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The Kardashians’ Climb Is Far From Over, Even If Their Show Is

‘Keeping Up With the Kardashians’ aired its final episode on Thursday night, ending a 14-year, 20-season run. But the Kardashian machine marches on, and the family behind it will continue to wield its most powerful asset: the narrative.

E! Entertainment/Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Of all the memes and moments and beef and lies and videotape accumulated over 20 seasons of the sprawling, brawling Keeping Up With the Kardashians, one arc I’ve always cherished is the one in which Kris Jenner, the family’s imperious, impervious matriarch, can’t stop peeing her pants.

It begins at the beginning, like so many of history’s great plot points do, all the way back in Season 1 of the show, which premiered in 2007. Stuck on an interminable Vegas-bound party bus, jiggling relatably up and down in urinary distress, Jenner begs the driver to pull over into a parking lot so she can drop trou (well, tights). A passing vehicle illuminates her spangled form, squatting in the rain. It is the first of many times the kohl-eyed, corvine lady needs to go, now.

Over the years, as Kris abruptly sprints to the bathroom or cackles so hard that she tinkles, her many daughters regard her with varying combinations of understanding and annoyance, of mockery and see-a-doctor alarm. By Season 6, Khloé Kardashian, the third-oldest of Kris’s six kids, decides to take bladders into her own hands.

With several members of the big, bossy family piled into a semicircular booth at a restaurant—Kris smack dab in the middle—Jenner holds court and dishes about the time she and her Olympic gold medalist then-spouse made a sex tape. Her daughters are in no mood to hear this, begging Kris to lay off the beers. But too late: The beers have laid into Kris, and she nudges Khloé to scoot over so she can run to the ladies’. Khloé, smirking and relishing the opportunity to mess with her mom, refuses to budge, telling her to “try clenching” instead and asking too-sweetly if she’s “leaking.” Kris grits her teeth into a grin and snarls that, yes, she is. Her daughter’s behavior is objectively obnoxious, and in the grand annals of mother-daughter relations, this also makes it disturbingly authentic.

Kris eventually agrees to see a doctor, and she receives a diagnosis: stress incontinence. She learns just how common this is—one in three women who have had a baby ultimately have a similar experience—and wastes no time in using this information to her advantage. Later in the episode, after throwing a box of Poise leakage pads at Khloé, she informs her daughter that thanks to a few phone calls, she’s now one of the newest faces of the brand’s “Great Women in History” campaign. E! viewers see Kris posing at a Poise ad shoot, dressed up like Rosie the Riveter. But Khloé gets the last laugh by slapping one of the adhesive pads onto her mom’s back like a “KICK ME” sign.

This arc is admittedly very minor in the grand scheme of the Ryan Seacrest–produced epic that has now touched several continents, sampled from multiple sports leagues, spawned spinoffs, and launched its titular sisters into the societal stratosphere. Over the course of 14 years, Keeping Up With the Kardashians, which (kind of) concluded this Thursday night, has run episodes involving infidelity, infertility, wildfires, psoriasis, trans identity, gun violence, prison reform, the paparazzi, homelessness, addiction, the White House, the Met Gala, Armenia, and so, so, so many Photoshop fails. People who have dipped in and out of the collective Kardashian consciousness range from O.J. Simpson to Oprah Winfrey; from French Montana to Serena Williams; from Devin Booker to Travis Barker to Donald Trump to Taylor Swift to Kanye West.

This is a family whose fortune now spans enterprises involving cosmetics, gaming, fitness, tech, shapewear, candy, and something called “Poosh” (I just hear Sarah Silverman’s “puthy” bit in my head whenever I read that one, sorry!). This is an institution about which people use phrases like “the Kardashian brass” and “Kardashian Kremlinologists.” Who cares about some panty-liner ad from a decade ago, a time so distant that Kim Kardashian hadn’t even posted her first Instagram yet? Still, it’s a story line I always return to when I think about the show, because it contained so many of the hallmarks of what made Keeping Up With the Kardashians, and all the show’s featured characters, the horrifying, captivating cultural force we know and fear today.

The exchanges between mother and daughter are served with equal parts candor and rancor. The handling of Kris’s common bodily issue is intimate, insensitive, and also a little informative—a confounding trio but also a fitting one, given that the series is about a family that is fiercely loyal, forever feuding, and always out there offering (and offending one another with) semi-solicited advice.

And most of all, the triumphant hustle demonstrates the way the Kardashians have long treated everything and everyone that gets sucked into their warped, magnetic empire: as both content and opportunity; a good story, and a possible sale.

