A review of this week’s Succession, “Chiantishire,” coming up just as soon as I jump out and shout “I’m not ambushing you”…
Midway through “Chiantishire,” Shiv suggests to her mother, Caroline, that she wasn’t so much a bad parent as “an absence” in Shiv’s life. This is Shiv trying to avoid a fight and failing, since mom and daughter are soon bitterly sharing conflicting memories of how Logan ended up with custody of the kids in the divorce, followed by Caroline coldly suggesting that she wishes she had gotten dogs instead of children.
This is somehow not the most vicious parent-child interaction of the episode. A few scenes later, Kendall has Logan over for dinner to attempt to negotiate the terms of his exit from the company (and the family). Instead, his dad figuratively stabs him in the gut over and over: treating Kendall’s son, Iverson, as a beefeater because he suspects the food might be poisoned, refusing to buy out Kendall’s shares, and once again taunting him about Kendall’s role in the drowning death of cater waiter Andrew Dodds.
There is a lot to unpack in both scenes, and in “Chiantishire” as a whole. But the notion of a family member being defined by their absence feels like the most important place to start. After all, Kendall is largely absent from the episode, in part because Caroline has chosen to appease Logan and her status-seeking fiance Peter (Pip Torrens) by banning her son from many events of the wedding weekend, in part because he is no longer significantly involved in anything involving Waystar-Royco. Yes, Kendall and Logan’s meeting is the hour’s most dramatically potent moment — one of the best of the whole series, in fact — but as a whole, “Chiantishire” feels like a dry run for a version of Succession in which Kendall is no longer around.
And not coincidentally, the episode ends with the image of Kendall drowning in a swimming pool.
This is not to say that Kendall is going to actually drown to death there. It’s possible that Jeremy Strong wants to move on to other things, or that Jesse Armstrong and the other writers feel like they have written Kendall into a corner, and that any attempt to reintegrate him into the family and company would ring false or feel like a return to formula. But it’s just as possible — and probably more likely — that we come back next week for the season finale(*) to find Kendall miserably attending Caroline and Peter’s wedding, maybe with Roman cracking an insensitive joke about what his niece and nephew told him about their dad’s erratic behavior.
(*) Critics will not get to see the finale in advance. This should not necessarily be taken as a sign of Kendall or someone else dying, since HBO has withheld screeners for many recent finales. Just making clear that any speculation you read here or elsewhere about the finale will be exactly that: speculation.
But not since Tony Soprano enjoyed some onion rings with his family has the main character of an HBO series been in a scene that is so pungently about the possibility of his death, if not necessarily about him dying in that moment. It’s not just that we see a drunken, barely conscious Kendall’s face go into the water in the closing moments. (In a remarkable shot from the bottom of the pool, we see a steady stream of bubbles come out of his nose.) It’s that Kendall has been metaphorically drowning for much of the series, and especially this season. He was in the car with Andrew Dodds when it went into the water. The first time we saw him the following season, he was submerged in a rehab facility’s pool. Early in this season’s premiere, he climbed into an empty bathtub to cope with his anxiety over attacking Logan so publicly. The drowning imagery here, even if it’s meant as a symbol, has been around for quite a while now.
And even when he’s nowhere near water, Kendall seems to be drowning. His coup attempt failed. No one at Waystar is going to prison. The hostile takeover bid has proved meaningless, as we see here when Stewy and Sandi feel sandbagged by news of the planned GoJo acquisition. He is being shunned by the whole family, but also can’t really get away from them until Logan agrees to buy him out, and the old man is clearly enjoying Kendall’s suffering too much for that. His birthday party was a disaster, he’s not connected to his kids even when he’s around them, and Naomi Pierce feels more like his drug connect than his soul mate. His life has been shorn as clean as his scalp — a severe haircut he tries as his latest failed attempt at reinvention. Nothing he does works, and he’s trapped. If he did pass out on that pool float and succumb to oblivion, he might not find it any worse than continuing on the way things have been. And if he’s consciously putting his head in the water to see how it feels, only to pull it out moments later and prepare for this terrible wedding, it’s not hard to imagine him wishing he’d kept himself submerged.
If “Chiantishire” was an experiment to see whether Succession can function without Kendall as the central figure — or without Kendall at all — than the early results are positive. He is involved in the most memorable scene, but every moment without him crackles with tragicomic energy, featuring some of the funniest and saddest moments of the whole season.
