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Roy, Oh Roy: That 'Succession' Finale Was A Trip

Jeremy Strong as Kendall Roy and Brian Cox as Logan Roy in the season finale of <em></em>HBO's <em>Succession</em>.
Graeme Hunter
Jeremy Strong as Kendall Roy and Brian Cox as Logan Roy in the season finale of HBO's Succession.

It is hopefully clear that a review and discussion of the Succession season two finale is not suitable for people who do not want to be spoiled regarding the Succession season two finale. If it is not clear: You will know what happened on this episode by the time you're finished reading this piece. Choose wisely.

We began this season of Succession with Kendall Roy half-submerged in what was supposed to be a relaxing spa soak but was more like a very wet metaphor. And he didn't get his head above water until the last 30 seconds of the second-season finale.

There were times when this season looked like it might be about Kendall's sister, Shiv (Sarah Snook) — her father, Logan (Brian Cox), dangled the "top job" at the company, as he calls it, in front of her face, then refused to give it to her. Shiv's restlessness seemed like perhaps it was the biggest threat to Logan.

There were times when it seemed like it might be about Kendall smoothly transitioning into being his father's traumatized but functional right hand. After ending last season in the weakest possible position, needing to be rescued from the father he had been trying to overthrow, Kendall became unfailingly loyal. When he put on a good performance at the congressional hearings, it suggested we could be headed for a conclusion where Kendall finally became his father's favorite — something he wants so desperately that it drips from Jeremy Strong's performance almost as much as sweat so often seems to.

But no. No, Logan decided it was time for a "blood sacrifice," as he put it — someone who could be thrown to the wolves and blamed for the devastating revelations about Waystar Royco's cruise division. Someone who would satisfy the shareholders that the problem was being taken seriously; someone who would give those shareholders, as one told Logan on the phone, "cover." So Logan gathered the family and the top lieutenants — Kendall, Shiv and Tom, Roman (Kieran Culkin), even Greg — on the Roy yacht and watched each one try to respectfully, gently argue that the person sacrificed should emphatically not be them, no offense to whomever they suggested it should be.

The obvious answer was Tom (Matthew Macfadyen), Shiv's husband. He had been in charge of cruises; he had a logical connection to the crimes committed, even if they predated his leadership. After all, one of the things someone needed to take responsibility for was the cover-up, and Tom carried out key elements of the cover-up. He wouldn't even have been just a figurehead. Tom had the advantage of being both largely expendable to the family and actually guilty, not that they would care. Particularly if they threw in poor dopey cousin Greg, Tom's assistant, they thought maybe that would be enough.

Sarah Snook brought out Shiv's shocking shrug-it-off energy in the scene — let's just call it the Roy Family Murder Breakfast — in which she seemed to agree with the group that the blood sacrifice should be Tom. Her husband! Her own husband! Sure, why not? Tom was kinda like family, she explained, without actually being family. Which you can translate as "he's close enough for the shareholders to think it really means something for us to hand him over to be sacrificed, when in fact, eh."

But it was not to be Tom, because once he and Shiv were in private and he made clear how devastated he was by her betrayal — and once that opened other wounds in their marriage to the point where he questioned its status as a going concern — Shiv shifted gears. She went to her father and said it could not be Tom. By then, it appeared that it was likely to be either Tom or Kendall who would suffer, and Shiv took the coward's way out: She chose while refusing to choose, saying she couldn't make the decision ... but it couldn't be Tom. (The degree to which Shiv truly loves Tom has always been an intriguing element of their marriage. Her saving him is a data point, but so was her initially being prepared not to.)

And so Logan chose Kendall to be sacrificed, breaking the news gently — or what passes for gently in a man whose idea of bedside manner would be leaving you one-third of your ice chips while you're in the hospital and he's at your bedside feeling thirsty. Kendall would have to make a statement that he had known about the misconduct in the cruise division, he had engineered the cover-up, he had done it all, and in Logan's words, it had gone "no higher." Kendall would sacrifice himself to save his father, and ultimately to save the company.

So when did Kendall decide ... not to? When did Kendall decide that instead of falling on his sword, he would stroll into that press conference, whip out a set of note cards and call his father "a malignant presence, a bully and a liar"? When did he decide that even knowing his father could ruin him with the story of the waiter who died after Kendall drove off a bridge, it was over? When did he decide that instead of reciting "I saw their plan; my dad's plan was better" over and over as he did in the first episode of this season, and instead of saying "my dad told me to" the way he did when he destroyed Vaulter, he would not only sacrifice his father as the mover behind the cruises debacle but reveal his father's deceitful, vicious personality?

My money is on the moment in which, referring to the death of the waiter, Logan repeated an abbreviation that came out of the cruise division, used when a migrant worker or a sex worker died on a ship: NRPI. No Real Person Involved. It is shorthand, really, for the idea that only some people matter.

Logan believes in NRPI. Roman believes in it. Shiv just NRPI'd her own husband until he specifically asked her not to. But Kendall is, perhaps ironically given the protection he accepted from his father, not an NRPI kind of person. He agonized over that accident. He hated himself for shutting down Vaulter — an act he proved he could carry out in an NRPI-style manner, provided he didn't pay too much attention to feeling his skin go gray and clammy.

