The car wreck that turns what is otherwise an exceptionally dark and hilarious season finale of HBO’s Succession upside down is a lot like the show itself. It subverts the narrative and the viewers’ expectations of the narrative in a way that is completely surprising yet totally inevitable. Of course Kendall (Jeremy Strong) is going to embark on a journey for some cocaine during the reception of his sister’s wedding, and of course his ketamine-laced traveling companion (who also, presumably, knows where the cocaine is) is going to end up dead at the bottom of a river after Kendall crashes a car there. And of course Kendall’s going to walk back to the castle where Shiv (Sarah Snook) and Tom (Matthew Macfadyen) are enjoying a lavish party in their honor, break in to his own suite (because the key card is also at the bottom of a quaint body of water), and attempt to wash his sins away.
Because this is Succession, a show that has sneakily become one of the most consistently entertaining shows on television at the moment, all of this happens three quarters of the way through what has also been one of the funniest episodes of this, or any other series on TV this year.
‘Nobody is Ever Missing’ is everything that makes Succession great dialed up to eleven, and then instead of taking things down a peg when it’s time to get serious, it somehow finds another gear. There’s Kendall, in the midst of a hostile takeover (or bear hug, if you prefer) of his father’s company, trying to hold himself together by treating cocaine like it’s modeling paste. Strong’s performance is so incredibly layered - a mix of sheer panic, regret, and pure spite - any other show could have made a finale out of his story alone.
But in this show there’s still time for Tom and Shiv to find out they love each other even though they may have implicitly misrepresented the type of “adult” relationship they have. That, plus Kendall’s drug-fueled disintegration, plus Brian Cox telling a lot of people to “f**k off,” as though the phrase were a beloved wedding custom, is some great TV. But the finale also delivers Roman’s (Kieran Culkin) priceless reaction to seeing the satellite launch he was put in charge of turn into a metaphor for his whole life, and, because this show just keeps on giving, Connor (Alan Ruck) decides he’s running for the office of President of the United States.
That’s a lot of TV in one (slightly longer) hour of television. And yet, like most hours of the series — especially every episode staring with, say, ‘Which Side Are You On?’ — the finale demonstrates just how purposefully these episodes have been constructed by creator and showrunner Jesse Armstrong and his writers’ room. The result is an hour that doesn’t move back and forth between characters and interactions until everyone’s story has been told, but rather uses its characters' interactions to set off a series of chain reactions, taking the narrative to that unexpected but inevitable place by the season’s end.
This is an ensemble series, and with the exception of Cox’s Logan Roy, who was laid out in the season's’ early going, every actor gets to take their shot each and every episode. What’s impressive about Succession, though, is that it’s not just about making sure everyone gets enough screen time, so HBO can see where the money’s going. Instead, the show makes those minutes count by delivering memorable moments that are often times laudable for how funny they are, but, more often than not, help better define the audience’s understanding of the character in question.
Case in point: potential season MVP, Cousin Greg (Nicholas Braun). Greg began his Succession life by puking through the eyeholes of a corporate mascot costume before enjoying some light verbal and physical abuse from Tom, who eventually made him an accessory in some high-level corporate malfeasance. But Greg's been playing the long game, and has finally revealed himself to be a, as Kendall puts it, “Machiavellian f**k.” We all see you, Greg. We like it. Braun has maybe three minutes of total screen time in ‘Nobody is Ever Missing,’ but whether he’s scheming for a better position at the company through some light blackmail or giving Tom a knowing nod when Nate (Ashley Zuckerman), Shiv’s sidepiece, is first humiliated then thrown out of the reception, he makes all 180-ish seconds count.
That’s how watching Succession feels. Whether its on a character or overarching story level, what happens in every episode feels like it counts. It’s all beautifully orchestrated, from the hilarity of Shiv and Tom’s surprisingly not disastrous wedding to the tension of Kendall and Logan’s frequent interactions to Roman chalking up a disastrous multi-billion dollar rocket launch and two lost thumbs as a win. There’s value in everything that happens on screen, whether it impacts the overall narrative or not. And for the season to end with Logan comforting Kendall, explicitly engaging in the coverup of a young man’s death — the kind of behavior the audience has come to expect from ultra-rich characters such as these — as a means of preventing the hostile takeover of his company, it’s difficult to imagine a more suitable way to cap off what has been an incredible first season of HBO’s best new show.
Succession will return for season 2 in 2019 on HBO.