This article contains spoilers through the series finales of Succession and Ted Lasso.
Succession ended on Sunday with a series finale whose title, like the three season finales before it, was taken from a John Berryman poem, “Dream Song 29.” Before the episode aired, there was widespread speculation about whether the poem alluded to any particular revelation. Would Kendall, whose death felt like it had been foreshadowed so many times on the show—all those vacant gazes down at the city from up high and baptismal engulfments in water—die by suicide, as Berryman did? He wouldn’t, it turned out. Although Jeremy Strong apparently improvised, while in character, a version of the last scene in which Kendall tries to hurl himself into the Hudson and is thwarted by his bodyguard, in the aired version, Kendall survives, albeit as a broken version of himself. You can decide for yourself whether the poem alludes to Kendall’s guilt over the covered-up death of a waiter (in a lake, no less), or to the revelation that his father believed he may have killed his own sister, or to both.
Berryman, though, could also bring to mind the other influential TV show that ended this week, Ted Lasso. In the Apple show’s second season, Ted reveals to his therapist that his father died by suicide, a devastating twist for a series that debuted as an ebullient cross-cultural sports comedy. In “Dream Song 145,” a different poem in the same series, Berryman recalls how his own father, “very early in the morning, / rose with his gun and went outdoors by my window / and did what was needed.” That moment, Berryman writes in another poem, “wiped out my childhood.” He was raised in Oklahoma; Ted comes from Kansas. Ted confesses to his therapist that he’s furious, still, that his father “quit on his family”; Berryman, in rage, recounts spitting on his father’s grave. Berryman’s alter ego is named Henry, like Ted’s son, whose presence motivates the series’s occupying question: Can people change? Can we be better than our parents? Or are we fated to keep passing the poison to the next generation?
This is, you’ll note, Succession’s central concern, too, answered in definitive fashion in the finale, when a pregnant Shiv potentially elects to preserve cursed power—and pain—for her future child while selling out her brothers. The show’s worldview is that people simply can’t escape their coding, an existential framework that, to my mind at least, made the last two seasons deeply claustrophobic, with everyone doomed to repeat the same steps of the same game with the same players. Succession is a clever show—so clever. It’s profane and caustic and, in the right moments, so tense you could gnaw your thumbs off. It’s exquisitely written in a way that makes the lumpen final season of Ted Lasso feel like something conceived of and drafted by an obliging AI. The two shows are functionally antithetical in style. (Call it the “snark versus smarm” debate transposed for 2020s television.) Succession is a study of American capitalism largely written by Brits; Ted Lasso is a riff on British culture mostly written by Americans. Both shows somehow feature Harriet Walter playing a mother who fails her children. Both have, at some point, incorporated lines from Philip Larkin’s poem “This Be the Verse,” which Succession’s creator, Jesse Armstrong, also paraphrased in an article for The Guardian on the origins of the HBO series.
If we’re talking about cultural impact, we have to acknowledge that Ted Lasso, at this point, is about as hip as Nickelback, whereas Succession has made its way into our idioms, our jokes, even our structural understanding of money and power. Here is my confession, though: As much as I admired Succession’s finale aesthetically and intellectually, I hated the experience of watching it. There was something deeply unsettling about its nihilism, its acceptance of art’s futility in the face of commerce. (“Drama can change minds,” Willa loftily tells Connor in Season 1, trying to argue that her play could be as significant as his campaign for president. “Yeah, but not really,” Connor replies.) It’s striking that a show with so many spectacular individual components—the writing, the god-level acting, the superlative direction, the production values—adds up in the end to something so hollow: a series about people who are nothing at all, stuck in hell, fated only to contaminate the rest of us.
Early in the coronavirus pandemic, I interviewed a professor of media psychology about the different ways people seek comfort in television—why some of us were kicking back with anodyne, escapist fare such as The Great British Baking Show while others of us were perversely streaming Outbreak and Contagion. Depending on how your brain processes hardship, it turns out, you’re either a person who wants to be uplifted with feel-good entertainment or a person who wants to be reminded that no matter how bad things get, they could still get worse.
