There’s a scene in The Sopranos where Carmela visits a psychiatrist to discuss her marriage to a mob boss, but what she gets isn’t much of a discussion. The shrink simply tells her to “take only the children—what’s left of them—and go.” He calls her an “enabler” and says he won’t take her “blood money.” And he leaves her with this: “One thing you can never say: That you haven’t been told.”
It’s a line directed as much at the audience as at Carmela. We’ve followed Tony Soprano for two and a half seasons by this point, and we’ve seen him do some monstrous things, but it’s still his show and he’s still played by a charismatic James Gandolfini, and we want to believe that he’s capable of redemption. Now an aged, humorless character we’ve never seen before and will never see again is telling us what we don’t want to hear, and what none of the show’s regular characters—all of whom are either mobsters or enablers themselves—wants to hear either: Tony will not be redeemed, and neither will anyone who sticks with him. You can keep watching for three more seasons, but you can’t say you haven’t been told.
On Succession, the HBO prestige drama that for the past five years has occupied roughly the same discursive space The Sopranos opened up, we don’t get a comparable moment of absolute moral clarity until the penultimate episode of the series. It comes at the funeral of Logan Roy (Brian Cox), the Rupert Murdoch–style media tycoon who dies suddenly and unexpectedly early in the fourth and final season, and it comes from a character we’ve only met a handful of times: Logan’s brother, Ewan (James Cromwell), who insists on an unscheduled eulogy ahead of any of Logan’s children, the show’s main protagonists.
When they try to stop him, he waves them off with disgust. “What sort of people would stop a brother speaking for the sake of a share price?” he asks rhetorically, neatly capturing how small and debased his niece and nephews are. He acknowledges fraternal affection for Logan, as well as the childhood tragedies they both endured, but the bulk of his words are dedicated to how his brother “has wrought the most terrible things”: how his Fox News-esque cable channel, American Television Network (ATN), has “closed men’s hearts,” to the point where the day before the funeral, it helped elect Jeryd Mencken (Justin Kirk), an undisguised fascist, as President of the United States. Ewan speaks with a chilling certitude, addressing an audience of Logan’s progeny and hangers-on too shamefaced to intervene.
It’s an impossible act for any of the Roy kids to follow: Roman (Kieran Culkin) chokes up on stage and gets barely a word out, revealing himself before all as the broken little boy he’s always been; Kendall (Jeremy Strong) delivers an eloquent but vacuous paean to capitalism that’s the closest he can manage to a defense of his father’s legacy; Shiv (Sarah Snook) is unable to avoid discussing how Logan undermined her, just as he undermined every woman in his orbit. Ewan’s stark moral judgments are unanswerable, and everyone knows it, but in the end they aren’t going to change anything—and to suggest they come too late is to imply they ever could have. Who has time for morality these days?
When I wrote about Succession for The New Republic back in 2019, I posited that it was the defining show of the Trump era, at least for those of us who follow politics. In contrast to Obama-era shows that glamorized politicians and public-sector workers, here was a show that located power in the cynical Manhattanites behind a right-wing media empire and that showcased the underlying anxieties of Trump’s America: rampant inequality, rule by dynastic failsons, systemic sexual misconduct, and xenophobic propaganda. For media workers, who love nothing more than bitching about the state of our own industry, Succession was and remains irresistible; if you log on to Twitter next Sunday night (Eastern time), you can watch your favorite journalists spoil the series finale for you in the first hour after it drops.
In 2023, the show is ending strong, but the political and cultural context has changed. Trump is no longer president, Fox News is reeling from a humiliating lawsuit, we’ve all been dealing with unprocessed pandemic trauma, and the media discourse has become bleaker than ever. The Trump presidency was a miserable time, one we hopefully won’t have to repeat, but I’ll confess to sometimes feeling nostalgic for an ambient righteousness to those years that seems retroactively quaint, if not delusional, today. If the worst imaginable man held the highest office, that meant the system was objectively broken, and it invited a set of radical antagonistic postures that, if nothing else, felt good to hold. Whether you were a #Resistance lib or a #NeverTrump conservative, a Bernie Bro (hi), or an activist crusading for #MeToo or Black Lives Matter—or any combination of the above—from 2016 to 2020, it was possible to feel the winds of history at your back. There was a Manichean quality to political debate, algorithmically encouraged by Twitter, where the media spent much of its time; the president and his many enablers were evil, and to resist them was good.
Succession, in its first two seasons, reflected some of this spirit. While much of the pleasure of the show came from watching the wealthy insult each other against luxurious backdrops, the writers made sure to remind us again and again that the Roys do real harm to working people. In the pilot, Roman taunts a caretaker’s son with the possibility of a $1 million check if he hits a home run, and tears the check up in front of the boy and his parents when he fails. At the end of the first season, Kendall gets high on ketamine and accidentally kills a waiter in a Chappaquiddick-esque car accident, which he and Logan spend much of the second season covering up. In the second season premiere, Logan orders the staff at his Hamptons estate to throw out a lavish steak and lobster meal they’ve labored over. Toward the end of the second season, Shiv intimidates a witness to a horrific sexual misconduct scandal on the Roy family’s cruise ship line into silence. None of this was subtle; the viewer was permitted to enjoy the Roys’ nasty little quips and expensive wardrobes but not to forget the human stakes of their actions. And there were a few minor recurring characters—Ewan, for one, but also the Bernie Sanders stand-in Gil Eavis (Eric Bogosian)—to suggest alternatives to a society run by Roys.
