An era of long-form prestige dramatic television is dead, and it’s been dead for a while now. There were a lot of culprits. One might be the post–True Detective rise of the limited series, with its big movie stars and its attractiveness to streamers looking to unearth new subscribers. One might be the rise of the post-Louie, post-Girls auteur dramedy with its high potential cultural value and relatively low cost. One might be the critical—if not necessarily commercial—failure of Game of Thrones’ final seasons, the embarrassment of that unstuck landing after so many years of buildup.
Vast multiseason dramatic serials of the sort that monopolized the first decade and a half of this century (from The Sopranos to Breaking Bad and Mad Men) have seen the balance of power decidedly shift. Sharp Objects, Chernobyl, Atlanta, Watchmen, Veep, Bojack Horseman, I May Destroy You, The Terror, Mrs. Davis, Mare of Easttown, Station Eleven, Fleabag, even Big Little Lies and The White Lotus, which both began as limited series—many of the best shows in recent memory have built their worlds outside of this format, abandoning the anti-hero’s journey across many seasons, choosing either brevity or a different type of story altogether.
One of the major exceptions to this rule, of course, is Succession, which wraps up its four-season stay in HBO’s coveted Sunday nighttime slot as well as its four-season choke hold on TV Twitter discourse this week. But Succession has never really represented the new or even continued life of this type of long-form drama. It is not, in any real sense, the last of these shows, but rather the first of a different, more precarious age. Succession, instead, is twenty-first-century prestige television’s ghoulish death mask, a haunting repetition-compulsion of a show that lets us revel in the final throes of an era of TV. And that’s never been more true than in this final season.
In the very first episode of Succession, we watch an institution fall. That institution is Logan Roy (Brian Cox), the Rupert Murdoch–esque creator of the Waystar-Royco media empire, and the paterfamilias of a family of bozos and brats. Logan does not die in this episode. Indeed, much to the chagrin of his scions, he roars back to life. But all the same, this series begins with a harbinger of collapse. And the possibility of that collapse—of the grief that would come to these children if their father were to die, and the chasm that would open up beneath them if his power were to die with him or transfer out of the family—awkwardly lingers around every episode, like Cousin Greg. The kids jockey and jostle, bully and betray to take over from their father, but their strivings often feel like distractions, minor plot points of the late era. The institution evades death in the first episode, but, make no mistake, the institution is dying.
What form that death takes is an open question for the show. Does the institution luridly modernize in response to a changing media landscape? In the early seasons, this modernization looked like Waystar-Royco’s acquisition of Vaulter, a Vice-like media company that Kendall (Jeremy Strong) covets, captures, and then guts. In the show’s endgame, this modernization has looked like Waystar-Royco’s acquisition by Nordic streaming giant GoJo. In some ways these versions of the end are transformations, makeovers for a company that no longer looks like itself. But these are also potentially traps. Vaulter was probably a fine company, but, like its real-life analogues, it couldn’t produce the kind of profit Waystar-Royco needed from it, and GoJo, on the other hand, feels like a bubble ready to pop. As we witness the seemingly bimonthly shuttering of real-life Vaulters by craven investors and we watch the film and TV industry struggle to figure out how streaming even works—when it’s far too late to turn back—we realize that disaster lies down every path for the Roys.
Or does the institution collapse under the weight of its own decadence and hubris? Our entire experience of the Roys’ empire in this show is one of corruption and cover-up and abuse. There was never any moral standing to erode. But in its final days, we see it exercise what power it has in order to install a demagogue in the White House, to protect its interests by destabilizing the very society it exists to serve. Waystar’s rot was always visible—does it finally succumb, taking down everything else with it?
Regardless of the plot machinations—and, I’d argue, the show itself doesn’t care too much about those machinations—Succession is about a thing that is in the process of dying. And in this final season, that flavor of mortality is the show’s top note. It’s right, I think, to extend those mausoleum tones to the media environment in which we greet Succession. This week’s finale will air in the midst of a Writers Guild of America strike meant to force GoJo-like streaming giants to pay their writers a living wage and not replace them with robots. It will air on a network whose tent poles are now a “torture porn” melodrama developed by the nepo baby of a famous director, a hollowed-out surplus Game of Thrones spin-off, and a zombie epic based on a video game. It will be distributed on a streaming service most famous, at the moment, for disappearing its back catalog to avoid paying residuals. It will indeed air the very week that that streaming service rebrands as “Max,” jettisoning the very legacy media brand name that’s defined the 25 years of peak television that led up to Succession.
So what do we make of Succession in the end times, this wildly beloved, boutique object about grim, inevitable doom? What do we make of its jittery moral center or its gleeful apocalypticism? What do we make of its many plaudits—for writing, for acting, for capturing the zeitgeist, for resisting the zeitgeist—or its many “bad fans” meme-ing their thirst for and identification with any of its many loathsome characters? What do we make of these attachments?
We can’t make anything of them, at least not yet. One of the defining features of these weekly dramas is their ability to whisk us away into a universe where even our most hyperbolic thoughts seem ordinary. I know I’ve said some questionable things about Mad Men in weekly coverage that I can’t take back, and I suspect some of the Succession derangement syndrome currently gripping the internet will mellow over time, as well. Jorge Cotte, way back in the show’s first season, suggested that its nauseating aesthetic was meant to produce a uniquely negative affective attachment to the show. “Digging into Succession is a purposely winding road with no outlet,” he wrote. “Succession means to make you conflicted and repulsed, guilty about your enjoyment, and gratified in discomfort.” This seemed right to me in 2019, and I think, in its best moments, this is precisely what the show does.
