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It's Looking Like Succession Won’t Change, Ever

Midway through the final season, the Roy kids can't quite shake things up.
  • Alexander Skarsgård in Succession (Photo: Graeme Hunter/HBO)
    Alexander Skarsgård in Succession (Photo: Graeme Hunter/HBO)

    [Editor’s note: This post contains spoilers for Succession Season 4, Episode 5, “Kill List.”]

    Succession remains committed to the status quo.The show’s final season has been as entertaining as ever, filled with brilliant acting, shrewd cinematic techniques, and a stream of excellent jokes. But at the midpoint of its closing run, despite all the deaths and deals and double crosses, it’s still hammering at the same old nails. If anything, “Kill List,” the fifth episode of Season 4, stands out by repeating old patterns.

    It seems, for instance, that the idea of Logan (Brian Cox) really was as important as the man himself. He’s not even in the ground, but his three youngest children have already buried their grief, flying to Norway for a meeting with Matsson (Alexander Skarsgård) about the GoJo deal. They’ve left Connor (Alan Ruck) to handle the funeral arrangements, and they’re repulsed when he calls to ask for their input. As much as they talk about their father — and as much as they may genuinely mourn him — the three of them are in thrall to the specter of a mean daddy. They need someone cruel and withholding they can try to please, or else they barely know what to do with themselves.

    We’ve seen their hunger for cruelty in their relationships, sexual and otherwise: Roman (Kieran Culkin) gets turned on by Gerri (J. Smith-Cameron) and her degrading dirty talk. Kendall reflexively asks people to berate him, from his assistants to his friends, as though that’s a path to leadership. Shiv (Sarah Snook) keeps pushing Tom (Matthew Macfadyen) to be mean to her, and whenever he is, she lets him back in. (Just look at how she softens this week after he tells her she’s got ugly earlobes.) And with Logan gone, Matsson immediately steps into his shoes, dishing out what the kids can’t stop taking.

    Even by forcing the Waystar team to fly to his company retreat so soon after Logan’s death, Matsson is degrading them, just like Logan might’ve done. Like Logan, he’s willing to insult people and call it a joke, and he’s also willing to bluntly demean them if he thinks it will give him power. At the end of the episode, when he stands on a mountaintop screaming at Kendall and Roman that they’re nothing like their father, he’s basically echoing the insults Logan hurled at them for years. And that’s after he spends an evening getting Shiv on his side by telling her he likes and trusts her. It’s hard to believe he’s sincere, though, since he starts their private meeting by almost forcing her to wink at his heinous behavior toward a female employee.

    Matsson’s motives become clear in the last scene, when he calls Frank (Peter Friedman) to make an offer for both Waystar and ATN that’s too big for Kendall and Roman to refuse, even though they want to keep the company for themselves. Then he calls Shiv and asks her to send him a photo of their disappointed faces. This isn’t quite as sadistic as Logan’s “boar on the floor” game, but it’s similar.

    It’s unlikely the siblings see that Matsson’s behaving like a replacement Logan, because as usual, they have no self awareness. That’s evident from the opening scenes of this episode, when Kendall starts his new life as CEO by listening to hip-hop, casually insulting his staff, and spitting out empty buzzwords. Whenever he tries to convince himself he’s powerful, those are his crutches, and he never grasps how transparently needy it is. He’s deep in that fog on the mountain, nattering that it’s time to “feel the force” and “choose our adventure” as he makes moves against Matsson, planting fake stories about how their deal is breaking down and screening a terrible movie to suggest the Waystar film division is sunk. If he had developed the slightest bit of wisdom in the previous 33 episodes, then he might not try this posturing malarkey.

    Similarly, Roman hasn’t learned to tell the difference between frank observations and emotional outbursts. Last season, when he played hardball with Matsson while Matsson was urinating in a men’s room, he was attempting to appear dominant by invading the Swede’s personal space. In this episode, after Matsson screams at the brothers, he goes off to pee, and Roman interrupts him, saying he hates the guy and will never let him buy the Roy family businesses. Afterward, Kendall and he try to pretend this was a negotiating ploy, ignoring both Roman’s obvious hurt and how easily Matsson was able to goad him. Like his brother, Roman has gained no perspective, even though his volatile feelings have short-footed him with everyone from his father to Eduard Asgarov. Meanwhile, Shiv doesn’t see how her constant need to be included has allowed her to become a pawn in Matsson’s game. She’s smirking to herself about her brothers being humbled by an offer they can’t turn down, especially after they cut her out of a leadership role at Waystar. She doesn’t recognize that every time she sides with an outsider — Nan Pierce (Cherry Jones), Sandi Furness (Hope Davis) — the rewards are short-lived.

    But we recognize it. Viewers may also realize these sad little power plays always happen in remote places, from the Pierce lodge to the grounds of the Argestes conference to a mountain so tall that Matsson can barely see his employees scurrying around below. The irony is always clear: These people are so powerful and so wealthy that they live in their own universe, but they’re so insecure about their position that it makes them act like fools. The show reinforces this point by never letting anyone change.

    And that may be as deep as it goes. This episode presents a perfect opportunity for evolution — Logan’s gone; there’s a world-shaking deal to be made — but the evolution doesn’t come. By once again sticking to its depiction of privileged hamsters on a diamond-studded wheel, Succession remains a richly observed study of stasis.

    Succession airs Sundays at 9:00 PM ET on HBO. Join the discussion about the show in our forums.

    Mark Blankenship has been writing about arts and culture for twenty years, with bylines in The New York Times, Variety, Vulture, Fortune, and many others. You can hear him on the pop music podcast Mark and Sarah Talk About Songs.

    TOPICS: Succession, HBO, Alan Ruck, Alexander Skarsgard, Brian Cox, Jeremy Strong, Kieran Culkin, Sarah Snook