A review of the Succession Season Three finale, “All the Bells Say,” coming up just as soon as I’m a plane crash away from becoming Europe’s weirdest king…
The castaways keep trying and failing to build a raft to escape Gilligan’s island. The Wire‘s Major Crimes Unit keeps coming agonizingly close to solving Baltimore’s problems, only to earn hollow victories at best. And Logan Roy’s children will keep coming at the king of their family, and will miss every time.
Whether we’re talking defiantly lowbrow or spectacularly highbrow, television is ultimately built on formula. The stories may evolve, and characters may even get to grow and change over the years, but there are fundamental elements that have to repeat over and over in some way, from Carrie Bradshaw’s love of designer shoes to Walter White’s love of blowing his enemies the fuck up. What separates the great shows from all the rest is how they execute that formula, and also what they use that formula to say.
It’s been clear for a while that this season of Succession has been taking the series in narrative circles. A crisis arrives, Logan’s position seems in danger, and eventually all works out for the nasty old man — again and again and again. This should not be sustainable; it should be dull. And yet moment by moment, episode by episode, this remains an utterly electric, wildly entertaining show, with its finger firmly on the pulse of both its characters and the larger state of the real world it so hauntingly yet hilariously reflects.
Which brings us to “All the Bells Say.” Because on the one hand, the season ends with a minor variation on an old theme, this one crescendoing with all three of Kendall, Shiv, and Roman on the outs with Logan at the same time, and Tom having thoroughly outmaneuvered his unloving wife to secure himself and Cousin Greg seats at the table of whatever Waystar becomes under GoJo’s new leadership. The players’ positions change, but the game never does, nor does Logan’s uncanny ability to play it better than everyone else around him.
And on the other hand, does the repetition even matter when Team Succession — with the primary duo of Jesse Armstrong and Mark Mylod writing and directing, respectively — can craft an episode as funny, as sad, and as suspenseful as this one? Because my goodness, “All the Bells Say” was everything Succession does well — much of it done better than the series ever has before.
We pick up in the aftermath of last week’s cliffhanger, which of course turns out to not be much of a cliffhanger at all. Yes, Kendall did pass out in the pool, but Comfry apparently rescued him, because the schmuck can’t even manage to have a dramatic death, rather than another reason for the rest of the family to look down on him. He’s Sisyphus, cursed by his own weakness to push the rock up the hill, each time convinced he can get it over the top, and each time having to chase the goddamn thing back to the bottom instead(*). He finds himself once again at a family wedding where he doesn’t want to be, where he feels like an outsider among the people with whom he should be closest in all the world, and where he even has to watch cater waiters come and go, thinking about the late Andrew Dodds each time. He’s caught in a loop, abjectly miserable and lost and empty, making futile attempts to puff himself up with fantasies of a Vanity Fair profile(**), but he’s seen how this story goes too often to have any real illusions.
(*) Even Greek mythology loved a good repeating formula now and then.
(**) What great timing to have that reference in an episode that airs while much of Succession fandom — and many celebrities who have worked with Jeremy Strong in the past — are still buzzing about the New Yorker profile of Strong that came out last Sunday. Some readers speculated that Brian Cox and (especially) Kieran Culkin wouldn’t have been so blunt in their criticism of Strong’s acting method, and how frustrating it can be to work with him, if they expected him to still be on the show for Season Four. Instead, it seems that everyone already just knew where they stood with the guy, and had accepted that his exasperating process leads to great enough on-camera results for them to tolerate it.
Kendall sleepwalks through much of the episode’s first half, with Strong playing him as completely hollowed-out, as if he wished Comfry hadn’t come along in time to pull him out of the water. Adult business is happening elsewhere, particularly as Logan has his first face-to-face meeting with Lukas Matsson, and discovers that GoJo now wants to buy up Waystar, rather than previous talks of a merger. Roman finds himself on the outside of the deal looking in, and instead has to fumble around at a failed intervention for Kendall with Shiv and Connor (the latter bitter at once again being treated as less than his half-siblings), and then worry some more about Peter Munion’s designs on Caroline’s money.
In the midst of all this is one delightful comic vignette after another. Willa gives the least romantic response to a marriage proposal in recorded history, saying “Fuck it! How bad can it be?” to an ecstatic Connor, who’s too smitten to recognize that it can and likely will be very bad indeed. Greg is preparing to make the shift from Comfry to the Contessa — justifying it because he and Comfry are enjoying “separate bedding” in Italy — and even manages to more or less get the better of Roman verbally by calling him out as a “sexual pervert.” (Nicholas Braun’s line delivery throughout the episode is sparkling.) Connor, Roman, and Shiv each find a variety of hilarious ways to describe and ponder the possibility that Logan is trying to get Kerry pregnant, while Shiv continues to take great glee in Roman having sent a dick pic to their father.
The episode is so funny for a while that it’s easy to forget how despondent the show’s main character is. It’s only when Shiv and Roman begin to realize the possibility that Logan is about to sell the company — and, in the process, sell their chances of one day inheriting it — that they realize they need Kendall by their side again. But where they require his business counsel, he just needs his brother and sister as shoulders to cry on. In a mesmerizing sequence, the attempted parking lot strategy session instead becomes a confession, as Kendall finally tells them about the role he played in Dodds’ drowning. (Though interestingly, he does not tell them about Logan’s role in covering it up.)
