Kendall - Can the Bro-y Tribute Band become the King?
The final season of Succession is the ultimate test for Kendall Roy: now that his father is finally out of the picture, can he become the killer his father doubted he could be? Is the Bro-Y Tribute Band actually stone-hearted – and smart – enough to pull it off? Much of Succession so far has been the story of Kendall repeatedly attempting to metaphorically “kill” his father in business, only to fail spectacularly, get pulled back into his dad’s orbit, and sink back into a depressive state and his pattern of substance abuse.
So after all these failures, it seemed like the initial frontrunner was pretty much out of the running to inherit the Waystar Royco top job and replace Logan Roy. Yet something fundamental has changed in Kendall this season. He’s no longer giving himself away, and when everyone expects him to blow it as usual, he’s shocking them all by holding it together.
So is Kendall the new king, or when actor Jeremy Strong tells Vulture this is “closest the character has flown to the sun,” does that mean a fall is still coming? Let’s look at what’s going on with Kendall and whether he has the most important quality it will take to “win” in Succession.
Kendall the Bro
Onscreen bros are usually one-dimensional villains or laughingstocks, beloved heroes of a frat boy-antics movie, or else they’re proven to have hidden depth. But we never really see a bro on screen like Kendall Roy, the billionaire bro, wanna-be tech bro, and striving-to-be-woke bro, who desperately wants to be more, yet remains a total bro. A lot of who Kendall really is comes through in his language. While he thinks of himself as this sensitive, expansive soul and peppers his discourse with a wide range of allusions, most of his speech is just cheesy and the content is empty: the “vision” he outlines to his siblings in Season 3 is the ultimate jargon-filled disruptor-tech nonsense lacking all substance. Mixed with the corny tech gibberish, he talks in the profanity-ridden “dick measuring,” corporate-raider style that’s trying to ape his dead.
While he reveals himself in this speech style, perhaps Kendall’s biggest weakness comes through in how he’s pathologically incapable of listening. He’s obsessed with hiring the best people but interrupts every time they say a word. In pitch meetings or negotiations, he rushes in to get whatever he wants to say out, coming across as obnoxious or making obvious gaffes, with no self-awareness of how he’s being received or what other people think. It’s a known fact that many powerful people in business (like Logan) tend to speak less, leave pauses before letting others know what they’re thinking, and impose their authority by not revealing themselves.
But it feels like Kendall is always cutting people off because he’s afraid he’ll lose the great point he’s about to make. The first time we meet him he’s pumping himself up to play the part of the successful businessman with music, but when we cut out to watch him without hearing the music in his headphones, the effect is ridiculous. He’s always continuing this “pumping himself up” act, always feeling on the verge of some great move that he won’t quite pull it off when the moment comes – relentlessly positive-sounding even when obvious downs need to be acknowledged.
So his upbeat energy is tense, hollow and reveals a fundamental lack of faith in himself. And because he’s so fixated on the Kendall performance, he loses the opportunities to focus on what others want, like when he could have gotten his siblings to follow him in Season 3 by playing to their motives. After all, this being so well-established about Kendall, what’s striking in Season 4 is that we’re finally starting to see him do what seemed impossible for him: keep things to himself, have secrets, not show his hand, and successfully play others.
In Season 4 Episode 4, we see this new era of Kendall begin when he blackmails Hugo to go behind his sibling’s back and spread dirt on their dad. Then in Episode 5, Kendall lets Roman lose it with Lukas Matsson and potentially make himself vulnerable, whereas the old Kendall wouldn’t have been able to hold himself back from swooping in there.
In Episode 6, as the Roys gear up for a new product launch and the Roy brothers try to tank the Mattson deal, people are viewing both brothers as out of their depth, weak, and not worthy of the respect given their father. And Rom does regress and self-destruct under the pressure– firing not one but two incredibly senior and competent women in an impulsive display of extreme pettiness, then choking before the presentation and letting Kendall get all the kudos when it actually goes well.
Meanwhile, everyone is looking at Kendall to likewise repeat his usual pattern of extreme grandiosity followed by a crash. He’s characteristically spouting all the bro-y jargon nonsense getting carried away with extravagant dramatic gestures, and pushing the business projection numbers to an ethically treacherous place. But while Roman snaps and responds to his authority being challenged by becoming the petulant boy-man, Kendall surprisingly holds himself together. When Karl tries to put Kendall in his place, Kendall just smiles, sticks to his plan, and controls the situation to suit himself.
