Television

Where Does Succession Go After That Big Cliffhanger?

Does Kendall survive? And can the show survive without him?

Jeremy Strong, Kieran Culkin, and Brian Cox on Succession
Jeremy Strong, Kieran Culkin, and Brian Cox on Succession. Graeme Hunter/HBO

Willa Paskin: At the end of the most recent episode of HBO’s Succession, the penultimate of Season 3, Kendall Roy, coming off a no-good-very-bad series of events, was seen sucking swimming pool, sparking an intense debate about whether or not the most hangdog Roy—and the most intense actor, Jeremy Strong—was… dead. Sam, before we dive in, I just want to say that despite prestige TV’s willingness to kill people, Occam’s Razor still says shows don’t usually kill their Emmy-winning protagonists, whatever Game of Thrones has to say about it. And Kendall, ridiculous, broken, and cringe-worthy as he is, has to this point been a, if not the, protagonist of Succession. Are we over-thinking this?

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Sam Adams: I don’t think we are! Succession is an ensemble drama, but I feel like Kendall is, if not its main character, at least the central one, the person whose actions the entire plot revolves around. Memorable as the death of Ned Stark was, in retrospect that was less a case of a show killing off its protagonist than revealing that we were wrong about who its protagonist was. And as much as I like to refer to Succession as “that show about Tom Wambsgans and his friends,” it’s Kendall’s angst that gives the show its tragic heft, and makes it more—or at least other—than a bleak farce about rich a-holes scrambling for power (which is not to say that couldn’t be a fine thing on its own terms). Before we get to what we think happened at the end of “Chiantishire,” is there Succession without Kendall? Can it survive without him?

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Paskin: Succession is a great show, and I don’t like to bet against those kinds of shows doing new and interesting things. And this season has shown the Roys stuck in a repetition compulsion that, despite its formal resemblance to a sitcom, can be a little tiresome. Get rid of Kendall and you gave a whole fresh start! In short: If the people who make Succession think it can go on without Kendall, I am inclined to think it can.

And yet, as a recent New Yorker profile of Jeremy Strong made explicit, he thinks he’s in a drama, and colleagues like Kieran Culkin think they are in a comedy. With due deference to smart aleck king Roman Roy, Succession is so good because it’s not just a comedy. It’s not Veep in the boardroom (no disrespect; sounds like a fun show!). And, as you said, it’s Kendall who ensures that.

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This sounds like the sort of simultaneously wounded and self-aggrandizing thing Kendall would say about himself, and that makes me uncomfortable—who wants to sound like that guy!—but he is the only Roy with a soul. It is damaged and flawed and mortifying, but look at the alternative: Roman, give or take a missent dick pic, is relatively mercenary and effective at business because he literally gets off on being abused. Siobhan is worse: She should know better, and yet time after time she has agreed to pony back up to the being-awful bar, steeling herself to rise to the horrible occasion, for daddy’s toxic approval. (And then there’s what she’s doing to Tom.) Kendall is so much more annoying than either of them, but that’s because he’s not tough enough to slog through, as they are constantly teasing him about.

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Could his death spark a real change in his siblings? Maybe. But they seem so psychotically attuned only to papa bear, and Logan, well, Logan does not give a shit about Kendall. It totally scans that Logan could have pushed Kendall to harm himself, but, oddly, the show after one of its main characters dies seems too upbeat to me.

Adams: That tonal interplay is definitely what makes Succession tick. Roman and Kendall are on opposite ends of the spectrum, so it doesn’t entirely surprise me that the actors who play them don’t see eye to eye. But without Kendall, the show loses whatever vague shred of a conscience it has. Logan’s not wrong to point out that his son is no paragon of virtue, but Kendall has enough character to know he’s a terrible person, just not enough to be a different one. That’s his curse, and it’s part of what keeps Succession so engrossingly fluid. I don’t see how a show that regularly features the knockabout antics of Tom Wambsgans and Cousin Greg can encompass something as tragic as a major character’s death, especially one as tragic and squalid as drunkenly drowning on a pool float because your bored children have left you alone. The HBO summary for next week includes the phrase “Greg continues his attempts to climb the dating ladder with a contessa.” How do you fit that in the same episode with Kendall dying?

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But—and here I admit I am taking the part of a devil’s advocate, as someone who was texting a friend last night that without Kendall, Succession is “fucked”—could it also be the shakeup this show needs? As much as I enjoy watching the Roys and their hangers-on slice each other into bits on a weekly basis—Shiv and Tom’s vicious verbal foreplay was both the most shocking and the most fun thing to happen all season—it’s started to feel like it’s going in circles. Immaculately written, deliciously savage circles, to be sure. But circles nonetheless.