But as the seasons have rolled on, and we’ve left behind the shock of those initial alienation effects, even become attuned to its discombobulating style, I wonder how well it’s been able to sustain that negativity. And I wonder whether our estimations of this show in the moment will hold. In the ruins of a media landscape that produced so many great, paradigm-shifting works of television narrative, the insistence on Succession’s own capital-G Greatness is an insistence that this era is not, in fact, over. But the era is over. And whether you believe Succession to be great, detestable, or merely fine, it’s built around that end in a frustratingly ingenious way.
Creator Jesse Armstrong has built his show as a series of temptations to view it as something that it is not. Succession is not, for instance, Game of Thrones. Game of Thrones, for whatever else it was about, was a drama about succession. Whether it was about evading a collective existential threat (the white walkers were climate change, we know that, right?) or avoiding any number of different fascisms, the occupant of the Iron Throne was, in fact, a big deal. But Succession is not about succession. Not really. As the critic and editor Sam Adams succinctly tweeted, “the number of people still arguing about who is going to win Succession makes me wonder if one secret of the show’s success is that it allows people to love it without understanding it.” Rooting for, or even against, any of the particular players in this game is beside the point. Nobody wins, everybody loses; everybody is a loser. Or, perhaps, there is no winning or losing at the level of corporate leadership. Logan Roy spent three seasons hanging onto his company because none of his idiot children had the killer instinct or business acumen to keep it alive. And yet it shouldn’t go beyond our notice that Waystar-Royco’s been doing great since his death. Logan’s own vision of his romantic genius is an illusion. Money, as Kendall says in his eulogy, is life. And the money keeps moving no matter who sits in the corner office.
Likewise, Succession is not Breaking Bad. That show was the occasion for Emily Nussbaum to famously name the “bad fan” phenomenon of viewers who perceive anti-heroes as heroes. Such fans gloried in Walter White’s “badass” rise as a drug kingpin, but their love for him was also inseparable from his good guy past, his desperation, his illness and vulnerability. Armstrong dares fans to break bad in this way, but for characters who lack the Mr. Chips backstory to soften or contextualize their transformation into Scarfaces or, for that matter, the biblical grandeur of Vince Gilligan’s exploration of evil.
Succession’s appeal, I think, jumps over those legendary cable giants. It plays with their legacy, but it is not their heir. Succession, in a certain light, seems more like a photo negative version of Aaron Sorkin’s The West Wing. It’s swapped out Sorkin’s pious centrist liberalism with a qualitatively better, but no less pious, left anti-capitalism. And rather than fill the screen with brilliant public servants whose devotion to democracy is a kind of priesthood, it fills the screen with deviant morons whose devotion to money and power is also a kind of priesthood. But the patter, the pace, the pleasure in verbal dexterity, the overall unquestionable rightness of its moral charge—these are hallmarks of both shows.
Succession gives its incredible cast arias of bullshit and poison to sing, their performances eliciting awe and appreciation, even—misguided—arguments about craft and method; Sorkin gave his actors arias to decency and democracy, but an opera’s an opera. Giving characters like the Roys—vain, stupid, inarticulate—access to these kinds of virtuosic verbal flourishes, whether they are crisp, rapid-fire one-liners or successful acts of oratory like Kendall’s Living+ pitch, brings allure and revulsion to the fore at the same time. Perhaps we hold them both, feeling Cotte’s ambivalence. But there’s always a risk we can only hold one at a time. In the battle of the eulogies that played out in the show’s penultimate episode, we know that Logan’s brother Ewan (James Cromwell) carries the force of moral authority in his denunciation of the Roys, but nobody in that church claps. When Kendall responds, dissociating from his petty vulgarity and delivering a stirringly grandiose defense of greed and gluttony, the crowd cheers. Jeremy Strong is terrific, and Kendall’s fluency and inspiration in that moment are a real part of the show’s appeal. Can we applaud, not for his message but only for his performance?
Television can be a story we are immersed in, it can be characters we love, it can even be a form that anticipates and challenges us so well that we marvel at its architecture. But television is also a thing we do: a ritual, a routine, a time slot. How much of our attachment to Succession is about our attachment to the practice of watching it every Sunday, with our friends and our loved ones and an internet filled with GIFs? There are times, I admit, that this show is so swaddled in the style of its reception that I have a hard time really seeing it, disaggregating it from its social life. There is no show whose future legacy I’m more excited to see unfurl than this one. Will we one day understand it as the dawning of a new era of multiseason drama—not a successor to critical darlings like Breaking Bad or commercial behemoths like Game of Thrones, but a tart, righteous rebuke of those forms on the way to something more fitted to these mean times? Or will we look back at our fandom with a cringe, the way we might view our fealty to Sorkin and The West Wing, a show so fitted to the times that it embodied their excesses and blindnesses? Or is Succession itself a eulogy for a type of show we’ll simply never see again? A few episodes before the end, having just done his best to influence the outcome of a presidential election, Roman just says it: “We just made a night of good TV … nothing happens.”