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‘Succession’ Takes Us Inside Kendall’s Disastrous, Cocaine-Fueled 40th Birthday Bash

·8-min read
Macall Polay/HBO
Macall Polay/HBO

When Manhattan’s new Hudson Yards development finally touched the sky in 2019, The New Yorker commemorated its completion with a review. Writer Alexandra Schwartz leveled the place with one withering compliment: “It would be a great setting for a breakdown.” How fitting, then, that on Sunday night’s Succession, the $25 billion monument to commerce also became the venue for Kendall Roy’s 40th birthday party.

You can smell the disaster coming from the moment we open on Kendall’s preparations for the night. His warbling rendition of Billy Joel’s “Honesty” would be too on the nose if that weren’t exactly the point: He’s rehearsing a song about longing for emotional candor before a roomful of hired hands who know their only real job is to say “yes” to everything he says.

Before we witness Kendall’s unraveling, however, Waystar Royco receives some good news (for most people). The Department of Justice investigation has progressed, and it looks like no one’s headed to jail. Logan assures his son-in-law that he’ll “remember” that he offered to take the fall for the company; Shiv, meanwhile, seems just a little too unsettled by her husband’s lucky break.

That’s just as well, because Tom doesn’t seem interested in celebrating with Shiv anyway—he’d much rather run and tell Greg.

‘Succession’ Sees Shiv Square Off Against a Trumpian Presidential Candidate

Tom and Greg’s dynamic has been fascinating from the beginning, but recently the tension between them—at least from Tom’s end—has become a little more… explicit. (Example: Remember that time Tom told his lunk of a colleague, “I’d castrate and marry you in a second?”) Tom is in utter ecstasy as he tells Greg the good news, jumping on filing cabinets and overturning Greg’s. “The Waystar Two are free,” he whispers before kissing Greg on the forehead. Hmmm…

But more on that later—time for some Important Business. Namely, Waystar’s attempt to acquire a content platform called GoJo to save the company from becoming a media dinosaur. Logan is furious when tech mogul and GoJo boss Lukas Mattson (Alexander Skarsgård) stands him up, and to Shiv’s horror he almost listens to his assistant (whom he’s also sleeping with) over her counsel.

In the end, Daddy Roy sends Shiv and Roman to Kendall’s birthday party to track down Mattson, land a deal, and save the day.

Which brings us back to Kendallfest 2021—a sci-fi tinged Hieronymus Bosch painting staged at Hudson Yards with inflatables, an open bar, and a drug dealer. The working theme, as of last week’s episode, was End Times: Weimar Meets Carthage, Meets Dante, Meets AI and Antibiotic-Resistant Superbugs. (Apt enough, given that Hudson Yards’ most instantly recognizable building has earned the nickname “The Roach.”)

The birthday vibes are somewhere between a Brooklyn art installation and a launch party. The words “The Notorious Ken Ready to Die” hang over the entrance to the party—a glowing inflatable replica of a vaginal canal. There’s a phone check at the door with those little annoying pouches to ensure all the guests are “present.” Strangers and business contacts mill around in a dizzying swirl of neon light and evening-wear. There’s a roomful of six-foot tabloid covers with headlines like “Roman stars in Failed Sibling Dies in Tragic Jerk-Off Accident,” and “Wife of Tom Wambsgans Arrested in Sweep of City Street Walkers.”

When Kendall spots Shiv and Roman, his sister tells him she couldn’t find a card “that says both happy birthday and get well soon.” But Kendall does get one token—an envelope that Logan asked Roman to deliver.

Once alone, Kendall opens the letter from his father. There’s a card with the words “Happy Birthday” crossed out and replaced with a scrawled “cash out and fuck off.” And there’s a $2 billion offer to buy him out of Waystar Royco.

Kendall has spent the season trying to write his triumphant ending, but defying his family has revealed just how deep the Roy blood runs in Kendall’s veins. Waystar Royco is an extension of his father, and he still can’t decide if he wants to conquer it for himself or kill it. Even with $2 billion on the table, he can’t leave this rotten mess behind.