What happens next is very illuminating and reveals some key things about what it actually takes to succeed in this kind of position. It’s not actually about whether the numbers are true, or about whether the leader is being smart and certainly not sensible. Instead, in this moment, it’s about going big – because only a huge play could stop the Gojo deal from going through. As Kendall tells Roman.
A key thing that characters like Lukas Matsson also demonstrate to us is that this elite stratosphere of success isn’t primarily about any kind of business genius – it’s much more about cold-blooded ruthlessness, a certain instinct for battle, and a flair for drama. Shiv pointed out the same thing about Logan – it wasn’t that he was actually always right about business, but he made everyone believe in his legend. So Kendall’s problem all along hasn’t necessarily been his grandiosity dreaming too big, but that until now he’s failed to convince people (in large part because he didn’t believe his own act himself).
Actor Jeremy Strong told GQ that creator Jesse Armstrong told him to think of Shakespeare’s Richard III. And we’re already seeing Kendall channel that plays’ two-faced protagonist who plots his way to the crown by betraying and exploiting everyone in his way.
Season 4 Kendall is screwing over anyone he needs to, and (crucially) appearing however he has to in order to manipulate and coerce others to obey his will – a huge step for this person who in the past was incapable of hiding anything. We might even wonder if Kendall was savvy enough to push Roman toward instability with choices like encouraging Connor to send Roman photos of their dad’s corpse since the photo comes in right before the brothers meet to negotiate with Lukas. And in Episode 6, while Kendall clearly is hurt when his brother abandons him, on some level during this period he could be intentionally giving Roman the space to self-destruct. After all, at the end, Kendall sends Roman this text confirming his brother’s worst fears about himself.
The Shakespearean vibes are especially strong in this season; Season 4 Episode 5 is made to feel like a modern update to a battle out of one of the history plays. And if this is truly Kendall’s story, the most important Shakespeare comparison might be Henry IV, Part 1 and 2, which follow a prince named Hal who gets scolded by his dad, Henry IV, for his “princely privilege” and for being a “shadow of succession,” This is exactly how Logan, and everyone, sees Kendall. But Prince Hal actually does mature into a successful and powerful king Henry the Fifth, by becoming cold inside.
Something has changed in Kendall that’s suddenly giving him the self-assurance not to constantly give himself away. So what’s caused this difference? Of course, the main thing that’s changed is his father’s absence. Let’s look more closely at how that’s changing everything about how Kendall is.
The Two Kendalls
Throughout the series, there have been two Kendalls vying to dominate. One is the dynamic, cool woke visionary Kendall wants to be – the one who “disrupts” the status quo, keeps trying to “kill his dad,” and insists he’s a good person. But after the Season 2 finale gave Kendall his amazing “hero” moment, Season 3 was careful in the aftermath not to let Kendall actually “be” the hero that he thinks he is for taking down his dad. Instead, it situates his business plays in childish settings like his daughter’s bedroom and his birthday party recreation of his childhood treehouse, to underline that, even when he gets the chance to shine and do something great, the image of Kendall that’s always coming through is still that of that little kid dressing up, trying to prove he can wear Daddy’s shoes. More importantly, that’s how he feels to himself, and because of that, Kendall can’t ever really convince anyone else that he’s more than just a bro-y rich kid playing pretend. Whenever he rebels, the cool people who hate his father that he tries to win over detest him, too – in part because he hasn’t earned any of his success, so he’s operating on a level that’s disproportionate to his actual skills, and in part, because they intuit Kendall’s rebellion against his father is fragile (something they’re proven right about repeatedly).
So if the first Kendall is the pretend-Hero, the second Kendall in the series is the wounded and broken child who just wants his daddy’s love and feels like a nothing. This is the one who becomes his dad’s hollow soldier, whom Logan is able to manipulate by making him feel “weak”. He’s encapsulated by the recurring image we see of Kendall: a boy underwater. In every season premiere image of Kendall, he’s submerged; in the penultimate episode of Season 3, he slips under and almost dies. And of course, the crisis of his character in Season 1 is when he accidentally drowns a caterer boy at Shiv’s wedding after driving high.
This symbolism of a boy who can’t lift himself above water represents Kendall’s problems with substance abuse—which is one of the most true-to-life risk factors for kids who grow up affluent. And in Kendall’s case, there’s a clear link between using and the inability to deal with all the pain that his father causes him. All the times we see him really going on benders connect to some way that his dad callously hurt him or forced him to do something really awful - like after his father makes him shutter Vaulter, his pet project. Kendall summons his inner dead-eyed soldier-like resolve to get it done, and then gets high out of his mind that night to not feel it. Or look at how Kendall pretends not to care when, at their fake therapy retreat, his dad says, “You are a f*cking nobody.” He’s smiling, but very soon after you can see how the comment hurt him - and again he takes a drink.
