If there’s an evil opposite of a Mona Lisa smile, it’s the expression on the face of Logan Roy (Brian Cox) at the end of Succession’s second season, as he sits in front of a television watching his son, Kendall (Jeremy Strong), address reporters at a devastating press conference that builds to Kendall declaring of his father, “This is the day his reign ends.” Viewers will spend the downtime between now and season three parsing Logan’s expression for clues on how he’ll deal with Kendall, whether he’ll manage to stay in control of the company that he founded and whether this was a case of a minion turning on his boss or another one of Logan’s chessmaster schemes, wherein Kendall becomes the instrument of his old man’s destruction because Logan doesn’t want to do the deed himself. We Zapruder the close-up and wonder: Is Kendall suddenly turning on his dad a wild card that Logan didn’t anticipate, or has Logan outthought and outplayed his son yet again? Was choosing his son and right-hand man as a “blood sacrifice” an act of corporate and emotional filicide? Or was it a roundabout way of firing himself, as suggested earlier in the finale, when a powerful board member frankly told Logan that he had to step down?
Of course, this kind of thing is fun to talk about. But it’s just as satisfying to think about what Logan’s expression means in terms of the emotional dynamics of the Roy clan, all of whom avoid talking about trauma and seem incapable of feeling or expressing love in anything like a healthy way. And it’s here that King Lear, an often-cited comparison point, comes into the picture. While the show’s mile-a-minute plotting and razor-blade insults mark it as a comedy — like Arrested Development, Veep, and Seinfeld, its characters tend to be ruthlessly self-interested and unconcerned with whether anybody likes them — the dramatic aspect comes from its unflinching depiction of a family whose capacity to feel love, empathy, and compassion has been worn down to a nub by decades of a greedy and manipulative patriarch’s abuse. In King Lear, the patriarch promises to give the kingdom to whichever of his three children offers the most effusive declaration of love for him, and is shocked to his core when his kindest and most honest child, his daughter Cordelia, refuses. But there is no Cordelia Roy in sight here. There’s only a matched set of four vipers, a snake-king father, and a constellation of terrified underlings and lesser predators waiting on scraps in the pit.
By the time Jesse Armstrong’s HBO saga gets to that close-up of Logan, he’s in danger of being ousted by Waystar Royco shareholders because its cruise-ship division covered up years of exploitation, abuse, and possibly murder of sex workers and migrant workers. (The crimes in question were callously filed away as NPRIs, or No Real Person Involved.) Following a grueling family summit on a gigantic black yacht that looks as if it could have been made by the intergalactic shipyard that manufactured the Imperial Fleet in Star Wars, Logan chose Kendall to fall on his sword to save the company, but the son turned on the father instead, publicly declaring him a vile and treacherous person and effectively declaring war on him. The instant the episode ended, viewers began debating what Logan’s cryptic attentiveness meant. He didn’t stomp and roar and shout “Fuck off” at the TV. He watched and listened, even shushing his family when they tried to pipe up while Kendall was speaking — a sharp contrast to an earlier episode where the family gathered to watch an exposé of the company’s cruise-ship malfeasance and cracked jokes all the way through.
My record of guessing what’s going to happen next on a TV show is not much better than anyone else’s. But I don’t think Succession is a four-dimensional-chess kind of show, where there are machinations inside of machinations inside of machinations, and I don’t think a character like Logan Roy, a very blunt and impatient person who always wants to get on with it and move along, would set up Kendall to take him out in such a twisty-turny way. There are too many things that could go wrong with a plan like that, and besides, Logan already talked to his inner circle — including his three other children, Shiv (Sarah Snook), Roman (Kieran Culkin), and Connor (Alan Ruck) — about the possibility of stepping down himself. The whole point of raising that possibility was to have everyone assure Logan that he should stay in charge, because that’s what every move he makes is about. (The way he poses the question at breakfast on the yacht is very Lear-like, made comic by that cut to Roman rolling his eyes.)
No, I think if we look at the situation straightforwardly, take all of the characters at face value, and consider what we already know about them, this is what happened: Logan spent every moment since Kendall’s Chappaquiddick-like accident grinding his son down, making him so subservient that he would gladly fall on a grenade should the need arise, but when Logan finally reached a point where he had to play his son like an ace card, the card didn’t want to be played. I think Kendall went onto that helicopter expecting to immolate himself, but somewhere between the deck of the yacht and the press conference, he realized that he had a chance to finally, successfully commit virtual regicide and patricide — something he tried and failed to do in season one. It seems he even enlisted Greg, who saved some of the incriminating cruise-division documents that Tom wanted destroyed; the cutaway to Greg at the press conference tells us they’re in cahoots and confirms the kid was never as dumb as he looked.
If Logan had a master plan, using Kendall as a human shield was probably it. It was a good plan, Logan spent a long time laying the groundwork for it — even insisting that Kendall accompany him to the home of the dead waiter’s family, something that absolutely did not have to happen — and it came out of who these characters are and what they’ve been through. Succession is built around fear and awe of a withholding and volatile father, from the opening-credits sequence in which the father’s face is cropped out by the frame line, blurred, made indistinct by distance as he walks away, to the way he insists on making others come to him or arrives late to meetings he himself convened. (In the season finale, Logan joins the Survivor-like gathering that’s already in progress, descending via helicopter from the sky like a god about to render judgment on mortals.) Like a lot of rich and fearsome patriarchs, Logan does what he wants and cannot conceive of not being in charge of everything, and he tends to make a big show of asking for advice and then doing whatever he’d planned on doing in the first place. The only exceptions are when another character gives him a bit of battlefield intelligence that could prevent him from losing money, power, or both, as when Roman comes back from his harrowing trip to Turkey and announces, with evident disappointment and bracing honesty, that the deal they hoped to engineer to take the company private was likely doomed.
What we’re seeing here is a father sending his pathetic lapdog son — a son he’s broken and humiliated since childhood — to be the “blood sacrifice” that keeps him in power, then realizing that the kid had more guts than he thought and now poses a formidable threat to him. In their last conversation before Kendall’s trip back to the mainland, Kendall looks like a beaten and terrified little boy with a dutifully inclined head and wet eyes. But abuse survivors will recognize that is not just the face of a depressed, traumatized person. It’s the face of a character who is harboring a tremendous, possibly lethal anger against his father, and who finally got a chance to unleash it. Some people who experience agony at the hands of an abusive parent never fight back, or get the opportunity to do so. Kendall, who already came at the king and missed, has a chance to actually do the deed.
But in a twisted, very Roy-family way, this is also an expression of love, or at least their version of love. Logan sees his children as extensions of himself, and the only demonstrations of familial intent that stir him are displays of nerve or force. Kendall’s turn demonstrated both. Respect is Logan’s equivalent of love. “He loves me, I think he does,” Kendall says in this very episode. “I just think it’s the wrong kind of love expression.” When Kendall described his father as a vile and treacherous man in front of the world and swore to take him down, it was the purest expression of his need for love, and the bond he has with his father, that we’ve seen thus far on Succession. Only by killing his father can the son earn his father’s love.