Succession season 4 premieres on HBO on March 26.
It is a bittersweet time for Succession viewers knowing the fourth season is also the last hurrah, and suffice it to say, creator Jesse Armstrong is going out on top. Or at least that is what the first four episodes imply, as the Roy clan remains embroiled in a toxic power struggle that puts different dynamics to the test and gives the ensemble meaty material from the outset. The relevancy of their media conglomerate Waystar Royco – particularly of ATN – is wobbling, but Succession keeps a firm grip on its creative crown as it hurtles toward its conclusion while holding nothing back.
Season 3 ended with a bombshell that saw Tom Wambsgans (Matthew Macfadyen) betray his wife, Shiv (Sarah Snook), in yet another hard-to-top, jaw-dropping twist that shifts the landscape once more. Succession avoids getting stuck in a creative rut because its central figures are always negotiating their place within this pecking order, and there is enough sly humor to keep us laughing amid family disputes. At the same time, Armstrong is unafraid to dial up the emotional stakes, as Kendall’s (Jeremy Strong) confession to his siblings at the end of last season proved. Swinging between drama and comedy continues to be one of Succession’s most significant assets, ensuring the material still feels fresh after all this time. And as soon as a story begins to hover in repetitive territory, the ground shifts again.
From its 2018 pilot, the lavish HBO drama has tipped its hat to Shakespeare (hello, King Lear) and real-life soap operas playing out among the world’s wealthiest figures. Tom, warning his father-in-law, Logan Roy (Brian Cox), that his three children have put aside their differences to present a united front, throws a different loyalty grenade into the mix that is addressed from the jump. The opening episode of season 4, “The Munsters,” brings the series full circle – with noticeable differences on this auspicious occasion. After three seasons, Nicholas Britell’s theme music is still deliciously infectious, and this score immediately sets the mood.
No matter how often someone points out that choices are made from a purely business point of view, separating personal from professional feelings within the cutthroat media empire is impossible. Being hardened or detached from these events will only get you so far, and every single member of this family bears backstabbing scars. Trust is hard to come by due to this history, and the ongoing back-and-forths are a fascinating foundation for these first four episodes.
Kendall, Shiv, and Roman (Kieran Culkin) failed in their attempt to stop their father from enacting his plan to sell Waystar Royco to the prickly tech visionary Lukas Matsson (Alexander Skarsgård). When we pick up the action, the sale hasn’t yet gone through – these things take time – and as the date edges closer, it causes more strife between the influential players sitting at this table. The Roys are still a family divided, but after so much time apart, it is a thrill seeing Kendall and the “sibs” working together. Don’t worry; it isn’t all “kumbaya” harmony, as blistering one-liners and insults from Roman come thick and fast. So much so that you will probably need to rewind scenes to catch them all – and all of Shiv and Kendall’s attempted retorts. Each sibling has a go-to defense mechanism, and part of the thrill is seeing how far they will go to push each other’s buttons.
Picking an MVP from the trio is a tall task, as they all excel in showing the chinks in their armor when they think no one is looking. Strong has deservedly been lauded for his ability to show Kendall’s bravado-swinging defiance and broken fragility that almost ended in tragedy in a Tuscan swimming pool. Capturing the spectrum of his confident self-belief and despair is one reason his performance has been singled out, but he is far from alone in showcasing range.
It goes without saying that Logan knows Roman is the easiest to manipulate, so to see the youngest son go against his father at the end of last season was a considerable development. Tension stems from this choice to pick Team Siblings over Team Dad, and Culkin is at his best when he is at war with himself. Yes, he is still hilarious when firing off filthy comebacks, but this family continues to enthrall as beneath the bravado is a universal desire to make their dad proud. References to events in their childhood are reminders that Logan’s relationship with each child isn’t a one-size-fits-all dynamic, even if they all crave the same thing.
For Shiv, her conversation with their mother, Lady Caroline (Harriet Walter), in the Season 3 finale fills in some gaps regarding Shiv’s inability to discuss anything personally painful or challenging. Watching her navigate Tom’s betrayal and the ripple effect of this deception is riveting. Negotiations have always been a fundamental part of the series beyond the business world, and Snook dazzles in portraying how often Shiv is doing battle with herself. Wearing one emotion on her face while her words say something else is why the actor is so compelling and offers a masterclass of buttoned-up emotions bubbling to the surface – at one point, it is as if she wants to slap a tear off her own face.
Even when Logan tells his kids he loves them, he does it with a caveat telling them they are “not serious people.” A father’s love is a father’s love, but affection does not come unconditionally. Cox is a force, whether bellowing his colorful catchphrase or showing his distaste with a simple “uh-huh.” In fact, this utterance can mean different things, but it is often a stalling device while Logan contemplates how much time he wants to give the person in front of him. There are still plenty of sycophants willing to do whatever he wants, and watching him wield his power without saying a word is equally impressive (and terrifying). Another consistent theme within the negotiations is palming off unpleasant tasks on someone lower (shit rolls downhill, after all), and much of the humor comes from delegation.
Legacy is a recurring theme whether Connor’s (Alan Ruck) bid for the presidency or, instead, his attempt to hold onto his one percent of the vote and gain his father’s approval. Waystar Royco’s position in the media landscape is a source of existential angst that also includes the return of the liberal Pierce family as equal parts a bargaining chip and a thorn in the Roy family’s side. A deep bench of guest stars and returning regulars is a reminder of the ensemble’s pedigree and prowess. Fan favorites like Gerri (J. Smith-Cameron) must figure out how they slot into the changing landscape, which offers another layer of attempting to stay relevant.
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Director Mark Mylod is a master at capturing intimate moments in the plush settings in the season premiere, whether staging awkward conversations between Cousin Greg (Nicholas Braun) and his disinterested uncle or showing the scale of different palatial properties. Extreme wealth is baked into the fabric, and Armstrong quickly reminds us how despicable these characters can be with offhand observation. Dialogue details like newcomers getting critiqued for how much food they pile on their plates at functions is a window into an entirely different world. It is gauche to flex your bank account, but this is also a group of people who don’t even blink when millions of dollars are treated like pocket change. It is all in the details, and several moments of elite figures in unexpected places highlight the farcical undertones.
It is impossible to view this season through a lens that ignores the finality of it all, and occasionally interactions veer dangerously toward the memeification of the characters. Luckily, figures like Tom and Greg have always leaned toward the ridiculous, and while there are certainly moments that will play well in screengrab form, it remains grounded in what has come before. While it is too early to say if the conclusion will satisfy, if these four episodes are anything to go on, then Succession has a very good chance to stick the landing and go down as one of the all-time greats.