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Succession ends exactly how it needed to

Everything you need to know about that stunner of a finale.

A man standing at a pier railing looking at the Hudson River at sunset.
Jeremy Strong as Kendall Roy in the series finale of HBO’s Succession.
Whizy Kim is a reporter covering how the world's wealthiest people wield influence, including the policies and cultural norms they help forge. Before joining Vox, she was a senior writer at Refinery29.

Note: This article contains spoilers for several Succession episodes, particularly season four, episode 10, “With Open Eyes.”

In a way, we knew how Succession would end. We’ve been pre-grieving the show’s wrap-up for months now — and many of us perhaps knew from the pilot on that the Roy family was bound for a deeply tragic denouement.

“With Open Eyes,” the series finale of Succession, which aired Sunday, certainly delivered. The finale showed the Roy family in their truest form: destroying one another better than any outsider could. Like Saturn devouring his son after hearing a prophecy that one of his children would overthrow him, Logan Roy has consumed his children for good.

None of the siblings took the crown, though they tore each other down till the bitter end. As the board votes to either approve or block the sale of Waystar to streaming service GoJo, Shiv (Sarah Snook) lives up to her namesake, inserting the knife into her brother’s back by voting yes on the sale. Kendall Roy (Jeremy Strong) will not run Waystar-Royco, and her estranged husband, Tom Wambsgans, a nobody from Minnesota, will instead become the American CEO of the newly merged company.

It was a classic Succession surprise. (Well, maybe not a surprise to all: A fan theory from a viral Tiktok video surmised that Tom would emerge victorious because he sort of shared a last name with a famed baseball player, Bill Wambsganss, who made an unassisted triple play in the 1920 World Series, taking out three players at once. In the end, Tom did the same with the Roy siblings.)

This episode saw the siblings viciously duking it out over who should be CEO at their mother’s house, an idyllic seaside location (later revealed to be Barbados), never realizing GoJo CEO Lukas Matsson (Alexander Skarsgård) is secretly plotting to betray Shiv and crown Tom instead. Roman (Kieran Culkin) — who has been missing for some undetermined amount of time — is at Caroline’s, and Shiv and Ken have rushed over not out of concern for their brother’s well-being, but to secure his vote to block the sale of Waystar to GoJo. The day of the board vote comes, and after painstakingly gaining the loyalty of other shareholders, Kendall faces a defector he hadn’t foreseen but probably should have: his one and only sister, Shiv.

Showrunner Jesse Armstrong announced early this year that the fourth season would be the last, ending the show before it lost even a bit of its luster or overstayed its welcome. Now that we’ve reached the end, it’s fair to ask, what did Succession set out to do? On the most surface level, it wanted to turn the corporate boardroom fight into an intimate, intense family drama about the cycle of abuse. It meticulously captured the ambience of privilege, employing a host of wealth consultants to ensure every detail rang true. It cleverly toyed with the headlines and anecdotes about real-life business deals and billionaires, creating a decoupage of references that grounded the show’s at-times-unbelievable drama in reality. So much of its crass, biting dialogue was irresistibly quotable, and viewers even grew fond of these terrible, petty characters. And oh, yeah, Succession wanted to crown Logan’s successor, eventually. But it also set out to show how brutish and humiliating the ascendency would be — and how hollow the victory.

“It’s saying human beings are basically ludicrous,” Brian Cox, the actor who played Logan Roy, told the Hollywood Reporter in 2019. “They’re ludicrous in their desires, they’re ludicrous in what they get and don’t get and, in the end, they never even know what they want.”

The Roys only knew what they didn’t want: They didn’t want to be beaten, sidelined, or have someone else’s foot on their neck. In the end, the three Roy siblings, having permanently shunted eldest son Connor to the side, destroyed one another. They gave in to their desire for revenge for a lifetime of slights at each one another’s hands; keeping their father’s legacy in the family mattered far less.

After feeling run over by her brothers all season, even as they promised to include her in all the major decisions as interim CEOs — in the election episode, she called them Pontius Pilate — Shiv finally got her revenge. But it’s a bittersweet revenge; she has enough power to ruin someone else, but not enough to ever become the one who holds the reins. She makes a calculated play to ensure that none of her siblings would become CEO, only once it became clear that she would never get the title.

The pleasure of stepping on someone else’s neck outweighed the pleasure of helping someone else take power, even if it means they all fall. “I love you,” Logan said the last time the whole gang was assembled. “But you are not serious people.” The patriarch was proven right: His children were hapless, incompetent little creatures who all caught themselves in the bear trap of their thirst for power.

