Succession's Kendall Roy: The Classic Case Of A Man-Child And A Tragic Hero

What separates Kendall Roy’s story arc in the show is how his tragedy is disguised by the comedy in the show
Succession's Kendall Roy: The Classic Case Of A Man-Child And A Tragic Hero

“I found his performance histrionic and meretricious,” Uncle Ewan emphatically tells an eternally confused Greg when describing Kendall Roy’s cliffhanger of a press conference at the end of Season 2 in HBO’s Succession.

At this moment in the show, Greg scrambles for legal advice amidst the chaotic battle between Logan and Kendall. We, the audience, find ourselves with Greg- in the sense that we too don’t know exactly whom to root for. On the one hand, Kendall prepares himself all guns blazing- with the best lawyer, and with public mood in his favor, and with all cards stacked up against Logan Roy. But on the other hand, Logan Roy is Logan Roy. He can, and has repeatedly proven to, hold on to his throne like an aging yet hungry lion holds on to his last available prey. He is, like Kendall describes him, a “malignant… bully and a liar”, and in his own words, has the “killer” instincts needed to be on the Waystar throne. But is that enough for Logan to hold on?

Succession's Kendall Roy: The Classic Case Of A Man-Child And A Tragic Hero
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The only correct answer to the question above is No, that is not enough, because what truly separates Logan from other dethroned kings is Kendall Roy. Every authoritarian remains in control because of a meretricious, self-destructive opposition. Like Roman Roy correctly predicts, Kendall self-destructs like every time, and this time in (literally) grander fashion than before, even more than when Kendall nearly missed the most momentous board meeting only to find Roman betraying him, or when a cocaine-addled Kendall ran his car into water moments after handing Logan a virtual death-sentence. All three times, Kendall self-destructed just when he was an inch away from the throne, and just moments before possibly ending Logan Roy’s reign.

And despite Kendall’s repeated self-destructions right at the edge of victory, we find ourselves occasionally rooting for him, or at the very least, feeling for him. Sure, none of our own fathers ruin our lives with such consistent abuse and manipulation, and rarely any of us get as entitled to such disgusting levels of opulence as Kendall does for us to find Kendall truly relatable. But Jeremy Strong’s eyes express something far more vulnerable than Kendall Roy lets on. When he lets Naomi Pierce leave from his family cruise, or when he pays an ode to his father through the most cringe rap performance, or when he hugs his sister in tears so she “takes care of him” - we see in Strong’s eyes the beaten up, innocuous child hiding behind the entitled monster of a façade that Kendall is. Even in his most vile self, like when he shuts down Vaulter or screams at the lawyers in his private jet, his eyes seem unwilling and unsuspecting, as if the monster only arrives momentarily to leave the child’s body. He was never a “killer” like his father and as always needs to put up a meretricious performance to seem like a “killer”.

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And this is perhaps what defines many of the greatest tragic heroes in literature more than anything else: Like Kendall, they are man-children craving for a “throne”, either literally or sometimes metaphorically, because of some void left behind by their destructive pasts. Think Hamlet and how his father’s death slowly pushes him down a path of revenge and “feigned madness”. Think Jay Gatsby and how his unrequited love pushes him to amass great wealth only to endanger both his life and Daisy’s. Or think Anakin Skywalker and how his dissatisfaction with the Jedi Order and fear for Padme’s life pushes him to the dark side. Each of these tragic heroes, apart from personifying Aristotle’s five traits, including a “Hamartia” or fatal flaw and incurring unnecessary “Hubris”, are only really children in the garbs of men, so broken that they fall down dangerously slippery waterslides of destruction- both to themselves and to their worlds.

However what separates Kendall Roy’s story arc in Succession is how his tragedy is disguised by the comedy in the show. The epiphenomenally awkward vocabulary, and poetic punctuation of sentences with sexually vivid insults, and even the aforementioned legendary rap- all inform the dark humor embedded in the narrative so we don’t get overwhelmed by just how tragic of a character Kendall really is. Imagine being stomped under the foot of the giant that is Logan Roy and that the man you owe your life to cannot stand a moment of your happiness and that he wants you constantly broken. No amount of wealth or comfort could excuse that. Only a few deals with the devil could get worse than this.

Succession's Kendall Roy: The Classic Case Of A Man-Child And A Tragic Hero
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What sums up Kendall Roy and his tragic hero arc, more than anything else (to me at least), is a moment from Season 2 when Logan slaps Roman. Until then in the season, Kendall sucks up to his father whenever he gets the chance. He has no option really, and at times the sucking up, like Roman points out, seems too ostentatious. But right after Roman gets slapped, Kendall immediately, in what seemed like a shock at first, defends Roman and tells Logan Roy “No! Don't fucking touch him!” The way he lunged forward meant that this is not the first time Logan hit his children, and perhaps the siblings have had to protect each other throughout their childhood against their abusive father. But why I loved this moment more than any the reason is that this is the only time Kendall could be himself in front of Logan Roy and stand up to the bully. Otherwise, he would cower down and lose any dignity he had left while speaking to Logan. He would stammer, he would fumble, and never really say what he had in mind. If only Kendall would always stand up to the bully and be himself. If only he could defend himself the way he immediately defended Roman. Perhaps his story would never have been this tragic, or at least half this tragic. If only.

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