Could This Poem Spoil The Ending of Succession?
The title of the Succession series finale comes from a poem that has a lot to say about death and delusion.
This article contains spoilers through Succession season 4 episode 7.
The folks behind Succession are an intelligent, well-educated bunch. For evidence look no further than the scripts’ crackling dialogue, star Jeremy Strong’s correct use of the word “dramaturgically,” and creator Jesse Armstrong’s frequent invocation of Shakespeare.
The best evidence of the show’s literary bona fides, however, comes in the form of an Easter egg embedded in some of its episode titles. The names of each of the show’s four season finales are all lines from the same classic poem. Season 1’s “Nobody Is Ever Missing,” season 2’s “This Is Not for Tears,” season 3’s “All the Bells Say,” and the just-announced season 4’s “With Open Eyes” all come from John Berryman’s “Dream Song 29.”
This is something the internet picked up on quite a long time ago with several publications, forums, and social media users pointing to the episode titles’ artful origins. It’s something that Armstrong has owned up to as well, acknowledging the importance of Berryman’s poem in a season 2 finale interview with Vulture.
So what exactly is John Berryman’s poem about? And why is it so important for Succession to shout it out year after year? As mentioned above, plenty of folks have already offered their takes and interpretations. But we figure the World Wide Web is big enough to accommodate ours as well.
For starters, it might be helpful to learn a little about the poem itself and the writer who crafted it. Born in Oklahoma in 1914 and raised in Florida, John Berryman is considered one of the most important poets of his era and an integral part of the American poetry canon. He also lived an unfortunately tragic life. His father shot and killed himself when he was 11 years old and he spent much of his life trying to come to terms with it. Though recognized as a success in his lifetime, he struggled with alcohol and was married three times. Ultimately, he committed suicide at age 57 by jumping off the Washington Avenue Bridge in Minneapolis.
Suffice it to say, many of Berryman’s poems were quite confessional and dark. His big breakthrough came in 1964 with the publishing of the Pulitzer-winning 77 Dream Songs. The collection of poems centered on a character named “Henry,” who Berryman considered a fictionalized version of himself. “Dream Song 29,” the poem that Succession borrows its finale titles, was included in this volume.
While all poetry is open to interpretation, what’s actually “happening” in the narrative of “Dream Song 29” is quite clear. In this three-stanza poem with curious syntax, the character of Henry is restless and tortured because he believes he has killed someone. The poem makes clear though that he didn’t:
But never did Henry, as he thought he did,
end anyone and hacks her body up
and hide the pieces, where they may be found.
The poem eventually concludes with the line that gave the first season finale its title “Nobody is ever missing.” It makes all kinds of sense that Armstrong would choose this poem to accompany the particular episode. If you recall, that’s the one where Kendall Roy (Strong) actually does kill someone when the car he’s driving crashes into a lake and an innocent waiter from Shiv’s wedding drowns. Even though Henry doesn’t actually kill anyone in “Dream Song 29,” the all-consuming feeling of paranoia and despair remains the same for both characters.
While Kendall is usually happy to pretend that that murderous incident never happened. It always invariably comes up again at the end of each season. In season 2’s “This Is Not for Tears,” Kendall brings up the murder to his father again, which is when Logan invokes his “NRPI” or “No Real Person Involved” policy.
Then, in the season 3 finale “All the Bells Say,” Kendall finally comes apart and confesses his sin to his siblings.
If there’s anything we can safely predict about the Succession season 4 finale it’s that the incident at Shiv’s wedding will be mentioned once again. But is that it? This is the series finale after all. The waiter’s death can’t just be mentioned. Consequences must be paid – not in the traditional sense of Kendall facing legal repercussions because he remains well out of the “can ever face legal repercussions” tax bracket – but in the dramatic sense. Something bad will happen to Kendall. To find out exactly what, let’s return to the relevant passage of “Dream Song 29.” The portion of the poem that contains “With Open Eyes” reads:
And there is another thing he has in mind
like a grave Sienese face a thousand years
would fail to blur the still profiled reproach of. Ghastly,
with open eyes, he attends, blind.
“With open eyes, he attends, blind” is quite evocative. This Berryman guy might have a future in poetry. Moreso than even its stark final line, this passage reveals what “Dream Song 29” is really about. Though many of Berryman’s poems are about death, this one isn’t. This is about delusion. And so too is Succession. All of the Roy siblings, but Kendall in particular, are delusional.
As their father cruelly but correctly clocked, these are not serious people. With their father now out of the way, they appear to have forgotten that cold hard fact of life: they’re losers. Why, then, do they seemingly keep winning? As of the end of Succession season 4 episode 7, Roman has fired multiple execs with no apparent professional blowback, Shiv has successfully played both sides to secure her corporate safety, and Kendall is having the time of his life living out his theater kid dreams.
Perhaps then, Succession‘s application of Berryman’s poem is not only about the Roy kids delusions but everyone else’s as well. Though its appreciation for Shakespearean tragedy is currently in the narrative drivers seat, let’s not forget that Succession is also a dark satire of the rich and the famous. Maybe the bleakest possible ending for the show would be if everything works out fine for Waystar Royco because the markets respond favorably to a Roy, any Roy, at the head of the company. With open eyes, the New York Stock Exchange attends, blind.
Or maybe Kendall really does just fuck it all up! That’s the fun of poetry. We’ll see what happens in the finale and then retrofit it all back to this later.
New episodes of Succession premiere at 9 p.m. ET on Sundays on HBO.