At the end of the series’ penultimate episode of Succession, Kieran Culkin’s Roman eggs on a parade of protestors, before hopping the fence to thrust himself against the tide of marchers. Knocked to the ground from an elbow to the face, he gathers himself and continues to walk the path of self-destruction, seeking refuge in the pain and abuse he’s used to following further belittlement from Kendall (Jeremy Strong.) Already having suffered — in his mind — public humiliation after breaking down at his father’s funeral after days of boasting of having pre-grieved, this is Roman at his most raw, an actual open nerve seeking punishment in the manner he’s used to. This, perhaps, is his way of feeling close to his father one more time, by means of physical wounds.
Succession has always been a story about the cyclical nature of abuse, from the physical scars that adorned Logan’s (Brian Cox) back to the way he emotionally manipulated his children to do his bidding, to Kendall’s belief in this episode that he could have full custody of his children. They’re all walking in the shadow of those who have done them harm and, rather than put a stop to the cycle, instead try and tower above it, becoming culpable themselves of the same abuse.
The hat trick that Jesse Armstrong and the rest of the creative team have pulled has been the magnificent way it makes us empathize with monsters. Because not one of the Roy children is morally sound — not even Shiv (Sarah Snook) who will sacrifice her moral high ground for the sake of self-advancement. There’s no doubt they’ve been molded into the people they are by an angry man whose presence they’ve never escaped, even in death, but their actions — especially those of Romans during the election night that put a fascist in power — are incorrigible.
It’s part of why everything since “Connor’s Wedding” has been so excellent in pacing because we’ve been able to track in real-time as these characters once again shifted in the shadow of their father to try and become him and/or live up to his expectations. With him gone there’s wiggle room for some, such as Shiv, to reinterpret who her father was, allowing him to remain untouched by the election madness. In the case of Kendall and Roman, both have chased the ideology of what it means to be the son of a titan. In Kendall’s case, we’ve watched as any shred of humanity he’s demonstrated in previous seasons has been eroded by his own greed and egotism, while Roman sought power with such fervor it became its own addictive symptom, until he broke from it in “Church and State.”
Succession has married thematic constants such as greed and abuse with its last overlying element: grief. There’s no condoning the actions of these characters as they’re all too liable for weaponizing their wealth and power for their own purposes, f*ck the rest. Roman is a bad person, and he deserves his losses. But it doesn’t mean we can’t sympathize with the feeling of bewildered loss of self that comes with losing a loved one, and Culkin is so powerful in his moments of childlike grief in “Church and State” that it’s difficult not to feel that pull of compassion that lodges so sturdy in your gut.
With only one episode to go and the siblings all set on their own paths of finding themselves in the wake of their father’s passing, there’s the suspicion that Succession is going to end on a note of ambiguity. But the lasting impressions and the imagery they’ve left us with are potent, each frame composed with the greatest impact to show both the alienation these characters feel while positioning them so far above the ground that the protests can hardly be heard. The Roy’s are damaged goods, but their power and influence continue to wreak misery for others as they renounce morality for the sake of personal gain. They’re terrible people whose pain and grief are so palpable that in spite of ourselves, we too hope they don’t share a tomb with their father, forever locked with the man who set them on the road of finding comfort through brutality.
Feature image courtesy of Macall Polay/HBO
Featured Image Courtesy of HBO