Fashion & Style

No One Wants to Bid Succession’s Gerri Goodbye. Not Even J. Smith-Cameron.

Spoilers ahead.

Perhaps the most remarkable ascendance in the Succession series finale is not that of newly appointed American CEO Tom Wambsgans, or the maniacal Swedish billionaire Lukas Matsson, or even Shiv Roy, who ties her string to Tom’s helium balloon. Instead, one of the most fascinating wins in the send-off episode, “With Open Eyes,” is a stealthy one, taking place almost entirely off-screen. Gerri Kellman, the one-time Waystar Royco interim CEO, speaks no more than a few words in the finale, but even her limited presence speeds along a chain of events that result in Tom seizing the crown and eyeing her appropriately for a fiefdom.

In hindsight, Gerri—she of the famous thunderstorm dance—was destined to rise. Even had Tom chosen to ignore her utility, Gerri was already on her way to a handsome pay-out, exiting Waystar with “eye-watering sums” of money thanks to an unceremonious firing by Roman Roy, whose dick pics she retained as collateral. But Tom, “striving” puppet that he is, deserves credit for recognizing Gerri’s power and luring it into his inner sanctum.

“It was warm in the light,” or so Shiv proclaimed during season 4’s penultimate episode, in which she spoke to the mourners of the late Logan Roy, whose glow of paternal approval shone on her inconsistently at best. As with all the Roy children, the insecurity cast by that wavering aura is Shiv’s greatest weakness. So it’s fitting that when, in episode 10, Tom assesses Gerri from across the room, he sees why Logan once considered her a worthy ally: “Gerri gets it. She’s not afraid of the dark.”

After the finale aired on Sunday night, I called actress J. Smith Cameron—whose wit and creative instincts have catapulted Gerri to die-hard status amongst Succession’s ardent fanbase—to ask what she made of Tom’s assessment. She’s biased, she admits, but she thinks retaining Gerri’s counsel is a wise move. “[Gerri]’s a grown-up,” she says. “She knows what the stakes are. And [she] did say, ‘I bought our way out of jail,’ and [Tom] was the one marked to go to jail, so I can see him thinking, ‘Oh, she’s a killer.’”

j smith cameron photographed in new york city

Stephanie Diani

Earlier in the week, we’d met for a lunch of flatbread and Mediterranean dips in Manhattan’s West Village, Smith-Cameron’s home neighborhood, where we discussed the joys and disappointments of saying goodbye to Succession—and to Gerri. As she tore off pita hunks to drag through feta and olive oil, it was obvious Smith-Cameron was wrestling with the show’s finality, both as an actress and a character. What strikes her as hardest to accept (other than the pain of parting ways with her castmates) is the remaining story left to ferment in the audience’s collective imagination. Now that the series has reached its conclusion, so many questions remain: Could Kendall survive such a ferocious blow? What does life look like for Shiv on the queen’s side of the throne room? Will she betray Matsson before he can decimate ATN? Will Mencken get officially elected? Would Gerri follow Tom into the fray?

Per that last question, Smith-Cameron feels confident she can predict the hypothetical future, even if Successions creator Jesse Armstrong never writes it. “I have always felt Gerri did want to work [at Waystar] and would take that job back—with an incredible pay increase,” she says. “Between Matsson and her, Tom is putty. Tom is one of those people that, you know, he’s not going to go rogue. He’s going to do what’s asked of him. That was always my impression, that Gerri was like, ‘Ah, ha, ha. Look at who landed on her feet.’”

“The feeling of loss, the way I’m grieving the show, I think, it’s as if I’m the central character.”

Still, it’s strange to not get to see Gerri’s victory lap. If there’s been any legitimate criticism of the widely acclaimed finale, it’s that: Needs. More. Gerri. Smith-Cameron demurs, humble enough to understand that the final season’s laser-focused scope meant a number of meme-worthy Gerri moments would exist only in the vault.

“Jesse’s always been interested in the drama of the family more than the whole ecosystem of the show, more than all these other fun qualities,” she says, adding quickly, “which he has given his all to as well.” She continues, “But I think he really is interested in the damaged and damaging family members, and what will become of them in the backdrop of this abuse of power from billionaires that we are experiencing right now across the world. So the other storylines had to be sort of whittled away, and that’s hard for us. It’s hard for the Gerris and the Stewys and the Karolinas of the world. But I have to admire it.”

a photo from the production of episode 407 of “succession” featuring kieran culkin and j smith cameron

Kieran Culkin and J. Smith-Cameron in season 4 episode 7 of Succession.

David M. Russell

She cites unused footage throughout the arc of season 4, including a finale scene in which Gerri and Tom exit the Waystar boardroom as a pair, a lá Casablanca. Smith-Cameron figured it was a bit too playful for Armstrong to ultimately keep, but she enjoys that, somewhere, this B-roll exists.

“I feel like sometimes fans on Twitter will be like, ‘Man, I’m mad they cut that scene,’” she says. “And they assume I’m really heated about it. I’m upset, but that’s a normal thing for an actor. All film actors have stuff on the cutting room floor. Everyone does.”

I add that being personally disappointed over cut scenes is different from believing the creative team made an incorrect narrative choice. “Yeah,” Smith-Cameron says. “That’s right.” Still, the precision of Succession’s final episodes doesn’t make severing her relationship with Gerri any easier. “The feeling of loss, the way I’m grieving the show, I think, it’s as if I’m the central character,” she says. “I mean, in my mind, I feel it that much.”

