A devastating end to "Succession" wakes up to the truth about the Roys: "We're nothing"

In an appropriately desolate ending, the show drives home its original thesis by doing daddy's bidding

By Melanie McFarland

Senior Critic

Published May 29, 2023 2:08AM (EDT)

Jeremy Strong in "Succession" (HBO)
Jeremy Strong in "Succession" (HBO)

The following contains spoilers for the "Succession" series finale, Season 4, Episode 10, "With Open Eyes"

Succeeding in business is all about the right relationships, we've heard. If that is true, then we should have known Kendall, Roman and Shiv were never going to pull out a victory at the end of "Succession," whether individually or as a team.

Jesse Armstrong dangled the possibility of either scenario in front of our noses many times throughout the final season, which made for a fetching distraction and a whole lot of empty betting about who would "win" the twisted competition to inherit Daddy's company Waystar Royco.

Logan (Brian Cox) coaxed Roman (Kieran Culkin) back to his fatherly embrace one more time before croaking; then Roman weaseled his way into the newsroom, seemingly to tilt the election in favor of an autocratic bigot. But he cracked in the presence of his father – his embalmed dad, certainly, but more than that, the heart of his legacy, spelled out by his uncle Ewan (James Cromwell). Standing in the presence of a giant, Rome caved with a whimper, as he always does.

Shiv (Sarah Snook) was always kept out of company business, ensuring that nobody would take her seriously, not to mention her opposing political viewpoint to her father and brothers. To Logan she was always Pinky, a nickname that's loving and belittling in equal measure; to her brothers, she was always someone to be easily manipulated, then dismissed.

But Kendall (Jeremy Strong) – sad, pathetic Kendall, was the son who his father most closely molded in his image and the one who took the brunt of Logan's self-hatred, psychologically speaking. One of the saddest moments in series finale "With Open Eyes" is when Kendall, on the verge of losing the board vote, bleats, "I'm the eldest boy." It's his final argument to a sister he never respected and a brother he claimed to love but always subdued when he had the chance.

By that point, even Roman was done with the pretense of family unity and claiming that blocking Waystar's sale to GoJo and Lukas Matsson (Alexander Skarsgård) was about anything other than Kendall's quest for meaning and importance. He and Shiv remind Kendall that he killed someone, a fact Kendall conveniently and unconvincingly decides that he made up.

So it is appropriate that Roman – and Culkin, closing the book on a stellar performance – delivers the line that sums up the entire tragedy of "Succession" and the Roy siblings.

"We are bulls**t," he tells Kendall. ". . . We're nothing."

"With Open Eyes" would be an appropriate title for the series finale if the phrase weren't lifted from "Dream Song 29," ending a tradition stretching back to the first season of naming every finale after a part of the John Berryman poem. "Dream Song 29" is about guilt and the subject's inability to perceive reality as it is, which would make it seem directly related to Kendall. (Part of the work references hacking up a body and hiding the pieces.)

But the literal meaning of the title speaks plainly, in that Shiv and Roman are, at long last, done playing their father's game. Some of this comes from a place of emotional defeat and fatigue, and some of it stems from their realization that they are separately and together a lost cause. Kendall's ex-wife can't stand him. Shiv's marriage is a disaster. And all the dad promises in the world can't prevent them from backstabbing each other.

"I love you. Really, I love you," Shiv tells Kendall moments before she kills his dream of attaining absolute power. "But I cannot f**king stomach you."

The Roys were not raised to win.

At an hour and 35 minutes, "With Open Eyes" is the longest "Succession" episode and one that operates as a victory lap and a nostalgic farewell for the fans, and the cast. A long sequence in Barbados, where Roman disappears after the funeral and his street beating, gives him, Shiv and Kendall one more chance to jockey for dominance only to realize mid-argument that they were all screwed.

Only this time it isn't their mother Caroline (Harriet Walter), who invites them there for an alleged "air-clearing," but Matsson and a few wobbly board members doing the thrusting.  

Johannes Haukur Johannesson, Alexander Skarsgard, Nicholas Braun and Matthew Macfadyen in "Succession" (HBO)

The day before the board vote, Matsson is still letting Shiv believe that she'd be his choice for GoJo's American CEO, the odds of which seem a lot slimmer once a magazine prints a piece about the impending deal accompanied by an illustration of Shiv holding his puppet strings.

He claims not to mind but, predictably, once Shiv locks up the board votes for him and jumps on a jet to win over Roman, Matsson begins courting other contenders, all of them men.

When she gets wind of this – through Kendall, who gets a heads-up from Greg (Nicolas Braun), standing by listening to Matsson and his right hand discuss the betrayal in Swedish while holding a language translator on his phone – she's infuriated. Kendall uses her fury, in the same way their dad always did, to win her back on his and Roman's team. And then, with a bit of beachside emotional manipulation, Kendall gets his little brother and sister to agree that he should be the sole CEO.

Their bittersweet midnight celebration in Caroline's kitchen is goofy and giggly, a scene that looks as much like a laugh-filled break enjoyed by the actors as it looks like three estranged family members finding a way back to being kids again. Only here, Shiv and Roman make a disgusting smoothie made of rotten odds and ends from Caroline's miserly fridge – "a meal fit for a king," they claim. Kendall takes a hearty gulp, and they dump the rest on his head.

