“If I start second-guessing, it collapses,” says Succession’s Kendall Roy at the start of “Too Much Birthday.” He’s standing onstage at the venue-to-be for his gargantuan 40th, having just warbled his way through a rehearsal of Billy Joel’s “Honesty” akin to that of a drunkard doing karaoke in a village hall. We’ve become accustomed to his cringeworthy performances, and it feels appropriate that a man so vested in artifice would enter his quadragenarian years singing a song notionally about the nature of truth while nailed to a cross. But it’s in this quip that Kendall, albeit typically unaware, captures his very own essence: He’s a construction of his own blind confidence, or at least the confidence he wants to project.
This projection, in symbiosis with the power granted to him by his material wealth, serves as its own, superficial draw to those who inhabit the world of Succession (well, aside from the likes of Ziwe’s Sophie Iwobi, who anoints him “Oedipussy”; the lion’s share of those within and adjacent to his inner circle; and those perceptive enough to see through his faux-feminist gestures about fucking the patriarchy). Suits are hot, after all, as tend to be the charismatic men who wear them. But we, the all-knowing, all-seeing audience, are by now well aware of the ploy. So what is the fundamental allure of Kendall Roy, the entrepreneur-cum-rapper, –cum–incompetent businessman, –cum–failed father, –cum–regicidal son, –cum–drug addict, –cum–accidental murderer?
As is so frequently the case, not least on Succession, it begins with trauma. In establishing a Murdochian, 50-year media empire spanning a network of tabloid-news programs, broadsheets, film studios, and theme parks, Logan Roy sacrificed everything else, including any kind of paternal affection for his children. They exist as offspring in the most functional of terms: pawns for his power plays, sacrificed at the whims of shareholders while themselves posturing for a greater sliver of the Waystar pie. Kendall might say that he wants to take the throne because the increasingly mad king is sending the company — and, by extension, the family — into the gutter, but that’s another concocted reality that even he hardly believes: Every punch and swipe at Logan is deeply emotive, driven by vengeance for a childhood lost to neglect.
What this imbues in all of the Roy kids, not least of all Kendall, is an intangible loyalty between siblings — intangible because it so often manifests instinctually, like when Kendall leaps to the virulent defense of a Roman bitch-slapped by Logan in season two, a moment telling of their adolescent dynamic. But that loyalty is also expendable, as when Roman, high on his presently enjoyed Logan-flavored supply, pushes over a skulking Kendall at his own birthday party. This is exactly what their dad wants, of course: A tyrant divides and conquers. Kendall, on the other hand — whether because he holds no present leverage or because he feels a deeper connection to said loyalty — does not acquiesce to the beast. He himself has inherited many of his dad’s worst traits, but one wonders if he would commit his siblings to the gallows.
Not only is Kendall a deeply insecure man vested in artifice and crying out for a fixer (and many of us viewing at home crave having someone to save), he’s the Roy child most actively in pursuit of his own liberation. Even platonically speaking, it’s hard not to root for a guy, terrible as he himself might be, doing everything he can to drag a dictatorial demagogue into the mud. And at this Kendall isn’t nearly as bad as he’s often suggested to be. He is, after all, the only one to stand up to the dragon, albeit at first unwillingly; it’s a testament to his emotional growth that, while once driven to a sniveling wreck by the very presence of his father, he becomes capable of, if not comfortable with, defying him face-to-face. That growing ballsiness is, fundamentally, attractive.
We’ve seen Kendall make three attempts at regicide, which are three more than any of the other Roy kids have tried: The first, a disastrous vote of no confidence, was ruined by traffic; the second, the first season’s climactic “bear hug,” by Kendall’s hubris (that and his many addictions, but these are arguably inseparable, given how they fuel each other). The result of the third, as poor as the outlook might be in the current moment, surely remains pending; his head was on the block up to the final five minutes of the second season, after all, and the direction of power in Succession is as erratic as gale-force winds in a thunderstorm. Kendall’s current predicament, a buyout in a birthday card, surely bodes another twist.
“My hunch,” Tom tells Kendall in episode six, “is that you’re going to get fucked. Because I’ve seen you get fucked a lot. And I’ve never seen Logan get fucked once.” All signs may currently point to Fuckville, but that Kendall has been fucked — and, yes, many times — is demonstrative of his unique audaciousness: One has to be willing to put themselves in a position of vulnerability to be fucked in the first place. Such boldness might have yet to deliver the goods for Kendall, but it’s more than can be said of his siblings.