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Like you, I’ve been going over Michael Schulman’s New Yorker profile with a microscope, and reading between the lines, it seems like a portrait of an actor that his co-workers have just about had enough of. After Strong described calculating how to visit the show’s makeup trailer without running into any of his fellow cast members, I started to wonder how much of Season 3, which finds Kendall estranged from his entire family and often off on his own planet entirely, was driven by the needs of the plot and how much by a need to minimize the amount of scenes he had to share with the rest of the cast. If that’s the case—and I should stress that I am now fully in the realm of speculation—I don’t think the show can survive another season split in two.

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In more concrete, less extratextual terms, I don’t see any plausible way of breaking the him-or-me dynamic between Kendall and Logan, and it’s already clear that Kendall has lost that battle. Unless Alexander Skarsgård’s mercurial tech bro suddenly decides he needs Kendall on his side in the mooted “merger of equals” between Waystar Royco and GoJo, there’s nowhere for Kendall to go but down, and the show did that two seasons ago. Killing off Kendall might give the series the shake-up that, only three seasons in, it already seems to badly need.

Paskin: As has been amply speculated in Slate Slack, there are options between Kendall dies and Kendall attends his mother’s wedding like nothing happened. (For what it’s worth, the sleuths at Reddit seem to believe Kendall did appear to be doing just that in a previous trailer for the finale—admittedly, it’s an aerial long shot in which you can’t actually see his face. Lol.) Maybe Kendall ends up in a medical crisis similar to the one Logan was in at the start of the show? Maybe he sits out half the season in a coma. Or something else! The Succession writers can figure it out.

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I do think the extent to which Kendall feels written into a corner—even more than all the drowning and suicide foreshadowing that has been going on for seasons now—suggests the writers are up to something. I mean, they didn’t have to write him into that corner. It is a notable choice for a whole host of reasons but one is simply: Jeremy Strong is extraordinary in that role. I get he is a supercilious dingus, but his Kendall is really incredible. Strong is actually a photo-negative Kendall: all the annoying things but  actually good at his job. Series tend to put up with people who are that good, even if they are a walking eye roll.

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We’ve both mentioned that New Yorker profile now, and I don’t want to get too media navel-gazey, but I find the timing of its publication curious. I have no doubts that Michael Schulman, who reported the hell out of it and talked to everyone, knows what happens to Kendall. Among other things, he was on set when they filmed this week’s episode, and appears to have talked to many people on the show on background and off the record. Would the New Yorker really put the story out now when a week from now they could tell the whole, real story of Strong’s leaving, if he is? Obviously, stranger things have happened and maybe next week they want to run an online follow-up and have all the rest of us weblogs writing the “All the Clues in Last Week’s New Yorker Story” story. (In addition to his colleagues’ immense aggravation with him, I am partial to Strong’s shaving his head a second time, as far as elliptical clues go.) But it still seems like three-dimensional chess to me.

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Enough with the media crit though: What have we not considered yet?

Adams: Apart from the extratextual clues, there are the textual ones: The sign outside Kendall’s 40th birthday that read “The Notorious Ken: Ready to Die,” which the “previously on …” editors were thoughtful enough to slip into this week’s recap. And take the title of this week’s finale: “All the Bells Say.” On the one hand, it just extends the show’s apparent tradition of copping its season finale titles from John Berryman’s “Dream Song 29.” (Season 1 ended with “Nobody Is Ever Missing,” Season 2 with “This Is Not for Tears.“) But the words that follow “All the Bells Say” in the poem are “too late.” Sounds ominous, right? There’s also the fact that Succession’s creator explicitly modeled the show on King Lear, and if Kendall is the show’s Cordelia, the faithful child who speaks truth to their father while the others flatter him—well, things don’t go so well for her.

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In the days since I first watched Kendall blowing bubbles through his nose, I’ve gone to thinking there was no way the show would kill Kendall off to thinking they absolutely had to, and now I think I’ve swung back to the former. What about you? Have we seen the last of Kendall Roy?

Paskin: There is nothing I hate more than committing to an opinion like this: you know, six days before an episode that will make it moot. So I guess I’ll just go with my preference, even if it’s for a character I would hope never to be in a room with. You can’t kill a cockroach, and in fact, they like drains, so here’s hoping they figure out how to keep Kendall and give the show a jolt simultaneously.

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