What a roller coaster of a scene, for both the audience and for Shiv and Roman. The ground is shifting beneath their feet with this potential sale of Waystar, but they can’t even think about it for a few minutes, because they can finally see how much pain Kendall is in, and then are gobsmacked by what he tells them. Strong has the showiest part of the conversation, because Kendall’s anguish is so palpable, his voice small and childlike. But look at Culkin playing Roman’s terror at having to be genuine with his brother or find some way to offer him comfort beyond cracking inappropriate jokes. He just can’t do it, though the punchlines do lighten Kendall’s mood for a moment here and there. (Whatever conflicting acting methods Strong and Culkin may have, the end result can be pretty magical.) Or watch Sarah Snook’s physical transformation as Shiv turns from impatient with Kendall — her own career seems to be imploding, and she sure doesn’t have time for another one of Ken’s breakdowns — to being deeply concerned when she realizes how much pain he’s in, to deciding that she just has to take Laird’s call even at this fraught family moment. She wants to care, and sometimes does, yet she can’t resist the siren call of power and influence. The whole messy dance concludes with the melancholy tableau of Kendall sobbing on the asphalt while Roman places his hands on his big brother’s shoulders, and Shiv her fingers on his shorn scalp. They have spent the season apart, pursuing wildly different, conflicting agendas, but here they are physically linked through Kendall’s pain and the others’ attempt to soothe it — and soon they are spiritually linked by their plan to stage a coup and blow up the deal.
If this were The Wire, here would be the moment where the MCU is about to take down Stringer Bell, or perhaps when various parts of the city government are considering allowing Hamsterdam to remain an unofficial zone where drug dealing is decriminalized. Kendall has come roaring back to life, feeling like he finally has a chance to do the good thing he failed at so completely earlier in the season. Roman has somehow been convinced to stand against Logan, perhaps agreeing with Shiv that he went a dick pic too far and will never be seriously considered for the throne. And Shiv is in her element, not only convinced she can pull it off, but seemingly sure that she will find a way to become first among equals once the dust settles.
Instead, it turns out that if you continually treat your husband like a turd stuck to the bottom of your shoe, eventually he will find a way to stink up your life. Shiv thinks she has recruited Tom to be a key part of the plan, when instead Tom — at last accepting that Shiv does not and will not ever love him in the way he wants her to, and that in fact she may just hate him — decides to make his big move and throw in with Logan. Remember how he told Kendall that he had never seen Logan get fucked once? Well, this time, he made sure that streak continued, and recruited Cousin Greg to be part of this new deal with the devil. These two are the One True Pairing of Succession, the only love that seems immune to the currents and eddies of the plot around them. They may be casting aside their souls in the bargain — “Boo, souls!” indeed — but they are trading them for some real power at the moment.
The siblings discover that their unbeatable hand is very beatable indeed, because Logan, warned by his Number One Boy Tom, took the opportunity of the others’ staggeringly long drive from the wedding back to the war room to bribe Caroline to alter the divorce agreement and nullify the power his kids thought they held over him. The scene briefly appears to be a negotiation that instead turns out to be a loyalty test that Roman and the others fail. Upon realizing how badly this is going to turn out for him, Roman pleads for his father to reconsider, offering only love as a bargaining chip. But we already know that Logan is incapable of really loving anyone but himself and the idea of winning. It’s a doomed argument, and even Roman knows it as he says it. And suddenly the positions from the parking lot are reversed, with Roman the despondent one kneeling, and Kendall — whose position is no worse than before, and who’s pulled himself back from the abyss and shared some real moments with his sister and brother this day — with his hands on Roman’s shoulders.
It’s a final scene — and a final image — so perfectly bleak and cold that it would be a perfect series-ender if we didn’t know that Armstrong and company were already at work on Season Four. Whenever we return, it’s entirely possible that we’ll be back to each kid trying to curry favor with Daddy, just from a greater distance than earlier. It’s also possible that they will remain a team fighting him from the outside, or that Logan will gracefully enjoy retirement, rather than figuring out a way to usurp Matsson’s superior position within the company.
But whether Succession finds a new tune or just keeps humming the old one, this is a show that continues to sing — particularly at finale time. Hot damn, that was good.
Some other thoughts:
* The other cliffhanger of sorts from “Chiantishire” was Gerri’s status within the company in the wake of Roman’s wayward “item.” Here, the matter seems to have been forgotten, in part because Logan needs her legal counsel as the GoJo deal keeps changing by the minute. It seems likely that she, Frank, and Karl will all find themselves in tenuous positions once the sale goes through, and maybe this comes back around to bite her in the end. But for the moment, she has survived, and is back in Logan’s good graces while her harasser is one of the new pariahs.
* Finally, Hiam Abass’ presence this season has been so intermittent and slight that it was almost startling not only to see Marcia at the wedding reception, but to realize that — despite Logan’s increasingly flagrant affair with Kerry — she remains plugged into most of what’s happening behind the scenes. A great character for whom the show had little room this year.