“It was all a dream” is a common (if played out) TV finale trope. The events of last night’s series finale of Jesse Armstrong’s masterful Succession were not a dream. They actually happened. But they were, in fact, self-proclaimed “eldest son” Kendall’s worst nightmare.
Watching the finale I was reminded of another “prestige TV” finale that aired earlier in the year. The show was The Patient and it was about a psychiatrist (Steve Carell) tied to the bed in his deranged patient’s (Domhnall Gleeson) basement.
I’m about to spoil The Patient, so if you haven’t seen it yet and plan to, skip to the next paragraph. Carell’s Alan makes a last minute, desperate attempt to survive his ordeal and for a second, it seems like he has. We see him enjoying Shabbat dinner with his family. They’re all together, including his estranged son. There is laughter. Togetherness. Harmony. But it’s a fake-out, Alan’s dying dream. His fantasy of how his life could’ve—and should’ve—been. The cruelty of that The Patient ending is that Alan, briefly, had everything he wanted. He never looked happier. But it was all a lie.
Such is the case with Kendall (terminally heartbreaking Jeremy Strong). Since the show has begun, he’s been striving, hustling, scheming, yearning, doing whatever it takes to become the CEO of WayStar RoyCo, which he believes to be his birthright. He’s come tantalizingly close. In the very first episode, he thinks he’s getting it, only to have it snatched away by his reliably cruel father. Another time, he stages a hostile takeover, but thanks to NYC traffic (a good joke) ends up being late to his own coup. Throughout the series, there are many times he thinks he’s about to ascend, but various forces conspire to make sure it doesn’t happen. The thing he wants most in the world is always just out of reach.
But then last night’s finale occurred. And for once, it seemed like he was getting what he wanted—for real this time. It played out like Kendall’s greatest fantasy. His younger siblings consulted and gave him the nod. They tacitly acknowledged his exalted family status. They were all together, laughing, in harmony. Yes, his siblings were teasing Kendall, but it was good-natured, familial. Kendall had won and they were lovingly giving him grief about it. As he sat in that vacation house kitchen he looked more than happy, he looked besotted, almost drunk with the giddy realization that his dreams were coming true.
And then it was all taken away—in the cruelest way possible.
Not only did Shiv (Sarah Snook) change her mind at the last minute, she brought up his lowest moment, his worst fear. “You can’t be CEO because you killed someone,” she said. It was astonishingly mean, considering that she had seen her brother at his lowest, crying and begging for forgiveness for his role in the death of a young cater waiter. And he became desperate, lying, saying he never killed that boy, it was a strategy.
In that moment, it wasn’t just that he was losing his grip on his triumph, he was doing it in the most humiliating way possible. Flailing, begging, screaming, eventually slamming his brother Roman (Kieran Culkin) against a wall—all as the board members watched with a combination of horror and voyeuristic glee. Oh those damned glass-walled offices of WayStar. No chance for privacy, for dignity. Kendall’s desperation, his lack of control, his frenzy, was on display for all to see. Minutes earlier, he had been swiveling in his father’s desk chair, taking it all in, allowing himself to feel the significance and power of the moment. And now he was a shell of a man, a joke. He had never seemed smaller.
“I need this,” he told his siblings, through tears. “If I don’t get it, I will…die.”
(I’m sure I’m not the only one who worried that he was going to hurl himself off the building. Of course, astute fans will remember that his father made sure that could never happen by installing guard rails two seasons earlier.)
Did Kendall deserve such a fate? Deserve is not part of the equation in the Succession world. In fact, the whole show was built on a lie: Who did Logan want to succeed him? It’s an answer his children were chasing to the bitter end. But of course Logan didn’t want anyone to succeed him. His ego was too immense. He couldn’t conceive of a world without him in it. “My world of a father,” Shiv called him, accurately.
Can we blame Shiv for this last-minute betrayal? No, not really. She had her own journey, her own tragedy being played out. It mostly involved her being the most competent of the Roy children and the least likely to ascend the throne because of her gender. That harsh reality played out for her for four seasons. But Kendall’s was acute. It was his happy ending taken away from him at the last second. Defeat snatched from the jaws of victory. As people watched. As his siblings betrayed him. As he was reminded of his greatest sin. A nightmare.