After all, Gerri is fundamentally Smith-Cameron’s creation. (“I willed her into being,” she says with a smile.) Known best for her decades-long foothold in the New York theater scene, the now 65-year-old Smith-Cameron actually auditioned for the role of “Jerry,” initially written as a man, an empty suit largely indistinguishable from Peter Friedman’s Frank and David Rasche’s Karl. But through a combination of charm and willpower, Smith-Cameron transformed the character into the power player Gerri, the Waystar general counsel whose glinting gaze ignited an outrageous chemistry between her and Kieran Culkin’s Roman. Starting in season 2, the pair’s unorthodox partnership—in which Gerri’s insults awakened Roman’s dormant libido—became a cause célèbre amongst Succession fans, with some particularly adoring shippers calling for their “endgame” union.

Smith-Cameron, too, relished in the twisted alchemy of their flirtation. It gave her room to maneuver and grow Gerri into a stalwart fixture of the Succession cast, with enough scraps of backstory to feel heady. (Smith-Cameron’s the one who came up with the idea of Gerri having two adult daughters, the ones Karl calls out for flying first-class on the company plane.) But by season 4, the Gerri/Roman fantasy had been shot through. In season 3, Roman accidentally sent Logan a dick pic intended for Gerri, and his father’s resulting disapproval placed Roman back on the frontlines, battling for Daddy’s attention. As a sort of punishment, Logan tasked his youngest son with the ultimate betrayal: firing Gerri. Although Roman couldn’t execute the act to completion in season 4’s third episode, by episode 6—after Logan’s death—he took the chance.

“I need you to believe that I’m as good as my dad,” he tells her, when she confronts him in a conference room.

“Say it or believe it?” she asks. She won’t lie to him, and that alone seals her fate. Roman whirls on her with a cowardly flash of teeth, cutting her loose and losing her loyalty in the process.

j smith cameron and kieran culkin looking at each other in season 4 episode 3 of succession

Smith-Cameron and Culkin in season 4 episode 3 of Succession.

Macall B. Polay/HBO

Smith-Cameron tells me now, “Had he have stood up straight and paid attention to me and not been such a little spoiled brat, we could have done it.” In other words: Gerri had the prowess to shape Roman into a proper little Waystar prince. But that’s never how Succession was going to end, because that’s never what the show was about.

By episode 10’s conclusion, even Roman recognizes this truth. It’s Gerri’s unexpected presence that sends him spiraling toward the finale’s climax, bleeding through his stitches and into a face-off with his brother. And it’s Gerri’s drink of choice that he sips alone when the GoJo deal ultimately passes the board vote. In his words, Roman’s found out as “bullshit,” and the revelation’s freed him to crawl away. The only problem with this freedom is it comes with a side of crushing loneliness.

When I ask about that oh-so-symbolic martini and Culkin’s bittersweet smirk, Smith-Cameron says, “If you put all the romance and sensual whatever [between Gerri and Roman] aside, I can see how he would just be longing for a connection with someone. He doesn’t trust his two siblings, and his dad’s gone. He realizes too late that he needs that—” She pauses, restarts. “The thing is, Gerri never bullshitted him. She never bullshitted him. Both his brother and sister bullshitted and manipulated him all the time, and so did Logan. And Gerri never did. So I could see him being like, ‘I wish I could just call her up.’”

“If you put all the romance and sensual whatever [between Gerri and Roman] aside, I can see how he would just be longing for a connection with someone.”

Smith-Cameron watched the finale on Sunday night with a group of castmates and friends, and when we connect on Monday morning, she repeatedly mentions her need to digest the episode again, alone, so as to make better sense of what actually happened. The finality feels surreal. She recognizes, as Armstrong has already established, that Succession itself is over: The plotline of finding Logan’s successor is complete. But the showrunner has told both Smith-Cameron and others that he could see another story that “focuses on, maybe, journalism more or politics or business and not the family Greek drama,” Smith-Cameron says. “I don’t know if he now feels sated with this whole world or if he’ll want to come back to this. I have no way of knowing, but I think he could. I feel like he could.”

kieran culkin holding a martini in season 4 episode 10 of succession

Culkin with the infamous martini.

Macall B. Polay/HBO

Either way, she can’t know if that world would ever include Gerri again. And so she’s left with both the satisfaction and the instability of this ending, of understanding that Gerri—maybe more so than any of the other characters—got what she wanted, and what she deserved, but that it happened quietly, away from the cameras. There will be no further closure, which is and has always been Succession’s style anyway. As Smith-Cameron tells me over lunch, the show “requires something of the audience.” She continues, “You find yourself thinking later, ‘Well, maybe I misread that moment and it was actually this.’ And you go back and look and you’re like, ‘You know what? It’s not resolved. I don’t know exactly what they’re talking about.’ You have to keep that thread loose.” She’s talking about interpreting the show as a whole, but she could easily be referring specifically to the finale ending. Letting go of Gerri, and Succession itself, will require all of us to live with that loose thread.

Still, should Armstrong ever come along again and give that string a tug, well, Smith-Cameron isn’t shy about her enthusiasm. “I mean, we all thought it was the time of our lives,” she says. “Pretty much everyone that I know well on that show was, like, ‘We are just so fucking lucky.’”

Headshot of Lauren Puckett-Pope

Culture Writer

Lauren Puckett-Pope is a staff culture writer at ELLE, where she primarily covers film, television and books. She was previously an associate editor at ELLE. 

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