It’s a relief that Kendall’s 40th-birthday party doesn’t go off as planned because no one could have survived this episode of Succession. No duck-and-cover drill could prepare you for the atomic cringe explosion of our No. 1 son, in his turtleneck and chain, descending from the rafters for an earnest cover of Billy Joel’s “Honesty.” And even those who might have survived the initial blast could not withstand the additional radiant shock of Kendall mounting himself to a crucifix, dying for the sins of his father’s company — sins that, well, he told the Feds he knew about. But never mind about that.
“I’ve gone anti-fragile,” he tells his girlfriend, Naomi Pierce. “I can accommodate anything.”
This is a lie. He is the most sensitive of the Roy children, the most fragile. Kendall can occasionally psyche himself into a kind of zombie fugue state when the sadness numbs him and allows him to take ruthless action — recall his demolition of Vaulter — but we’ve seen plenty of moments this season when “going anti-fragile” is a pose that he’s assumed none too convincingly. There’s the game of “good tweet, bad tweet” in the back of the limo, the obsession with talk show host Sophie Iwobi, and the repeated denial, on social media and by the DOJ, of his role as a righteous whistleblower and “defender of liberal democracy.” Beneath all the hurt is self-loathing, too. He believes that he deserves to be humiliated. Why else would he invite New York City’s elite to watch him sing a Billy Joel cover and post himself to a cross? Imagine the tweets!
The party turns out to be an astonishing window into his psyche — the vanity, pettiness, and neediness, the apparent need to return to the hospital nursery and his mother’s birth canal — but “Too Much Birthday” is an ingenious fake-out of an episode, a presumed sequel to the “L to the OG” rap of last season that curdles into a genuine heartbreaker. With all the caveats you might want to make about his vile qualities, most of which he shares with the Roys family at large, Jeremy Strong has always played Kendall like a man-child — petulant at times, given to lashing out, but vulnerable to the core. His 40th birthday may as well be his 4th, a hoped-for sugar rush soured by bad gifts and mean kids ending with him at home, swaddled in a blankie.
As usual, it’s his family that knows how to hurt him the most. Kendall can handle (most) bad tweets, but as we saw with Shiv’s letter that crushed him on the evening of his talk show appearance, the Roys know all the right buttons to push. Logan’s card is a “Dead Dove: Do Not Eat” situation: What could it contain that would not damage Kendall? A heartfelt apology? In a way, the gift is like the poisonous version of grandma tucking a check into a Hallmark card; only it’s not for $20 but for $2 billion, contingent on Kendall cashing out and fucking off. It’s the scene in Goodfellas where Paulie gives Henry a big wad of cash from his pocket and sends him on his way, a cold rebuke from the head of the family. (“Now I gotta turn my back on you.”)
The card eats away at Kendall from that point forward. He cannot even pretend to enjoy the party, which he comes to hate because he’s gazing at his own grotesque reflection. (“It just feels like an asshole’s birthday party. And my thing, from the very first meeting, is that it shouldn’t feel like an asshole’s birthday party.”) Then there’s the missing homemade presents from his kids, a reminder of the absentee parenthood that had his people livestreaming a pet rabbit for their benefit. The presents were a sign that all might not be lost, but now they’re gone. Then his siblings show up, but Shiv and Roman pelt him with insults, and Connor will not respect the vibe by taking off his Members Only jacket.
Shiv and Roman’s ulterior motives make it worse. The Roy siblings are given to razzing each other relentlessly — that’s just everyday patter, though it’s gotten nastier recently — but Kendall could at least credit them for showing up. But they’re at the party to hunt down Lukas Matsson (Alexander Skarsgård), the Scandinavian tech wizard and world-class asshole behind a streaming company called GoJo. Waystar has an ugly, laggy streaming interface that, per the pleading cries of the Roy children, is characteristic of the company’s fuddy-duddy old-media qualities. Earlier in the afternoon, Logan had abruptly canceled a meeting with GoJo brass because Matsson blew it off, which he took as a grievous insult, made worse by the knowledge that he wouldn’t be blowing off Kendall’s party.
By the end of a sour night, as Kendall realizes why Shiv and Roman have bothered to show up, he’s had it. Earlier, the two had riffed on Kendall bragging “Who isn’t?” when asked about who was at the party, offering plenty of examples: “Your dad,” “Your mom,” “Your wife and kids,” “Any real friends.” But Shiv and Roman are absent, too, in all but the most malevolent of ways. All four Roy siblings hurt each other at their father’s behest — it seems like the only thing that legitimately pleases the old sadist — but Kendall needs them to knock it off at this moment, and none of them, Roman especially, can bring themselves to do it. They just keep twisting the knife.
Following up on last week’s king-making episode, “Too Much Birthday” does open up a new rift between Roman, the ultimate daddy’s boy, and his siblings, particularly Shiv, who simply isn’t amoral and cutthroat enough to play the game at her little brother’s level. As with the fascist Mencken last week, Roman has a talent for relating to vile shitheads in bathrooms, even if he has to entertain Mencken’s talk of Hitler’s (“H”) good ideas or Matsson openly fantasizing about the day Logan dies. Roman casually undercuts Shiv three times in the episode — first by co-signing the birthday card to Kendall, second by planting his flag in the GoJo deal, and third by revealing his knowledge of a corporate plan to harass Kendall’s family — and he doesn’t flash a hint of remorse about it. “You’re not a real person,” Kendall tells him. Lately, we haven’t seen much evidence to the contrary.
The end of this extraordinary episode, with Kendall finally back home with Naomi, wrapped up in a blanket, feels like the end of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? when a long night of drinking and bruising fights leads to a quiet moment with George and Martha alone as dawn approaches and friction has dissipated. Here, Kendall starts to fret again about what might be happening at the birthday bash he’d abandoned. Naomi settles him: “It’s just a party. Let it fizzle.”
Sad Sack Wasp Traps
• Tom’s jubilation over (most likely) not going to jail should make him the happiest character among this miserable bunch, but he realizes, as everyone else does, that he is still sentenced to a bad marriage. Roman wasn’t the only one to notice Shiv’s disappointment that her husband wasn’t going up the river.
• Kendall’s boorishness proves to be the glue that brings Greg and his PR assistant Comfry (Dasha Nekrasova) together, despite Tom’s believing Comfry to be so out of his league that “it’s like a haunted scarecrow asking out Jackie Onassis.” When Comfry assures Greg that she will make Kendall’s efforts to smear him “targeted rather than terminal,” he expresses his gratitude in an accent that suggests a pre-Civil War–era southern belle. That it doesn’t cost him a date with her puts their relationship on solid footing.
• Kendall singing that Billy Joel number might have killed me, but it’s also possible that the “tiny Wu-Tang Clan” may have brought me back to life.
• “Are they playing from the approved playlist in the main room? Because my thing was all bangers, all the time.”
• Let’s not forget that while Kendall is a pitiable figure, this is definitely an asshole’s birthday party. His just-kidding-or-not words to Greg, who he calls a parasite and a tapeworm, are not even couched in the wit he deploys with his siblings. It’s just nasty.
• Willa hates Connor, but one reason she stays with him is the privilege of treating people below her station with unbridled contempt. Comfry’s efforts to exchange Connor’s jacket for a VIP cashmere sweater earn her a noxious rebuke from Willa. Connor seems turned on by it, but it’s not for his benefit. She just wanted someone to abuse.