Weaving a story of intergenerational trauma and the cycle of abuse perpetrated by those meant to protect you, Succession doubles down on this ideology in its quietly explosive series finale. That Succession worked as well, as seamlessly, as it did is a near miracle. Expertly crafted with a level of precision that is protective over the story it’s telling and the characters who pave the way, the HBO series’ innate understanding of what made the Roy’s tick was integral to the narrative. It meant that when it leveraged emotional blows they were going to bruise upon impact.
“With Open Eyes” is a tremendous series finale, anchored by terrific performances from Jeremy Strong, Kieran Culkin, and Sarah Snook. Fueled by tension that itself is due to an impending sense of doom, the three are in an abbreviated race against time as they — at least at the start — try to wrestle control of the company out of Matsson’s hands. Their ever-shifting alliances ebb and flow over the course of 24 hours, as they’re once again asked to further examine the man who raised them, who promised them all the keys of the castle, and subsequently left them nothing but unanswered questions and poorly buried demons.
There are a few moments that stick out, ones that will linger in the same way that the best, and worst memories imprint upon our skin. Succession bottles the infuriating relationship between siblings, especially those born from a place of toxicity with a patriarch who encouraged competitiveness, failing to instill survival skills in favor of instilling a sense of trepidation and fear when it came to seeking their father’s love. Roman, Kendall, and Shiv all know one another better than anyone ever will, no matter the walls they’ve tried and failed to fortify around themselves.
They are products of their wealth, damaged goods despite all that money can afford, forever hovering under the dark cloud cast by an angry father, with no space quite big enough to escape from it. We see hints of this begrudging closeness throughout the series, but never quite in all the stages it’s exemplified here in “With Open Eyes.” In one of the cruelest moves, the series allows us to bask in their rare playfulness, as they behave like children in their mother’s kitchen in the wake of allowing Kendall to take the reins in order to gain the company from Matsson’s clutches.
The chemistry between Strong, Culkin, and Snook has always been immense, suggesting their shared history without always having to go into detail about it. Padding around barefoot, Roman having shucked off normal, business attire, their hair damp and in disarray from a nighttime swim, the three are youthful in a manner we’ve never seen them. The three egg one another on and crack jokes they’re making for the sole purpose of getting the others to laugh. It’s partially why later when Roman calls all of them bullshit for thinking they could lead the company, it rings true and recalls Logan’s comment about them not being “serious people.” This moment in the kitchen is them at their most authentic, caught suspended in time in a mangled arrested development, kids dressed in suits and wielding their money like they would in a game of Monopoly.
It’s why Kendall’s vernacular is always so laughable — he uses the big words, dresses in designer clothes, and takes pains in playing the part, but that’s all it is. They’re children playing board games and Shiv and Roman realize this by the end, even if Kendall hangs on to it.
The siblings may no one another in totality, but that doesn’t mean they ever knew their father, something made apparent in a video shown to them by Connor. Connor may have been the often-forgotten child, but he was allowed, to a degree, in the inner circle. We watch the three youngest as they watch their father sing with those who knew him best, who saw him in his softer moments, who knew of his history. The sequence is brief, yet devastating, another stone that paves the way to the disastrous final meeting which determines the fate of the Roy siblings.
Because Kendall could never, reasonably, be allowed to win, something Shiv knows but is only able to admit to once she begins to listen to what her gut is telling her. Kendall was always the monster of their mix — the bully looming large, the actual killer. He was as much a pawn of his father’s abuse and manipulation, but the finale shows him finally wielding it in a manner that is becoming the man he believed he could best. He hugs Roman so tightly he reopens his stitches, and later lays his hands on him again after a lifetime of being his protector. He tries to physically intercept Shiv as she tries to leave to cast her vote, a move that’s only stopped because Roman is finally able to stand up to a family member’s physical violence as a means to protect his sister.
None of them are good people, something the show has never shied from. All three move throughout the world, seeking paths that benefit them. Roman aligns himself with a neo-Nazi for personal gain, Kendall threatens to take custody of his children due to his own broken ego, and Shiv forgoes her own preachings if it behooves her to. They’re cruel, petty, and incompetent. But up until now, even in their worst moments, we’ve seen their humanity and the faulty wiring that made them up. It didn’t absolve them of their sins, but it offered context.
The context dissolves in Kendall’s case as he transforms into his worst self, bellowing about being the eldest boy while threatening his siblings with violence in a tantrum, a kid throwing a fit while the grownups work. It’s not the breakdown that’s surprising so much as the catalyst that sets it off. Shiv’s reasoning for no longer wanting to support him in taking over as CEO is valid and blunt: he killed someone. He killed someone and he got away with it and while she loves him the idea of him in that place of power makes her sick. She’d rather watch Tom stumble to the top. Kendall, demonstrating his knack for abhorrent behavior, tries to deflect and says he’d been lying to the two of them when he confessed this. They see right through him, but that he’d have the gall to lie about it upsets them further.
No matter the havoc they cause one another, and the wreckage they’ve left behind them, the capitalist machine continues to turn, with or without them. No one wins, though Roman achieves the closest thing to a happy ending, fully cut loose from a company that enabled his worst impulses while continually posing as a reminder of the abuse he suffered. The show understands the complexity of their positions. Kendall is free but unable to see it as a positive, enraptured by his own vanity to believe that anywhere but the top is where he’s meant to be. He says that work is all he has, but it’s that self-importance and his need to be the bigger man, the smartest guy in the room, being torn down that does him in. He might’ve been forcibly removed from his self-assigned spot, but he’s still being followed by it, his father’s right-hand man trailing him at his lowest moment.
It’s just one instance of how the episode stages the visualization of their lives through the camera work and setting. As they stand on the beach and in the kitchen of their mothers, the frame is wide and open, suggesting freedom. In contrast, Shiv’s final moments are enclosed in the car, the windows up, with her charade of a husband, the physical embodiment of a lap dog, sitting next to her. The episode begins with her having opportunities, it ends with her trapped again in the cycle she was born into. She may have saved Roman and Kendall from being stuck, but she’s condemned herself to a life where she, like her mother, is forced to play a role she’s greater than, even if she too was never meant to be CEO.
They had that moment of lightness, of unity, and we always knew it wouldn’t last that way. The gift of the writing in Succession is due in part to its endless ability to pull the rug out from under us, even as we can see the trap lying beneath it the whole time. We, like the Roy children, believe that each time will be different, that they’ll manage a level of success or they’ll get along for more than an episode at a time. Succession’s finale is a masterclass in demonstrating the destructive, cyclical nature of power imbalance and shared trauma. The show, as funny as it is with its quick wit and one-liners, embraces the inherent follies of the characters, understanding that the learned behaviors of the three Roy’s in particular are difficult, even impossible, to sever.
They’re tragic, and the mess they make is more often than not of their own making. We care anyway, grateful at least that some of the monsters were kept at bay. Sprinkled with a sweetness that heightened the ruinous rampage Kendall goes on late in the episode, “With Open Eyes” mourns its characters fates while suggesting what we all know — the cycle will continue to move, and the damage will repeat itself. The ones who are lucky are those who are forcibly removed, and even then those who should be grateful may never be.
Succession is available to watch on Max.
Featured image courtesy of HBO
Succession Series Finale - 10/10