The Sinking Man

Decoding Jeremy Strong’s Golden Globe-winning performance in Succession
The Sinking Man

Kendall Roy wants to be water. He aspires to constitute a majority of the earth's surface. He hopes to shift shape under pressure. He strives to be transparent and odorless, yet vital to every form of life. He aims not to be noticed but needed. Perhaps it's only fitting that water – not unlike a toxic father – shares a fraught relationship with Kendall Roy. They face off in every season of Succession. A lake almost kills him. A swimming pool nearly consumes him. In between, he comes of rage on a family yacht in the Mediterranean sea. And over these three seasons of Jesse Armstrong's Shakespearean symphony of power, actor Jeremy Strong conveys three separate impressions of swimming – and sinking.

Consider the narrative fluidity of Kendall Roy's journey. In the first season, he valiantly fights the tide only to be drowned by a violent undercurrent at the cusp of dawn. The second season is a role reversal of the first: he keeps sinking to the bottom, unnoticed and abandoned, until he darts up to the surface in a last-gasp fit of bravado. The third season is an inverted image of the second: he starts on top, only to discover that the surface he had reached was just a tiny air pocket. He slowly fades, suffocating and sinking in slow motion back to the bottom. That's the thing about Season 3 – its triumph lies in the no-frills inevitability of Kendall Roy's fate. It ruthlessly exposes Kendall as the tragedy he is. The writing resists playing to the gallery. There is no twist, no redemption and no hope. The water enters his lungs and he never recovers.

Season 3 begins with the explosive father v/s son war. Battle lines are drawn, moves are made. But it then dismisses the son along the way, earning its audacity to close with a totally unrelated cliffhanger altogether. By the end, Kendall Roy is inconsequential to the bigger picture; the camera has moved on. The conceit of previous seasons conditions us to expect something similar in the finale: a comeback, one last betrayal, an ingenious trick, a brooding "but." Even when Kendall breaks down in front of his siblings at his mother's wedding, this conditioning doesn't let us fully trust his tears. A part of us suspects this is a performance. We expect him to have an ace up his sleeve. The filmmaking teases this populist perception of television drama. The second Shiv learns of their father's plan, she lashes out at Kendall by impulsively accusing him of scheming behind their back. The definitive moment of Jeremy Strong's performance arrives here. The way he laughs in response – oozing both disgust and sympathy at once – is aimed at both his siblings and the pulp-fiction viewer. He cannot fathom that people still think he's in the game. He's clearly done. But the rot is so deep that nobody trusts him. Even his brokenness is supposed to have an agenda.

The filmmaking continues to tease. On the way to the castle, like an addict relapsing within minutes, Kendall dives right into discussions of a coup. He's back in it. For once, they're all on the same page. We start to look at him carefully, scanning him for twitches and tells, for actions that may prove he's smarter than the rest, after all. Inside Logan Roy's lair, too, Kendall Roy melts into the background too easily. While the father is busy mocking his daughter and destroying his youngest son, Kendall is almost a passive bystander. When Logan eventually storms out, all Kendall comes up with is a "hey!" – with a meek, disbelieving smile. Or at least remnants of a smile. He's either a terrific actor or a faithless son. Right upto the moment Shiv catches a glimpse of her husband Tom outside, history points to the latter; it points in the direction of Kendall being the one who sold them down the river. Everything hints at him stealing the night. But the clincher is that he does not. The twist is there's no twist. He is a red herring. He remains firmly entrenched in the oblivion of the deep sea.

Also read – Now Streaming: A Love Letter To Succession

If the next season reveals that Kendall Roy did fashion GoJo CEO Lukas Matsson's merger of equals, it will be thrilling at an emotional level but dishonest at an intellectual level. A cheap twist like that will, without doubt, diminish the syntax of Strong's Season 3 performance. The viral New Yorker profile, "Jeremy Strong doesn't get the joke," actually gets Strong's role in the Kendall Roy anti-drama. The character, unlike the others on the show, is forced to play it straight. The moment he decides to be a whistleblower against a corrupt and evil father, he can't afford to speak their language anymore. By virtue of fighting the soulless, then, he is forced to walk the contours of a soul. He's obliged to adopt a moral conscience. He insists that he's good because his father is bad. He pretends to be woke because his father is not. It's the weight of this surrogate soul that sinks him to the bottom. It's the burden of feeling that drowns him.

At several points in Season 3, Kendall thrashes around frantically on his way down – he's desperate to wrestle back the spotlight and primetime privilege of rivalry. At first, he revels in the adrenalin rush of tweeting without thinking. He makes us cringe at his unhinged excitement and illusion of control, the way the employees of Dunder Mifflin Paper Company once cringed at their boss, Michael Scott's antics. He smiles like a sick man-child, seduced by the stature of the chase rather than the chase itself. But once the tweet goes viral, he suffers the consequences. The honeymoon is over. When he senses the narrative slipping away from him, he resorts to attention-seeking tactics. He tries everything to hinder its progress.

Strong's conviction is such that he makes it impossible to tell whether the character or the actor is trying to hijack the show. In What It Takes (Episode 6), Kendall clicks a photograph of Tom after trying to poach him – a passing-of-baton moment between characters who trade climactic twists but also a last-ditch swipe of a man with no plan. The next episode, Too Much Birthday, is centered entirely on Kendall's excessive 40th birthday bash – a misguided way of reminding the show that he's still present and relevant. He's humiliated by his own brother at the party, but his meltdown on being unable to find his kids' gifts ensures the camera is back on him, even if it's out of pity. 

Then comes the penultimate episode, Chiantishire, where a shattered Kendall – who's dismissed by his father despite throwing in the towel – drops his head into the pool of failure. It's a step drastic enough to make the whole world wonder if Kendall Roy is dead. For one full week until the finale, Kendall Roy is famous again. He is back. Juice is on the loose. Succession is about him again. When the finale, All The Bells Say, focuses on Shiv and Roman, he makes sunny Tuscany look like a parched Mexican desert with the crushing truth of his collapse alone. He crumbles into a heap. He brings the camera to its knees – we see the siblings from his perspective. We think: maybe he's won. But there is not a drop of water in sight. It's hot and dry. Succession marches on. Minutes later, Kendall Roy evaporates under pressure. And Jeremy Strong swims to the surface. 

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