This article contains spoiler for Succession season 4 episode 9.
You ever lay on a bed, stare up at a whirring ceiling fan, and try to track one isolated blade’s journey? Yeah me neither. That would be weird. But if you or I hypothetically did, you might find some mundane poetry in witnessing how one element can operate independently within a larger mosaic to make a circular blur. Sometimes watching Succession reminds of that.
With only one episode to go in its remarkable four-season run, Succession is an inspiringly complete experience. Everyone involved from showrunner Jesse Armstrong and his writers to director Mark Mylod and his production team, to the ludicrously talented troupe of actors is perpetually on their A game. Watching a single episode of Succession is to let dramaturgical (to borrow a word from Jeremy Strong) greatness wash over you. But what if we were just keep our eye on one blade of the fan?
Though the series penultimate episode “Church and State” is a staggeringly effective group effort, it’s worth singling out one story within it: that of Roman Roy. This installment includes so much more than merely yet another Emmy highlight reel moment for Roman actor Kieran Culkin (“Is he in there? Can we get him out?”), it also provides the most clear characterization of one of Logan Roy’s children and his flaws of any episode of Succession yet.
In “Church and State,” Roman Roy unwittingly predicts his own downfall early on then follows through on the inevitable destruction just like any fan blade on a fixed track (OK, the fan metaphor is done now. Promise.). It makes for completely riveting television. The moment where Roman predicts his own doom comes early on. After a kinetic, confident opening scene in which Roman rehearses what is sure to be The Best Eulogy of All Time, Roman meets with his brother Kendall (Strong). Noticing that Kendall is wearing sunglasses to their father’s funeral, Roman delivers a quip that might as well be a grave horoscope for himself.
“Glasses. That’s smart. You can cry in secret, hide all your emotions, and thus emerge victorious as the winner of the funeral.”
Roman’s fatal flaw, aside from being an enthusiastic supporter of fascism, is that he’s so frequently correct about the transactional nature of the world but doesn’t have the necessary traits to take advantage of it. Roman inherited all of his father’s clear-eyed cynicism yet none of his abilities to put that cynicism into practice.
Most of the Roy kids fail time and time again because they’re quite simply wrong. Kendall was wrong in his estimation that his father could be overthrown as CEO. Shiv was wrong that she could keep Tom in line with an uneven power dynamic. Connor was wrong that he would win Kentucky’s electoral votes. Roman is different though in that Roman is often right. For, while it may be ridiculous to even joke about the concept of becoming the “winner” of a funeral, at the end of the day Logan’s funeral does have a winner. It just isn’t Roman.
After it turns out that Roman didn’t “pre-grieve” as well as he claimed to have had, Kendall steps in to give the bravura eulogy that Roman thought would be his. By the end of the service, everyone who comes into contact with the family is very impressed with Kendall’s performance and defers to him as his family’s leader. Kendall is the one who gets all the “attaboys” and face time with the president-elect. But those attaboys should have been Roman’s. He is the only one of his four siblings shrewd enough to realize that attaboys were even on the table. And yet he still couldn’t rise to the opportunity because his boring old human feelings got in the way.
That’s something that Culkin himself confirmed in an interview with Vanity Fair following the episode, saying that Armstrong told him that “You get positioned to be the guy, and you shoot yourself in the foot by just being a human being.”
It’s one thing to clearly see the chessboard and all the pieces on it – it’s another thing entirely to know where to place them…particularly when you’re in pain. By merely proving unable to keep himself composed in the wake of his father’s death, Roman has experienced a complete and total downfall. With only one episode to go, the “Succession” game is all but over for him.
Kendall, when he comes to gently tell his brother he “fucked” the Mencken deal, pitches the final matchup as “the Roy Boys vs. Shiv the Shiv.” But it’s not really the Roy Boys in contention. It’s Kendall for CEO with his little brother along for the ride, presumably providing the use of his near-precognitive cynicism and little else.
There has to be a real frustration in being able to see the ugly world for what it is so clearly and yet not having the traits necessary to dive into the muck like your father did before you. And we see that frustration come out in Roman’s final scene in the episode.
Some online observers have noted the significance of Roman seeking out violent physical contact with the mob as him only knowing the experience of love to be violent. There’s certainly some validity to that but I see the scene in a slightly different light. In-between all of the “fuck you’s,” listen to what Roman really says the the gathered masses on the street. Things like:
“Wow. No fuckin’ idea. Fuck you!”
“You have no idea! No fucking idea. Morons.”
“You have no fucking idea. None.”
Roman is mad at the working class schmucks using their First Amendment rights because Roman is just fundamentally a shitty fascist-sympathizing freak who hates anyone “beneath” him. But he’s also mad at them because of their perceived ignorance. Don’t they know there was a winner-take-all funeral eulogy competition just a few blocks away? Don’t they know all the complicated rules of the games the rich and famous play? Don’t they know how the world really works?
Roman knows all of those things and they don’t. And yet, any of those common folks marching down Fifth Avenue has as good a chance at becoming Waystar Royco as Roman does at this point, which is to say: none. Roman sees the world for what it is. But that isn’t enough to win. He’s not a killer. You have to be a killer.
The Succession series finale airs Sunday, May 28 at 9 p.m. ET on HBO.