Kris and Kim, in particular, have always had their eyes on the prize. It’s just that for a long time, that prize was perfume. “Fragrance: That was always my mom’s and my no. 1 goal,” Kim told New York in 2019, thinking back to when she and her mother used to sit down and dream of being Elizabeth Taylor.

In the early aughts, the SoCal-based Kim positioned herself adjacent to fashion and fame by helping friends like Brandy and Paris Hilton manage their wardrobes. She was occasionally glimpsed on The Simple Life, the Hilton–Nicole Richie reality TV show that aired for a few seasons beginning in 2003. (In one scene, she helped Hilton administer a pregnancy test to her dog.) Kim later broke off with her sisters Kourtney and Khloé in 2006 and opened a clothing boutique in Calabasas called Dash. And in 2007, she gained new notoriety when a years-old sex tape of her and rapper Ray J was leaked online.

Kris, meanwhile, was busy telling Seacrest that her family would thrive on TV. Seacrest sent a cameraman to a Kardashian family barbecue in the summer of 2007, and he left thinking that the group could totally anchor an Osbournes–style show. Not long after, following the cancellation of a planned Lindsay Lohan reality series, Keeping Up With the Kardashians was green-lit.

Looking back at this trajectory, I am reminded of paperclips. Specifically One Red Paperclip, a random blog started by a Canadian dude in 2005 who had one goal: to make a series of small trades, and then big ones, over and over until one red paperclip had effectively been exchanged for an entire house. (Gather round, children: This is what people on the internet did for fun back in the day.) Thanks to snowballing publicity and a transaction log that escalated from a fish-shaped pen to a neon Budweiser sign to a box truck all the way up to a farmhouse in Saskatchewan, the gambit worked. And Kim’s own journey followed a similar path.

By 2009, she was shilling a DVD series called Fit in Your Jeans by Friday, which she promoted on The Tyra Banks Show by teaching women how to squat while wearing heels. This was the kind of basic marketing and merchandising that her mother had long excelled at. When Kris first got together with Caitlyn (then Bruce) Jenner back in the ’90s, she leveraged her spouse’s former Olympic decathlon career any way she could: creating VHS tape sizzle reels and mailing them out to corporations, even making couples’ workout videos. Then she One Red Paperclipped the heck out of her children’s careers, in ways that ranged from the narcissistic (she trademarked the word “momager”) to the absurdist (she poured her full energies into her son Rob’s sad sock company, Arthur George) to the iconic (she trademarked “you’re doing amazing, sweetie” too).

Kim inherited her mom’s high cheekbones, as well as her knack for the climb. By 2009 they had traded their way to their version of that farmhouse in Saskatchewan: Kim’s (first) perfume line. But not only were they not finished—in hindsight, they’d barely even started.

“I’d say 2010, 2011 was like, I’ll do anything,” Kim told New York of a time in her life during which she had a 10-week-long marriage to NBA player Kris Humphries and said yes to promotional appearances at places like a milkshake parlor in Dubai. By 2012, she had leveled up again. She posted her first Instagram; she started dating Kanye; and soon he was rummaging ruthlessly through her closet to make room for a whole new world.

Kim marks time by what she wore. Or, as she puts it, by “my glam periods.” During her erstwhile relationship with Kanye, Kim left behind her older trademark looks—so many glittering Louboutin heels, so many Hervé Léger bandage dresses—and zoomed into a futuristic realm that sometimes felt like a place only she and he could see. Like it or not, this was what peak performance looked like: the wallpaper florals, the sharp angles, the oiled ass marketed as having the power to break the internet. (If only.) They graced magazine covers and had kids, much to Kris’s delight: In 2012, Kris told Giuliana Rancic that just when she worried the show might start “getting dusty,” her family had come through by adding to the cast. “They just keep making more babies, and there’s always another story,” she said.

It was Kris’s baby, though—Kylie Jenner, who was 10 when the show first aired—who most exemplified what a new chapter in the family history might look like. You don’t really need glam periods to mark time when it comes to Kylie: There is only before 2014 and after, when she turned from a tagalong little tween (albeit one who already had a licensed line at PacSun with her sister, Kendall) to a trend-setting tycoon with blue hair and a lip-forward visage. Gossip flared about the logistics of her conspicuous new look, and Kylie eventually admitted that it had involved dermal fillers. But she capitalized on the scrutiny by launching a “lip kit” in 2015 that went on to become a cosmetics empire.

