A review of this week’s Succession, “Too Much Birthday,” coming up just as soon as I say no to the tiny Wu-Tang Clan…
Plotwise, the most significant event of “Too Much Birthday” comes right after the opening theme song has finished: Gerri informs the inner circle that Waystar Royco will emerge from the DOJ’s cruise ship investigation with nothing more than a monetary fine. Nobody goes to jail and nothing happens to the company as a whole: They get to keep on with business as usual. And, in fact, a few scenes later, that’s exactly what happens, as Logan declares he once again wants to try to acquire Pierce Media, the object of his affection for a good chunk of Season Two.
Shiv is frustrated by this plan. She wants to close a more forward-thinking deal with tech mogul Lukas Matsson (Alexander Skarsgård), while her father seems to be looking at the past, focused on another Old Media conglomerate and the fact that he couldn’t land it before. And on some level, it feels as if Succession itself is going in circles, revisiting the same players and conflicts again and again in tweaked configurations. Even Logan and Kendall’s current feud is just a more intense version of the battle for control of the company that they had back in Season One.
This is a challenge that TV series run into around the age that Succession is now. The characters have been introduced, the world has been built, and the most fertile narrative ground has already been trod. Formula becomes inescapable on even the most innovative shows. Exit Richie as a thorn in Tony Soprano’s side, and enter Ralphie. (Or, if you prefer from the same HBO era, Avon Barksdale leaves, and Marlo Stanfield takes his place.) Those shows, while still beloved, began to get dinged by some fans for turning innovation into predictability, and it’s not a surprise we’ve heard about Succession fatigue from some viewers this fall. Been there, hostilely acquired that, right?
But formula’s not a creative death sentence — The Sopranos and The Wire both did some of their best work long after viewers assumed they knew all the moves — as “Too Much Birthday” so ably demonstrates. As both a character study of Kendall and a satire of the family’s wealth at its most profligate, it is a spectacular, bonkers, deeply sad, unforgettable hour of Succession.
As the title suggests, the bulk of the episode deals with the ridiculous bash Kendall throws himself, allegedly in honor of his turning 40. Really, though, this is Kendall trying to prove his Number One Boy status despite abundant evidence to the contrary. Logan is somehow stronger than ever, having spent the previous episode deciding to make a fascist the next POTUS just because he can. Kendall, meanwhile, is ostracized by the family, and seems to be the only person left at risk of legal trouble tied to the cruise ship scandal. Other than Naomi Pierce, he has no friends he doesn’t in some way pay for the pleasure of their company. He is on cordial but distant terms with Rava, and the show has deliberately avoided showing him physically present with his kids for a while now. He is a man alone, and this ridiculous party is all he has left.
And if that weren’t pathetic enough? The party really and truly sucks, living up to the “End Times” theme Kendall wanted, but only in ways that suggest it’s end times for him.
Kendall is now old enough where “middle-aged” is unquestionably his demographic, so perhaps it’s not a surprise that so much of the party is an attempt to recapture his childhood. Guests enter through an elaborate recreation of his mother’s vaginal canal and womb. On the other side, they’re told, “Congratulations! You’ve just been born into the world of Kendall Roy.” The VIP area is an elaborate recreation of Kendall’s childhood treehouse, and the planned centerpiece for the event is Kendall serenading the guests with a quasi-ironic performance of Billy Joel’s “Honesty,” which came out roughly when he was born(*) — while nailed to a cross, no less, because that’s how much of a narcissist the birthday boy is. There’s also a room dedicated to predicting the future, but it’s mostly a mean-spirited and extremely juvenile attack on his estranged family members, with fake newspaper headlines predicting that Roman will die in a “tragic jerk-off accident,” while Connor will eventually become “president of shitting in his bag.” By the end of the night, after everything at the party has gone disastrously wrong, Kendall wraps himself up in an A-Team comforter that either covered his childhood bed or is similar to one that did. This is the party that Kendall’s lonely inner child wanted to throw, because adulthood has turned out so disappointing for him on every level. When he petulantly tells Roman and Shiv, “This is my treehouse, and you shouldn’t be anywhere near here,” he may as well be wearing Garanimals.
