Farewell, Kendall Roy

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What’s in a middle name? Pretty much the whole megillah, for the media scion known as Kendall Logan Roy. That middle name is more than just his father’s branding—it’s the gravitational core around which Kendall’s selfhood swings. For four seasons of “Succession,” we’ve watched the mercurial magnate’s second son and occasional heir apparent strain against his birthright, sometimes plotting to overthrow his father, other times weeping submissively into his chest. After Logan dies, early in the fourth and final season, his aides find a piece of paper in his safe, designating “Kendall Logan Roy” as his successor. But is the name underlined or crossed out? It’s an excruciating detail, true to the show’s bleak humor, that sums up Kendall’s destiny: at once underlined by wealth and entitlement and slashed through with doubt. “Did you ever think I could do it?” he asks his father, at one point. He’ll never know.

With the show’s final episode, this Sunday night, we’ll be saying goodbye to one of contemporary television’s great characters, arguably the protagonist of Jesse Armstrong’s stacked ensemble. Though the Roys have obvious elements of the Murdochs, Kendall arrived just in time for the era of the failson—Donald Trump, Jr., Hunter Biden—the “No. 1 boys” who’ll never measure up, nor lack a safety net to protect them from their own inadequacy. Popping in and out of chauffeured cars in sunglasses and Gucci sneakers, Kendall resembles someone who saw what a next-gen captain of industry is supposed to look like in a magazine and dressed the part. When we first meet him, in the pilot, he’s in the back of his town car, blasting the Beastie Boys through headphones, psyching himself up for the acquisition of a startup called Vaulter. It’s a big day: his father is, supposedly, going to name Kendall as his successor. At the negotiating table, he attempts to puncture the business formalities with bro-speak, calling his adversary “dude.” But, at heart, Kendall is a weak person impersonating a strong one—namely his father, who, after the Vaulter deal falters, rescinds his abdication and calls Kendall “soft.”

If Logan was a descendant of prestige-cable antiheroes such as Tony Soprano and Don Draper—swaggering, death-fearing patriarchs who preside over morally corrupt power networks, watching the old ways slip by—Kendall had the DNA of their rival protégés, Christopher Moltisanti and Pete Campbell. Like Christopher, he was a drug addict. Like Pete, a second-rate Machiavellian. But Kendall had elements, too, of the cringe-comedy bumblers of “Veep” and “The Office,” especially at his highest moments—recall his tribute rap for his father, or his chant of “Fuck the patriarchy!” to the paparazzi, both delivered without an ounce of self-awareness. Like most everyone in “Succession,” he has a touch of the buffoon; there’s as much of the tongue-tied Cousin Greg in him as there is of Logan, especially when Kendall is standing and stuttering before his lion of a father. “You’re very tough, and so am I, as your son,” he says to Logan, during one of his failed usurpations—but his nervous panting gives him away.

Kendall so bewitched us because he transcends both archetypes, rebel prince and fool. The show drops reminders, every now and then, of what a bastard he is—put him in front of his ex-wife, Rava, and he’s at his most deplorable—and yet his vulnerability is always perilously close to the surface. He fills the black hole at his center with temporary highs, from cocaine to corporate conquest. Across the arc of each season, we see him alternately dragged down into anguished self-destruction or swept up into exhilarated fits of patricide, as if the extremes of oblivion and absolute power are playing tug-of-war with his psyche. More than anyone on “Succession,” Kendall seems possessed of a soul.

Of course, none of that would have translated onscreen without the remarkable performance of Jeremy Strong, who was a journeyman actor before getting his big break as Kendall. In a different performer’s hands, Kendall could have fit too neatly into his slick exterior, or become a dopey punch line. But Strong never lost sight of Kendall’s undertow of pain, his head stooped or self-consciously propped up straight. He’s been most compelling during Kendall’s lowest lows (his confession to his siblings that he was responsible for the death of a caterer) and defiant highs (his press conference calling Logan a “malignant presence, a bully, and a liar”). But, in the many shades in between, Strong always had his finger on Kendall’s inflating or deflating ego. Other characters use the show’s diamond-sharp dialogue as armor—Roman’s wisecracking, Shiv’s chess-playing—but Kendall seems the most dissociated from his own banter, as if his real self is wandering out of the boardroom, perhaps straight into the sea.

Strong did not come by this Emmy-winning feat easily. “To me, the stakes are life and death,” he explained, when I interviewed him for a New Yorker Profile (yes, that one). Strong approaches acting like a religion, with his own unerring sense of orthodoxy. In the name of nailing a take, he would fracture a foot or impact his femur and tibia. He subjected himself to emotional injuries as well. “I worry about the crises he puts himself through in order to prepare,” Brian Cox, the classically trained actor who plays Logan, told me. As “Succession” became a phenomenon, the public tension between Cox and Strong became a meta-narrative to match the battle between Logan and Kendall; Cox would tell anyone with a microphone that Strong’s process was “annoying,” or that he ought to go “have a hit of marijuana.” Strong would respond with respectful disagreement, but it was hard not to see echoes of Logan’s taunt to Kendall, in the pilot: “Do you want to hit me? Is that it? Go on!” In the most recent episode, Kendall gives a eulogy at Logan’s funeral, praising his father’s ability to “act.” It’s the quality that Kendall is always striving for—his father’s brutal decisiveness—but the verb, as he repeats it, conjures what Cox might say to Strong: Don’t feel every feeling until it consumes you, dear boy! Just act.

Perhaps the offscreen tension helped fuel the onscreen one, and we’re all the more fortunate for it. To his credit, Strong never backed away from the irritation that he could cause his castmates. “I don’t know how popular the way I work is amongst our troupe,” he told me. After my Profile came out, famous allies of Strong, including Jessica Chastain, Aaron Sorkin, and Anne Hathaway, rushed to his defense, leaving many readers baffled; they’d come away with more respect for him and didn’t understand why he needed defending. But Strong’s emerging celebrity image—as a tortured artist, as a punching bag, as a fighter who’d been wronged (he was on the cover of GQ in a boxing ring)—only fed into Kendall’s psychodrama. Online, a fan community turned Kendall/Jeremy into an unlikely crush object: a brooding, wounded emo heartthrob whom they could fix or comfort, if only they had the chance. It’s a strange misreading of a character who, after all, is an exemplar of late-capitalist rot, but one imagines that “Succession,” with its gimlet eye toward optics, would eat it all up with a spoon.

In his extraordinary eulogy for Logan, Kendall says, “There wasn’t a room, from the grandest state room where his advice was sought to the lowest house where his news played, where he couldn’t walk and wasn’t comfortable.” Kendall was never comfortable in any room he walked into, most of all the room of his own skin. Placed against more confident adversaries (Logan, Lukas Matsson), he could merely puff himself up with hot air, but he could never be at peace. The question hovering over the finale is who will, at long last, get control of Waystar Royco. Kendall seems bent on becoming the “killer” his father told him he was not. But Logan, having fucked off on his own time, isn’t around to dethrone. It’s clear that Kendall would be better suited living out his years in a nice villa in Tuscany than running a media empire, but he has the same misguided hunger that he did at the start, the same need to kill or impress or become his father, in lieu of winning his love. With or without Logan’s crown, he’ll never have his father’s spine. He’s a gloriously flawed, tragically ridiculous, comically inept Prince Hamlet for our pathetic times. Farewell, Kendall Roy. We loved you, but you are not a serious person. ♦

Sourse: newyorker.com

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