In a season in which some critics have started to wonder whether Succession might be stuck in a narrative loop as the Roy kids rise and inevitably fall in the orbit of their father, Logan, the Emmy-winning HBO series tried its hand at something entirely new in Sunday’s penultimate episode: a cliff-hanger. “Chiantishire” closes with Jeremy Strong’s Kendall Roy all alone and adrift in a sapphire Tuscan pool, seemingly on the verge of drowning himself and his sorrows for good. Could the Succession team possibly write the Emmy winner out of the show? Can the show survive without Kendall? Would it still be as funny with such a dark tragedy at its center? On the other hand: Would Succession dare leave us with this closing image only to pull back from the edge in the finale?
There are a few clues—both in the show and from interviews with the cast and crew—that could very well indicate that it’s curtains for Kendall. When asked directly about it during a recent interview with The Ringer’s Prestige TV Podcast, episode director and Succession executive producer Mark Mylod, unsurprisingly, dodged giving a direct answer. (Where’s the fun in a direct answer?) “I don’t want to lead the witness,” Mylod said. “But in terms of the stakes for Kendall, I worry about him. This particular arc of the season with Jeremy’s character is particularly heartbreaking. We thought he had it, you know, he thought he had it. He’s never been better positioned to transcend that cage, to escape. In the great traditions of dramatic tragedy [for] his own flaws to gradually pull the rug on that potential for any kind of emancipation is heartbreaking.”
Mylod mentions dramatic tragedy, and, of course, the theatrical and well-read writing team on Succession loves their allusions to William Shakespeare. The clearest connection always has been to Shakespeare’s King Lear, which follows an ailing king and his three children and the question of how suitable any one of them is for the throne. In that play, the oldest child, Goneril, kills herself off-stage. In another interview with The Prestige TV Podcast, Lorene Scafaria, who directed Episode 7, referred to Kendall as a combination of Shakespeare’s Hamlet and Macbeth. Spoiler alert: Neither of those guys made it out of their plays alive.
But this season of Succession has also positioned Ken as a tragic figure who dates even further back than Shakespeare. Strong referred to his character as a “savior” in a preseason interview, and as eye-rollingly Ken as that may sound, Logan’s son might just be the Jesus Christ of this series. There was the painstakingly cringe-y crucifixion plan Kendall had for himself at his 40th birthday party, but also a moment earlier in the season when he invokes Jesus’s line to Peter—“Before the rooster crows, you will disown me three times”—when talking to Greg about betrayal. Episode 7 even ended with Ken and Naomi in a position that invokes Mary and Jesus in Michelangelo’s Pieta. (Spoiler alert: Jesus doesn’t make it out of his book alive, either.)
When speaking about “Too Much Birthday,” Strong sounded like it was a big send-off for his character. “It starts out being like, ‘This is going to be the pinnacle of his life’ and then it ends at the bottom and at the edge,” he told ET Online. In a behind-the-scenes feature for HBO, Strong said:
There are a few moments in Episode 7 that put viewers on high alert about Kendall and self-harm. First of all, he titled his party “The Notorious Ken Ready to Die.” Then, later, when everything had gone to hell, Kendall told Naomi “I wish I was … ” before trailing off. He later filled in the word “home,” but it wouldn’t have been a shock if he had said “dead” instead.
In the final moments of Episode 7, Ken is looking out over the city before Naomi pulls him back from the edge. His view is of the Vessel, a New York City sculpture that was closed indefinitely this summer after a fourth person climbed it and died by suicide.
In Tuscany, there’s no Naomi to pull Ken back from the edge.
Kendall, of course, has been preoccupied with ledges for a while now. Famously, in the Season 2 episode “Safe Room” his habit for standing on the edge of the Waystar Royco roof was curtailed when his father installed safety glass.
But Ken has been dancing on the edge all season. Both the fourth and fifth episodes of this season opened with Ken staring down from a great height.
So it’s pretty clear that if Ken were to die this season Succession couldn’t be accused of not laying a pretty heavy breadcrumb trail. But even though Succession is the story of a cutthroat family vying for a crown, this isn’t Game of Thrones. It isn’t a show that usually trucks in tragic deaths. However, several cast and crew members have hinted all season that the stakes of the upcoming finale were bigger than anyone might expect. Speaking with The Prestige TV Podcast at the beginning of the season, Logan Roy himself, Brian Cox, said:
[The show’s] heading in a certain direction and the writers are allowing it to go into that direction. It does become pretty full-blooded in a way that it hasn’t quite so far. As they say: You ain’t seen anything yet. I can’t tell you what the last—because I’m sworn not to tell you what the last two episodes are. But you will go: ‘Oh, wow, this is astonishing.’ And for me, it was very gratifying because I was able to bring home stuff that had been boiling up over three episodes.
If that’s not enough to worry you, Gerri actress J. Smith-Cameron said in an interview just last week that the finale was going to be “very upsetting … a little shocking.”
But while it’s pretty clear that Succession could kill off Kendall and write Strong off the show, that raises the question of why would it? Kendall is an enormously popular character and Strong is widely considered one of the greatest actors currently working. Succession also doesn’t seem like the kind of show to bump off a beloved character just to shock and dismay its audience.
This is pure conjecture, of course, but there are a few possible explanations here. Strong has given multiple interviews describing how immersive his acting process is. This year he told The Guardian: “I don’t really feel like an actor much any more; I feel as if I’m me for half the year and I’m Kendall for half the year.” That, frankly, sounds exhausting and impossible to maintain. Strong also strikes me as the kind of performer who relishes the challenge of mixing it up in different roles. His goofy, stoned performance as activist Jerry Rubin in 2020’s The Trial of the Chicago 7 shows just how expansive his range is. Directors like Aaron Sorkin, Guy Ritchie, and James Gray are lining up to work with Strong, so perhaps he wanted the freedom to flex his acting muscles in different directions.
It’s also possible that both Strong and the writers might agree with some of the audience that we’ve gotten all that we can out of Kendall’s toxic abuse cycle with his father. Just how many times can we watch Ken rise up only to be smacked back down?
We should say there’s another possibility for breaking the cycle here. Both Cox and Strong have talked about Logan and Kendall’s gut-wrenching dinner scene in this episode as a particularly tough one to put together. According to both of them, Strong burst into tears while filming it. Mylod told The Prestige TV Podcast that the scene was shot over two nights and featured one bravura take from Cox: “The effortlessness with which [Logan] appeared to cede power to his son only to take back all of it, every ounce of it, every gram of it, and then walk away with it was devastating emotionally. We could all feel it. This total inevitability about who was going to walk away with the prize.”
The power that Logan holds over Kendall in that scene is the reminder of Ken’s fatal accident at the end of Season 1. “I’m better than you,” Kendall protests, but Logan obliterates him in response: “How long was that kid alive before he started sucking in water?” Sure, this might lead to Kendall’s demise, but could it also lead to Kendall shaking loose from the grip his father has on him by confessing to his crime and going to prison? Maybe all of Tom’s prison talk this season was leading to someone else’s incarceration.
But would that just feel like the end of Season 2 all over again? Another bombshell announcement from Ken? Maybe there’s some other way Ken makes it out of this alive. If he doesn’t, it will prove very interesting to see how his end will affect the brother who shoved him …
… the sister who once offered him comfort only to turn on him …
… and, especially, the father who pushed him to the breaking point.