As theatrical as Kendall’s mental instability might be in this episode, none of the Roys are really okay. Roman spends Kendall’s birthday behaving like his most impish self, and Shiv—enraged by the realization that her brother and father conspired to buy Kendall out without consulting her—takes to the dance floor to upstage Elaine Benes as the wildest dancer in TV history. And when Kendall finds out his siblings only attended his party to broker a deal to acquire GoJo, it’s time for a humiliating showdown outside a grown man’s indoor treehouse.

It’s when Kendall runs into Rava, however, that he finally combusts. His ex-wife refuses to engage in his casually cruel digs at her and her new boyfriend, and instead asks whether he received the birthday present their children made him.

Faced with the realization that his kids’ gift is missing, Kendall begins hurling insults and demands left and right. “Trace that gift!” Are the DJs sticking with his approved “all bangers, all the time” playlist? Can we get Connor to take off his coat? “He’s souring the vibe.”

The whole spectacle, Kendall finally realizes, looks like an asshole’s party—“and my thing from the first meeting was that it shouldn’t feel like an asshole’s party.” His confidence crumbles and he cancels the performance in which he would have sung “Honesty” while hanging from a cross—as well as the introductory speech in which he would have told his guests, “This is a culmination of my life’s journey, being crucified to save you fucking morons.”

Naomi tries to comfort her rapidly disintegrating boyfriend as he turns his gift room upside down looking for his kids’ present. She offers him her gift as a distraction. But in the moment when all the loneliest Roy craves is true connection, he instead receives the most impersonal gift possible: a watch. The same gift his brother-in-law once gave his father. It’s not even inscribed.

<div class="inline-image__credit">Macall Polay/HBO</div>
Macall Polay/HBO

When Kendall begins to say “I wish I was…” and doesn’t finish, he assures Naomi he just wishes he were home—but one gets the impression that’s not what he originally meant. It is, however, time for the birthday boy to go home.

As bad as Kendall’s night might be, Tom’s isn’t looking much better. Maybe it was the moment Greg revealed he’d asked out Kendall’s assistant Comfry. As Greg and Tom wander through a floral canopy, it’s hard not to catch a whiff of romance; is Mr. Darcy, perhaps, longing for a dance partner he can’t have? When he tells Greg, “I took the wrong drugs in the wrong order, and I can’t get happy,” it doesn‘t seem like he’s actually talking about drugs—or the party.

The only person having fun is Roman—who manages to talk himself into Kendall’s precious treehouse and lands the deal with Mattson. All it takes is a little charm, a promise to keep Logan off his back, and a little moment in which Mattson peed on a phone. (“I can’t piss near other men due to… we don’t know what reason,” Roman says. “But go ahead, enjoy.”)

Here’s What ‘Succession’ Gets So Right About Toxic Whiteness

High on the serotonin boost of success—and probably a pharmacy’s worth of drugs—Roman tortures Shiv, throwing his win and their father’s confidence in her face. He also asks how upset she is at the prospect of having to keep waking up next to Tom, which Shiv returns with yet another dig about his “sex thing.”

“You thought it was ladies’ night and they were playing your song,” Roman tells his sister, “but guess what? You’re wrong. All the men got together in the Man Club and we decided, sweetheart, everything’s fine, so just shh.

And when Kendall tries to boot his siblings out of his party while staging his own quiet exit, things only get worse. Roman, convinced his siblings “can’t fucking bear to see me win,” goads his brother to hit him before shoving Kendall himself. In a scene that could have been ripped from a middle-school nightmare, Kendall—exhausted and high out of his mind—falls flat on his face and shuffles out of the room, broken with shame.

No one’s coming out of this party looking great. Tom is going to be “out for a while” doing who knows what while Shiv sulks at home. Roman is embarrassingly excited to tell Daddy about his big win: “I’m the only child you’ll ever need,” he says with humor that might just mask a thinly veiled desire. “You can kill the others!” And Kendall, after all that preparation, finishes his birthday on a balcony alone, staring down on the endless gray of Hudson Yards—and that hideous, billion-dollar roach building.

Read more at The Daily Beast.

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