It’s this theory, I think, that explains why both Succession and Ted Lasso found eager audiences over the past few years: There were viewers who wanted to be smothered in shortbread and viewers who found that they had new tolerance for the viperous Roys and their obscene infighting. “We wrote the first season in the belief that nobody would watch the show,” Georgia Pritchett, one of Succession’s executive producers, wrote this week. “And nobody did, really. Or the second season. It took a global pandemic, and the world’s population sitting at home wondering what they could do, for people to really start paying attention.” Back in 2018, I remember imploring people to watch the first season, cajoling them to stick with it through the sixth episode, when Kendall is absurdly thwarted by traffic in his first bid to topple his father, so they could get to the seventh, when the corporate tussling is finally traded out for some breathtaking emotional violence.
As inaccessible as Succession could be at first, Ted Lasso was the opposite: Almost embarrassingly eager to please, it wielded sincerity like a cudgel, and employed so many pop-cultural tropes that it could work as a matter of muscle memory alone. Ted was akin to a midwestern Mary Poppins, blowing in as the wind changed to help people connect with one another and be the best version of themselves. In a different climate, it might have sunk without a trace. But in late 2020, to audiences ground down by a surfeit of real-world suffering at a time of scant optimism or inspirational leadership, it stuck.
Both shows are structured around central poles: If Logan Roy is the rapacious cancer spreading to everything and everyone he touches, Ted Lasso is the inversion, an egoless Wichita prophet who couldn’t care less about winning, and whose only governing principle is his belief in our capacity to be better. Both shows are consumed with fathers and sons, and the psychological morass that accompanies having an absent or abusive parent. Both are set in a world where masculinity has calcified into systems that make everyone miserable, and where victory is fleeting: You win, or you lose, and you carry on playing. (In an interview with Vulture, Mark Mylod, one of Succession’s main directors, even compared the show’s static environment to soccer.) Ted Lasso delivered sermons—to a fault, in its third season—through feel-good breakthroughs and teachable moments; whatever Succession had to say, it kept to itself.
And yet: When Ted Lasso was good, it could be wonderful. I laugh-cried, in the penultimate episode, when Jamie confessed that he’d stopped conditioning his hair because “what’s the point”—a joke about peacocking professional soccer players that is also a fairly neat summation of depression. I was fascinated, in Season 2, by the idea that Ted’s relentless positivity, his exhausting superpower, might be more of a defense mechanism sparked by his father’s suicide than an innate character trait. (In the end, it was both.) So much of the third season was excruciating, marked by weak writing, sloppy structure, and dubious, unearned twists. But the finale, written by the show’s co-creators, returned somewhat to form in revisiting the show’s fundamental conceit. “Can people change?” asks Roy Kent in a spontaneous meeting of the show’s consciousness-raising group for befuddled men. The show concluded that they can, if they’re big enough and humble enough to know that they need to.
I’m still not sure whether Succession was an inherently cynical show or, to use Tom Scocca’s summation of snark, a theory of cynicism. One of the reasons I loved the scenes of emotional annihilation that tended to anchor the end of each of its seasons was that they promised a catharsis that never came. If you’ve been to the theater, you’ve seen the sort of play in which secrets are laid bare and characters stripped of their defenses so that they can begin, afterward, to heal. Succession offered up the wastage but never the forward momentum. In an interview with Vanity Fair, Jeremy Strong summarized how Armstrong understands humanity, “which is that fundamentally, people don’t really change. They don’t do the spectacular, dramatic thing. Instead, there’s kind of a doom loop that we’re all stuck in.” I’ll never not be formally impressed by Succession. But it’s equally hard not to feel queasy, after everything, about its conception of mankind, in which we’re all so condemned by fate that there’s no point even trying to imagine our way out.