‘Succession’ Gave Kendall a Fate Worse Than Death
For four seasons, Succession has played a morbidly tantalizing game of will-he-or-won’t-he with Kendall Roy. The self-proclaimed eldest boy exists in a permanent state of precarity, always one breakdown away from oblivion. In the series finale, “With Open Eyes,” creator Jesse Armstrong gives Kendall the ending he always deserved, and one that’s far more satisfying than the ending viewers thought they were getting from the start.
Television’s modern era has nurtured and even enabled the urge to outsmart the media we consume. Those who anticipated Tom Wambsgans (Matthew Macfadyen) “winning” the game of Succession can take pride in having perceived the subtle and not-so-subtle table-setting over the course of the series’ 40 episodes. There is an undeniable satisfaction to correctly predicting a narrative outcome, or solving a mystery before the main characters figure it out. (This is also why a show like Poker Face can feel more rewarding and less demanding to watch.) But Succession was never a whodunit; in a larger sense, it was always a “who’s gonna do it” that couldn’t be answered until Logan Roy (Brian Cox) was safely interred in his ludicrously capacious mausoleum, to borrow a phrase from our pal Tom.
While the harrowing banality of Tom and Shiv (Sarah Snook)’s marriage humorously subverted—and occasionally challenged—our desire for a classic will-they/won’t-they story, another fascinating version of this trope was playing out between Kendall Roy (Jeremy Strong) and himself. When we meet Kendall in season 1, he seems like a cocksure nepo-baby primed to inherit the family’s media empire. Shrewd businessman that he is, Papa Roy hedges his bets with each of his children, sending Roman (Kieran Culkin) away to learn the ropes from Waystar veteran Frank with one hand while dangling an impossible carrot over his only daughter’s head with the other.
Of all his children, Logan is the cruelest to Kendall, who spends much of season 1 trying and failing to win a kiss from daddy. With his self-destructive tendencies, a textbook need to gain his father’s approval, and the carcinogenic mass of insecurities he can’t seem to excise from his sleeve, Kendall is almost the most relatable character in Succession. When Logan refuses to commend his bold play to rescue the company from debt, Kendall spirals until the season 1 finale turns his metaphorical spinout into a literal one: Kendall ditches Shiv and Tom’s wedding with a hotel waiter to go buy some cocaine, crashes his car into a pond, and the waiter kid drowns. It’s a defining moment for Kendall’s arc that establishes a recurring motif—Kendall and water—and it’s a defining moment in his relationship with Logan, who helps cover up his son’s manslaughter and then uses it as leverage.
Throughout the series, Succession returns to this idea of Kendall standing on a proverbial—and, in at least one instance, literal—ledge. Water is a recurring visual device that laps at the edges of Kendall’s sanity. In the season 2 premiere, he’s partially submerged in a hot tub in Iceland, recuperating from the trauma of inadvertently murdering someone. The penultimate episode of season 2 ends with an unnerving extended shot of Kendall in a swimming pool, lying face-down on a float as his face slowly slides into the water. Season 3 opens with Kendall having a panic attack and seeking refuge in an empty bathtub. Speculation about Kendall’s ultimate fate ran rampant on social media in the lead up to season 4, with viewers using the water symbolism as the cornerstone of fan theories built around Kendall taking his own life.
For a will-they/won’t-they to be resolved, both characters need to acknowledge their feelings and overcome the obstacle(s) keeping them from being together—the biggest of which is usually their own fear of disrupting a comfortable status quo. In other words, they need to be brave. Kendall Roy is many things—businessman, schemer, rapper, father, eldest boy—but brave is not among them. When Kendall returns to the water in season 4, the dynamic has changed but our perception of the relationship hasn’t. At the end of episode 7, “Living+,” Kendall kicks off his clothes and walks into the ocean for a celebratory swim that can’t escape the undercurrent of his insecurity. In the final episode of the series, Kendall disappears off-screen for an almost uncomfortably long beat to swim out to a raft, where he’ll wait for his siblings to decide his professional fate. The scene asks the viewer to answer the very question Roman and Shiv are debating: Can we trust Kendall? Then he breaks the surface and climbs onto the raft, winded but alive and well, and we’re asked to consider a more relevant question: Will Kendall survive without this?
Succession makes a point of gesturing toward Logan’s relationship with water, as well. In the first season, we see Logan swimming in a pool despite his childrens’ insistence that he never goes near the water. Connor (Alan Ruck) even claims that Logan can’t swim. When Logan emerges from the pool, his body offers an explanation: his back is covered in scars from what appear to be lashings, affirming Logan’s comments about his abusive uncle Noah. If the Roy children were to see these scars, their perception of their father as an indestructible, infallible figure might crumble. Had Kendall seen those scars, he might have understood his father’s position as both victim and perpetrator in a cycle of abuse.
His uncle Ewan (James Cromwell) references their painful childhood while delivering his brother’s eulogy. Ewan recalls their aunt and uncle sending Logan away to school; when he returned, their little sister came down with polio and died. “He always believed that he brought home the polio with him, which took her,” Ewan says. “I don’t even know if that’s true, but our aunt and uncle certainly did nothing to disabuse him of that notion. They let it lie with him.”
Kendall is so determined to become the best of his father that he can only hear this story as one of overcoming adversity. Nevertheless, Logan Roy persisted. “And now people might want to tend and prune the memory of him,” Kendall says, “to denigrate that force, that magnificent awful force of him, but, my god, I hope it’s in me.”
“With Open Eyes” culminates in a long-repressed tantrum that should disabuse anyone of the notion that Kendall Roy is fit to succeed his father. As the board votes on whether to sell Waystar to entrepreneurial edgelord Lukas Matsson (Alexander Skarsgard) or keep it in the family, with Kendall becoming sole CEO, Shiv has second thoughts. It’s unclear how much of this decision is motivated by survival (and maternal) instinct and how much of it is rooted in her image as the progressive Roy sibling—is she fully committing to the performance of ethics, or is she genuinely concerned for the future of the country under a Kendall-controlled media conglomerate?
By the time Kendall screams “I am the eldest boy!” in a moment that turns four seasons of subtext into text, in an episode where all three Roy children have decided to have “real” conversations (see also: Shiv’s phone call to Tom), Kendall’s fate crystallizes into something worse than death: irrelevance. The burden isn’t his father’s last name or the inheritance for which he suffered—and imposed suffering. There is no sudden moment of realizing his familial destiny, of obtaining unconditional love in the form of a trophy that Logan can no longer withhold from him.
Without the pursuit of succeeding Logan Roy, Kendall is cursed to live like the rest of us. He’s just some guy with a chip on his shoulder and unresolved father issues (and a man he pays to be his friend, natch). The final shot of Succession reunites Kendall with the water: no longer submerged, no longer in danger of drowning. He’s fully removed now, watching it from a distance.
(featured image: HBO)
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