the series’ two seasons, Logan has found himself wounded and isolated on multiple occasions, and he has always clawed back whatever he lost. But he’s always done so by throwing money around and tormenting his children into doing what he wants, and pointedly not by being a great planner.

Consider season two’s midsection, in which Logan launches a seemingly doomed bid to gobble up a company called Pierce (a thinly veiled version of the New York Times). When his entreaties aren’t met with warmth, he just keeps increasing his offer until the Pierce family takes interest. When the deal ultimately falls through, he blusters and rages but is unable to intimidate the Pierces into playing along because the family doesn’t feel the need to appease him in the way his children do.

The immediate fallout of the deal’s collapse is Logan flirting with and eventually offering the Waystar CEO job to former Pierce CEO Rhea (Holly Hunter) in a way that makes it clear how thoroughly she’s playing him. The implication is that Logan’s self-regard often blinds him to how other people can twist him in knots. If you don’t need his money and aren’t scared of his anger, you have a lot of power over him.

That’s exactly the place Kendall finds himself in at the end of season two. The rest of the season has been teaching viewers how to interpret Succession’s characters so that Kendall’s betrayal feels surprising in the moment but inevitable in retrospect, which is supremely satisfying to see. To reveal that Logan and Kendall were in cahoots wouldn’t just rob that betrayal of some of its power; it would render whole portions of Succession retroactively meaningless in pursuit of a “Logan Roy is a mastermind” reading that the show hasn’t bothered to advance so far.

Succession isn’t a show about how strong Logan Roy is. It’s a show about how weak he is and how he obscures his weakness via emotional and even physical abuse of his children. It’s a sad, difficult story to watch play out, and Kendall’s break with his father is the first example of one of his children standing up to say that the way he treats them is unacceptable, transplanted to the world of high, Shakespearean drama.

To argue that Logan is a mastermind is understandable, not only because we tend to treat TV as a puzzle to be solved but because this is so often what we do with real-life figures who share Logan’s temperament. This idea doesn’t align with reality — nobody is that smart, because being that smart would amount to having psychic powers. But it thrives in prestige television, where antiheroes are routinely 17 steps ahead of everybody else.

Logan isn’t 17 steps ahead of everybody else. He’s just good at making everybody do what he wants by treating them like people who exist only to do his bidding. And his children, who long desperately for his love, usually comply because they know no other way to live.

I’m aware that saying all of the above won’t stop people from trying to solve Succession. As long as people talk about TV on the internet, there will always be a contingent trying to guess what will happen next. And how else are we going to fill the long wait for Succession season three? That kind of guesswork can be a lot of fun!

But in the case of Succession in particular, it also risks missing what makes the show remarkable. To reduce its characters to a collection of plot twists waiting to happen is to confuse their psychological richness for contrivance. It doesn’t deserve to be treated like just another sideshow in a world full of carnival barkers.