“Succession” Takes A Big Storytelling Risk And Pulls It Off

(Warning: major spoilers.) The series has been heading toward this moment.

“Connor’s Wedding” starts like any other episode of Succession. Media titan Logan Roy (Brian Cox) is preparing yet another blockbuster series of business moves. He’s trying to drive a wedge right into the middle of a fragile alliance between his children. He’s skipping his eldest son’s wedding in favor of traveling to Sweden to finish selling off the bulk of Waystar-Royco, the company he founded, to digital entertainment company Gojo. The stakes of the HBO show’s final season seem clear: Logan longs to secure his legacy, and his kids get in the way at every turn. 

And then Logan dies. Unexpectedly. On the plane to Sweden. Arguably the main character of Succession, the guy around whom the entire show revolves, dies three episodes into the final season, leaving a massive mess behind. 

Yet isn’t that how death often enters our lives — unexpectedly, on a day that seems like any other day until it very abruptly, wrenchingly doesn’t?

While it is not unprecedented for a drama series to kill a character as major as Logan at this point in its run — most notably, Six Feet Under killed Nate Fisher (Peter Krause) halfway through its final season — it’s certainly rare. And even in the very small number of shows that have made a similar storytelling choice, Succession stands alone for capturing as well as any episode of television I’ve ever seen the messy, grimy reality of the immediate minutes and hours after someone’s death, particularly when it’s someone you had very complicated feelings about. 

Succession has always taken death seriously. The show debuted in 2018, at the tail end of an era when many TV shows, chasing the high ratings of The Walking Dead and Game of Thrones, luxuriated in cheap death, running up the body count to provide ever greater shocks and buzz. Succession is not above treating death as something farcical, as in a Season 2 episode where the funeral of a sex pest/Waystar board member is mainly an opportunity for the characters to insist they had no connection to the man, highlighting their complicity in any number of crimes in comedic fashion. 

Most of the time, though, the show treats death with the appropriate gravity. No matter how much money and power Logan Roy accumulates, he won’t be able to take it with him. The series opens with scenes highlighting how frail Logan’s aging body and mind have become, and in the first few episodes, he experiences a serious health crisis that leaves his kids reeling as to what will happen after his death. (Hence the show’s title.) His flagging health continues to be a major theme throughout the show’s run. In the final season premiere, no less, Logan has a conversation with his bodyguard — one of the few people still talking to him at that juncture — about whether there’s anything after this life. Logan doesn’t think there is, and that seems to motivate him to accumulate as much as he can while he’s still alive. His last line of dialogue on the show has him calling for his underlings to be “a bit more fucking aggressive!” in making business moves. Right up until his death, he’s trying to gobble up even more.

This treatment of death as a constant shadow on the characters’ lives extends beyond Logan. His depressive son, Kendall (Jeremy Strong), has seemed on the brink of dying by suicide multiple times throughout the show’s run, and the series always underscores the bleakness of those moments. Most memorably, in an episode late in Season 3, Kendall sticks his face into a swimming pool, as though he is on the brink of attempting to drown himself. In the next episode, it’s implied that he came very close to succeeding before being rescued. Though Kendall can be a ridiculous character, whose awful venality is subject to the same “these are not good people” treatment as all of the other Roys, the show is careful to take his moments of suicidal ideation seriously. Even when you’re as rich as a Roy, death is something that can’t be taken back.

All of this consideration of death lays the groundwork for “Connor’s Wedding.” The episode feints as a typical Succession installment for its first 15 minutes. Logan skips Connor’s (Alan Ruck) wedding, and asks youngest son Roman (Kieran Culkin) to let Waystar’s CEO know she’s about to be fired right as the festivities are getting underway. It’s easy to imagine a version of the episode that turns into a dark farce, with corporate skullduggery taking place under the surface of what’s outwardly a lovely party. That episode would surely be incredibly funny, with an added kernel of tragedy at the way the Roys’ abusive family dynamics, modeled on Logan’s behavior, don’t allow them to connect with each other, even at a big celebration. Indeed, both the Season 1 and Season 3 finales, which are set at family weddings, more or less fit that description.

Once Logan’s collapse is revealed, however, the episode takes on an entirely different tone, not just from its first 15 minutes but from the show as a whole. The show’s typical “nature documentary about the ultrarich” style eases back into something looser and more flowing. There are long shots that follow a single character, trapped in their grief, as they go to find some other person to bring the bad news, and their reactions show how profoundly they are affected. Where, for instance, Culkin usually brings an air of sarcastic insouciance to Roman, in this episode, Roman is reduced to a scared little boy, insisting that his dad can’t be dead until a doctor says so as he sits with his legs folded up underneath himself. 