(*) Given the long production gap — and much shorter narrative gap — between seasons, and the fact that the show takes place in a parallel reality with no Covid and a different presidential administration, it’s probably not worth fussing over exactly what year this is meant to be. But Jeremy Strong was born in December of 1978, only a few months after the release of Joel’s 52nd Street album, which featured “Honesty.” Either way, it would have been a radio staple when Kendall was very little.
The party sequence takes up the bulk of the episode, and walks a tragicomic knife-edge. It’s clear how badly the event goes for Kendall, from Roman stealing Kendall’s plan to team up with Matsson to his kids’ homemade present disappearing into the gift room before he ever gets to see it. The guests are not having a good time, Kendall loses his nerve about singing “Honesty,” and he eventually gets shoved to the ground by his snickering, unapologetic little brother. This night is meant to stamp him as master of all he surveys, yet he can’t even get Connor (whose arm is in a sling due to “ranch stuff”) to take off his jacket. Jeremy Strong, as always, manages to hit the sweet spot of making Kendall a pitiable figure even as he brings nearly all of the pain and humiliation upon himself. (Comfry’s rant to Cousin Greg about all the He-Man lunchboxes she now has to sell on eBay neatly captured Kendall’s most exasperating qualities.) And yet despite how acutely the hour conveys Kendall’s misery, it is also among the funniest and weirdest episodes the show has ever done.
Now, much of the laughter happens well away from Kendall. When Tom learns that he will not, in fact, have to put his toilet wine-making skills to practical use, he celebrates in Cousin Greg’s office in a physical comedy tour de force from Matthew Macfadyen. (And his celebration ends with a Godfather-style kiss on Greg’s head, for those who continue to ‘ship the two tallest regulars.) Greg’s pursuit of Comfry is a charming subplot, even though her interest in him seems more about rebelling against Kendall’s negative influence than being into Greg’s whole m’lady routine. And Roman comes up with a genuinely inspired way to entice Matsson into making a deal, by inviting him to literally pee on the terrible StarGo platform he regrets having built for the company years ago(*). When they walk away from the urinal, the app still hasn’t finished loading! But the party itself is just so ridiculous — if true-to-life among the one percent of the one percent — that it’s hard not to laugh at its host in the same mean way Roman does after Kendall’s face hits the ground.
(*) The name is a nod to the days when every Disney website had a URL like ESPN.go.com. (Behold, all that is left of Go.com at this point.)
The moments leading up to Kendall’s pratfall feature a pretty savage argument between Roman and Shiv. Like Tom, who can’t seem to enjoy his good legal fortune, Shiv’s feelings about this latest turn of events are mixed, inspiring her to cut loose on the dance floor. (Sarah Snook, like so many of her co-stars, is as adept at the physical demands of her role as the verbal ones.) So Roman calls her out about being unhappy to be stuck with the husband she doesn’t particularly like, let alone love, which leads to the usual sniping about Roman’s own sexual dysfunction, and then yet another instance of Shiv being told by one of her brothers that she will ultimately never amount to anything in the company, or in life.
Yet as ugly as Roman may have made his sister feel, it’s not a patch on how Kendall (or, as Roman calls him, “Shitty Jesus”) is doing by the end of the night. Logan’s birthday card is just a term sheet for Kendall to sell his shares back to his dad, accompanied by a note bluntly telling him to “Cash out and fuck off.” It’s a private indignity, but even worse than the shove, or losing out on his own plans to woo Matsson. It’s been clear throughout the season that Kendall believed he would somehow end up back in the family’s good graces when everything was said and done. But that fantasy vision likely involved him coming out on top, and Logan, Roman, and the rest having to appease him. Instead, he’s been shunned and mocked, and he couldn’t even get an easy feel-good win on his birthday. As he cuddles with Naomi after leaving the event, he calls himself pathetic and admits, “I wish I was home.” This, more than some performance art rendition of Billy Joel, is honesty. It’s hardly ever heard from anyone on Succession, and comes at such a lonely moment for Kendall.
With two episodes to go in the season, it’s entirely possible that events will conspire to bring Kendall back into the fold. If that happens, it may in the macro feel like Succession again running in place, trying different variations on the same handful of ideas over and over again. (Even the snippet we get of Kendall singing “Honesty” feels a bit like an attempt to recreate the infamous “L to the OG” rap from Season Two.) But if the micro remains as strong from episode to episode as something like “Too Much Birthday,” then give us all the repetition we can get.