A still of 'Succession'
A still of 'Succession' Image Credit: AP

The fourth and last season of “Succession,” HBO’s Murdoch-inspired dramedy about spoiled billionaire kids competing to replace their self-made billionaire dad, opens with a twist: Daddy Logan (Brian Cox) is out partying while his kids are at work.

That’s not to say he’s having fun. The birthday boy can barely muster a scowl for the glad-handers wishing him many happy returns, while his assistant/mistress, Kerry (Zoe Winters), scrutinises the guests for signs they might be corporate spies. He may have beaten his conspiring children, but the allies he has left - Tom (Matthew Macfadyen), Cousin Greg (Nicholas Braun), Connor (Alan Ruck) - are hardly the man’s idea of a winning hand. He wants to roast and be roasted, and instead, he’s surrounded by sycophants and second-stringers.

Kieran Culkin and Sarah Snook in Succession Image Credit: Macall Polay/IMDB

It’s hard to discuss the upcoming season without spoilers, but this glimpse of something like regret in Logan Roy is new. So is the sense that we are finally, after several seasons spent in an admittedly entertaining rut (with Jeremy Strong’s Kendall rebelling against his dad again only to lose again, break down again, bounce back again, rebel again ...) entering a period of high-stakes, irreversible change.

When Logan announced last season that he was selling Waystar RoyCo, the family business, to GoJo CEO Lukas Matsson (Alexander Skarsgard), he didn’t just end the contest for the crown that powered the series; he killed the very idea of a Roy dynasty. No kingdom to rule over means no king. That’s a shocking development, only one of many. By rather unstrategically rejecting all his children (well, the three contenders), Logan provoked them to finally unite. Despite some necessary table-setting, therefore, the fourth season is poised to be the show’s best.

What repetitions we do get (and there are several, including a Pierce family subplot) feel pointed and productive. Logan’s party, for instance, rhymes in spirit if not style with Kendall’s 40th birthday fete, which culminated in him weeping over the gifts from his children he couldn’t find in the piles of loot from near-strangers. It also reprises Logan’s fateful birthday party from the pilot, which - even if it ended with Logan hospitalized - had him surrounded by family.

While Logan sulks, Shiv (Sarah Snook), Kendall and Roman (Kieran Culkin) have joined up after being simultaneously clobbered by, well, everyone. They’re “working,” which here means pooh-poohing graphic design ideas other people have come up with for a new media entity they want to launch called “The Hundred.” Kendall describes it as “Substack meets MasterClass meets the Economist meets the New Yorker.”

This is the state of play: As Logan prepares for a life after Waystar, his three younger kids have gathered to build something new, freed at last from their father’s sick need to pit them against one another.

The trouble, of course, is that the Roy siblings’ hunger for daddy’s approval has always been the show’s real subject as well as its engine. Who are the Roys if not rivals?

That’s the question the fourth season sets out to answer. For all that “Succession” has been compared to “King Lear,” the parallels have thus far been imperfect: Logan doesn’t give away his power, nor does he rail against the elements, impoverished and betrayed. Up until now, he has acted more like God of the Old Testament, demanding tribute and punishing those whose sacrifices he finds unworthy. The fratricidal competition his playbook foments is biblical, too: It’s Jacob cheating Esau out of his father’s blessing, Cain killing Abel because God deemed his offering inferior.

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And whereas “King Lear” provides ample access to Lear’s thoughts and feelings, “Succession” made Logan so opaque (and therefore powerful) that his kids seem shamefully easy to manipulate by comparison. Rich but love-starved, their jadedness can’t conceal a raw Pavlovian drive to fulfill Logan’s cutthroat, shifting definitions of worth. If the younger Roys can’t live up to Logan’s example, it’s because they want power not for its own sake but because getting it would mean he actually likes them.

They fail, too, because Logan’s leadership tests were always (psychically speaking) trick questions. He appears to want his successor to savagely dominate just as he did - explosively, libidinally, competently, trusting his gut, taking no prisoners - while remaining subordinate to Logan himself.

