At the end of the most recent episode of the HBO series “Succession,” Kendall Roy (Jeremy Strong) gets driven by his motorcycle chauffeur to a liquor store, where he buys a pack of American Spirits and a lighter. When the cashier isn’t looking, he steals a pack of batteries, walks out, then throws them into the nearest trash can.
As depraved rich-person behavior goes, this petty theft ranks pretty low on the “Succession” awfulness scale. It’s probably not even among the 50 worst things Kendall has done — which include wild drug binges, infidelity, familial backstabbing and some light manslaughter (while wildly drug-bingeing). And that’s just 12 episodes into the series.
But it’s a handy way of telling an audience everything it needs to know about a character in just a few seconds, as if there remained any doubts regarding the contents of Kendall’s soul, as it were. That he has emerged as one of the most sympathetic characters on HBO’s drama series, which recently began its second season, also tells you plenty about the company he’s forced to keep.
Kendall’s father, Logan (Brian Cox), is the aging patriarch leading both a powerful media conglomerate and the family maneuvering for its control as his health declines. Kendall’s siblings are the wormy Roman (Kieran Culkin), the conniving, conflicted Siobhan (Sarah Snook) and the dimwitted Connor (Alan Ruck), all of whom, profoundly damaged and maladjusted, have been raised to compete against each other for their dad’s favor and to maintain the family brand at all costs. Insert Trump/Murdoch reference pretty much anywhere.
“Succession” became a word-of-mouth hit last summer that attracted its audience belatedly; the series took about five episodes to find its groove, almost an eternity by today’s TV attention-span standards. But by the end of that first season, it was one of the most engrossing prestige series in years — a bleakly hilarious satire of generational wealth and inherited influence, and a scabrous indictment of the idea that our economic and political systems are even remotely meritocratic.
Season one began with Logan suffering a stroke that prompted a war among his offspring for leadership of his company, Waystar-Royco, a role for which each sibling is uniquely unqualified. Roman is loyal but incompetent, Kendall is competent but disloyal, Siobhan (nicknamed “Shiv”) is capable but disinterested, and Conor is too dumb to participate in the business but not, apparently, to run for national office. And together they’re about as functional a family unit as the Bluths from “Arrested Development,” except with real money and no network-TV restrictions on f-bombs.
Season one ended with Kendall’s failed takeover bid, subsequent drug spiral, involvement in a Chappaquiddick-like death and cover-up and eventual emergence as a yes-man for the dad who got him out of trouble. Season two finds Kendall hovering around rock bottom amid a failing rehab stint, from which he’s occasionally dragged to give sycophantic TV interviews. He looks, according to various family members, like “a sweaty corpse,” “an unshaven candle,” “Elvis on a toilet.”
Sunday’s episode found another dimension to his minimal usefulness: He’s dispatched to negotiate at an online news site under Waystar’s corporate umbrella called Vaulter, a snark factory in the Vice/Gawker vein — sample headline: “Is every Taylor Swift song secretly sexist?” — that’s trying to unionize.
He gathers Vaulter’s editorial employees around for a company update, then fires them all “because my dad said so,” except for the five interns who will stick around to write about food and weed. (As a veteran of several newsroom guttings, I nearly broke out in hives while watching this scene.) Someone spits in his face, which remains expressionless.
So Kendall’s childish theft of liquor-store batteries is, in a sense, a sad act of self-care. Trapped in a role he can’t escape, he’ll do literally anything to feel a fleeting moment’s worth of power and autonomy, even if nobody notices and it’s ultimately meaningless. Insert capitalism metaphor pretty much anywhere.