Succession is the sort of show that can really warp your brain. A darkly comedic drama about terrible rich people living largely consequence-free lives and being awful to one another for sport, it often leaves viewers struggling to know who—if anyone—we are meant to be rooting for. It’s no wonder we’re all rabidly shipping the only two people on the canvas who seem to genuinely like each other; our moral compasses are thoroughly broken.
And, generally, that’s okay. Part of the fun of this show, after all, is allowing ourselves to vicariously enjoy these characters and their terrible behavior for who and what they are. But, apparently—and I’m as surprised as anyone about this—even Succession has a bottom, a place where it feels as though it’s taking things too far, and that uncomfortable low point is Season 3’s treatment of Kendall Roy (Jeremy Strong). At this point, the show’s seemingly single-minded determination to not just deconstruct Kendall’s character, but thoroughly break it, isn’t fun or funny anymore—it’s cruel and uncomfortable to watch. And it’s a cruelty that seemingly serves no real end either, other than to reinforce for what feels like the dozenth time that Kendall is a mess who hates himself as much as he longs for his father’s approval.
As an hour of television, “Too Much Birthday” is both ridiculous and brutal, as Kendall throws a lavish birthday celebration that only serves to underline how alone he is in his own life. His siblings grudgingly attend, not because they want to fete their brother but because they want to pitch a tech start-up genius who’s also a guest. His presents from his children are lost in a pile of unnecessary gifts he doesn’t need from people he barely knows. Over the course of the episode, Kendall is repeatedly humiliated and mocked, even ending up in tears in one scene and shoved to the ground in another. His pain is palpable. And I have to admit: I don’t know how much more of this I can take. There’s kicking someone when they’re down, and then there’s this—which generally feels more like a public stoning.
Kendall is not an especially sympathetic figure most of the time (though Strong frequently works wonders with what should be deeply unsympathetic material). But his arc this season, such as it is, is laughably thin and almost shockingly mean. And for Succession, that’s saying a lot. Let’s put it this way: Even Connor (Alan Ruck) has a more clearly defined narrative journey than Kendall does this season, although that may be because the show has accidentally stumbled upon another sharp and painful truth: that America would absolutely make this man president. (Sigh.)
Succession initially established Kendall as his father Logan’s (Brian Cox) heir apparent, a prince in waiting who saw his eventual rise to CEO of Waystar Royco as his birthright, and was obsessed with name-dropping famous people and trending on Twitter. As a result, it’s pretty entertaining to watch Kendall’s dreams collapse around him in those early episodes of Season 1. He kind of deserves it. But the thing is, while he may be the worst sort of white business bro, it’s also obvious that he’s the only Roy who seems to have a legitimate vision for the future of the company, a fact that only becomes clearer as the seasons progress.
Season 2 ended with Kendall making a power move: Rather than take the fall for decades of Waystar corporate corruption, which involved covering up rapes and a variety of other abuses in their Cruises division, he went public instead, accusing Logan and other high-ranking executives of breaking the law. Yet, despite this intriguing set-up, Kendall’s attempt to oust his father from the company has essentially gone nowhere in Season 3, with even the Department of Justice seemingly deciding a real investigation—or any significant punishment for several obvious crimes—isn’t worth the trouble.
This is, of course, not entirely unexpected, given that powerful companies and rich men get away with terrible things all the time in our everyday world. But it does mean that Kendall’s story this season has felt largely purposeless, leaving him with little to do besides make girlboss jokes and troll social media. And as “Too Much Birthday” makes excruciatingly clear, he’s both alone and lonely, adrift and directionless in a way that honestly hurts to watch.
To be clear: Kendall’s obviously far from perfect. He’s probably not even a good man. He’s an addict who killed a service worker and let his dad cover it up, he’s an absentee father in his own right, he was obviously a bad husband, and, despite an elite education, often doesn’t seem to know basic facts. (Rabbits do not eat bagels.) His incomprehensible love of performing rap songs in public is weird as hell. And he’s certainly done his fair share of treating his family poorly.
But none of those things make Kendall any worse than anyone else on Succession. This is a show in which every single character is some flavor of awful person, with plenty of sins of their own. Yet, for some reason, the series seems determined to make Kendall its whipping boy in Season 3, frequently treating him as the butt of a joke he’s not in on, and basically kneecapping the supposed intra-Roy family war before it ever even really got started.
I mean, is it really a Roy battle royale if it’s just Kendall versus literally everybody else? Yes, it seems fairly obvious that Shiv (Sarah Snook) is well on her way to changing sides, and it’s easy to imagine multiple scenarios—most involving Gerri (J. Smith-Cameron)—that could push Roman (Keiran Culkin) back to Team Kendall once more. But this season has very deliberately cast Kendall’s position in this family fight as a losing one, something to be mocked or laughed at, rather than ever acknowledging the fact that (though he clearly did it for selfish reasons) he’s also the only Roy who’s been willing to say publicly that what his father did was wrong and that there should be consequences for it.
Shiv, Roman, and Connor all know what Logan is, and they know what he’s done. Yet, they’re so desperate to stay in his good graces that they’re not only willing to overlook literal crimes, they’re lining up to publicly dump on their brother in his name. The Roys have never exactly been what you might call sentimental toward one another but the family’s relentless nastiness towards Kendall from every possible corner is exhausting to watch.
Yes Kendall is patently ridiculous a lot of the time, as is anyone who can manage to say “I’d like my Twitter to be off the hook” with a straight face. But prior to its third season, Succession did at least treat his character as something more than a source of pithy one-liners and internet memes. Now, the overt cruelty towards him (from seemingly all corners!) feels like the show has crossed an uncomfortable line, openly embracing nihilism over nuance. It’s a difference perhaps best encapsulated by comparing Season 2’s “Boar on the Floor”—a hilariously awful spectacle that showcases the humiliating power Logan has over his underlings—to Kendall’s toxic birthday party, which generally seems to treat his emotional pain as just another kind of entertainment.
Season 3 has done a lot punching down, often in a way that feels lazy for a show that has proven itself so skilled at lampooning the lives of the rich and powerful. (I mean, just a couple of episodes ago, Roman was unironically quoting Martin Niemöller in defense of the family’s private jets! I cannot!) While Kendall obviously doesn’t have to win this battle with his family—and perhaps in a story like this there aren’t any real winners, as such—it would certainly help make their fight more compelling if there was more depth to the conflict than establishing which sibling can be the meanest to the others. Cruelty is the point often enough in our own everyday world, I expect a bit better from Succession.
Lacy Baugher Milas is a digital producer by day, but a television enthusiast pretty much all the time. Her writing has been featured in Collider, IGN, Screenrant, The Baltimore Sun and others. Literally always looking for someone to yell about Doctor Who and/or CW superhero properties with, you can find her on Twitter @LacyMB.
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