There are two versions of Kendall: the actor shrouded in artifice and craving affirmation, and the son burdened with the lifelong parental neglect of him and his siblings. Either one points to a deeply broken soul, but the two in confluence serve as a recipe for a profound sort of allure. Kendall’s performance is a result of his pain, so to feel sympathetic should almost be an inevitability — his emergent story is less King Lear and more David and Goliath, if the former had a blue tick on Twitter. And it’s always tempting to root for the little guy with the odds stacked high against him, no matter how obsessed he is with the quality of his tweets.
The crisis point at Kendall’s birthday comes when the aforementioned mirage breaks. His girlfriend Naomi, trying to distract him from the simultaneous dilemma of not being able to find his kids’ present because, y’know, bad dad, gives him a watch. “I don’t wanna be a dick, but I have a watch. I have my watch,” he says, seemingly bemused. “I’m just trying to get inside your head, and figure out why you’d give me this gift.” There’s a callback, here, to the show’s very first episode, when Tom, in a show of piety to Logan, gives him a five-figure birthday timepiece, relegated to fodder for a nondisclosure agreement. Watches are impersonal, not least to the Roys: They’re the kind of thing you give because you’re expected to. But the blame can’t be placed on Naomi — as Kendall realizes in that very moment, most of what she has seen is the façade.
He crumples into the pile of gifts, all banal gestures of fealty to the wannabe prince, and sobs. In a series punctuated by great moments for Jeremy Strong, this is a highlight, speaking to another crucial element of Kendall’s great allure: Strong himself, with his deep verisimilitude and wide-ranging, complex emotionality. He is a man unafraid to play vulnerable, and that in itself is deeply compelling. The actor’s attendant rising-star status may have brought with it attention to a divisive methodology — with a capital M — co-star Brian Cox has variously described as “challenging” and the cause of genuine suffering, but Strong’s technique imbues Kendall with something so critical for a full-bodied bastard, and yet so honest-to-god rare: genuine sympathy. He is the lynchpin that makes Kendall work. As he has professed himself, even, he is Kendall. In the photo shoot for an interview in which he describes Kendall’s rage, pain, and shame as “all his,” he’s literally on fire: a hot image in the colloquial sense, for sure, but also one which speaks to a conscious sense of self-immolation, as if Strong is voluntarily consumed by Kendall’s myriad woes. (They even wear the same necklace; to describe it as a chain would be too on the nose.)
For all of the power-grabbing, the ladder-climbing, and dancing for Daddy, all four of the Roy children have always been conscious of the real threat: the tyrannical father who coerces them like puppets. It’s why it hurts Kendall so much that they’re the ones to deliver the buyout: Not only does it represent a literal severance from Waystar, it’s a symbolic ousting from the Roy stable, and all in favor of their lifelong tormentor. That they’re so willing to see him expended, then, is deeply cutting. (“Did you come here to see me, at all?” he asks Shiv, her response expectedly clinical.) It even comes down to simpler gestures: Connor’s vain refusal to remove his jacket doesn’t just hurt because it infringes some needless rule, it’s because Kendall knows he’d do it for Dad.
But there’s the rub: The wind vane of power is constantly moving, and sometimes those almost entirely down and out are the ones that truly hold the cards. At a push, Shiv shows signs of sympathetically wavering; spying on Kendall’s kids is, apparently, an ethical step too far. Roman may have his older brother on the floor, but he’s a dog chasing a car — sure, he’s recently locked a series of deals, his confidence exponentially growing with each success, but has he given any previous indicators that this run of good form can be anything more than a fluke? And never has Kendall been more sympathetic: humiliated on his big day, a signature away from losing his legacy, and left, once again, a sniveling mess, wrapped up in a kid’s duvet, with his hair being stroked by a girlfriend who doesn’t know him.
We’ve all had disastrous birthdays. In an almost perverse sense, it’s this final image of Kendall at his worst that best promotes his deeper allure: Smolder aside, he’s a man who has both everything and nothing, the product of trauma of which he’s barely cognizant, who percolates with the fear of becoming a blip. Stripped of pomp, the emperor without his clothes, Lear wailing at the cataracts and hurricanoes: In this state, separated from the trappings of wealth and power, just how far is Kendall divorced from ourselves? As we witness with Naomi in that very moment, the urge to rescue him, the inexplicable attraction to a man abandoned and, resultantly, nursed by self-delusion, is just human nature.