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Business News/ Specials / Who Won ‘Succession’? In the End, It Was the Fans

This article contains spoilers for the series finale of “Succession"—season 4, episode 10.

The character crowned CEO may have surprised “Succession" fans, but the outcome of the Roy family tragedy somehow seemed inevitable in the end.

“We are nothing," says Roman Roy of himself and his siblings in the series finale, confirming the most hurtful things their father Logan Roy told them.

The Roys’ send-off episode was full of familial extremes. Roman, brother Kendall and sister Shiv share some bonafide joy in their mother’s kitchen as they whip up a gross-out concoction “fit for a king" that gets dumped on Kendall’s head to anoint him CEO.

But in the end they turn on each other again when they’re closest to taking back their late father’s company, Waystar Royco. It gets violent in a glass conference room, with Kendall throttling Roman’s face and the pair wrestling like out-of-control children.

In the end, it was Shiv’s sycophantic husband Tom Wambsgans who took the crown as Swedish “anarchocapitalist" Lukas Matsson swept away with the company. (With Tom knocking out the three contending Roys, some fans pointed out that his unusual last name chimes with that of early Major Leaguer Bill Wambsganss—famous for an unassisted triple play in the 1920 World Series.)

“We’re many things, but we’re not sentimental," said “Succession" executive producer Mark Mylod in an interview last week ahead of the finale, titled “With Open Eyes". Mylod directed more episodes than any other director, 16 out of 39, including those featuring Logan’s death and funeral. While shooting the final episode, he tried to prevent the brimming emotions of cast and crew from influencing his directing choices. “I had to constantly avoid framing things to give somebody a big goodbye or a final closeup. That’s a bear trap," he said.

The director’s solution: “I had to treat it like the characters’ lives and the trajectory of the ‘Succession’ world will continue—we just don’t happen to be pointing cameras at it any longer."

Amid the wreckage of the Roy kids’ bid for succession:

Roman’s wounds go much deeper than the stitches on his forehead. He freaks out when he sees Gerri Kellman, the mother figure he fired, and his own image in a mirror.

Shiv gets ahead of herself in a rush to become CEO under Lukas Matsson, referring to “our reign"—only to see Matsson cut her out and hand the big job to her more compliant partner.

When Kendall’s quest to “reverse viking" the GoJo deal goes bust, he glitches out completely. He denies the accidental death he was involved in, calls dibs on CEO with his “eldest boy" status and says that if doesn’t get it he might die. It seems conceivable.

Arriving on Memorial Day weekend, the “Succession" finale was a Super Bowl equivalent for people who had invested in creator Jesse Armstrong’s Shakespearean tale of the ultrarich Roy family, and the show’s knotty dialogue, acidic wit and constant corporate machinations. The size of the “Succession" audience was always smaller than that of megahits like “Yellowstone," or even rank-and-file series on, say, CBS. But the show’s very vocal champions, including meme accounts, TV critics and obsessives in the news media, gave it an outsized impact. The series consolidated cult devotion and acclaim—with 48 Emmy total nominations and 13 wins—then ended on its own terms without overstaying its welcome.

Unlike sprawling dramas such as “Game of Thrones," which struggled to resolve its many subplots, the final season of “Succession" was built around a narrowing spiral. For the Roy children and other characters in orbit around Logan, his death created a vacuum. That launched the whole ensemble toward a climax, and gave even second-string characters a reason to reassemble at Logan’s wake and his funeral.

“They did a pretty good job of bringing back most of the folks we would have wanted for curtain calls," said Brendan Boyle, co-host of an analysis podcast called “RoyCast" (though he craved more screen time for one of his faves, the salty cable news exec Cyd Peach). Of Armstrong’s decision to end the show with four seasons, the podcaster said last week, “I’m at peace with the decision. As a viewer, I think the final season has been great TV, which is all we can really ask for."

The concurrent news cycle of real-life events—Fox’s $787.5 million defamation settlement with Dominion, the firing of anchors Tucker Carlson and Don Lemon—added to the zeitgeist exit for a drama about media power structures.

Sports betting sites put odds on which “Succession" character would win control of Waystar Royco. Tom, the ultimate toady, prevailed (with cousin Greg weaseling in for honorable mention). But given the bleak ending for the core characters, it’s arguable that the only real winners were the fans who rode along with the Roy family for four seasons.