The final fate of Kendall Roy

Kendall has been a bulldozer throughout this last leg of the season; he convinces his brother and sister that there is no other logical choice for CEO. When Roman, who is in a fragile state of mind since the death of his father, eyes the wounds he suffered in a recent scuffle with protesters self-consciously and expresses anguish at never being a serious contender for the heir, Ken’s basest instinct is to crush him in an intentionally painful hug that reopens the wound on Roman’s face, making it bleed anew. Later, Kendall tries to browbeat Shiv into backing away from the edge of her betrayal, but it’s no use.

In clumsily trying to rewrite his own history, he claims he didn’t actually kill a cater-waiter in season one and that he was always the unequivocal successor to their father’s seat. Kendall, spouting his delusions and lies about the hideous things he did on the way to ascend the throne, only manages to push his siblings further away. Instead, Shiv throws her lot in with Tom.

The last scene in Succession’s finale features Kendall, for a long time the presumptive heir of the Waystar-Royco empire, staring dead-eyed at the gently rolling waves of the Hudson River. Water has been a constant symbol dogging Kendall since the beginning of the series, often portending danger and darkness, but occasionally proving invigorating, as it did in the season four episode “Living+.” After the board vote is over, Kendall stares at the unfathomable waters, at once tranquil and treacherous. He’s truly “twin track,” as he told his old friend Stewy earlier this season: both dead and alive.

In the pilot episode, which aired in 2018, Kendall was introduced to viewers in the back seat of his car, listening to his emotional support hip-hop as he prepares to close an important acquisition. Throughout the show, Kendall used rap music to boost his confidence before an important moment; the artists have a swagger Kendall wishes he could muster. He’s a trembling ball of anxiety, lighting up a cigarette just to take one nervous, unsexy puff. This scene told viewers almost everything they needed to know about him: Kendall wants to be the Man, like his father, Logan, but it doesn’t come naturally and never will for him. In his eulogy for his father, three seasons later, Kendall recalls that Logan was comfortable in this world. What he doesn’t say is that others never were. Only Logan could waltz around in these cutthroat settings and thrive.

After a harrowing few years of peaks and plunges, Kendall went into the series finale poised to become CEO of Waystar-Royco — but only after Logan has died, and only after Kendall has come close to death, too. Throughout the show, Kendall showed a magnificent talent for fumbling the ball at the one-yard line. The finale only affirmed this pattern. It began with Kendall confident and bombastic, trying to bully shareholders into coming over to his side but with a put-uponness that’s never quite convincing. Stewy, his long-time frenemy, is still on the fence.

Among the four Roy children, Kendall was most like Logan; at times he displayed a good instinct for business, and there was a hard kernel of ruthlessness in him. Logan once told his son that he wasn’t a killer, but that’s not true. Kendall has killed, and by the series finale, he had transformed himself into a butcher. In the process, it has stamped out his nerve endings, the soft, human uncertainties that spilled out of him especially in his lowest moments. He was the only one of his siblings who wondered, from time to time, whether he was doing The Right Thing — whether he was a good father or a good person. He has consciously and methodically consumed that crucial part of himself, swallowed it up so that he might be his father’s son.

Strong, in last week’s Succession podcast episode, noted that Logan’s funeral was also Kendall’s coronation. Sitting on the throne, however, is a lonely place to be. His wife and children are now distant figures — even his seemingly steadfast assistant Jess (Juliana Canfield) is gone. After his complicity in the election, and having no one left by his side, Kendall is gritting his teeth and going all-in. There’s no road back from what he’s done and who he’s become.

Toward the end, begging Shiv not to renege on their agreement to tank the deal and ensure that he’s the lone CEO, Kendall sums up who he is. He admits in the finale that Logan promised the successorship to him at the tender age of 7; he was raised all his life to take the mantle. Kendall doesn’t know what he would be for otherwise. He admits that if he’s not CEO, he might die. The water that’s been threatening him all his life might finally swallow him up. “I am like a cog built to fit only one machine,” he says. “I mean, it’s the one thing I know how to do.”

How it started versus how it ended for the rest of the Roys

The Roys, who were full of absurd hubris, believed that they were smart and capable and the rightful heirs to the company that their father had built from scrap. But at every move that inched them closer to holding the reins of ultimate power, they were sabotaged by a vindictive meagerness — the thing that was their true inheritance from their father — which, in the end, turns their high-handed ambitions into mere dust. And they never quite recognize what their failings and fatal flaws were. Each season’s last episode takes its title from the John Berryman poem Dream Song 29. “With open eyes, he attends, blind,” the poem reads. So blinded were they by their internecine struggle that they didn’t even see the interloper Tom as a threat to the line of succession.

