Editor’s note: this article contains major episode spoilers.
For a show with such universally praised writing, Succession has never employed a ton of symbolism. Most of its brilliance comes from its dialogue and performances, but one recurring motif I’ve taken note of over the years is Kendall’s (Jeremy Strong) connection with bodies of water. He almost dies in them twice, and he’s on the family yacht when he is forced into taking a major hit for Waystar and his father Logan (Brian Cox). Water has always marked the most important events in Kendall’s life, and he’s always done something drastic when encountering it.
The final sequence of Succession‘s series finale finds Kendall adrift after losing his last chance to become CEO of Waystar to his brother-in-law Tom (Matthew Macfayden). He stares out at the Hudson as Nicholas Britell’s score swells climatically, and then…darkness. The series is over, and none of the Roy siblings have ended up as their father’s successor.
How did this happen? Kendall, of course. It was always going to be Kendall who screwed it all up, because it’s always Kendall. “I’ll get the votes,” he promises in the episode’s opening scene as the sale to Lukas Matsson (Alexander Skarsgård) grows ever closer. There’s a way for Kendall to stop it—if he can just convince six of Waystar’s thirteen board members to not sell, the Roys can keep their company, and the first hour of “With Open Eyes” is about setting this fateful meeting up.
First and foremost, Kendall has to sway his brother Roman (Kieran Culkin) to his side. Roman spends most of the finale grappling with the idea that he was never really cut out to be Waystar’s CEO, a fact that only strikes him near the very end. Despite his repeated insistence to Kendall that “you don’t have it,” it’s Roman that weeps before the board meeting about “why isn’t it me?”
The main goal of “With Open Eyes” is to conclude the character arcs of the show’s four most important characters, and Roman’s is possibly the simplest. Here is a man who exists to posture and deflect, but wants desperately to be taken seriously.
“That means I’m totally fucked forever?” Roman sighs when Kendall points out his public crying jag at Logan’s funeral. But what’s sad about Roman is that Kendall is kind of right. He’s going to be seen as “the Roy that couldn’t hack it,” forever in the upper echelons of the corporate world, even if that world doesn’t seem to be his focus any longer by the end of the episode.
But then there’s Roy sister Shiv (Sarah Snook), whose last-minute flip to Matsson’s side is the decision that destroys everything for Kendall. Earlier, Matsson hints to Tom that he’ll be the one to take over as Waystar’s CEO after the sale, so he tells untrustworthy Greg (Nicholas Braun), and of course Greg immediately alerts Kendall. The knowledge that she’s been screwed out of yet another position of power is enough to turn her against Matsson. All of a sudden, she and her brothers are back in the season premiere, uniting as a trio to wrestle Waystar from the clutches of its ruthless dictator.
Except things aren’t the same.
“I don’t think you’d be good at it,” she tells Kendall flatly after the sell vote comes down to her decision. Suddenly, what was basically a guaranteed CEO spot has been stolen from Kendall, because Shiv, like Roman, knows the truth. Kendall doesn’t have it either.
“I don’t think he wanted to give it to any of us,” Roman says of Logan after they agree to let Kendall have CEO, and he’s proven right when Kendall loses his shit at Shiv, opting to shriek about how “I’m the eldest boy!” (Shiv is quick to point out that that’s not true, poor Connor [Alan Ruck] gets shafted again) in lieu of trying to reason with her. The argument gets progressively uglier—Shiv brings up the death Kendall was responsible for from season one, and his response is to pretend his confession was a total lie.
Whether Shiv and Roman believe this is irrelevant. What matters is that Kendall finally becomes the worst parts of Logan here, his denial of the man’s death calling back to Logan shrugging it off as a “no real person involved” incident. It escalates further when Roman’s taunts about Kendall’s children’s lineage pushes him over the edge and he leaps on his brother, trying to hurt him in the same way Logan used to. As Kendall realizes that he was never cut out to be his father, he chooses to channel his worst aspects. Maybe Shiv saw this in him—maybe it was when he positioned himself as CEO, or when he cockily put his feet up on his father’s desk prior to the sale, or maybe she’s always seen this. But by pulling out of the pact, she inadvertently saves Kendall from becoming the very worst parts of their father.
The real winner of the series is Tom. While arguing with Shiv, Kendall describes himself as “a cog built to fit only one machine,” whereas she describes Tom to Matsson as “a highly interchangable module part.” Series creator Jesse Armstrong said in the post-episode analysis that he knew early on that Tom was going to win, and every season finale ended with him getting another significant leg up in the Roy’s inner circle. He and Shiv’s arcs come to an end together—they have a (superbly acted) phone call near the beginning of the episode where Shiv asks Tom if he’s ready to try again, and only when he secures his position do they drive away together in silence. (And Greg also wins, kind of! Tom just can’t bring himself to abandon him under the new Waystar regime and keeps him around.)
The most important scene of the episode—perhaps of the entire season—says everything about where all this struggle has gotten the siblings. Connor invites them to his apartment to divide up Logan’s possessions, because he and his wife are running away to Europe for a little while. (Nice to see a happy ending for him, I was hoping he would get out.) He shows his half-siblings a video taken of Logan genuinely enjoying himself at a dinner, he and his son and his inner circle all laughing and singing together, and it’s enough to reduce his other children to tears. This is everything they’ve wanted—to be in their father’s good graces—and now he’s dead, and they wasted the last few months of his life fighting a cold war that turned out to be futile.
So Succession ends. Roman drinks by himself after signing Waystar over to Matsson, and he smiles a little. He’s essentially right where he started the series, because now he doesn’t have to deal with the pressures of a fracturing family and can go back to doing whatever he wants. Shiv has the unhappiest ending, because now all her power will be granted to her by virtue of staying with Tom. All she’s wanted throughout the series is her independence, but now she’ll work under yet another domineering man.
The recurring theme of water and the final image of Kendal remains dug into my brain. He undoubtedly lost, yes—Strong has Kendall retreat into his familiar shell of confusion and emptiness for the final scene—but now he’s free from all of it. The loss of CEO will undoubtedly haunt Kendall for the rest of his life, but at least now it’s no longer all his life is focused on. When the scene ends, maybe he tries to drown himself again. Maybe he reconnects with Roman and they start some new venture—after all, they’ve undoubtedly got even fatter wallets after the sale. Maybe he’ll live the rest of his life completely hollow, forever burdened by the choices he made. But that’s what makes “With Open Eyes” work.
Succession has always been about the way Logan’s legacy controlled his children—how it guided their worst decisions, their most selfish, their most heartless. But as Kendall watches the waves roll in and out, it’s as though the show is trying to suggest that this is the final transition of his life, that one way or another, he and Roman (though sadly not Shiv, as now she’s stuck with “Logan Mark II,” as Matsson calls Tom) are free from Logan with Waystar no longer theirs. The end of Kendall Roy’s story is tragic in that he failed, but what’s so beautiful about it is that now the choice is his, and the possibilities are endless. As endless as the water.
All episodes of Succession are now available on Max.