Kieran Culkin, Sarah Snook and Jeremy Strong in "Succession" (HBO)

The second rare moment of tenderness is not in person but via tape, seen the next day when the three return to New York and their father's old place, where Connor (Alan Ruck) and Willa (Justine Lupe) are organizing what he sells as an equitable (yet needlessly complex) means of dividing up Logan's personal items. No trinket is worth more than a video of Logan joining Karl in singing "Green Grow the Rashes" around the dinner table, which moves all his children to tears.

Not even that can be a purely loving moment, however, since Tom (Matthew Macfadyen) is nearby and has already had the conversation with Matsson that cements him as the Swede's man and cannot resist telling Shiv that he's taking the throne she envisioned for herself. (Intensifying the sting of that news is that Shiv had sold Tom to Matsson by assuring him "Tom will honestly suck the biggest d**k in the room.")

So, with all that in play, when the vote takes place and the split is deadlocked at six for and six against the sale, the deciding vote falls to Shiv – who decides, in essence, that no Roy should run Waystar Royco.

She tips her hand in the Caribbean when she, Roman and Kendall realize Logan has told each of them at various times that they were his successor, and without anyone to witness him saying it.

"I don't think he wanted to give it to any of us," Shiv says, finally landing on the truth of the matter. 

The victory of "Succession" is as airless as the tomb that is Shiv and Tom's marriage, as clammy as Roman's gin-soaked grin, and as dead as Kendall's spirit.

Thus in the long-awaited board meeting, it is Shiv who fulfills Daddy's wishes with one last suicide takedown. Logan raised those three to get in each other's way. She's merely doing his bidding. Roman doesn't stop her. But he does slow down Kendall who, before the meeting, hugs his wavering little brother so hard that the stitches on his forehead pop and bleed.

The Roys were not raised to win. They weren't even reared to fight particularly well, playing out Armstrong's main thesis: all the money and political power in the world does not guarantee that those who inherit that power are equipped to wield it. 

And who knows that better than Tom Wambsgans?

Tom, that very pliable corporate matter who, by his own wife's report, is "also a highly interchangeable corporate part," is precisely what Matsson wants. He confirms this when Matsson asks Tom to "soft pitch" him on himself and Tom answers like a dutiful cipher. He's such an empty suit that when Matsson admits to Tom that he's soured on Shiv, mainly because he doesn't like how smart she is and the fact that he wants to sleep with her, Tom doesn't blink.

He's so good at failing upward and so entirely mercenary that even when Greg sells Tom out, leading the two of them to exchange punches, Tom ends up welcoming Greg back to his side when he grovels before the newly crowned king. Better to keep a turncoat close than let him run wild.

Roman returns to be the martini-drinking rich kid good for little more than hanging out at bars. Kendall is left adrift, slack-jawed and wandering the city with no purpose. He warns Shiv that if he didn't get the CEO position he might die. And while we don't see that happen in the very last scene, it's obvious that his soul is no longer in his body.

Matthew Macfadyen and Sarah Snook in "Succession" (HBO)

Shiv, though, may have the saddest final frame in the show. Following a torturous conversation where Shiv asks Tom if "there are any positives about the nightmare we've shared" – as in, their marriage, Tom says he honestly doesn't know. He is a man who endured the woman he loved trying to negotiate an open marriage on her wedding night, a wife who was willing to send him off to prison to appease the father who never cared for her.  

"You don't like to fail a test, do you Siobhan?" he tells Shiv after sarcastically laughing that she's finally falling in love "with our scheduling opportunities." 

Once he's the king of the world, he invites Shiv to join him in his car and isn't surprised to find her there waiting. He places his hand palm up on the armrest between them, and she rests hers on his – not holding, but hovering.

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If you wanted "Succession" to go out with a blazing revelation or a gasp, "With Open Eyes" may have disappointed you. The performances were outstanding, no question. Structurally the episode is heavy on remembrance and sweetness, which is of course meant to soften us up for the awful truth of how this story was always going to close. 

But since there were never meant to be any winners here, the denouement is depressing. 

Not even Tom has truly won. He's a guy who earned a highly paid job by failing upward, knowing that his ultimate purpose is to be a human shield. His only solace may be in knowing he's brought Shiv to heel. For the first time, she may not be worthy of him.

Hence, "Succession" continues HBO's prestige drama tradition of disabusing fans of all the notions they invested in all season long. "Who's going to end up on the Iron Throne?" Answer: nobody. "Will Tony Soprano live or die?" Answer: Cut to a black screen and let people fight over what that means for years.  

The victory of "Succession" is as airless as the tomb that is Shiv and Tom's marriage, as clammy as Roman's gin-soaked grin and as dead as Kendall's spirit. These people were always bulls**t. But damn if they weren't stupendous at getting us to dance to their piano jingle for a good long while.  

By Melanie McFarland

Melanie McFarland is Salon's award-winning senior culture critic. Follow her on Twitter: @McTelevision

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