Let’s Talk About That Brilliant Succession Ending

Photo: HBO

Succession fans spent the past week debating which member of the Roy family would become the so-called “blood sacrifice” that patriarch Logan Roy said would be necessary in order for Waystar Royco to survive its current crisis. But it turned out that the identity of the person offed for the sake of corporate optics wasn’t the Succession finale’s big reveal after all. The real twist was what that person would decide to do in the final minutes before the axe officially came down.

“You’re not a killer. You have to be a killer.”

That’s what Logan Roy tells his No. 1 son, Kendall, after telling Kendall he’s going to take the fall for the massive sexual harassment and cover-up scandal that’s currently threatening to kill the family’s corporate empire. “You’re not a killer” is, crucially, a phrase with more than one meaning.

When Logan says it, he’s implying that Kendall doesn’t have a killer’s instinct. He’s too soft, not ruthless enough to make the hard decisions that a CEO has to make. But a more literal, out of context read of that statement is that Kendall is not the type of guy who would murder someone. But Kendall effectively did kill someone when he left Andrew Dodds, the waiter Logan fired from Shiv and Tom’s wedding, to drown after their car accident in the season one finale. Kendall hears that subtext in his father’s statement, and immediately says that stepping down from his role as COO is a punishment, one he deserves for his other, more grievous sin. But Logan objects. He downplays the severity of what happened to Andrew as well as Kendall’s role in it. “No real person involved,” Logan says, echoing the phrasing used in company documents to downplay Waystar Royco’s abuse of migrants or sex workers. “It was nothing.” If there was any doubt whatsoever that Logan was somewhat oblivious to what was going on in the cruises division, his casual use of that phrase obliterates it.

Logan is wrong about everything he says here. Kendall did allow someone to die, and when it comes to matters of business, he actually is a killer. And in the final moments of “This Is Not for Tears,” he proves it, completely ignoring the planned statement he was supposed to deliver in which he took responsibility for everything that had gone wrong at the company, and instead placing the blame on his father. “I think this is the day his reign ends,” he proclaims.

It’s a moment that we should have seen coming and that most viewers, even the ones who rightly predicted Kendall would be the family member sacrificed, probably did not. That made it immensely satisfying. Who is Kendall Roy in the last moments of the finale? He’s a whistleblower, calling out his old, conservative, propaganda-slinging father for the horrible things he’s done without ever being held accountable. At this moment in time, especially, it felt good to watch a metaphorical knife cut through the knit in one of Logan’s many cardigan sweaters and slide straight into his back.

But beyond just being satisfying, the ending is also fully supported by everything in the narrative that we’ve seen up to this point. Kendall was so dutifully loyal to Logan throughout the entire second season that it was easy to forget where things started between them in season one. This show, from the beginning, was always about Kendall and Logan. In the first season, Kendall spearheaded an attempted vote of no confidence against his father, a vote that failed. Then he tried to stage another coup in the form of a hostile takeover, something he might have pursued further if he hadn’t gotten into that car accident and come crawling back into his dad’s arms, begging for his help and protection. The hug that Logan gave to Kendall at the end of the season one finale is echoed in the moment from “This Is Not for Tears” when, just before exiting his meeting with his dad, Kendall kisses Logan on the cheek. It’s a Judas kiss, a reminder that what looks like affection in this family is really the administration of poison. But it’s also a response to that hug from many months ago, a “fuck off!” to Logan’s alleged paternal embrace.

The finale is also a perfect bookend to the events of the season two premiere, which begins with Kendall attempting to decompress at a posh Icelandic rehab facility, then being yanked away so he can appear in front of cameras to defend his father. In essence, that’s exactly what he’s asked to do again in the finale when he gets swept onto a plane and sent back to New York to fall on a sword on live television. As soon as we saw Kendall floating in the pool on that yacht during Sunday’s episode, his face almost-but-not-quite submerged in water, just as it was when he soaked in a pool in Iceland, we should have known his fate as the blood sacrifice was sealed.

The idea that Kendall feels like he should be punished for his role in Andrew’s death — and, perhaps subconsciously, for trying to undermine his father — has run through this entire season. Kendall has tried over and over again to be the most loyal son and corporate partner to Logan he can possibly be. He did what his father asked by going on TV to say, “Dad’s plan is better.” He dropkicked Vaulter to the curb, against his own instincts. He was the only person who persuasively nailed his testimony during the Capitol Hill hearing, something even his usually insulting siblings give him credit for doing. He even expressed his admiration for Logan in an extremely misguided rap performance. In a way, he’s been atoning all season long, only to get thrown into the water and left to drown by his own father anyway. The reason that Logan can honestly tell Kendall not to feel badly about Andrew Dodd is because he doesn’t feel that badly about screwing over his own son or screwing over anyone, for that matter. Kendall knows this, but he finally reawakens to that fact after being in something of a stupor for much of the season.

Naomi says this to Kendall after getting kicked off the yacht at his dad’s behest: “Ken, he loves the broken you. That’s what he loves.” As played by the wonderfully understated Jeremy Strong, Kendall seems pretty broken by his father’s decision. But he puts the pieces back together in time to make a real impression during that press conference, where, by the way, he mentions that he has documentation that backs up his father’s awareness of all the unsavory things that have happened at Waystar Royco. (Cut to Cousin Greg, with a folder presumably filled with papers that weren’t burned in Tom’s fire pit.)

Even though Kendall is the one in the spotlight, the final shot of the finale isn’t of the son. It’s of the father, Logan, watching this Shakespearean betrayal unfold on cable TV. The expression on Logan’s face is one of concern. But in the final seconds before the credits roll, Brian Cox lifts the corners of Logan’s mouth into something almost, but not quite, like a smile. He can’t totally smile. His son just fucked him over on national television. But he’s also a little impressed that Kendall had the cojones to do what he did. That almost-smile says, “That’s my boy.”

Succession critics, and even some of its fans, frequently point out that everyone on this show is horrible. But of the horrible people in the Roy family, Kendall and Greg seem to possess two things that no one else does: a conscience and a sense of guilt. That’s the other thing that makes Kendall’s eleventh-hour treachery so pleasing. It’s not exactly a case of the good guy winning, but of the lesser of many potentially sacrificed evils winning. On Succession, and in the wider world at this point, that’s cause for celebration.

Let’s Talk About That Brilliant Succession Ending