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Jeremy Strong as Kendall Roy, left, Sarah Snook as Shiv Roy, center, and Kieran Culkin as Roman Roy, from the HBO series "Succession." (HBO via AP)The Associated Press

“I love you, but I cannot stomach you.”

If the final, blistering and brilliant episode of Succession needed to provide its own epitaph, then Shiv pronounced it right toward the end, when she neatly, sharply, cruelly summarized just what it is about these awful people that makes their stories worth following, speculating and obsessing over. (Shiv’s quote also included a word that I cannot repeat in this publication, which fits right in with Succession’s core mission of vulgar auteurism.)

As Succession ends, a look back at the best TV finales

The specifics of Shiv’s verbal knife – or, well, you know, her – don’t quite matter as much as the Roy siblings might like to think. Sure, it was directed at Kendall, just as he was inches (or one mere board vote) from becoming king. But it could have been pointed toward exactly anyone in the Waystar Royco retinue. These are all terrible people, selfish and preposterous – impossible specimens to not become nauseous over – but oh god was it bloody fun to follow their atrocities.

The narrative basics of the 90-minute series finale could fill entire seasons’ worth of disposable Netflix background noise masquerading as television, but if I had to unpack the highlights, here goes: it is a few days, maybe a week, after the funeral of Logan, and Kendall is pushing hard to kill the GoJo deal. Meanwhile, Lukas “Sorry to Get Weird” Mattsson is shoring up his own support via Shiv. Roman, after tussling with anti-Mencken protesters, is hiding away at his mother Lady Caroline’s tropical compound, and might no longer be up for his brother’s kill-the-Swede plan. But then Mattsson does a switcheroo, promising the American CEO job to Tom – a nice double-knife manoeuvre toward Shiv.

Thanks to a well-timed call from Cousin Greg – who deciphers the scheme via his iPhone’s translation app, which is honestly how I’d do it, too – Kendall reroutes his siblings’ support toward his throne, and it looks like everything is sewn up. But, c’mon, nothing is ever easy in the Roy family. In the end, Ken loses everything, Roman retreats, Tom wins and Shiv – holding her nose as much as her tongue, but maybe not quite all of her heartstrings – holds hands with the future. (What about Connor? Well, he’s got a great sticker system in place for giving away Logan’s heirlooms. And that’s just about it. Good for you, Connor.)

But if you came to Succession solely for the chance to see who would, well, succeed, it’s just not that kind of story. At its cold, black, deliciously diseased heart, showrunner Jesse Armstrong’s creation was all about the machinations, not the machine. This is a story about those who think they can wield power, not about what they might do with it given the chance. Will the world of Waystar Royco GoJo (RoyJo?) be that much different under Tom instead of Kendall? Eh. I mean, Cousin Greg is involved either way, because every corporate maze needs its rat.

The point of it all is that Armstrong and his team took us on a tour through the darkest recesses of the world-conquering psyche, and we’re all the better, and sicker, for it. Along with regular director Mark Mylod, back here for one last public execution, Armstrong has written a series finale that instantly places itself in the medium’s hall of fame. This was, with some minor missteps, a fantastic farewell to a group of deplorables. Never has a snake pit looked so good.

There were as many highlights in the episode as there were carefully engineered insults. For starters: Shiv, Roman and Kendall tearing each other apart in their mother’s compound, the “only hellhole in paradise.” Mattsson anointing Tom as his chief “pain sponge” after Shiv’s not-really-better half says that if ATN’s audiences “want red meat and boiling tar, bon appétit.” The entire final half-hour following the “big day on the salami line” in the boardroom, culminating in the delicately painful three-way undoing of Kendall, Roman and Shiv. It is only fitting that the siblings should destroy whatever connection they had to each other in the bland surroundings of an empty office.

Even in the margins, the episode was starting fires on the sly, confident that no viewer could put them all out on a single watch. There were so very many “yes, haha, yes” moments for the sickest of obsessed fans, including a quick reference to Vaulter’s Lawrence Yee (who almost seemed to make good on his promise of “eating you all,” from the show’s first season) and one-time Roy family banker Laird, who disappeared after Season 2. And I cannot possibly be alone in having yelped aloud when Colin appeared on-screen, now serving the son instead of the father, can I?

The performances, meanwhile, well: Everyone here was doing all-time work. Let’s start with a relatively new contestant like Alexander Skarsgard, whose riff on Elon Musk is as skin-crawling as it is weirdly appetizing. But there was also the usual excellence from the show’s tier-two players, including farewells from David (Karl) Rasche and Peter (Frank) Friedman, and one last ew-gross wink from Arian Moayed, whose Stewy never fails to succeed off of others’ failures.

But the core cast, there just aren’t enough words to honourably tally their achievements at this moment.

I’ll just leave it at saying that whatever methods it takes Jeremy Strong to get to where he goes as Kendall, they are worth it. Jab at him all you like, glossy magazines, but this guy, he’s our guy. (It is just a shame that Armstrong and Co. decided to poke Vanity Fair here, with the Mattsson article and illustration of him as Shiv’s puppet, instead of The New Yorker. Awfully big of them, but this was never a show to go small, either.)

Like the best laid plans of the Roy family, though, the episode was not without its unforced errors and self-indulgences. The scene in which Shiv, Roman and Kendall yuck it up in their mother’s kitchen will surely inspire many “meal fit for a king” memes over the next few weeks, but I found the moment to stretch itself past the series’ own world and into the kind of self-congratulatory mode that often accompanies weaker series finales. It was just a little much – up to and including a gag of gross-out slapstick that felt foreign.

The same lack of, let’s say, discipline befell the moment when we get one last look at Logan, via home video. Succession is not a series that has ever done flashbacks, thank goodness, but this was a workaround that was unnecessary, a victory lap for a character we already buried.

But I didn’t come here to bury Armstrong, just praise him. I love you, Succession, even if I cannot stomach you.

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