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‘Succession’ delivers a major surprise as the show goes back to its future

<i>David M. Russell/HBO</i><br/>Brian Cox in season 4 of
David M. Russell/HBO
Brian Cox in season 4 of "Succession."

By Brian Lowry, CNN

In one astonishing turn, “Succession” took its audience back to where the show began five years ago, and indeed, the very roots of its title.

The Emmy-winning HBO show kicked off, after all, with a media empire being thrown into chaos when its imperious leader fell ill, leaving his children and underlings to jockey over how to replace him, and to contemplate if anyone possibly could. The very title dealt with that scenario, while the intervening seasons have reinforced the sense that in terms of corporate savvy and grit, the apples can fall pretty far from the tree.

The power of Brian Cox’s performance as that mogul, Logan Roy, made him seem practically immortal, the occasional infirmities of his age notwithstanding. But in one off-screen moment, Logan was gone, in the most protracted and painful fashion imaginable, leaving his stunned offspring to weakly try to say goodbye over the phone, and then grapple along with his subordinates with the implications of what his death would mean.

Series creator Jesse Armstrong didn’t grant Logan much dignity in death, as he collapsed in the bathroom aboard a private jet on a mission to salvage his big-money merger with GoJo. In hindsight, he also telegraphed the character’s fate in the opening hour, as Logan mused about the prospect of an afterlife, concluding that while nobody can know, this is probably all that there is.

Logan certainly lived his life that way, and his demise was preceded by a scene that underscored his ruthlessness and cruelty, tasking his son Roman (Kieran Culkin) with firing longtime employee Gerri (J. Smith Cameron), despite the elder Roy’s knowledge that the two had an unusually close (if somewhat unorthodox) relationship.

The kids, meanwhile, went through a series of reactions, both emotional and pragmatic. Not everyone, after all, has to worry about how their father’s death is going to influence the financial markets and potentially tank their company’s stock price, costing them millions of dollars as collateral damage.

As an added bonus, the younger Roys had broken with their father, competing against him for the acquisition of Pierce Global Media, adding to the intense discomfort and obvious mixed feelings as those scenes played out.

“We’re not estranged,” Kendall (Jeremy Strong) insisted, despite evidence to the contrary, while his sister Shiv (Sarah Snook) practically pleaded to her unconscious dad over the phone, “Don’t go, please, not now.”

The one note of semi-normalcy within the hour came from an unlikely source: Elder brother Connor (Alan Ruck) and his bride-to-be Willa (Justin Lupe), who decided to go through with their wedding, a surprisingly human choice given his plans to use the occasion as a tool to prop up his polling-under-one-percent presidential campaign.

The other Roy children, meanwhile, seemed to derive a degree of strength from each other, with Kendall and Roman seeking to reassure themselves by saying, sardonically, “You’re not gonna be OK.”

“Succession” has confounded expectations by throwing in this twist so early in the final season, but in hindsight, this was always where things were logically heading, with what amounts to a royal succession and what happens after the king dies without a clear heir.

Cox will surely be missed over the remaining hours (barring flashbacks of some kind). Yet in terms of setting up dramatic (and comedic) possibilities around the deal-making, scheming and family dynamics to come, the show is coming back to where it all started, in a way that appears destined to be more than OK.

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