The pandemic delayed the show’s third season by a year, and when it returned in the fall of 2021, everything had changed. The post-Trump era (at least in media circles, Joe Biden’s presidency seems to define the times less than his predecessor’s long shadow) has been characterized by a pervasive nihilism, a sense that things cannot in fact get better, a retreat on every front. A Democratic White House has come too late to stop the right-wing, openly corrupt Supreme Court from rolling back abortion rights by decades; deep-blue cities that suggested an openness to abolishing the police after the George Floyd protests have instead doubled down on carceral justice; Republican politicians who openly abetted an insurgency against the constitutional order have faced no meaningful consequences; The New York Times keeps Just Asking Questions about trans lives. Many of the young progressives who made names for themselves in the Trump era are still doing good work, but an uncomfortable number have made rightward pivots, or found themselves tarnished by scandal, or simply pulled back from politics altogether. The media environment has only grown more hostile; the 2019 episode of Succession in which Kendall shutters a traffic-chasing, millennial-oriented digital media company called Vaulter felt all too real at the time, and even more so today as BuzzFeed News closes down and Vice files for bankruptcy, “smart brevity” that insults readers’ intelligence proliferates across media, and Elon Musk rapidly erodes whatever value Twitter once had. The lefty media happy hours I used to attend in the East Village, which got far too much media coverage back in 2018 and 2019, have ultimately yielded cringeworthy results, but there was at least a pretense of idealism in them that you won’t find at today’s Thought Criminal gatherings or Dimes Square superspreader parties.
Speaking of Dimes Square, that unpleasant scene’s defining “It” girl, Red Scare’s Dasha Nekrasova, had a minor role throughout Succession’s third season. Her actual performance was forgettable, and she’s nowhere to be seen in season 4, but that she was cast at all speaks to how closely Succession follows and panders to media discourse. Maybe it also explains why the third season, though as well-made and diverting as any other, strayed far from the moralistic undercurrent that was present throughout the first two seasons and that returned with a vengeance in the final episodes of the fourth. To jaded Succession-watchers in the media, it was possible to believe that the retreat from moralism was permanent, a sober assessment of the industry zeitgeist. Maybe the writers intended it as such at the time. When Kendall finally breaks down at the end of the third season and admits to his siblings that he killed a waiter, their reaction is so glib and nonplussed that the audience might reasonably share it; after all, that was two seasons prior, it was an accident, and we’re still following the Roys, so why should we even care? Why should a little thing like guilt over vehicular manslaughter distract us from Tuscan landscapes and the schemes within schemes culminating in Tom Wambsgans’s (Matthew MacFadyen) shocking betrayal of Shiv? For the show’s rare critics, the de-emphasis on morality must have come as both vindication and relief: Maybe Succession was just entertainment, fun to live-tweet and recap but ultimately meaningless, and unworthy of mentioning in the same breath as, say, The Sopranos.
But as the fourth season winds down, Succession is making a case that the banal evil of wealthy media elites actually does matter, and that a world of human consequences exists beyond the fashionable cynicism of the 2020s. In the third-to-last episode, the Roys use ATN’s election night coverage to help secure a legally dubious win for Mencken—who, in his chilling victory speech, channels not so much Trump as the young generation of savvier alt-right sociopaths vying to inherit Trump’s GOP. With the very arguable exception of Roman, none of the Roys’ actions are rooted in avowed ideological sympathy for Mencken’s platform but rather in short-term, narrow self-interest and a callous disregard for the real-world impact of a Mencken administration—a disregard that in Kendall’s case extends to the safety of his own estranged children.
Watching media Twitter react to this episode in real time was a revealing glimpse into what fans had (and had not) come to expect from Succession: Some claimed to be experiencing panic attacks or residual PTSD from the 2016 and 2020 election cycles; some bemoaned that they weren’t getting to ogle the Roys’ outfits in peace; some proclaimed that the Roys had finally crossed a line, as if there were any line left for the Roys to cross. Even those who appreciated the episode were shaken; the writer Mark Harris spoke for many when he tweeted, “Brilliant, true to itself, hated every single millisecond, will never rewatch, congratulations and fuck you to everyone involved.”
Art is supposed to make us feel something, and in its final season, Succession has done so several times over. From Logan’s abrupt demise to Tom and Shiv’s no-holds-barred marital blowout, from Mencken’s stolen victory to Ewan’s bitter eulogy, this season has strived to be more than just a showcase for some excellent performances. The writers are leaving us with a parting thought: that as grubby and cynical and stupid as the whole media industry is, it won’t suffice to dismiss it with knowing, world-weary snark. The political media landscape we know so well is collapsing all around us; its successor will be worse.