‘Succession’ Creator and Stars Unpack Series Finale’s CEO Choice

[This story contains major spoilers for the Succession series finale, “With Open Eyes.”] 

Succession finally crowned Logan Roy’s successor with a breathtaking blindside in its series finale.

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The Roy trio of Kendall (Jeremy Strong), Shiv (Sarah Snook) and Roman (Kieran Culkin) were seemingly a united front when they showed up to the board meeting that would determine whether their late father’s company, Waystar Royco, would sell to GoJo tech billionaire Lukas Matsson (Alexander Skarsgård). Prior to the meeting, the siblings decided they would back Kendall as CEO and keep the company in a 7-6 vote. But the series delivered an ending of tragic reverberations as Shiv breaks with her brothers to back her estranged husband, Tom (Matthew Macfadyen), who in his second moment of major betrayal in the series was plucked as the U.S. CEO by Matsson over Shiv. Shiv is the final vote to push the deal through and name Tom the successor, closing the series with a cold hand-holding with Tom as she assumes the role of CEO wife.

“Tom so desperately wants this position. [Lukas] knows that he can really lean into that awkwardness and explore and have fun with it, and it’s important for him to have a sycophant in that position; someone who will be his little lap dog and do exactly what he needs. Tom has proven himself worthy,” explained Alexander Skarsgård on the official Succession podcast after the series finale about Matsson’s awkward job offer to Tom, where he said he couldn’t work with Shiv in that position because he wants to have sex with her, which would make for a messy business relationship. “He gets the answer that he wants” when Tom signs on, Skarsgård added of the power move with Shiv’s husband. “[Lukas] thrives on that weirdness; the madness of it all. That’s something he says in that moment just to see how much of a well-trained lap dog [Tom] will be.”

Speaking to host Kara Swisher following the May 29 series closer, “With Open Eyes,” the Succession winner explained what drives Matsson, giving insight into the new Waystar owner the show leaves behind. Skarsgård said he wasn’t only based on real-world tech billionaires, like the obvious comparison of Elon Musk, and that his main M.O. is to “fuck shit up.” He said, “There’s something so deliciously juicy about taking down this family dynasty. I wanted that to be a driving force for Lukas. He sees himself, even though he’s incredibly wealthy, as David vs. Goliath here. It’s exciting to him to take this on and try something that nobody thought was possible.”

In the end, Skarsgård called it “tragic” and yet “inevitable” that the kids don’t end up being Logan’s successor. Strong also separately appeared on the podcast, saying he was “gutted” by the ending and that it was “painful” to watch.

“Kendall goes in a sense Icarus flying as close to the sun as he possibly can. And we’ve seen this character attempt again and again to sort of summit this mountaintop and fall ass-backwards down to the bottom of the lowest ravine,” said Strong. “I felt that the journey through this was winding the bow back as far as it could possibly go to reach its final target, which is someone who has finally lost everything. He’s lost his father, he’s lost his morality. He’s lost in a sense his soul. He’s lost his brother and sister, he’s lost his children. He’s lost love, and he’s lost his ambition, which is a defining thing in his life.”

Strong said something that stuck with him while filming the fourth and final season of the Emmy-winning HBO saga was a line from Armstrong written in the stage direction during “Connor’s Wedding,” shortly after Kendall and his siblings find out that their father Logan (Brian Cox) had died.

“‘Kendall finds himself. He’s looking down towards the Statue of Liberty, at this moment, the sharp tip of the spear of American history and this colossal loss that the worst thing has happened and the world is off its axis, and at the same time, he’s still there. And he doesn’t know if he might be a wraith or a superbeing,'” shared Strong, citing the line. He continued, “This idea of the wraith and the superbeing was something that I think was at play the rest of the season. Episode 10 starts with Kendall surmounting his superbeing, he’s in ascendency. And when that finally fails and the full catastrophe is sort of upon him, then at the end he is that wraith walking through Battery Park and I think facing the end.

The ultimate tragedy for Strong is that Kendall did, in the end, becomes his father, as he says was demonstrated in Kendall’s final moment of desperation, where he lied to his siblings about killing the waiter back in the first season when trying to sway their votes. “He has the moment of ‘no real person involved,’ which is what his father said to him on the yacht in Croatia about the cater waiter who died,” he said. “It was a monstrous thing for Kendall to hear and it showed a heart of darkness, or at least a complete lack of the moral ethical core and kind of terrible immorality. And when Kendall says, ‘It didn’t happen; I never got in the car,’ he’s basically willing to cross any lines that are left.”

When unpacking the ending on HBO’s official “Succession: Controlling the Narrative” feature after the episode, creator Jesse Armstrong explained, “They don’t end. They will carry on. But it’s sort of where this show loses interest in them because they’ve lost what they wanted, which was to succeed this prize their father held out.”

Armstrong said Roman ends in a “reductive, brutal way” as he drinks at a bar; Shiv ends in a “terrifying, frozen, emotionally barren place” in her non-victory as CEO Tom’s wife, and for Kendall, “This will never stop being the central event of his life, central days of his life, central couple years of his life. Maybe he could go on and start a company or do a thing, but the chances of him achieving the sort of corporate status that his dad achieved are very low, and I think that will mark at his whole life.”

Strong agreed but pushed it further when he told Swisher, “Ultimately the tragedy I think of this show is in a sense Kendall’s tragedy,” he says of Kendall never even wanting something that was “imposed upon him and it shaped and misshaped and deformed his life.” The actor described the series ending as a “doom loop,” noting the finale’s explosive “traumatic reenactment” of abuse between the siblings, and similarities in the end to how the series began: “Philosophically, I don’t think [Jesse] believes that people change.”

That ethos was vocalized by Roman, when he tells Kendall “we are bullshit,” ringing true of Logan’s parting words to his children that they are “not serious people.” Strong said the series was supposed to end with that scene between Strong and Culkin, but he “couldn’t accept that, and it’s why I had to keep going. Walking back into the boardroom was something that just happened,” he said of the board room conversation where Frank (Peter Friedman) told Kendall he lost the vote, and it’s over.

Strong said Kendall had “something left in the tank,” so director Mark Mylod and Armstrong followed Strong as he went back into the room. “For me, it’s an extinction-level event that happens and I don’t think we used it in the show but sometimes Jesse would give people off-camera lines and I think Frank said to me, ‘You don’t have it, you never had it,’ and when Frank said ‘you never had it,’ which we don’t hear in the show but which I heard in the room,’ that did something to me. it just stopped me. It just stopped me in my tracks, and I guess the life went out to me. I think [Kendall] realizes maybe not that he’s bullshit, but that he never had it. That this entire thing was a fallacious thing and was a fantasy, and the whole thing deflates and he goes from the superbeing to the wraith.”

Strong is convinced there’s “no coming back from this” for Kendall, saying, “Kendall has just slowly mortgaged off everything, and has nothing left to live for.” And in one take that also didn’t make it to final cut, Strong said in his final scene of Kendall looking out at the water, that he “stood up and walked slowly to the barrier that was set up there and climbed over it, and I didn’t really know what I planned to do and the actor playing Colin saw me and ran, and stopped me from doing it.”

He hopes viewers can sense the intentionality in that final shot: “It is a completely tragic ending from my perspective.”

Succession is now streaming on Max. Read THR‘s Succession finale coverage.

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