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Kendall Roy drowns no more

Succession introduced Kendall Roy (Jeremy Strong) to the pantheon of great television tragi-characters. Born to inherit his father's empire, the self-proclaimed "eldest boy" could never manage to keep his head above water for long–sunk by the weight of his own personal inadequacies, trauma, addictions, and proclivity for manslaughter. He was good at what he did but never good enough–for his father, for his family, for WaystarRoyco, for himself. Never a killer (in the ways that mattered). In the end, Ken lost the company to Lukas Matsson (Alexander Skarsgård) and Tom (Mathew Macfadyen), and was left with nothing except the taunt of the cold North Atlantic. Ken's obliterating defeat was widely seen as a fittingly gutting ending to the character, as critics, the show's creators, and even Strong himself lamented Ken's fate. Yet in that final shot, with an amber glow pooling around Ken and quietly rippling off the water as Nicholas Britell's score swelled with a hint of whimsy, there's brightness in the horizon for Kendall Roy. Water has long been Kendall’s quintessential motif, representing either a cleansing victory in the corporate world or, more often, the abyss waiting to swallow him alive. But in the finale, he’s finally free of it. All the billions in the world couldn't unlock the rusted chains which tied Ken to the looming shadow of his father and Waystar. But Shiv (Sarah Snook), through no intention of selflessness, did. Ken is free, and the man who has proven so improbably resilient can bounce back again.

For his sins, Kendall was not punished by winning control of Waystar. It's been much discussed in the media that there could never truly be a "winner" of Succession; the characters' hollow souls and pained existences had already become absolute when the Gojo vote took place. For no one was this more true than Kendall. Reflecting Jeremy Strong's theatrical heart, Kendall was, at best, an actor who could occasionally combine words publically in a compelling, if inevitably insubstantial, manner. At his core, there was never anything of value to Kendall's thoughts; he was an anthropomorphized cloud of buzzwords, and his competency as an executive was often (painfully) laughable. On the brink of closing the bear hug against Logan (Brian Cox) at the end of season one, Ken wisely got plastered and drove a server to his death while looking for drugs. When given the reins as temporary CEO, he couldn't even score an own goal by axing the Gojo deal. 

Yet Kendal's incompetence never gave him pause or shattered his confidence (somewhat enviably). Intent until the end on becoming his father and repudiating any shred of morality within him, Kendall yearned for the fate of Michael Corleone, whatever the cost. The malevolent bi-product of Ken's narrow pursuit of power was the rise of Jeryd Mencken (Justin Kirk) to the presidency; for Kendall's wife Rava (Natalie Gold), this empowerment of white supremacy was an unforgivable betrayal to their South Asian daughter Sophie (Swayam 'Sway' Bhatia). Rava took the kids away from their already absentee father, and after a fit of rage by Kendall, he drifted back into his fight for Waystar. Furthermore, over the broader course of the show, Kendall generally lived at his siblings’ and father’s throats. While Ken didn't ultimately kill Roman (Kieran Culkin) as Michael did with Fredo, he was all-to-willing to utilize Roman's susceptibility to physical pain to keep his vote in line at the board meeting. And what did Kendall want to destroy his soul for in the end? To willingly give up three billion dollars for a job that had left him emotionally broken, repeatedly suicidal, and alone. 

But, in a show about the endless cycle of trauma, Kendall got a forced reprieve from this hell. Shiv saved Logan from the hunger in himself that Logan had so carefully groomed. The more rational part of Ken knew how poisonous Waystar was; not only had friends such as Frank hammered the point home to him, Ken even pitched Naomi on the dream of escaping her similar imprisonment to Pierce back in season two. But Kendall had long ago coped with his preordained position as successor by styling himself as a Christ-like changemaker destined to add moral depth to his father's barren empire. While Succession layered on motifs and symbolism to Kendall which recalled Jesus, in truth, he never was. At best, he could sometimes be a man. 

None of this is to say losing the company is something Kendall will get over by the end of the weekend. But Ken, despite his background, had a resilience instilled in him by his trials that would allow him to bounce back. He had been kicked out of the company not once but twice before the finale. He lost his wife, his sobriety, his humanity, his freedom, his corporate maneuvers, his father, his siblings' friendship, and almost his life. Yet through it all, Kendall persevered and survived while showing an imperfect ability to grow. For all the playful mockery Ken gets online as a sad-boy billionaire with puppy dog eyes, he has demonstrated that he can be happy. 

This uncanny resilience holds true for the essential bond in Ken's life–that between him and his siblings. One common observation about Succession (or knock, depending on who you ask) was that it sometimes played too much like a sitcom. Characters would cause unforgivable pain to each other, but by the following week, everything would seem to be forgotten. Whether a flaw or the show's point, Succession created a world where people were so regularly evil that every bit of abuse became normalized. As a result, the siblings regularly manage to bounce back from everything, from Shiv's open letter trashing Kendall as a druggie and a sexist to Kendall calling her a piece of dirt for her betrayal on election night. While Shiv's reversal against Kendall at the board meeting is arguably the most brutal sibling betrayal yet, Ken quickly overcame Roman's not-dissimilar bit of treachery at the no-confidence vote against Logan back in season one. Through thick and thin, the siblings stayed together and created their own business just at the beginning of season four. While corporate family ownership may be a stretch and a half in the wake of the series finale, the siblings can rally.


So in the final scene of Succession, we're left with Ken, the perennial loser, as he must sit and reflect on his final defeat at Waystar. For a character who has been surrounded the entire series by the ominous imagery of deaths, it's a victory in its own right that he didn't ride the elevator up to the top floor after the Gojo vote. The tragedy of his life is heartbreaking, and he can do nothing but live in it. Yet Kendall no longer has to die for Waystar–to drown in the murky depths of the ocean between him and his father. Ken's final defeat offered him all that water never could: a chance at true baptism and a fresh start. "With Open Eyes," Kendall can observe the sea and start anew. 

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Tags: HBO Max Kendall Roy Roman Roy Logan Roy Jesse Armstrong Succession With Open Eyes Max Series Finale Shiv Roy Jeremy Strong Sarah Snook Kieran Culkin Matthew Macfadyen Season Finale


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