Kendall had already been reminded during the trip that his father doesn't care about his feelings: Logan had forced Kendall to send his girlfriend away in the middle of the trip, a fresh humiliation that increased Kendall's isolation. Things built up. Logan's callous conducting of the Family Murder Breakfast and his announcement that he needed a "skull to wave" showed Kendall how ready his father was to throw away his kids, not to mention faithful lieutenants like Gerri (J. Smith-Cameron), Karl (David Rasche) and Frank (Peter Friedman).

When Logan told Kendall that his was the skull that would be waved, a resigned Kendall asked him a question. Had Logan ever believed that Kendall could do the top job? After the profound cruelty of acting like he'd never really thought about it, Logan came around to an answer: "You're not a killer," he said. "You have to be a killer." Jeremy Strong's performance in this critical scene with Cox looks very different on second viewing. What originally played as agonized resignation to his situation and an understanding that he'd have to be the skull, as it were, looks now like agonized resignation to the fact that he will never have his father's love and approval this way. He'll never get there by trying to be good and loyal and perfect; that's what he was doing all season, and he's still the skull. This family only respects killers. Not the kind who accidentally cause the deaths of waiters, either. Only the kind who kill with ice-cold calculation.

So that's what Kendall did.

Because Kendall, after learning the bad news, wound up on a plane back home with Greg (Nicholas Braun). This was extraordinarily bad luck for Logan, who had no way of knowing Greg had first saved some of the troublesome records Tom told him to get rid of. He had no way of knowing that when Tom found out and insisted on burning what was left, Greg once again reserved a few in case he ever needed them. Greg spent this entire season being Chekhov's knucklehead, and ultimately, like all the things metaphorically rendered unto Chekhov, he mattered a great deal.

In order to preserve the suspense of the ending, in order to create the gasp when Kendall goes to the press conference and says "BUT" between what sounds like it will be an admission of guilt and what becomes a blast of accusations against his father, we didn't see what happened on the plane home. We saw Greg gently tell Kendall he felt bad that Kendall had to be the blood sacrifice. And we've seen a friendship growing between Greg and Kendall, the only family member who's ever shown the kid any kindness.

Presumably, at some point during that flight, they talked. Greg revealed that he was holding on to the evidence Kendall needed to make accusations against Logan stick. Or Kendall opened up about being unable to get his father's love. Or both. The key to Kendall's ability to finally carry out the fully public attack on his father that's been brewing since season one episode one, the key to Kendall's escape from his father's "protection" that's been brewing since season two episode one? It turned out to be Greg. Greg, who saved his secret papers in a folder labeled "SECRET."

This was a season that was enjoyable to watch as it proceeded but that looks far more impressive in light of the finale. It looked at times like they had flattened Kendall's affect too much; perhaps he was too much changed by the accident after Shiv's wedding, too devastated and defanged to maintain the powerful dynamic between himself and his father that drove the first season. The character of Rhea Jarrell never entirely jelled, despite the reliable presence of Holly Hunter. The strange sexual connection between Roman and Gerri was picked up and put down a little abruptly, although the notion that they share some sort of bond flared during the Family Murder Breakfast when Roman rose to her defense. Shiv's waffling about whether she was really prepared to do battle with her father — spoiler alert: She was not — makes more sense as a prelude to her weakness in the finale. It is Shiv, perhaps, who is not a killer.

And now, Kendall's dead eyes all season make narrative sense. The story was going here, to this place where the torment and the misery accumulated, to where Kendall was willing to blow up his family because it was better than all the other choices. Even the embarrassing tribute rap at Logan's party is now, in context, just one of the last gasps of his desperate attempt to earn his father's approval. Now, that rap is just more evidence that Kendall may have looked cold in the old peepers, but in fact he was doing everything he could think of. He played a relatively non-flashy role in the now-infamous "Boar on the Floor" sequence in the episode "Hunting," precisely because he was keeping out of as much of the drama as he could. In fact, his role in "Hunting" and at several other points during the season was to do his father's dirty work without complaint — to inform, to obey, to expose. He was the good son.

The last bit of business to deal with is Logan's tiny hint of a smile as he watches his son accuse him of being a monster. Is he a little impressed that Kendall is more of a killer than he thought? Does he enjoy a fight? Did he somehow intend for this to happen, so that he himself would wind up being the skull and the company would live on? (That last theory was raised with me by a reader on Twitter, and I must say: I hadn't thought of it, but I don't think Logan would gamble that hard with his company.)

My vote is for some combination of all of it. Logan doesn't mind a fight, and he hates weakness even more than aggressive attack. Some part of him only respects people who come for him. That's not to say he won't attempt to crush them like bugs as I can only assume he will do with Kendall.

There are so many lessons to take away from this episode: It is futile to seek an immoral person's approval if you're not prepared to be immoral yourself. Even if your husband is a goober, you're going to feel bad if you offer to let your father destroy him. When you burn a clutch of secret papers, make sure you see them all go. Don't alienate the tall oddball; you never know what secrets he may be hiding.

And finally: If someone writes you a rap, at least try to look grateful.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Linda Holmes is a pop culture correspondent for NPR and the host of Pop Culture Happy Hour. She began her professional life as an attorney. In time, however, her affection for writing, popular culture, and the online universe eclipsed her legal ambitions. She shoved her law degree in the back of the closet, gave its living room space to DVD sets of The Wire, and never looked back.
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