The world of Succession is a white one. This is neither a novel nor a particularly astute observation. The HBO series inspired by Rupert Murdoch’s media empire is nothing if not faithful to life, and the kinds of real-world boardrooms and glass-walled offices on which the Roy siblings’ corporate sandbox is modeled remain, to this day, largely devoid of people of color. Accordingly, the number of nonwhite characters that appear across all four seasons of Succession can be counted on two, maybe three, hands, and half that, if we’re talking about those with more than a couple of lines of dialogue. The scarcity is such that, if you were to engage in the thought exercise known as “does this person have a single friend who isn’t white?”—perhaps as a fun drinking game each Sunday night—the answer, when it comes to most of Succession’s main players, would be a resounding, boozy “no.”
But if there is one central character who proves an exception to that rule, it is Kendall Roy (Jeremy Strong), the eldest among the three siblings vying for control of Waystar Royco. Kendall, the man who acquired and then gutted Lawrence Yee’s website Vaulter. Kendall, the close personal friend of Stewy Hosseini, a character who’s at least ethnic enough to be allowed to do an impression of a New York City taxi driver. Kendall, who doesn’t just know more than one person of color; he has employed—bestowed the corpuscles of life, aka money, upon—multiple.
Kendall is where some of Succession’s most sustained attempts at “tackling” “race”—to the extent that it even needs to—converge. He is a white guy who unironically loves hip-hop, even penning and performing his own rap, to the feverish delight of all those who call Strong “babygirl.” His adopted daughter Sophie (Swayam Bhatia) is South Asian. His assistant Jess (Juliana Canfield) is the show’s only regular Black character, and at different points he hires another Black woman (lawyer Lisa Arthur) and an Asian woman (PR guru Berry Schneider), to boot. In Kendall’s world, we’re probably all just, like, one race—the human race, bro—but that beige platitude may be at least an inch more convincing on Kendall than on his sister Shiv (Sarah Snook), who condescendingly calls the one Black woman she knows “honey” in Season 3, and is several miles better than Roman (Kieran Culkin) and his 4chan-lite grade of political incorrectness. For much of the series, Kendall styles himself as an ally: someone who gets it, who is willing to yell, “Fuck the patriarchy!” and end homophobia and topple the problematic old guard.
But the prodigal son’s anti-racist practices, like his moral convictions more generally, crumble at the lightest tap. Lisa (Sanaa Lathan), with her credentials as a high-powered Black feminist attorney (and also, coincidentally, Shiv’s one Black acquaintance), is seen as a boon to Kendall’s very public legal fight against his father in Season 3, until a frustrated Lisa—constantly undermined and spoken down to by her client—delivers the unvarnished truth to him. Immediately, Kendall fires her, because “she’s a toxic person.”
The long-suffering Jess, a fan favorite for her apparent competency and for Canfield’s extensive range of facial expressions dialed to different pitches of “What the fuck,” is met with an even harsher reaction in the series’ penultimate episode, “Church and State.” Perturbed by Kendall’s role in his American Television Network calling the presidential election for far-right candidate Jeryd Mencken—and possibly by her own complicity as an employee of the company that owns that conservative news outlet—Jess plans to resign, a decision that Kendall forces out into the open and then upbraids her for as if she were an ungrateful child. “I’m sorry, but I’ve given you extraordinary access,” he fumes, dressing up his practice of allowing her to be in the room to take his requests of increasingly questionable feasibility. “Where else are you going to get that? Nowhere. I’m telling you, you’re going to get that nowhere. You have no idea how things will turn out, and it’s very juvenile. It’s fucking dumb. You’re being dumb.”
His reaction fits a pattern that he’s established, particularly when it comes to the women—and especially the women of color—in his orbit. Use them to bolster his image or his sense of self-virtue, own them (it wasn’t too long ago within the timeline of Succession that Kendall tried bargaining for his driver and his assistant like they were assets in a divorce, telling his father, “I keep Fikret, Jess, and I’m gone”), rely on them, but when they displease him—whether that’s pushing back or making him feel small or falling out of his control—either try to tighten the leash or cut them adrift, reprimand included free of charge.
Even as a father, Kendall’s supposed care for “all the different people together” can’t weather his ego. He is somehow surprised to learn that a fan of his racist news network is possibly racist enough to push his brown daughter. “I will do anything to protect her,” he insists after first taking the time to berate and blame his ex-wife Rava for what happened to Sophie. “I’m breaking my back, and it’s all for them. To make the world safe.”
Just a few days later, when it serves him to have her around, he has conveniently forgotten his vow, as he tries to prevent his kids from leaving a city that’s one Molotov cocktail away from a roaring blaze. He calls Rava hysterical, insane, “too online,” for her concern for the kids’ safety. “Our daughter is not fine!” she exclaims. Ken’s reading of the situation comes back to himself: “You’re trying to hurt me.” Next on his to-do list, after threatening to lie in front of Rava’s car, Ted Lasso–style, is to tell Jess to find him family lawyers so he can get full custody of the kids he never sees—just a day after having confessed to not being “a very good father” and siding with a presidential candidate whose appeal is built on shoving Sophies to the ground.
[Join the team of the Waves for “The Women of Succession” on Tuesday at 5 p.m.]
Kendall is not an outlier among Succession’s characters for his lack of moral backbone, or for his treatment of the people—from loved ones to employees—around him. But while others have carried out their various acts of treachery and coldbloodedness under no illusions about the kind of people they are, Ken has sought to project and reaffirm, over and over, a veneer of righteousness. He wants to be seen as a “good guy,” and that includes being a good white person, a champion for the marginalized, even if he knows that, deep down, he isn’t. This posturing is what grates the most—that sting of irony, of watching a Waystar Royco diversity training and comparing the different shades of faces in the video with the sea of white streaming out of conference rooms.
That is, until Kendall finally submits to the truth of who he is, a journey that reaches its destination in this final season. Clear-eyed, voice ringing, he commands the room, a vision of wealth and power and ruthlessness. Succession has always understood unabashed whiteness—and, at long last, Kendall does, too.