with open wounds

What Was That Hug Really About?

Teamwork makes the dream work. Photo: HBO

It took four seasons, but in finale “With Open Eyes,” Succession finally answered the question of who would succeed Waystar Royco titan Logan Roy, a definitive ending for a series that often toyed with major plot developments only to quickly toss them aside or never bring them up again. Long live Tom; may he enjoy his nice shirts and watches and never be called before a Senate investigating committee again.

But if we’re focusing on the characters themselves rather than the plot machinations surrounding them — which is what Succession ultimately did — then there is one moment in “With Open Eyes” that remains appealingly ambiguous, its meaning dependent on how you view the Roy children, their individual goals, and why they did what they did. Let’s roll the tape:

Over an hour into the episode, Kendall, Roman, and Shiv — now a united-front troika after much infighting over how to counter the seemingly irreversible deal to sell Waystar Royco to GoJo — post up in their father’s office, the same place where Logan insulted, dismissed, abused, and harassed each of them. After Shiv leaves for last-minute chats with board members about their votes, Kendall and Roman remain in the office, and their next three minutes together include a fraternal embrace that is open to interpretation. Is it a moment of love or hatred? Protection or attack? Let’s discuss what that hug between the two not-eldest brothers of the “real” Roy bloodline is about.

It’s about Roman 
Roman has always had a self-destructive edge, honed by years of physical and emotional abuse courtesy of Daddy Logan. After breaking down at Logan’s funeral — not sure how Kieran Culkin doesn’t win an Emmy for his anguished, sobbing delivery of “Is he in there? Can we get him out?” — and being told by Kendall that he “fucked” the deal between the Roys and president-elect Jeryd Mencken, Roman dives into the swell of left-leaning protesters and then walks away from the scene. In the opening act of “With Open Eyes,” Roman’s missing and neither Shiv nor Kendall know where he is until Caroline calls to say he’s at her vacation home in Barbados. The Roman we meet there is chastened, bitter, tired of the Roy sibling squabbling and uninterested in the deal as he stands up to Kendall’s bullying in a way that feels rare and new. That doesn’t last long, though, and the Roman who walks into his father’s office — still decorated with Logan’s things, its glass walls providing a clear view of Gerri — is as fragile and vulnerable as the Roman who crumbled when faced with his father’s coffin.

Under those circumstances, it makes sense to read this as a scene in which Roman, increasingly distraught about being rejected as Logan’s successor, purposefully shoves his eyebrow stitches into Kendall’s shoulder as a way to reopen his wound and lose himself in physical pain to match his emotional turmoil. Maybe there’s a part of Roman that is harming himself subconsciously, while actively trying to save face: He tells Kendall that he’s worried people will think he “pussied out,” and perhaps he thinks showing up to the meeting with flowing blood and those lingering signs of a physical altercation will convey some kind of toughness and regain him some measure of authority. Any psychological reasoning is possible with our guy, who has been increasingly unpredictable this season. But regardless of how cognizant or coherent Roman is, in this moment he expresses all his grief, trauma, and general fucked-upness in a way that hurts himself, and that tracks with everything we know about who Roman is. (Aside from all his quirky sits, which he does in this episode, too!)

It’s about Kendall 
The only thing Kendall has ever wanted to be is a better version of Logan Roy. As recently as a few months ago in the Succession timeline, he was swearing to his father, “You’re corrupt and so is the world … I’m better than you … I love you, but you’re kind of evil.” But Kendall’s issue has always been that he can’t really act distinctly different from Logan; he loves and fears and hates and respects his father too much. So many of Kendall’s biggest moves have included mimicking what Logan would have done: getting aggressive with politicians in “DC,” dropping blackmail bombshells before a wall of reporters in “This Is Not for Tears,” boasting about exaggerated profit numbers to appease shareholders in “Living+.” The prevailing difference between father and son was that Kendall seemed to care for his family in a way that Logan didn’t, defending his son Iverson from Logan’s abuse in “I Went to Market,” getting in between Logan and Roman after the former knocks out the latter’s tooth in “Argestes,” and often backing up Rava when she wanted their children to have very little to do with Logan.

