'Succession' Review: Final Season of HBO Show Is Brutal and Hilarious

‘Succession’ Review: Final Season of HBO Show Is Brutal and Hilarious

If there was any debate about “Succession” creator Jesse Armstrong’s place among the upper echelon of television storytellers, Armstrong snuffed it out by declaring the show’s fourth season would be its last. In interviews with Armstrong after he announced his intention to go out on top, he talked about how the show’s title is a promise to the audience. For “Succession” to have real stakes, Logan (Brian Cox) has to decide, finally and definitively, which of his silver-tongued, sharp-elbowed children is most prepared to assume his throne.

It bodes well for the final 10 episodes of “Succession” that Armstrong understands the limitations of constantly reshuffling the same deck. Because in a show in which every character is after the same prize, the prize becomes just another MacGuffin, even when it’s a multibillion-dollar media and entertainment conglomerate. Given Logan’s rapidly deteriorating cognitive condition, a decision needs to be made sooner than later, as much as Logan would prefer to use the promotion as a psychological cudgel against his children for as long as possible.

While a formal succession plan is more important than ever, it’s never felt further away than it does following the shocking realignments in last season’s finale. To briefly recap: Insecure maverick Kendall (Jeremy Strong) confesses to his siblings Shiv (Sarah Snook) and Roman (Kieran Culkin) that Logan brought him to heel after covering up a car crash, one that killed a young waiter due to a Ketamine-addled Kendall behind the wheel. Kendall’s mental fog lifts once the trio figures out that Logan’s pending sale of the company to tech mogul Lukas Mattson (Alexander Skarsgård) will leave them with the murkiest path to the CEO’s office.

After three seasons of nonstop scheming and transactional truces, a palpable esprit de corps takes root as the siblings join forces and turn their weapons toward their father. And yet, despite their unprecedented joint defection, the biggest knife twist of Season 3’s finale was the revelation of who snuffed out the Roy childrens’ mutiny before it could ignite. Tom Wambsgans (Matthew Macfadyen), whose name pleads to be said in full, finally grew tired of playing long-suffering husband to Shiv (and professional crash test dummy to Logan) and exposed Shiv’s scheme in order to fortify his position in the company.

The final season has a markedly different feel from its earliest moments, with the Roy family cleaved down the middle, and all three scions on the outs with their father at the same time. Logan is more petulant than usual at his birthday party, frustrated by all the estrangement, but constitutionally unable to apologize for placing the company outside his childrens’ grasp. Naturally, Logan’s funk is only partially lifted by the presence of his oldest and goofiest son Connor (Alan Ruck), who’s always on good terms with Daddy thanks to his indifference to following in Logan’s footsteps.

Meanwhile, the rebel faction of Kendall, Shiv, and Roman, some months after their demoralizing loss, have joined forces to launch a media brand all their own. Their new venture, which sounds like a supercharged Axios, isn’t nearly as fulfilling as they imagined it to be. But no one wants to admit how much they miss the slash-and-burn maneuvering of the family business. And though they’re now working toward the same goal, there’s no trust between them. Nor should there be, since their shared addiction to back-channeling hasn’t waned just because the outright hostility among them has.

There’s also no trust between Shiv and Tom, whose relationship has never been the stuff of romance novels, but now appears irreparably broken due to Tom executing the exact play Shiv would have in his position. Still, there’s a tenderness underlying the resentment between Mr. and Mrs. Wambsgans, and the four episodes provided to critics find the couple in the most complicated phase of their fraught marriage. The “Succession” fandom’s other favorite “couple,” Roman and Gerri (J. Smith-Cameron) are also on the outs after Roman accidentally revealed their psychosexual gamesmanship to Logan. And Logan is not far from souring on Gerri himself, following her arguably too effective stint as interim CEO.

Lest anyone think corporate romance is dead at Waystar Royco, the worst-kept-secret relationship between Logan and his quietly menacing executive assistant Kerry (Zoë Winters), whose character gets a welcome expansion. (Her growing influence is responsible for the season’s funniest scenes so far.) And no discussion of “Succession’s” hottest couples is complete without Tom and Cousin Greg (Nicholas Braun), who swore a giddy oath to each other once Tom secured his path into Logan’s inner circle. Now that both are effectively single, they’re two wild and crazy guys on the prowl, and have given themselves a squad name too beautifully stupid to spoil.

The early episodes don’t have quite the same sense of urgency as past season premieres, both of which began in the minutes following the closing bombshell. This season’s minor time jump is a shrewd choice all the same, giving the characters a bit of time to process the Roy family’s biggest crack-up yet. But with the main characters estranged, “Succession” still gets to deliver the scenes it does better than any other: harried cell phone calls. It’s those calls, after all, that gave the Season 2 and 3 premieres a jolt of electricity. Often with “Succession” the talk is the action, and the stagy insult comedy of the dialogue never gets a better showcase than when Kendall is shouting into a phone.

One pivotal episode of Season 4 essentially plays as a nearly hour-long conference call, providing the entire ensemble with some of their best acting moments in the entire series. While the season takes a bit longer to catch fire than its predecessors, once the shady dealing begins in earnest, “Succession” is more intense than ever. And with the series finale in sight, the show has a full tank of gas and an 800-pound gorilla’s foot on the pedal. Better than ever doing business with you, “Succession.”

The final season of “Succession” premieres Sunday, March 26 at 9 p.m. on HBO.