Below, a breakdown of some crucial things that the makers of “Succession" did to propel the last season to the finale episode, down to its closing musical moment.

The Beginning of the End

The finish line materialized for “Succession" fans in February when Armstrong announced in the New Yorker that the show’s fourth season, starting the next month, would be its last.

Though Armstrong had proposed an endgame to his writing staff when they began drafting fourth-season scripts, he didn’t make it official with his staff, cast or executives at HBO until shooting was well underway. That open-endedness was part of the “Succession" team’s long-standing method of maximizing wiggle room for creative options to emerge. From writing more dialogue than episodes could contain, to keeping short-term characters on if they clicked (example: Willa), this “Darwinian" approach to writing also applied to a potential fifth season, Mylod said. “We didn’t want to tie ourselves in until we were absolutely sure."

But there was one thing Armstrong and his collaborators were always locked in on: the need to end the show before it fell off in quality.

“Anyone who has worked on a returning series knows that, other than some gorgeous ‘Sopranos’-type exceptions, they have their peak," Mylod added. “We were determined we would not decline."

A Taut Timeline

The writers had a mandate to turn up the intensity for the final stretch. “This is the muscular season to exhaust all our reserves of interest," Armstrong said in the New Yorker Q&A.

That translated into a bang-bang plot device that the series had never used before. The 10-episode season spanned roughly 10 consecutive days in the lives of the characters, an exceedingly tense time period that included a contested presidential election sandwiched by Logan’s death and funeral.

Though there were some “mushy elements" to the chronology, Mylod said, the goal was to concentrate the emotional and strategic drama: "To thicken the brew, as we would say."

“Our characters were constantly trying to battle the intimacy of their personal grief and process their father’s death with the clear and present need to actually try to save the company and extend their own needs," said Mylod, who also directed the recent thriller film “The Menu."

Making a Surprise Out of the Inevitable

Everyone knew Logan wasn’t going to survive the series. Yet, his death in episode 3 jolted the audience by occurring so early in the season, and by literally coming out of the blue—via a mid-air phone call from Tom on the private jet where Logan collapsed.

Composer Nicholas Britell said in an interview that he asked Armstrong to be by his side as he created the music that would herald the central character’s death.

“We had to really sculpt the nuance and specificity of each beat together," Britell said. “It was like a choreography, and that’s very different than any other sequence I’ve had in all four seasons of the show."

As Kendall, Shiv and Roman try to convey final words through a glitchy phone connection to a father who might already be gone, the music seeps in. Britell created “a raw, broken, scratching string sound" over deconstructed chords from the “Succession" theme so identified with Logan.

This interlude helped introduce the question that would propel the story for seven more episodes: “What might things feel like after Logan?" Britell said. “What is that sound?"

Escalating Intensity on Set

To juice up peak moments in the season—namely Logan’s death and his funeral—Mylod had the actors perform the scenes together in long, unbroken takes. For the funeral sequence, cameras rolled from the moment the hearse pulled up to when it drove off, with each of several run-throughs lasting about 30 minutes.

Mylod deployed four camera operators to capture both big and background performances in real time, from Roman’s sobbing breakdown to Gerri’s reaction to it. Because “Succession" is shot on film, cameras had to be reloaded on the go every 10 minutes with film cartridges stashed around the set.

The continuous performances ratcheted up the emotional realism for the actors, and also created an adrenaline effect behind the camera.

“Our camera operators are intrinsic to the basic grammar of how we tell the story," Mylod said. “We were trying to create the sense that the cameras, and by extension the audience, are barely able to keep up with events."

Playing the Cast Off-Stage

In a final variation on the “Succession" theme song, plaintive piano chords build and running notes climb and fall with the last glimpses of the Roy trio. Roman is alone and bleakly lifting a martini. Shiv hesitantly puts her hand on Tom’s as she submits to the new hierarchy in their relationship. Kendall (trailed by his father’s former bodyman, now attached to a powerless Roy) stares vacantly at New York Harbor as the score swells with elegiac strings.

Britell said he drafted this music long before he knew how “Succession" would end. He wrote the piece last year while imagining what the conclusion of the story could sound like.

He didn’t mention that intention to Armstrong when presenting the composition along with other musical ideas for the fourth season. Still, Armstrong heard the same thing in the piece that the composer did. Britell recalled, “He looked at me and said, ‘I think that’s the end of the show.’"

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