TELEVISION: Battle lines drawn in final season of ‘Succession’

Patriarch Logan Roy (Brian Cox) is selling off his media empire in Season 4 of “Succession” on HBO. (David M. Russell/HBO/TNS)
Patriarch Logan Roy (Brian Cox) is selling off his media empire in Season 4 of “Succession” on HBO. (David M. Russell/HBO/TNS)

Everyone is expendable. Even top dogs, who have the benefit of consoling themselves with massive exit packages. Some chief executive officers hang on longer than most, but not forever — retirement or death comes for us all — which is why, when money and power and legacies are in play, you need a plan of succession. The rich comedic conceit of "Succession" has always been rooted in one irascible billionaire's inability to do this simple task: name your replacement.

The fourth and final season of the HBO series opens by tacitly asking if any of that matters, now that patriarch Logan Roy is selling off his media empire. It seems like a done deal, but you never know with this crowd. Either way, when Logan broke the news of his intentions last season, it shattered the hopes and sweaty, incompetent dreams of his three youngest children, and the show picks back up in the aftermath, with battle lines drawn.

On one side you have Logan (Brian Cox), his afterthought of a son Connor (Alan Ruck), opportunistic son-in-law Tom (Matthew Macfadyen) and gangly hanger-on cousin Greg (Nicholas Braun). On the other, it's the blustering, floundering, justifiably paranoid energy of siblings Kendall (Jeremy Strong), Shiv (Sarah Snook) and Roman (Kieran Culkin), who are plotting a rival media startup.

Finally, a venture of their own, sans Daddy! But it's a project that sounds destined to burn through money and fail spectacularly. Kendall calls their idea "Substack meets MasterClass meets The Economist meets The New Yorker." Their pitch to investors touts it as an "indispensable bespoke information hub." Hahaha, good luck!

But before they can launch, they learn an established newspaper company might be on the market — and the prospect of acquiring a turnkey operation (using the billions they'll reap when Papa sells the family business) is too delectable to dismiss out of hand.

It's a storyline that caught my attention not for what's said, but for what isn't. An ensuing bidding war is guaranteed and it will mean someone is overpaying. And when that happens, the new owners will slash budgets and jobs. I've seen it happen. That's the important and looming subtext — everyday workers will ultimately pay the price. We are mere playthings in their reindeer games.

And yet you want the kids to have a win this time, if only because Logan has consistently bested them throughout the show's run. Changing that dynamic would give "Succession" something new to play out. Instead, executive producer and creator Jesse Armstrong introduces a seismic plot twist that returns the show to the preoccupations of its earlier seasons. Are there really no new ideas? Well, perhaps that's the point: we never escape our demons. We're all stuck in a cycle of our own making. And this is what it looks like when insecurity clouds your judgment and double agents exist within your own family.

You can only be repetitive for so long before you run out of reasons to stick around, which is why it feels right that the show is drawing to a close.

Back at Logan's multimillion-dollar abode, there's a party for his birthday and he wanders aimlessly through his wood-paneled rooms that are filled with acquaintances but no real friends. His kids are conspicuously absent and there's a mopey self-pitying air to Logan's typically erratic mood. A hint of melancholy — or maybe, gasp, regret? — simmers beneath his ferocious mean streak.

I've always admired the care and craft that goes into the series, with its antic dialogue and gorgeous visuals and sharp-edged performances that are so ridiculously human. But as it heads into its final stretch, "Succession" remains a show uninterested (or unable) to offer more than a smirking, surface-level critique of entrenched systems that allow the Roys of the world to barrel over anyone or anything unlucky enough to get in their way.

The fourth season doesn't deviate from that, and if you are a devotee of the show, that's probably just as well. "Succession" is nothing if not consistent in terms of its level of quality as well as its flaws.

So let us take this opportunity to savor Brian Cox's final lap as Logan Roy, he of the towering rage, manipulative tendencies and sulky disappointment in his progeny. It's a delicious role that came to Cox late in life but has been such a thrilling match for his talents.

Ruck is also especially good this season. As the eldest son by a different mother, he has always felt like an outsider. "The good thing about having a family that doesn't love you is that you learn to live without it."

That toughness, he insists, makes him stand apart from the other Logan children: "You're needy love-sponges and I'm a plant that grows on rocks and lives off insects that die inside me."

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