After Logan manages to leverage Kendall’s guilt about the caterer boy to crush the rebellion of Season 1, Season 2’s Kendall-the-robot is a direct result of Kendall shutting off from his emotions because processing what he feels about the boy’s death is too challenging. This broken robot version of Kendall is always about to crumple and utterly dependent on his dad – to the point that when Kendall becomes obsessed with a new fling, a mere facial expression from Logan is enough to instantly kill that attraction.
Logan likes Kendall weak so he can control him though at the same time he doesn’t respect this Kendall who’s his pawn. And we can see clearly how this Kendall results from his dad’s abuse. In the penultimate episode of Season 3, Logan has his own grandchild sample his food just to underline how willing he is to let Kendall and Kendall’s children die for him. When Kendall tries to assert, Logan again brings up “the boy,” and successfully makes Kendall feel that he’s a nothing. So we see how Logan has been truly killing his son. Now that Logan’s gone, that Kendall who couldn’t rise above water might finally be, too
At the end of Season 4 Episode 6, Kendall is at last floating in the water — at peace. It’s partially the success of the launch, and it’s also that — whether it’s fiction or not — post his father’s-death, he’s achieved his father’s approval, at least within his own mind.
The belief that his father wrote his name on that piece of paper and did want it to be Kendall has reactivated that drive in him. After all, we see Kendall looking at that paper right before his scene with Hugo. Just before he gets into the ocean at the end of Episode 6, he writes a number 1 in the sand — seemingly a reference to being told he’s his father’s number one boy. So Kendall does seem to have finally convinced himself that his father loved and believed in him, even if it could be a deliberate act of self-delusion. In Episode 6, at the start, we see Kendall watching footage of Logan criticizing his children, but by the end of the episode Kendall has resurrected his father and even edited his father’s words to create the Logan who showers benevolent love on his son.
With all this play-acting of his dad’s fake ghost, Kendall has been weirdly freed from his actual dad’s toxicity, and more than trying to please that person, Kendall is trying to become like his father. We still see his siblings wondering what his father would want, whereas Kendall is paradoxically not worrying about what his dad would think. He’s consciously trying to morph into the cold king by doing whatever he wants.
That’s not to say his elated floating amidst the waves moment signals he’s free from danger. Strong told Vulture that, even in the aftermath of his dad’s death, Kendall is still wrestling with these two identities of his superbeing and his wraith: “The superbeing is what we see coming to the forefront here, but the wraith is waiting in the wings, hiding in plain sight at all times, to pull him down.” But while that grandiose superbeing is still strong in him, importantly he’s given up the “Hero Kendall” delusions about trying to do good in the world – he hasn’t the slightest moral objection to making up numbers that everyone else is pretty scared by, and manipulates video of his father to lie to shareholders.
Strong and Vulture’s Matt Zoller Seitz also discussed how Kendall emerging from the water after the caterer’s death in Season 1 could be his “satanic rebirth” – and ever since that moment, as Kendall has gradually accepted the boy’s death, he’s experienced a moral attrition. It’s a process that Strong and the team have likened to Michael Corleone’s spiritual corruption in The Godfather. So from all this, we can infer there’s a chance that Kendall’s wraith will return and he’ll come crashing down from his close-to-the-sun moment, and there still remains the pesky question of whether Kendall is truly smart enough to pull all this off in a sustained way. Even though Kendall has risen to the occasion so far, it’s still early days. And if he is a Richard III, in that play the slimy hero doesn’t last all that long as a king.
Yet more central than this question of whether he’ll keep the crown is the tragedy we’re witnessing of what’s happening to him inside this show that’s, Strong says, ultimately about “family trauma” and a satire of “late-stage capitalism.”
As both of the false Kendalls, the pretend Hero and the Broken Robot, finally fade away, we’re seeing him, at last, integrate his selves into a new Kendall that was always waiting in the wings: the Bro-y Logan Roy tribute band, who’s, at last, getting his shot to rule the kingdom – channeling that Viking spirit to become a fierce Logan 2.0 and play some “killer” originals as well.
Paiella, Gabriella. “Jeremy Strong Will Never Break.” GQ, 21 Feb. 2023, https://www.gq.com/story/jeremy-strong-march-cover-profile
Tichenor, Austin. “Of Roys and kings: “The shadow of Succession.”” Folger Shakespeare Library, 26 Nov. 2021, https://www.folger.edu/blogs/shakespeare-and-beyond/of-roys-and-kings-the-shadow-of-succession/