Across all four seasons, Succession has never once had a slump. With the possible exception of its scattered pilot episode, Jesse Armstrong’s wealth-satire-meets-Shakespearean tragedy series has been consistent in its ability to rivet and impress. It makes sense for the show to end with its upcoming fourth season because it’s the television equivalent of retiring with a perfect record. That’s definitely what Succession is poised to do, as its excellent final season kicks off with a four-episode stretch that’s all hits, all the time.
Succession has long since been a show with plotlines that, while shocking in their execution, are typically rather dry on paper. Try to explain the storyline to a friend who doesn’t watch, and your descriptions of votes of no confidence and acquisition strategies will likely be met with blank stares. But the third season finale boiled the show down to its most basic and potent form: a dysfunctional family drama. The series carries that energy into its fourth season, which is refreshing in its willingness to put several of the uber-rich Roy siblings on the same side of the table – in opposition to their own father.
Season four of Succession begins in an expected place, with Kendall (Jeremy Strong), Shiv (Sarah Snook), and Roman (Kieran Culkin) plotting to usurp their hateful dad Logan (Brian Cox) in terms of public attention and adoration, if not measurable wealth and power. Over the course of the four episodes available for review, though, Succession abruptly pivots to a plotline that’s more emotionally engaging than the often mean-spirited show ever has been before.
In the past, we’ve known the Roy siblings mostly by their psychological hamartias – Kendall’s sense of worthlessness, Shiv’s fear of being underestimated, Roman’s craving for love, and Connor’s (Alan Ruck) feeling of having been slighted. But by largely separating the group from Logan and allowing even the odious patriarch himself to do a smidge of soul-searching, the show unlocks new and powerful layers that go far beyond its quippy black comedy reputation.
Each chapter of the Roy saga seems designed to let different key cast members shine, and the fourth season belongs to Snook. The actress has always been great as Shiv, one of the more manipulative and less sympathetic characters circling Wayster Royco, but the new season pushes her into a place of unprecedented vulnerability. With her husband Tom (Matthew Macfayden, season three’s MVP) pulling a betrayal worthy of a mob movie at the end of season three, Shiv is in a place of instability, and Snook’s performance only gets better the more her world gets rocked.
The actress is, of course, in great company. By this point, each member of the cast of Succession knows exactly what they have to do and does it precisely, throwing out insults like well-aimed daggers when they’re not busy revealing their characters’ innermost worries in the form of off-color jokes or dense economic jargon. Words are what Succession does best, and the dozen or so indelible performances that bring the scripts to life are what elevate Succession from the kind of show we compare to other shows to the kind of show we compare to the classics of Western Civilization. The show’s scripts not only string together sentences that have never been said before but also lets Succession’s cast deliver them with a singular, satisfying cadence and rhythm that each actor turns into a Rosetta stone of subtle emotion. At this point, Succession-speak should be studied.
Succession is firing on all cylinders, but that’s nothing new. There are, however, some foundation-shaking surprises in store for the show’s final season that set it apart from great past installments. If the show were a game of chess – which it often feels as if it is – it would be in the endgame now, and pieces are being swept off the board left and right. Without the restrictions of the long game in mind, Armstrong and the writers’ room are able to toy with audience expectations and story structure, creating an ante-upping season that’s so far on par with some of the best TV conclusions of the 21st century. Think of it as the Succession equivalent to the relentless last season of Breaking Bad or the equilibrium-disrupting final stretch of The Sopranos. Whether or not Succession will stick its landing remains to be seen, but the first half of its final outing is about as promising as it possibly can be.
The Roy family loves to talk about legacy, and as the season crests towards an ending set during an important election year, it’s clear that one family’s legacy will also become a whole country’s legacy. Succession itself will also leave a larger-than-life legacy: as an actors’ showcase for the ages, a master class in TV writing, and an exceptional show that turned the black hearts of the rich and powerful into art against all odds.
Succession season 4 premieres Sunday, March 26 on HBO. Watch the season trailer here.