Sadaf Ahsan: What happened is a far better result than if he had decided to walk over the edge of the Waystar building, but it isn't entirely different
Minutes before the final scene in Season 2 of Succession, Kendall Roy, about to become the scapegoat for a corporate scandal, asks his dad Logan if he ever stood a chance of taking over the top job at Waystar Royco. After some prodding, Logan gives it to him straight: No. Kendall is not a killer.
What HBO’s Succession does best — like no other series before it — is straddle the line between comedy and drama. Most characters live entirely on one side of this divide, whether it’s the jester-esque duo of Tom and Cousin Greg(ory), or the always ferocious patriarch Logan.
But while he may not be a killer (at least up until the final scene of the second season), Kendall is the only character who lives on both sides of the dramatic and comedic extremes.
From the first moment we see him, he appears loud and smarmy, rapping along to The Beastie Boys in the back of his chauffeur-driven car to pump himself up for a business meeting. But later in the first episode, we find him breaking down in his father’s bathroom, screaming, crying and flinging potpourri everywhere. In contrast to his siblings — the obnoxious Roman, the headstrong Shiv and utter idiot Connor — Kendall is human. In the first season, he pines for his ex-wife and adores his children. In Season 2, his heart is never more apparent than when it’s broken, as he parades around like a servant beaten by his father into submission.
At the end of Season 1, he takes a spectacular nosedive: His masterfully planned hostile takeover of his father’s company is thwarted; his drug addiction dangerously deepens; and he ends up driving into a ravine the night of Shiv’s wedding, killing the waiter riding shotgun. His saviour, in a chilling turn, is Logan, who manipulates the situation to gain control of his son, while ensuring the entire incident essentially disappears.
These burdens weigh heavy throughout Season 2, rendering Kendall emotionally catatonic, barely clinging to life except to follow Logan’s orders, and become a consummate daddy’s boy. All of this should have only increased our reasons to find him entirely pitiful. And yet, if anything, Kendall morphed into the kind of rich but brooding sad boy Jane Austen might have romanticized.
Apart from the writing, a lot of the credit for this complicated character goes to actor Jeremy Strong, who so remarkably disappears into Kendall’s skin that it’s easy to forget it’s a character and not a real person peering over the edge of the Waystar Royco corporate headquarters, contemplating a sudden end to it all.
Soon after this tense moment, Kendall speaks with Shiv in his office, and asks for a hug — a rare moment of affection between members of the Roy family. Kendall weeps, and says, nearly begging, “I would just ask that you take care of me. Because, uh, if dad didn’t need me right now, I don’t exactly know what I would be for.”
It is a striking moment of vulnerability as he admits he doesn’t believe he is the one to succeed their father. Later, he returns to the roof to find a fence has been built around the edge. Resting his forehead against the glass, his disappointment is devastating.
The fact that, just episodes later, we see him performing a drug-addled rap called “L to the OG” on stage in tribute to Logan (“Bro, don’t get it twisted, I’ve been through hell, but since I stan dad, I’m alive and well”) is hilarious, yes, but also a testament to the layers behind this character, unlike any on television right now.
“I’ll be honest with you: It’s not a fun job. ‘Fun’ is just not the word for it,” Strong said in an interview with TheWrap earlier this year. “There are times where I experience real joy just in the creative process itself, but this is a f–king heavy thing on me. The writing on this show — in particular in this role — has demanded that I go to hell and back. The headspace, as you can imagine, is not a place that anyone would want to stay in.”
So much so that it’s often uncomfortable to watch him, yes, but also not to root for him. Throughout Season 2, pressure builds as Kendall is put through the ringer. He attempts to confess his crime to his mother in the hope of relief and comfort, only to have her avoid him. This, after his father forced him to visit the family of the dead waiter, where he later and rather numbly leaves cash as his penance.
Indeed, up until the finale, Kendall is anything but a killer. He operates in a three-dimensional space while his family operate in two dimensions: themselves and everyone else (who, like the people who died on the Roystar cruise line, are of no importance). The emotional range that Strong supplies Kendall is something male characters are rarely granted on television. We don’t see the interior life of, say, Don Draper or Tony Soprano in quite the same way, only ever surly glimpses.
Throughout the run of Succession’s first two seasons, it feels as though Kendall is locked in an emotional suicide vest, which finally goes off at the press conference when he turns on his father. It’s a far better result than if he had decided to walk over the edge of the Waystar building, but it isn’t entirely different.
Earlier on, when he asks him to be the “blood sacrifice,” Logan tells Kendall of an Inca philosophy he learned about through Marcia. The Incas would sacrifice their children during bad times in hope for better. “What could you possibly kill that you love so much it would make the sun rise again?” Logan says, alluding to the way he has broken down his own son. However, the next day, it’s Kendall committing a type of patricide in return.
It’s something Roman told Kendall he needs to do if he wants to succeed way back in Season 1: “The only way he’ll respect you is if you try to destroy him. Because, in your position, that is exactly what he’d try to do.” Like father, like son. It’s telling that the final scene of Season 2 is a close-up of Logan’s face, where he’s caught between a smile and grimace.
But as relieving as it is to see Kendall return to life, it also feels like another kind of death sentence — one in which he is willing to sacrifice what he loves in order to win. Even through all of his tribulations, he still had a heart that could be broken. In his new role of corporate killer, Kendall has separated himself from his family, but in doing so, has he become more like them than ever before?
He may just have destroyed his father, but in the collateral damage, he risks destroying the part of himself that separates him from the pack. One hopes that as Kendall rises, he’ll take his heart with him.