‘Succession’ arrives for a final time after masterful first two seasons, but repetitive Season 3

WTOP's Jason Fraley previews Season 4 of 'Succession'

NOTE: The following article contains plot details from Seasons 1-3, but no spoilers for Season 4.

Pour a glass of your finest wine, don your slickest suit and clear your calendar for Sunday night. HBO means business as the fourth and final season of the Emmy-winning TV drama “Succession” premieres at 9 p.m.

Fans were stunned last month when it was announced that it would be the final season, though the news was not all that surprising to me. The first two seasons were masterfully done; some of the best television we’ve ever seen. But Season 3 began spinning its wheels a little. In fact, it was so repetitive in the first few episodes that I bailed on it for several months, before finally returning to discover a few surprisingly gripping episodes down the stretch.

Here’s hoping that Season 4 ramps up the urgency as it brings these complex characters to a close.

Created by Jesse Armstrong, the series weaves a family power struggle with echoes of “The Lion in Winter” (1968) and “The Godfather” (1972). Rather than Peter O’Toole or Marlon Brando, we have Brian Cox as patriarch Logan Roy, commanding his media empire like Rupert Murdoch. Waystar’s ATN is essentially News Corporation’s Fox News with bonus parallels to Donald Trump as Shiv, Roman and Kendall stand in for Ivanka, Eric and Don Jr.

It’s hard to believe that Cox hasn’t won an Emmy yet as Logan. He is clearly the linchpin of the series — the shrewd molten rock that the other characters orbit. Season 1 established his grip on power after surviving a brain aneurysm in the pilot; Season 2 won him a Golden Globe for a slight smile at his son becoming a “killer;” and Season 3 showed cracks in his armor, endangering a business deal by going off his meds to spout gibberish.

The Emmy love has instead gone to Jeremy Strong as heir apparent Kendall Roy, who was cocky in Season 1 until a Chappaquiddick twist made him depressed in Season 2. His finest hour came confronting his dad on national TV in the Season 2 finale (life imitated art as Strong beat Cox for Best Actor). The Season 3 payoff was disappointing as Ken’s coup attempts didn’t amount to much, plunging back into depression as he confessed his sins to his siblings.

Roman (Kieran Culkin) was surprisingly forgiving, perhaps because he requires so much forgiveness himself. Nicknamed “Romulus,” after Rome’s founder, Roman is the slimy king of snarky insults but can’t stop humiliating himself due to deep-seated sexual issues. This dichotomy finds him winning a pissing match at a urinal, but then watching his deal fall apart after sending private photos to the wrong person during a key business meeting.

The aptly named Shiv (Sarah Snook) remains the smartest, but she isn’t immune to tactical errors. Her fierce performance just earned a Golden Globe, while Matthew Macfadyen won an Emmy as husband Tom, who senses Shiv’s disappointment that he’s not going to jail for a cruise ship scandal. His celebratory office trashing is another wonderfully weird moment between him and Greg Hirsch (Nicholas Braun), who keeps gaining confidence.

Shiv and Tom aren’t the only marriage of convenience. Aloof sibling Connor just got engaged to former escort and aspiring playwright Willa (Justine Lupe), who clearly doesn’t love him. Alan Ruck plays Connor with unique social awkwardness, an elder sibling passed over like Fredo. Recent episodes found him angling to become president in a subplot that almost made Season 3 feel fresh. Alas, that fizzled out, again leaving Connor flailing on the margins.

Can Season 4 actually commit to a hostile takeover, allowing one of the siblings to finally win this game of musical chairs? To me, “Succession” is a prime example of how episodic TV series are less satisfying than self-contained films. Once a show is a runaway hit, its creators are forced to keep cranking out episodes with characters who keep making the same mistakes and subplots that go nowhere, despite being written by the best writers in the biz.

Various writers have contributed episodes with the sharpest “F-off” dialogue in the game, but the Emmys keep going to climatic chapters written by Armstrong himself: the Season 1 finale “Nobody is Ever Missing” (Kendall’s coked-up water incident), Season 2 finale “This is Not for Tears” (Kendall’s TV coup attempt), and Season 3 finale “All the Bells Say” (ending with Tom giving Logan a glance, having tipped him off about his children’s revolt).

In total, the series has landed 48 Emmy nominations and 13 wins, scoring the top prize twice. Season 1 should have won Outstanding Drama Series, but lost to the disappointing final season of “Game of Thrones.” Season 2 deservedly won the top prize, while Season 3 won the top prize again, though “Severance” and “Squid Game” were more gripping television. I would have rather even seen it go to the final seasons of “Ozark” or “Better Call Saul.”

Let’s see if “Succession” can stick the landing. The thing I’ll miss the most is the theme song by Emmy-winning composer Nicholas Britell, unfolding over grainy sepia images of the kids growing up at the family estate. Rarely do we get opening credits that we don’t want to skip, savoring every last piano note and transcendent violin.

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Jason Fraley

Hailed by The Washington Post for “his savantlike ability to name every Best Picture winner in history," Jason Fraley began at WTOP as Morning Drive Writer in 2008, film critic in 2011 and Entertainment Editor in 2014, providing daily arts coverage on-air and online.

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