Note: This article contains spoilers for several Succession episodes, particularly season four, episode five, “Kill List.”
At the start of Succession’s fourth season, Logan Roy laments that nobody tells jokes anymore. It’s a strange observation from a man who never showed a great love of comedy; media critics sometimes muse that horror and humor are more alike than we think, but Logan always stood firmly on the line of terrifying. In “Kill List,” the fifth episode of the final season of Succession, while Logan is being readied for a burial — not in a kilt if Connor can help it — we finally apprehend what he meant.
It’s an episode that toes the line between the comic and the sinister, set against the backdrop of the beautiful, eerie vistas of Norway. The entire Roy retinue, including the Waystar C-suite, is embarking on a voyage to the country to iron out the sale of Waystar to GoJo, Lukas Matsson’s (Alexander Skarsgård) streaming company, which has been dragging out for months. It’s a relationship that has shapeshifted many times; first Waystar wanted to acquire it, but now it’s Waystar that’s desperate to offload the aging behemoth Logan (Brian Cox) built and collect a fat payout. The episode opens with Kendall (Jeremy Strong), wearing his sunnies, listening to Jay Z’s ferocious diss track “Takeover” in the car, which may just be a portent that he’s feeling overconfident and will somehow be brought down by his hubris soon.
Kendall and Roman (Kieran Culkin), as the newly minted co-CEOs of their father’s empire, have prepped diligently for the negotiations. They’re journeying to a foreign land before Logan is even in his grave; sealing the deal he started is a kind of send-off. But on Matsson’s turf, our protagonists are never quite sure if they’re being toyed with — is this serious or is it just a bit of amusement for the Swedes? Little do they suspect the Midsommar-lite mind games that await them.
Boomers versus Zoomers
Things are notably tenser between the children and the Waystar executives — Gerri (J. Smith-Cameron), Frank (Peter Friedman), Karl (David Rasche), et al — and Shiv (Sarah Snook), annoyed at their constant questions and reminders, makes a joke about how old they are. They might be decades her senior, but that also means they have decades more experience. Ken and Rome quickly flash how green they are; when Matsson insists that they attend GoJo’s retreat in Norway, he sends a detailed list of everyone he wants in attendance, and the kids flap around a bit like headless chickens. It’s been all of a few days since Logan’s death. It’s the old guard that puts Matsson’s demand into perspective. “Cultural compatibility check,” Frank surmises. “It’s early but it’s smart,” Gerri says. What would the kids do without Logan’s inner council still whispering in their ears?
Though Roman and Kendall have prepped, the nervous energy electrifies the brisk Norwegian air. They’re surrounded by serene mountains and waterfalls, but there’s something deeply surreal and menacing about the environs, and everyone feels a little like prey being lured into a trap dressed up as a relaxing camp for media and tech executives. You can practically hear Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song” blaring in the background. The Waystar crew is freaked out about how stacked Matsson’s team is — intellectually as well as physically. One of them was an Olympic ski jumper.
Gerri offers a pep talk. “Sure, they’re young and they’re fit — but they’re European,” she says with disdain. “They may think they’re Vikings, but we’ve been raised by wolves. Exposed to a pathogen that goes by the name of Logan Roy.”
It turns out that Matsson is equally malignant. On the way up to meet him via cable car — he’s set it all up so that he’s the warlord sitting atop the mountain, demanding the villagers pay him tribute — Karl gives some last-minute advice to Kendall and Roman, saying that Logan often opened negotiations with a joke. Kendall isn’t listening; he boils the matter down to getting above a number, literally scribbling it on a clipboard: above $144 billion, it’s a win. Roman refers to Matsson (who may or may not have been drawn with shades of Swedish Spotify CEO Daniel Ek, among others) as a “little Elon bitch.” They think this is going to be easy.
“Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth,” Shiv says sagely, with just a hint of a sneer. She won’t be in the room with her brothers, after all, and maybe there’s a part of her that would relish watching them lose a few teeth in the brawl.
The meeting of the families
The Waystar and GoJo clans have come together for the first time on what could have been beautiful, neutral ground — GoJo is a Swedish company. There’s plenty of food and entertainment to enjoy, like ax throwing and archery. But the meet-and-greet is contrived, mostly because the Waystar faction feel small and can’t relax.
Tom (Matthew Macfadyen) introduces himself to one of Matsson’s inner circle. “Oh, Tom — of Siobhan?” the man asks. “Yeah ... and of ATN,” Tom replies uncomfortably, already feeling somewhat made fun of. Later, the Swedes announce it’s time for the sauna. The Americans don’t handle the heat very well; their rivals stare at them superciliously while they sweat.
