Kendall Roy Just Wants To Be Cool, Man
Kendall Roy is a man of many flaws, but his desperate desire to be cool is by far his most humiliating.
In episode seven of the latest Succession season, Kendall Roy (Jeremy Strong) backs out last-minute from a stunt at his birthday party, where he’d arrive on-stage hoisted in the air, ready to be crucified before singing Billy Joel’s ‘Honesty’. Even for the man who lapped Girls‘ Marnie Michaels for ‘most awkward TV rap performance’, it’s a touch too on-the-nose.
— Warning: Minor spoilers for S3E7 of Succession ahead. —
Kendall, the son once primed to take over his father Logan’s (Brian Cox) Frankenstein-limbed corporate empire of Fox-esque media alongside theme parks and cruise ships, has his own ever-wavering sense of what is and isn’t gauche.
In episode seven alone: smoking cigars while wearing an olive turtleneck and oversized chain necklaces that would only work on a 20something club kid? Great! Replicating a childhood treehouse as a VIP area for guests at his 40th birthday party? Ultra-chic. Asking his family, friends and the glut of complete strangers he’s invited to walk through a tunnel replica of his mother’s vagina to enter the party? Genius.
Kendall’s actions are more Kardashian-West than anything Murdoch, who aren’t known for gregarious, attention-grabbing displays of wealth: while he decides to stop short of calling himself Keezus, the party is straight out of their playbook of million-dollar spectacle events. Unlike his siblings, Kendall isn’t motivated by power itself or just a desire for daddy’s love. He needs the world’s approval. Specifically, he wants to be cool, which is, of course, the least cool thing someone can want to be.
“It Just Feels Like An Arsehole’s Party”
It’s easy (and fun) to pathologise the Roy children: for three seasons, we’ve watched Kendall, Shiv and Roman backstab each other in effort to impress their father and/or take over Waystar Royco.
In season one, Kendall is the obvious choice to replace the aging Logan, with Shiv (Sarah Snook) abdicating in favour of a career as an advisor to a Bernie Sanders-esque presidential candidate, while Roman’s (Kieran Culkin) a little too immature to have so much power. Meanwhile, eldest Connor, played by Alan Ruck, is off in his own libertarian ranch fantasy, which now involves running for president.
The issue is Kendall’s instability as both a recovering addict and a volatile, sensitive person. Otherwise, his eagerness to acquire new, Vice-like ‘counter-cultural’ media startups (in real life, Vice is partially owned by James Murdoch) and revitalise the business’ image is a shrewd vision for the company, albeit a liberal one at odds with Logan’s Republican-friendly rule.
But Kendall’s liberal leanings are mostly catchphrases and code-words, a jumble of startup jargon and social branding for both himself and WayStar. “Detoxify our brand and we can go supersonic”, he says in a recent episode. “The great whites, from politics to culture, they’re rolling off stage — it’s our time,” Kendall tells Roman and Shiv, in an attempt to get them to side with him. Roman reminds him of reality: “You mean us? This multi-ethnic, transgender alliance of 20-something DREAMers we got right here?”.
Kendall continually positions himself as a “defender of liberal democracy” and equality, calling out “fuck the patriarchy!” to the press before later twisting the knife into Shiv, telling her that her value is only her “teats”. It’s all promotion: half self-convincing, half self-promotion, adopted and dropped when convenient. Occasionally, this means Kendall does important work — say, whistle-blowing about the widespread coverups of abuse at Waystar, though this also had the benefit of preventing his own prison time. It soon devolves, anyway, into the Kendall show, as he hires a team of all-female lawyers and PR, though he’s more concerned with public opinion and games of ‘Good Tweet, Bad Tweet‘ than the law itself.
It’s reminiscent of the slogans on display at this year’s Met Gala between Cara Delevigne’s ‘Peg The Patriarchy’ bib and AOC’s ‘Tax The Rich’ dress: powerful statements that are too wrapped up in personal branding to not carry a self-congratulatory flavour to them, à la Jake Gyllenhaal’s alleged ‘fuck the patriarchy’ key chain. Not to say the Met Gala looks aren’t impactful, but they centre the person as much they do the cause — and Kendall loves to centre himself as the cool woke king, ready to appear on a Ziwe-hosted late-night show before pulling out, realising people are laughing at, not with, him.
While Shiv also compromises her morals for power, it is not her image she’s worried about. She assumes all leftists are, to some degree, clout-chasing — never forget she’s fired for joking about the ‘uncleaned masses’ — and while does want to revitalise WayStar into a place where rape isn’t covered up (the bar is low!), she’s also, time and time again, happy to play party line. Kendall, however, is more interested in what people think about him than how much influence or control he has.
Take his birthday party, a sad approximation of coolness. The overblown star-studded line-up (Elon, Chlöe) is filled with treehouses, vagina canals and self-mocking gallery rooms that reek of brand activation, where influencers take photos in exchange for free drinks. Kendall berates his PR team about how it ‘feels like an arsehole’s party’ after telling them to ‘do your job but get your party on’ is a perfect insight into how little self-awareness he has.
He wants to be the cool boss billionaire, unwilling to accept that there’s no such thing. Or that coolness is perhaps the one thing that can’t be bought, merely awarded by others. Hanson O’Haver recently wrote for Gawker about the “great irony collapse”, where one-time signifiers of coolness are no longer readily decipherable, as people engage with the same things on completely different levels of irony or awareness.
As they argue, you can either drink espresso martinis sincerely, or you can drink them post-ironically, in a distanced, “cool” sense. So, you can wear sweatpants, but not in an “I’m basic way”. Instead, as a short-lived, now obsolete meme format stressed, you could wear them in a “Lynchian absurdist Kafkaesque Lovecraftian utilitarian nihilistic postmodern Lars von Trierian way”.
This also isn’t new: cool people make anything they do cool, rather than do exclusively cool things. But Kendall Roy could never risk being misread as being basic or un-enlightened: he is too obsessed with proving his credits, peppering references to the ‘BoJack’ guys or his Lampoon pals through conversations. He consults his PR team more than he does his lawyers.
Like critic and novelist Lauren Oyler said on Twitter about the article, a sense of humour is the only true metric of coolness, and there is no awareness, no playfulness in Kendall’s attempts to be cool. Kendall has no true sense of humour, though he tries: he is too desperate to ever let himself be a joke. He is more likely to get a kiss from daddy than become cool — pathetic but potentially relatable, if only he let it be.
Succession streams on Binge and Foxtel, with new episodes arriving 12pm Mondays.
Jared Richards is Junkee’s Drag Race recapper, and a freelance critic who writes for NME, The Guardian, The Monthly and more. He’s on Twitter at @jrdjms.