The following article contains major spoilers about the series finale of HBO's "Succession."
When all was said and done, Shiv Roy lived up to her name in spectacular fashion.
The final episode of the HBO tragicomedy "Succession" culminated with perhaps the most stunning betrayal in the show's four-season run: Shiv (Sarah Snook), who had vowed to back her older brother Kendall (Jeremy Strong) and block the sale of their late father's media empire, pulled a last-minute 180.
In an emotional confrontation that devolved into a brawl, Shiv sided with the buyer, Nordic tech bro Lukas Matsson (Alexander Skarsgård), and helped install her estranged husband, Tom Wambsgans (Matthew Macfadyen), as the new CEO of Waystar Royco.
The final shot: Kendall, bleary-eyed and gutted, solemnly staring out at the rolling waves off Manhattan — adrift in nearly every sense of the term.
Shiv, brutally iced out of the CEO gig and always working the angles, ultimately decided to throw in her lot with her spouse, a sycophantic "empty suit" (her words!) who all but offered himself up to Matsson as a feckless puppet. The final minutes of the finale show Shiv and Tom in the back of a chauffeured SUV, blankly staring ahead and not quite holding hands. She's pregnant with their child. Best of luck to the happy couple.
Meanwhile, the acid-tongued middle sibling, Roman (Kieran Culkin), skulked away from the boardroom fireworks to lick his wounds over a cocktail and finally get a respite from the Oedipal drama. The eldest Roy child, the eccentric failed presidential candidate Connor (Alan Ruck), cleared out his father’s vast penthouse apartment. It seemed clear enough that neither scion will go on to future business success.
Jesse Armstrong, the British comedy veteran who created the Emmy-winning series and wrote most of its key episodes, said after the 90-minute finale aired that Tom's triumph was mapped out long ago.
"That’s something I thought was the right ending for quite a while now," Armstrong said in a post-credits featurette. "Even though he’s not the most powerful monarch you’ll ever meet, his power comes from Matsson. Those figures who drift upwards and make themselves amenable to powerful people are around."
Tom may have seized the crown — though in many respects, all the corporate gamesmanship was beside the point.
When the series premiered in June 2018, the second summer of Donald Trump's presidency, some viewers saw it as a spin on the smash hit "Game of Thrones," a fantasy about the fight to rule the Seven Kingdoms. Yet the similarities between the two were arguably superficial at best. Yes, "Succession" revolved in part around the question of who would take over for Logan Roy (Brian Cox), an ailing tycoon clearly modeled on Fox News chief Rupert Murdoch, but its thematic concerns went far beyond palace intrigue.
In the course of 39 episodes, "Succession" revealed itself as a moral tale for an age of extreme inequality, concentrated wealth and media consolidation. The main characters were obscenely rich, their lives a procession of gleaming skyscrapers and Italian villas. Their fortunes insulated them from the real-world consequences of their actions, whether it was Kendall's role in the drowning death of a waiter at Shiv's wedding or the chaos that followed after the family's right-wing news network, ATN, prematurely called a presidential election for a Nazi-admiring demagogue.
The world burned, but the Roys mostly came out unscathed.
Kendall, Roman and Shiv took turns gunning for the top job, but Armstrong and his team of writers were always clear-eyed about the fact that Waystar Royco was a decaying legacy media brand rapidly losing market share to the big tech firms. What the siblings were so desperate to protect, after all, amounted to a group of aging assets rife with institutional corruption — "bits of glue and broken shows," as Roman tells Kendall.
"Succession" was just as compelling as a toxic family melodrama, at once Shakespearean in structure and operatic in intensity. Logan Roy was a tyrant and an abuser, but his children nonetheless vied for his approval, only faintly aware that his love would not quite fill the holes in their hearts. The siblings cared for one another, sure, but their rivalry ran deep — and as the final plot twist proved, their mutual protection pact was always paper-thin.
Of course, "Succession" still invited loyal viewers to play the parlor game: Who would "kill dad" and rise to power? Twitter users spent years floating theories about the outcome. (In one prescient TikTok video that went viral ahead of the finale, an expert on names said Tom's surname might have been an allusion to the baseball player Bill Wambsganss, who was most famous for pulling off an exceedingly rare unassisted triple play.)
Whether you savored "Succession" as a savagely funny satire or a grim political allegory or a twisty soap opera — or, yes, a fitting Sunday night replacement for "Game of Thrones" — many viewers are likely to come away from the finale with the same queasy feeling in the pit of their stomach. Tom won, but everybody lost.