From the moment that Matsson and the Waystar CEOs have their first sit-down, Matsson makes clear that he’s the one in control. They bring up their father’s recent death, and rather than offering condolences, Matsson bizarrely one-ups them with a grisly tale about finding his own father dead in a car. It throws off Kendall and Roman, who start babbling anxiously — which Matsson mocks. The brothers say their practiced lines, but the two aren’t in sync, accidentally talking over one another. Matsson interrupts with a bombshell.
“I would like to propose an offer,” he says gravely. “I want to buy your entire operation for the price of one single dollar.” Kendall and Roman respond with complete silence.
Then Matsson cackles. He’s the one who starts negotiations with a joke.
He tells the two stunned brothers that he wants the company’s news network, ATN, back in the deal — no carveout. The Roy siblings had been planning on creating a Frankenstein’s monster of a media giant by buying rival company Pierce Global Media and somehow melding it with ATN. ATN is also an “emotive” issue, as Kendall describes it, because the right-wing network was Logan’s baby, and he had big plans to revamp it. Roman immediately chirps his displeasure at the idea. “I’m not sure that it works,” he protests.
“It works,” Matsson says.
“Okay, well, we’re not sure that it does work,” Roman replies. The shift from “I” to “we” is not unnoticed by anyone in the room, but he doesn’t get the support he wants from his brother. Kendall asks for a price. “You like it a little bit, don’t you?” Matsson says with a creeping smile, realizing he might have found his mark.
The CEOs report back to the Waystar executive team, which takes a shine to the offer, too. It means more money — not $144 billion, but suddenly more than $180 billion. Shiv is eager, calling the Fox News-esque ATN a “toxic asset.” Roman is the only one with a sentimental objection to giving up ATN, knowing that his father wanted to keep it for himself. Even more infuriating, Matsson says outright that he thinks of the company as little more than parts to be ruthlessly taken apart.
“We can’t navigate by Dad maps,” Kendall says. “He’s not here.” It’s a good point, but also the height of hypocrisy from someone who is trying to wear Logan’s pants, including using his patented strategy of feeding negative stories to the press, as Logan once did to Kendall.
Meanwhile, Shiv suspects that something is off about the sudden media coverage of Logan being a bad father. Kendall tries to distract her by offering her a choice cut of meat on a silver platter: “We could cut Tom’s throat,” he suggests. Meaning: They could fire him from ATN, or just torture him professionally. Shiv looks tempted, yet passes on the brotherly kindness. But as she passes Tom later, she can’t help but smile like the cat who got the cream.
Norway is the first time that Matsson and Shiv meet, and there’s an immediate, weird sexual frisson between them. It’s as if they understand each other on a level that the brothers couldn’t. Shiv, like Logan, knows how to have a little fun with business — to relish in the flirtations and tricks, blurring the line between teasing and actually going in for the kill. When Matsson hugs her brothers in greeting, he asks her, “Am I going to get a lawsuit if I hug you?” She doesn’t miss a beat. “Want to find out?”
On the first night of the Waystar-GoJo conclave, Shiv and Matsson enjoy a private drink in his quarters. He says he’s bad with boundaries — that this is proof of it right now. Throughout the episode, he confesses to a lot while leaving his true nature and motivations a mystery: To Kendall and Roman, he implies that he found his dad dead by suicide in his car. To Shiv, he tells a story about how he sent his ex half a liter of his frozen blood after they broke up — as a “nasty, friendly joke.” It’s one thing to keep a vial of your partner’s blood around your neck. But half a liter? Is this man taking iron supplements? “I just kept doing it, again and again and again,” Matsson says, “and it became not a joke, and then a joke again, and now it’s apparently not a joke.” Then he confesses that the ex to whom he’s been sending his bodily fluids is Ebba (Eili Harboe), his head of comms. The person in charge of his public image.
This is terrible news for the pending Waystar sale — if the media found out that the company’s new CEO was some bloodplay freak, not to mention a sexual harasser, they would never let it go. But far from being disturbed by this admission, Shiv, a former political strategist, is savvy enough to tell Matsson she can give him “informal advice” on avoiding a PR disaster. She, apparently, sees the spark of humor — or something else — in Matsson’s mischief.
The next time she spots Tom, she’s unnecessarily aggressive. She mocks his white sneakers and rubs dirt on them. “This is why people don’t take you seriously,” she says with vicious gusto. She may have turned down Kendall’s offer to cut Tom’s throat; but, not unlike Matsson, she’s intent on at least drawing blood. But Tom strikes back for once, flicking her ear hard enough that she cries out. And he murmurs possibly the strangest thing anyone has ever said on the show: “Your earlobes are thick and chewy. Like barnacle meat.”
