Warning: this story contains spoilers for Sunday night’s episode of HBO’s “Succession,” “Chiantishire.”
Like the playlist at Kendall Roy’s train wreck of a 40th birthday party, this season of HBO’s “Succession” has produced “all bangers, all the time.” There was a tense showdown over an FBI raid. There was a comically chaotic shareholder meeting. There was an episode set at a fictional version of the Conservative Political Action Conference, eerily mirroring the real-life symbiotic relationship between right-wing political candidates and right-wing media. There was “Too Much Birthday,” featuring the aforementioned disastrous birthday, which culminated in sad, pathetic Kendall (Jeremy Strong) sitting in a giant pile of gifts, having a meltdown.
Sunday night’s episode was perhaps the show’s most explosive yet, in terms of the sheer number of shocking moments and turning points. The fact that a scene involving a mistakenly sent dick pic wasn’t the most stunning event of the episode? That’s “Succession.” And the episode’s ominous cliffhanger — Kendall floating facedown in a pool — portends a grim season finale next week.
It’s also the furthest the show’s writers have gone in positioning the chess pieces toward some kind of endgame. While some fans have wondered whether the beloved Emmy-winning show has lost some of its luster this season, I could not disagree more (and this week’s momentous episode should quell those doubts). Yet as smart, delicious and irresistible as the show continues to be, and with a fourth season in the works, I have increasingly found myself hoping the writers are plotting its final stages and will start to take us there. All good things must come to an end.
By now, we know the idea of anyone actually succeeding patriarch Logan Roy (Brian Cox) at the helm of the family’s media conglomerate Waystar Royco — the initial premise of the show — is an illusion. Every major character keeps spinning their wheels, unable to escape the abuse of this terrible family, try as they might.
Sad Kendall this season is just the latest iteration of Sad Kendall. Over the show’s three seasons, he has gone through variations and mirror images of the same devastating arcs. In the opening minutes of the pilot episode, he is pumping himself up in the car and telling his driver: “This is the day we make it happen.” He’s close to landing a deal with media startup Vaulter and seems poised to succeed Logan, who is nearing retirement. But surprise! Logan decides he’s staying on.
Later in Season 1, Kendall tries to oust his father, convening Waystar’s board for a vote of no confidence. It fails spectacularly, beginning a downward spiral that culminates in Kendall killing a server in a car accident in the Season 1 finale. In exchange for covering up the incident, a shell-shocked Kendall agrees to give up the fight against Logan and be at his beck and call.
Enter Sad Kendall in season 2. Sad Kendall is an empty robot just going through the motions. Sad Kendall does whatever his dad tells him to, like gutting Vaulter and unceremoniously laying off its staff. He’s reduced to menial tasks, like administering Logan’s meds. In one of the few scenes in which the Roy siblings try to genuinely express emotion, he gets vulnerable with Shiv (Sarah Snook). Unable to tell his sister the whole truth, he simply says “Shiv, it’s not gonna be me,” and tearfully asks for a hug.
Throughout Season 2, as mounting scandals reveal decades of serial sexual abuse and cover-ups at the company, Logan decides Kendall must be the “blood sacrifice.” Still wracked with guilt about the car accident, Kendall has no choice but to take the fall, knowing that if he doesn’t, Logan won’t protect him anymore. He’ll be more like the “No Real People Involved”: a chilling euphemism for people like the server and the Waystar employees who were sexually abused, who don’t matter one bit to the Roys.
But... at a press conference in the final minutes of Season 2, Kendall reveals Logan knew all about the scandals and authorized golden parachutes to sexual abusers at the company and hush money to the survivors of their abuse. At the start of Season 3, which picks up moments after that bombshell, things are looking up for our number one boy, much like they were all the way back in the pilot. But by now, we know the other shoe will drop, he will fail resoundingly, and Sad Kendall will be back.
Sure enough, by mid-season, Kendall’s attempted coup against Logan has gone nowhere, his siblings have turned against him, and he’s miserable and lonely at his own extravagant birthday party. Sunday’s episode completed another iteration of the Sad Kendall arc. It was grimly fitting that it contained a lot of references to the Season 1 finale, given how Kendall has hit rock bottom yet again.
Though in less dramatic fashion than Sad Kendall, many of the Roys go through similar cycles of apparent ascent, downfall and attempted resurgence, only to find themselves in the same place once again. For instance, how many times has Shiv thought she’d become the top dog, when it’s really just Logan dangling the possibility for strategic reasons? How many times has she done something shockingly despicable — even for “Succession” — in order to get ahead? Cousin Greg (Nicholas Braun) looked like he was going to be a key player in Kendall’s coup, having saved some of the documents that revealed the cover-ups. But he jumped ship and is now back on Team Waystar, continuing his parasitic and toxic dynamic with Tom (Matthew Macfadyen). And Tom — poor, miserable Tom — can’t escape his marriage of convenience with Shiv, which never seems to lead anywhere for his career fortunes either.
There are only so many new characters, company scandals, failed corporate deals and family feuds that can be introduced before this will all eventually run its course. But just when it seemed like the show might be writing itself into a corner, this week’s episode put the wheels in motion for a potential endgame, at least for Kendall. The possibility of his death makes sense, given everything that’s happened to him over the past three seasons, but the other characters will almost certainly remain in their usual cycles. Anything that would break those cycles would have to find the balance between being shocking and being consistent with the show and the character in question.
In many ways, for every character to be spinning their wheels is precisely the point. At its core, the show is about a horrible family stuck in well-established patterns of abuse and trauma. But given how meticulously plotted, sharp and self-aware the show is, I have faith that — unlike the Roys — the “Succession” writers will know when to fold them.