What’s clear throughout the episode, however, is that no matter how much money the Roys have, there is nothing they can do. They can call every doctor in the world and throw as much money as they have at them. They can demand their father’s plane turn back around for New York. They can insist that their dad isn’t dead until they say he is, and they can delay news of his death getting out as long as possible to try to preserve the company’s market share, and they can write the perfect statement to deliver to the press. But they can’t stop death. It’s been haunting the series all along, and even if Logan bought himself a few more years after the scare in the series premiere, it still caught up to him. There’s nothing they can do. There’s nothing any of us can do.

What Succession also understands about death is how it engraves who we were in stone. Up until you die, there is still a chance you might change your ways, repent for your worst deeds, find a way to make it up to those you’ve hurt. As the novelist Per Petterson wrote in his book I Curse the River of Time, at the moment of your death, “you suddenly realize that every chance of being the person you really wanted to be, is gone forever, and the one you were, is the one those around you will remember.” 

Consider that idea in light of a tyrant like Logan, who terrorized his children long before the series began and hurled abusive invective at them throughout its run. The longest single scene in the episode involves Kendall, Roman, and their sister Shiv (Sarah Snook) speaking over the phone into their father’s ear. They do not know if he can hear them. He might already be dead. But the airplane’s attendants are continuing chest compressions, so there’s always a chance their words will leak through to what remains of his consciousness.

Throughout this scene, it’s as though we watch Kendall, Roman, and Shiv’s memories of their father start to calcify. Now that there’s no chance for him to redeem himself in their eyes, they can feel the gap between the father they might have wanted and the one they actually got. 

Roman tearfully insists, “You’re a good dad,” and later freaks out that he might not have told Logan he loved him. Yet the very first thing he says to Logan is, “You’re a monster.” He means it as a compliment, but it’s not hard to hear the darker side to that statement. Kendall hems and haws and offers a very unconvincing “I love you.” But he finally says, bluntly, “I can’t forgive you.” Shiv, when she hears the news, says, “I can’t have that,” like she’s trying to send back an order at a restaurant. She, too, tries to tell her father she loves him, then immediately pivots to how “there’s no excuse for…” She trails off. There’s no excuse for so much of what Logan did. 

Several scenes later, Connor finds out, his siblings having finally told him after they’ve known for a while. He says his dad never liked him. He quickly reverses that, but his first impulse is to underline all of the ways Logan tossed his eldest son aside, to the degree that he wasn’t even going to attend Connor’s wedding. 

He was a complicated man. But that’s the point: He was

The ways in which the Roy children think about their dad will surely shift as they process his death, but, crucially, Logan no longer controls his narrative. When considering memorial options, Kendall suggests repurposing the funeral of Ronald Reagan “with tweaks,” instead of planning something more intimately tied to who Logan was. When Shiv reads a rudimentary obituary for the press, flanked by Roman and Kendall, the kids are taking over Logan’s life story for him. When they’re done, all the reporters care about is who will take over the company. Logan is gone. He’s already being turned into a figurehead. There’s no more room for him in the story. 

Killing off Logan with seven episodes to go in the series underlines that Succession treats death with a gravity too few TV shows do. Logan literally built an empire. He was an abusive father. He sometimes seemed to love his kids deeply. He was a media mogul with a golden gut that had gotten less solid as he aged. He had a body that was failing him. His preference for a bloodthirsty presentation of the news cheapened global politics. He was a complicated man. But that’s the point: He was. Now, all he is is dead, and others will write about him in their memoirs. He’ll have no say in the matter.

As the episode ends, life goes on without him, as it must. The kids give their statement, and Shiv reconnects, for just a moment, with her estranged husband. Roman goes up into the plane to see the body. Connor goes through with the wedding. Kendall waits outside, processing enormous emotions he might never figure out. The camera keeps its distance from him, then zooms in suddenly, forcing us into his thoughts, as if he’s finally understanding what’s happened and how present death has always been in his life. All of the Roys will die someday, too, their stories written by others just as surely as they’ll write Logan’s. 

Succession’s ostensible plot has always been about which of the Roy children will take over for their father as the head of Waystar. Now, that question is more urgent than ever, but the show has already answered it in a way other than fans might have expected: It doesn’t matter. No matter how vast the empire you build, you will die, and the person you were will be defined by others. So what good is spreading anger, abuse, and cruelty with the one life you get? 

Logan doesn’t get another chance to answer that question. His children might. Yet if you’ve seen this show at all, you already know the answer. They won’t reconsider anything because of this. They’ll double down. They’ll keep chasing the throne right off the cliff. ●

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