In this episode, Shiv is still under the delusion that once Matsson gets the deal, she’ll be announced as the new American CEO. The trouble is that Shiv has never been respected among her siblings, despite being roughly equally incompetent. Instead, she’s constantly overlooked and undermined.

Matsson has dinner with her husband, Tom, with whom Shiv has been on the rocks for the entire season. Tom thinks he’ll have to prove that he should stay on as ATN head or get the ax; it turns out Matsson is actually feeling him out to run everything once the acquisition goes through. Part of Matsson’s motivation for counting out Shiv is that he sees her as an object of sexual desire; he wants to fuck her, he tells Tom, so he metaphorically fucks her desire to be named CEO. It would be too messy otherwise. Tom eagerly agrees with the plan, even as he’s disturbed by the thought of being cuckolded by the mercurial Swedish tech founder and even though he knows it’s an incredible betrayal of his wife, who all but created the role for herself.

When we first met Shiv, she wasn’t even attempting to follow in her father’s footsteps. She has her own career as a political strategist, and anyway, she’s never been taken seriously in the family business. Kendall knows his father has high expectations of him, and he’s a nervous wreck about it, while Shiv is painfully aware that her father expects almost nothing from her. Logan, as Shiv said in her eulogy, simply couldn’t fit a whole woman in his head. Turns out, no one could — not her brothers, not Matsson, not even Tom.

By the finale, we see Shiv launching a full-court press to become CEO. Her brothers, and perhaps the Waystar executives as well, were never going to take her seriously as a contender. Shiv would have to claw her way in and steal what she wants — even if it means promising to neglect her soon-to-be-born child. In the final episode, she talks with Tom about where they stand. They’ve been through the wringer, saying the ugliest things to one another just a few episodes ago, Shiv called Tom “striving and parochial,” but now she seems to sense a subtle shift in power between them. She’s reluctant to divorce. Tom quips that she’s finally fallen in love with her husband, but the fact is, Shiv has always been in love with power, and by the end of the series, Tom is the one who sits on the throne. He’s the man that Shiv has chosen to anoint, and that’s more power than any of her brothers ever gave her.

For their entire marriage, Shiv has enjoyed the fact that Tom is “fathoms” beneath her, as Logan once put it, and so would never dare betray her. Now, after Tom has indeed betrayed her and told her choice harsh truths about the nature of their unequal relationship, she demurely takes his hand after he’s appointed CEO, like the trophy wife of a powerful politician.

Then there’s Roman — or, as Logan called him, Romulus, the boy raised by wolves: He’s always been directionless and fueled mainly by masochism, which is why he seems to regularly blurt out the most disgusting things imaginable. It’s as though he wants people to recoil and call him a dog. Roman isn’t really motivated by the same force and vitality of his father the way Kendall is. He’s in awe of it like everyone else, sure, but what Roman craves most in life is for someone to take control — to tell him what to do and how to be. In the fourth season, he has somehow failed up into being co-CEO with Kendall, and the sincerity of his desire to screw over GoJo CEO Lukas Matsson is palpable. But he’s still not driven by a desire to be an impressive media mogul — he’s spurred by a need to defend his dead father’s honor, which Matsson spat all over early this season. It’s unclear where he’ll be left when the revenge is finished.

Connor (Alan Ruck) is the oldest Roy sibling, the always-forgotten half-brother who’s odd, awkward, and corny. As the eldest, he has more memories with their father than the other kids, but also has terrible trauma around his mother, whom Logan forcibly committed to a psychiatric hospital.

Connor boasted declaratively in the karaoke scene earlier this season that he didn’t need love. But by the end of the series, is he happy? He married Willa (Justine Lupe) the day Logan died — after acknowledging that their relationship is somewhat transactional. But the admission of the fact that Willa is, in part, with him for his money has brought about a level of mutual support and respect. Connor knows that Willa doesn’t love him the way he loves her, and he’s made his peace with it for now. They’re making plans to move to Slovenia for the ambassadorship that Jeryd Mencken (Justin Kirk) promised Connor just as ATN declared him the winner of the election a few episodes ago. But is a fraction of love enough to sustain someone forever? If Succession has shown us anything, it’s that human nature yearns for one morsel, and then one more, and then eventually wants the whole world.

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