Succession: the end of the line

Succession will probably conclude like so many other great narrative artworks – a bit shambolically, leaving the viewer mostly bewildered and frustrated.

Brian Cox as Logan Roy in HBO's Succession.
Brian Cox as Logan Roy in HBO's Succession. Credit: LANDMARK MEDIA / Alamy Stock Photo

Two episodes into the fourth (and final) series of Succession, which airs on Mondays in the UK, and the rhythm of the programme has stalled. The characters seem to be exhausted, the ageing media mogul Logan Roy’s errant children barely summing up the vim to engage in another slugfest over the right to ‘succeed’ him as patriarch of the Roy clan and head honcho of his sprawling business empire. Indeed, episode 2 was a brilliant exercise in comedic deflation, and nothing more. Tom and Greg’s double-act, the sour and unrelenting bitchiness of the kids, Logan being old and cantankerous (‘F*** off!’) and a bit like King Lear. All very funny and diverting, but the programme seems to have been stripped of the compelling storylines which have elevated it into something more substantial. Most notably, Kendall’s addiction struggles have – so far – been referenced only cryptically. He seems to have developed a faddish ability to quote from Buddhist philosophy. It’s funny. Has the addict seen the light? We don’t know yet. But we can laugh until we do.

Brian Cox, who plays Logan Roy, told Collider Magazine this week: ‘There comes a point when you have to bring it to conclusion… I’ll miss the cast… Logan, probably, I’ll miss a bit. But upward and onwards.’ Has that point already come and gone? And are endings really that important? Many great novels have endings which are unremarkable, even forgettable. Many (like Kafka’s The Trial or Jane Austen’s Sanditon) remain fragmentary, unfinished. We do not read a novel just to find out what happens or to discover the ending. Plot is a secondary, though important, function of the novel as artform. Novels are much more than well-oiled machines designed to transport the reader from page 1 to page X. In some genres of fiction, especially the thriller, elegant diversions must be sacrificed so that the plot can gallop on towards its conclusion. A quest must have its hero, and the hero must triumph against all the odds and either perish nobly in the act or return home safe, order restored, evil vanquished and a world restored to peace. But most novels are not quests and most novelists do not lead readers down a straight path. They leave us stranded for pages and pages in dimly-lit rooms or lost on an overgrown path or stuck in the anxieties of a far-off age.

Endings only matter if they make a psychologically satisfactory contribution to the whole course of the drama. Even the very greatest artworks have abrupt, even unsatisfactory, endings. The Odyssey  doesn’t know quite how to end. It fizzles. There are even scholars who argue that some of the poem’s final sequences were tacked on later. Xenophon’s Persian Expedition  cuts, as it were, Sopranos-like, mid-scene with the band of survivors of the long march through Asia Minor stranded in Thrace.

The original, UK version of The Office offers a counter-example. In the closing sequences of the show’s last ever episode, which dramatises an office Christmas party, Tim Canterbury, erstwhile middle manager played by Martin Freeman, speaks to camera: ‘Life isn’t about endings. It’s a series of moments. If you turn the camera off, it’s not an ending. I’m still here. My life isn’t over … Life just goes on.’ In the next shot, Dawn Tinsley (the receptionist in the head office of fictional paper merchant Wernham Hogg and Tim’s long-time crush) returns to the party she has just left with her boorish fiancé Lee, bound for the United States. She is staring straight at Tim. To the soundtrack of Yazoo’s Only You, she walks straight towards him. She embraces him. They kiss. They leave arm in arm.

In the final shot, the cast, including all the office staff, pose for a photograph. Tim looks down at Dawn, just for a moment, hardly believing his luck.

Love, wrote the philosopher Roger Scruton, is ‘a relation between dying things, who embrace their own death as they yield to it’. There is a birth here, a new beginning, and an ending too, a kind of death – the cameras do switch off. The curtain falls. Tim’s and Dawn’s lives really are over, at least for us, the viewers. In the US Office, the equivalent characters, Pam and Jim, ‘get together’ for a long period within the fictional scope of the series itself. Their relationship develops in real time. By contrast, Tim and Dawn do not appear in the ill-conceived UK film sequel David Brent: Life on The Road, released in 2016. Instead, they appear together for the briefest of moments, and then they are gone. In this sense, the UK Office’s Tim and Dawn occupy the same psychic realm as Juliet and her Romeo, Beren and his Luthien, Siegfried and Brunnhilde, Tristan and Isolde: all the ideal loves human fancy has dreamed into life. They suggest another world beyond the everyday, one which the rest of us can, in our most noble and exalted states, come to know, if only for a little time. What was pre-eminently a brilliantly caustic sitcom was transformed into something altogether more profound.

Succession will probably conclude like so many other great narrative artworks – a bit shambolically, leaving the viewer mostly bewildered and frustrated. What would be unforgivable is for the entire final series to be a sequence of duds. Better surely to heed the wisdom of Macbeth: ‘If it were done when ‘tis done, then ‘twere well / It were done quickly.’ But isn’t ending on a quote rather a coward’s way out for a writer? See? Endings are hard.


Alastair Benn