But the poison drips through, and after Logan’s death, Kendall picks up the mantle that he had rejected for so long. Think of how Kendall called his father a “brute” during his eulogy in “Church and State,” and then think of how Kendall grabs Roman during this embrace. He’s straight-armed and inflexible, clasping Roman to his shoulder and, midway through the hug, readjusting his hold on Roman’s head. Before this, Kendall had tried to comfort Roman, placate him with assurances that Roman could have been the guy on top if things had only been different. But the way Kendall grinds Roman’s forehead into his shirt is pure domination tactic, a way to pop Roman’s stitches and cause him some pain, a way to keep him in line with his vote. It’s Michael Corleone kissing Fredo after confronting him about his betrayal of the family in The Godfather Part II; it’s Kendall taking over where his father left off in pushing Roman around; it’s everything Kendall swore he would never be; it’s the most heartbreaking moment of Succession.

When Kendall grabs Roman again later during their conference-room fight, pushing him into the glass wall and lacing his fingers over Roman’s face, notice how Roman doesn’t fight back for himself — he only shoves Kendall when his older brother goes after Shiv. That’s Kendall becoming Logan in attacking Roman, and Roman becoming Kendall in defending another sibling, and it’s all very sad and very circular.

It’s about Logan’s ghost 
Kendall and Roman are in Logan’s office, and the place is full of bad vibes. It’s practically Elsinore, haunted by Logan’s ghost and by his failed expectations for his children. Like that time Kendall and Roman wandered into their father’s office at home and were shocked by what he kept in there — a cardigan, Sudoku puzzles, remnants of his after-hours normalcy — the king’s debris is everywhere, and the kids don’t know how to deal with it. Consider how irritated Shiv looks when Kendall sits in Logan’s chair and puts his feet up on his father’s desk; consider how entranced Roman is by the mirrored tray on Logan’s sideboard, and how he uses it to keep prodding at his stitches. Director Mark Mylod cycles through shots of Logan’s stuff, from his Roman gladiator helmet to his framed Time magazine cover, and it feels suffocating even through the screen. In a place so suffused with Logan’s essence, how could Kendall and Roman not be uncomfortable, and not turn on each other because of that? Their grappling actually being each of them dueling Logan’s ghost — I buy that.

It’s about the “meal fit for a king” 
Look, when your bratty younger brother “crowns” you with a blender full of such unappetizing ingredients as raw eggs (with shell!), ranch and Thousand Island dressing (I am shocked that Caroline would stock her house with either of these things), hot cocoa powder, Branston pickle (chunky vegetable chutney for non-Brits), frozen bread heels, and slices of honey ham, you must exact revenge on his head any way you can. Maybe there was nothing deeper to Kendall’s actions than that!

It’s about “the family way”
LOL, no, of course there are more meaningful motivations to Kendall’s actions than a blender full of probably expired food items! Over and over, Succession has shown us that the only way the Roys know how to communicate with each other is through insults, violence, and humiliation, even when they want to communicate affection. Their love language is keeping each other’s secrets and joking about each other’s subjugation, and the little details that Jesse Armstrong and the creative team have sprinkled throughout the series emphasize how the Roy children bonded through absence: the emotional absence of Logan, the physical absence of Caroline. Shiv jokes about Logan abusing Roman; Roman jokes about jacking off to Shiv’s future breastfeeding; both of them mock Kendall for his addictions; for all three, Connor’s institutionalized mother is also fair game. The only way they know how to connect is through mockery, and games like Bitey or “a meal fit for a king” are about how much pain the Roy children can withstand from people who theoretically care for them. In that atmosphere, of course Roman would hurt himself, of course Kendall would hurt Roman, of course Logan’s specter would linger. That’s, as Shiv says to Caroline, the Roy “family way”: Something as simple as a hug is never as loving as it seems.

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What Was That Hug Really About?