It’s an impossible ask. A rigged game. Maybe even a death wish? Logan’s tiny, enigmatic smile when Kendall betrays him at the end of Season 2 suggests he sort of understands that the only successor he’d ever actually approve of is the one he didn’t choose - a “killer” who takes him down. We still spent three seasons avidly watching to see which spoiled, ridiculous child would get the nod from a man whose one core belief is that power is taken, not given. The battlefield was baffling. It was clear, for instance, that any actual work Logan assigned them - Shiv’s “strategic review,” Roman’s management training, Kendall’s year in Shanghai - carried little weight. (“Daddy makework,” Kendall calls it this season.) What mattered more was always the creativity and abjection with which the contestants approached his personal challenge: Prove your loyalty through self-betrayal.Whatthat is precious to you will you stomp on?

And so we have watched Shiv terrorise a female witness into silence and torpedo a possible career in the White House, Roman endorse a fascist for president, and Tom sacrifice the only thing that seemed to matter to him, even if it was deeply unhealthy: his marriage.

And then there’s Kendall.

Oh, Kendall.

In Season 2, Logan punished his tortured second son for betraying him by making him personally destroy Vaulter, the Gawker-esque media company Kendall acquired and saw as central to his vision for Waystar RoyCo when he still hoped to fill his father’s shoes. Logan humiliated Shiv in front of the Pierces, punched Roman so hard he lost a tooth, and forced Kendall to go on television and praise Logan’s plan over his own.

Image Credit: Supplied

None of it was enough. No wonder Kendall ended up facedown in a pool at his mother’s wedding. By the end of last season, his suicidality was enough to provoke even his competitive, irony-poisoned siblings to stage an intervention.

For Logan, none of these self-flagellating exercises mattered. He ended the contest rather than name a successor, and so his kids have risen up.

Dramatically speaking, this is candy. We’ve all been waiting for Logan’s comeuppance, and the Roy siblings crackle anytime they’re all on-screen. It’s fun just to watch them hang out. These sometimes seem like newer, gentler Roys; quicker to laugh, less defensive.

Their alliance has another upside, namely, that Waystar employees who recede into the background when the kids are on-screen get many long scenes together. Karl (David Rasche) and Frank (Peter Friedman) and Gerri (J. Smith-Cameron) are at their peak, as is that hypercompetent, enigmatic survivor, Karolina (Dagmara Dominczyk). The dynamic these fabulous sharks develop with Tom as he carves out a new identity as the family insider who betrayed his family connection is particularly gratifying, as is Tom’s deepening rivalry with news ATN executive Cyd (Jeannie Berlin).

“Oh, she doesn’t tend to stay late when it’s opera season,” Tom tells Logan when he pops into the family’s right-wing news network and asks for her. Lucky for Cyd that she wanders in just then. “Boss!” she says. “I didn’t see you. I was busy. But I can see that my social secretary’s been looking after you.”

“Succession” excels at that kind of court intrigue. It has not, by contrast, been particularly good at establishing the stakes of anything besides the juicy inheritance question. The threats posed by everything from congressional hearings to board votes to corporate bear hugs escalate or disappear depending on plot requirements.

Mostly, the Roys wriggle out without too much trouble. This gives the series, despite its darker moments, a sitcommy quality. The corporate scandals just aren’t real obstacles, and neither are the political ones. Crises float in and out of view in ways that make the characters’ world feel glossy but unmoored.

That can make the show feel stakeless, but that’s arguably also the ribald fun of the series! For these billionaires, matters of enormous public import (like electing the next president) are side effects of trivial disputes or family squabbles. The Roys might get a fascist elected president. That’s the kind of outcome that screams stakes! It should make the show feel like more than an extremely absorbing soap opera about psychological abuse. But it mostly doesn’t. The world our billionaires occupy is too insulated.

The fourth season doesn’t (at least in the four episodes critics received) break out of that rarefied mode; we will not be litigating the consequences to the public of Roydom and its excesses. This is not that kind of show.

“Smart people know what they are,” Logan tells one of his children this season. This series is smart, and it knows what it is. If it remains narrowly and unapologetically focused on the callow miseries of its billionaires, it is finally, after spinning its wheels for several seasons, ready to push its premise to the breaking point.

Despite how timidly and how often this show about movers and shakers has retreated from any truly irreversible change to its glitzy status quo, “Succession’s” final season has a vision it at least - and at last - has the guts to execute.

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‘Succession’ is out on OSN.