That year, Kylie was the most-viewed person on the social network du jour, Snapchat. She started popping up in music videos and in her own dedicated E! spinoff. By 2019, she had made the Forbes cover as “the youngest self-made billionaire.” Her influence was such that an errant remark about how she never used Snapchat anymore moved markets, as if she were an eyelined Elon Musk pumping Dogecoin.

And honestly, she kind of is. (And not just because it later turned out that she and her family had been fluffing up some of those financials!) Last December, a venture capitalist and former Instagram influencer named Rex Woodbury pointed out that Kylie, and others in her mold, blurred the already murky distinctions between “influencer” and “creator.” So too has the Kardashian family long blurred the distinctions between the entertainment and technology sectors. Hearing Kris talk about her grandkids doesn’t sound any different than a startup founder talking about flywheels. Seeing Khloé tweet at the haters is similar to watching Musk engage with the SEC.

Sometimes watching Keeping Up With the Kardashians and following its various players on social media feels like participating in one enormous A/B test, with the family members constantly, subtly iterating their strategies and their looks and their relationships, turning dials and glancing back at the audience, over and over. Like so many successful, if flawed, innovators, the Kardashians are nimble and happy to pivot. Their shamelessness is their superpower. But superpowers can, by definition, become way too much to control.

If the first half of the Kardashian supremacy was One Red Paperclip, the current era is more like the Paperclip Maximizer, a chilling thought experiment advanced by a Swedish philosopher named Nick Bostrom in 2003 to discuss ethical and practical considerations in the development of artificial intelligence. In short: A machine instructed to make as many paperclips as possible, or some equally mundane task, could theoretically turn into an existential threat to humanity if it isn’t properly calibrated to, say, assign value to human life. (“The AI will realize quickly that it would be much better if there were no humans because humans might decide to switch it off,” Bostrom told HuffPo.)

The Kardashians always have been on the leading edge of finding ways to leverage technology—be it 1990s infomercials, 21st-century reality TV, or an ever-changing array of apps and platforms—to do their bidding. But not all improvement is progress. Reading this Black Mirror–esque article about the very real menace of the digital imaging suite Facetune—in which multiple women defined perfection as looking like a Kardashian—is an uncomfortable glimpse into the distortive and destructive effects of maximizing their family’s influence. And while the family’s mastery of social media to target rivals and frenemies often gets results, their ugly and dogged tactics against women like Blac Chyna run the gamut from unsettling to creepy. “I would like to be excluded from this narrative,” Taylor Swift famously wrote in 2016, while embroiled in a public dispute with Kim and Kanye, but her resistance was futile: “This narrative,” after all, is the Kardashian family paperclip—and there’s a lot more where that came from.

The Kardashians are artificial, and they are intelligent. But are the Kardashians self-aware? There is bountiful evidence on all sides of the question. On the one hand, there is the time Kim branded her shapewear line “Kimono” without anticipating that the name might draw backlash. (It’s now called “Skims.”) There is the time Kendall Jenner fronted a commercial that co-opted the Black Lives Matter protest movement to hawk Pepsi. (Or the time that, just a few weeks ago, Kendall released a commercial for her new tequila brand that incorporated various “south of the border” tropes.) There was the ill-advised pandemic birthday island getaway. And still in progress is Caitlyn Jenner’s daft, hostile run for the governorship of California.

Yet I know the Kardashians are self-aware because, for a decade and a half, I’ve seen it: every time they’ve whined about mean tweets on Keeping Up With the Kardashians, every time a sister has rekt another on screen with practiced ballistic precision. I see them trying to adapt to new mediums like TikTok and struggling to master old tests like the bar exam and reckoning with the reality of having their own kids, who are now nearly as old as Kylie was at the start of the show. I’ve witnessed the weaponized purses and personalized weight loss programs; the industrial-grade glamour and the family members going nuclear; the beaucoup weddings and births and divorces and the quotidian scenes broadcast from inside a closet. I’ve watched them watching us watching them, a Kardashiopticon.

While Thursday night was the finale of Keeping Up With the Kardashians, it wasn’t the end. A two-part reunion special begins next week, and the family has already announced plans for some kind of new program on Hulu. On Twitter last week, I noticed a conversation between a co-executive producer of the TV show Crazy Ex-Girlfriend and another woman; they were discussing what happens when the OG influencers grow old. “Are we following the kardashians into their 70s and buying stuff they recommend??” one wrote. “How will we know the trendy adult diapers to buy?” riffed the other. Kris Jenner was already answering that question a decade ago. This is a family that will forever and always understand the value of its streaming content. This is a machine that won’t be stopped.