The comic highlight comes very late, with Roman accidentally sending a dick pic to his father rather than to Gerri, and is impeccably foreshadowed. We’ve been watching this weird Gerri-Roman flirtation for most of two seasons now, and we’ve seen Gerri wrestle in the past with when, and even whether, she wants to set boundaries around it. She clearly gets some pleasure out of it, too, but it’s unclear whether this is specifically tied to her feelings for Roman as opposed to the power it gives her, or to the feeling of being desired by a substantially younger man. Lately, though, we’ve seen her pushing back against any and all sexual overtures from him, and J. Smith-Cameron’s performance throughout the early parts of this episode convey just how tired Gerri has become of Roman, and how reluctant she is to indulge him. Just listen to the marvelously neutral tone with which she tells him not to fuck her boyfriend, as if she knows she needs to say this out loud while also knowing that any emotional response at all will only encourage him to keep going. But those scenes also establish that Roman has been sending her “items” — a marvelously dry euphemism for dick pics — which sets us up for the moment in the conference room where Gerri praises Roman via text and he opts to respond with another “item,” not realizing until it’s too late that he has sent it to his dad rather than to her.
The tension of that moment, and the way Brian Cox plays Logan’s reaction to seeing his adult son’s penis — and to the realization of what this means about Roman and Gerri — feels like a comic time bomb exploding. Logan generally tries to remain in denial of his children’s many flaws — in part because it would mean acknowledging the ways he’s damaged them as a father — but this particular, um, item is staring him right in the face, demanding to be engaged with. Inevitably, of course, he turns it into an excuse to hypocritically attack Gerri as too old to be desired (even though he’s sleeping with his assistant Kerri, a situation which presents a much wider age gulf than the one between Roman and Gerri), and to decide the company is better off without her. Roman at least has the decency — or perhaps simply the awareness of the optics — to suggest that Gerri shouldn’t be fired for being sexually harassed by him. But moments later, we see Shiv, without hesitation or regret, implicitly telling Gerri that she is in a no-win scenario and is about to be scapegoated.
But even before we get to the offending item, the non-Kendall portions of “Chiantishire” consistently sing at peak Succession levels. It is as quotable as any installment I can remember (Sandi: “I feel like we should take a note in the minutes that he’s watching us”), and packed with great and deeply uncomfortable bits of business for every major character, from Willa wavering on Connor’s ill-conceived marriage proposal (which will not in any way stop reporters from digging into her sex-worker past) to Cousin Greg deciding to use Comfry as a “date ladder” to gain the attention of even more desirable women. (An incredulous Tom: “Oh my god, the man dying of thirst is suddenly a mineral water critic?”)
Caroline and Shiv’s conversation is cruel enough in its own right, and then it inspires Shiv to once again toy with poor Tom’s emotions. We know she doesn’t want children, but she is so hurt by Caroline’s own regret about having kids that she decides to make a baby with her husband that night. He’s excited at both the prospect of children and at Shiv seemingly genuinely amorous towards him for the first time in forever, but soon their dirty talk becomes far too real and cruel, with Shiv calling Tom not good enough for her and outright saying that she doesn’t love him. The next morning, she tries to dismiss it all as role play, but it is so clearly not, and you can once again see on her face that she’s surprised every time she’s reminded her husband genuinely loves her and isn’t just using her to get ahead. That kind of thinking is alien to Shiv, which is why she’s so willing and eager to pounce on Roman’s indiscretion, even if it means selling out another woman in the process.
Still, that failed Kendall and Logan parley is on another level from everything else in the hour. It is so savage, and so full of both parties deluding themselves about their relative goodness — again, Logan was prepared to poison his grandson, or at least make his son believe that he was — as they swap conflicting life philosophies. Kendall just wants out, but Logan wants to lecture his son yet again — “Life’s not knights on horseback,” he says. “It’s a number on a piece of paper. It’s a fight for a knife in the mud.” — and ultimately can’t abide being called evil by anyone, let alone the junkie coward he sees across the table. It’s doubtful Kendall would have gotten his buyout even if he’d simply groveled, but his righteous indignation guarantees he doesn’t get what he needs out of the encounter.
An equally indignant Logan declares, “You’re my son. I did my best. And whenever you fucked up, I cleaned up your shit. And I’m a bad person? Fuck off, kiddo. Good night.” He gets up and leaves, and for a long time, it seems like this is the last we’ll see of Kendall in “Chiantishire.” There is too much else going on, particularly in the matter of the GoJo deal and Lukas Matsson’s desire to turn it from an acquisition into a merger of equals. But then, at the end, we are back with Kendall and his kids. He’s oblivious to their boredom, or to anything else but his own pain and loneliness. It’s entirely possible — very likely, in fact — that this is just Kendall finding a new rock bottom, like him in the talk-show server room earlier this year or on the roof deck at the end of Season Two’s lockdown episode. But if this in fact turns out to be the end of the Kendall Roy era of Succession, we can’t say it came out of nowhere. Practically from the moment we met him, Kendall has been drowning. This would just literalize what we’ve been watching the whole time.