This is a game for them, one that maybe they both enjoy. Tom mentions Shiv’s chat with Matsson. Is he jealous? “He’s boring — but he’s very conventionally attractive,” Shiv replies. She doesn’t tell her brothers about her conversation with Matsson, either; Matsson’s fetish could be good leverage for them. She keeps his secret, like she enjoys that, too.
Are we having fun yet?
Tom and Greg (Nicholas Braun) trade intel (more like gossip) about the GoJo crew. Greg reports that Matsson wears noise-canceling headphones when having sex. They’re standing right next to a display of pigs being roasted over a spit, and a kind of metaphor — they’re on the menu, even if they don’t feel the heat yet.
The off-kilter undercurrent of the retreat slowly builds as the day goes on. The Waystar clique has offered firm handshakes and made unwavering eye contact, but they still can’t help but feel outnumbered and cornered. Matsson’s the one with a penchant for mind-altering drugs, but it might as well be their crew that’s on shrooms. This lurking dread comes into sharp relief when Matsson finds out that Greg is another of Logan’s blood relations. He and his entire crew double over in laughter, speaking in Swedish about what an incestuous little family operation Waystar is, probably. It’s a scene in which Matsson drives home that he doesn’t respect the Roys at all. He wants to save ATN; Logan’s kids wonder, save it from what? “It’s a lot of yelling. Small men, big veins,” Matsson says imperiously. He wants to make ATN simpler and cheaper. “IKEA’d to fuck,” he says.
“Gotta say, I just think fundamentally you’re wrong,” Kendall tells him.
Matsson goes for the jugular. “I don’t care what you think. You’re a tribute band,” he retorts.
It’s the moment that he impugns Ken’s honor. It’s one thing to try to hardball him on an offer, it’s another to humiliate him. Kendall admits to Roman that he wants to tank the deal, after Roman sighs that it’s hard to tell whether they’re winning or losing. Kendall makes it sound like it’s just not a good deal for them, and is even honest about the allure of staying on as CEO. Doesn’t Roman want to keep doing this too?
“What do you think he would do?” Roman asks.
“I think exactly whatever the fuck he wanted,” his brother assures him. They devise a plan to make Matsson think it’s his idea to walk away from the sale, because if it’s clear that it’s their idea, the board will get wind of it and that, well, might land them in hot water with the SEC. But Kendall and Roman’s maneuvering is clunky, too obvious. The next morning, they put on a three-hour screening of a forthcoming movie they’re producing, knowing the film is a mess and hoping to freak GoJo out. Ken leaks to the media that the “deal vibes are bad.”
Matsson sees right through it. “Are you fucking Scooby Doo-ing me here?” he asks them. “Are you tanking the deal?” He tells them Logan was a prick, but he would be embarrassed if he saw them now. It’s enough to make Roman’s blood boil, and he lays into Matsson for the cruelty of forcing them to come to Norway days after their father’s death. “Do you remember when you asked me when my dad was going to die?” he asks. Matsson tells him that, too, was a joke.
Roman calls him an “inhuman fucking dog man” and closes the door on the sale. Matsson doesn’t look all that worried. What he knows, which Logan’s sons fail to realize throughout “Kill List,” is that if you can’t tell a joke, then you’re the butt of one.
As they make their way home, Matsson outmaneuvers them once and for all— he ups his offer to buy Waystar to a mouth-watering $192 billion, but tells Frank when they’re on the plane back to the States so the kids can’t keep it a secret. Everyone else celebrates, congratulating the CEOs for wrangling such an amazing deal. At least, until they get Matsson’s list of who’s not coming along for the ride — the kill list. Hugo (Fisher Stevens) is out; Karolina (Dagmara Domińczyk) and Gerri still in.
The Roy kids have always known it’s important to win — Logan drilled it into them — but winning isn’t just about the biggest number. That’s missing the forest for the trees. It’s about never being the humiliated one, the boar on the floor. The path to power is climbed by stepping on someone else. Maybe Kendall and Roman are so used to suffering countless indignities under their father that they’re completely artless at swerving this kind of embarrassment.
Shiv, meanwhile, not only avoids humiliation in Norway, but metes it out. Shiv gets a call from Matsson. He wants her to send a photo of her brothers’ mortified faces. It’s not a joke. Or, it’s the ultimate joke: They insisted on keeping her out of the halls of power, and now they’ve shot themselves in the foot. Shiv snaps the photo for posterity and gets the last laugh.