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Wednesday, December 7, 2022

‘Succession’ Season 3, Episode 7: Citizen Ken

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Season 3, Episode 7: ‘Too Much Birthday’

The streaming services have been cluttered lately with “anatomy of a failure” documentaries, which detail the downfall of formerly white-hot companies like WeWork and LuLaRoe. In nearly all these docs, there’s a scene like Kendall’s 40th birthday party in this week’s episode of “Succession” — some preposterously lavish and borderline cultish shindig, celebrating a business culture about to collapse under its founding genius.

In the case of the event Shiv calls “KenFest,” the party is like an endless version of that scene in “Citizen Kane” in which the brash young media magnate Charles Foster Kane dances and sings along to a jaunty pop song about himself. Moments like these are equal parts awkward and reckless. They’re a grand illustration of the whole concept of “hubris.”

“Too Much Birthday” is an often very funny episode, which curdles into devastating drama by the end. But most of all, it is a triumph of production design. Nearly every set reflects some aspect of Kendall Roy — whether he intends it to or not. A lot of the décor is meant to straddle the line between amusingly ironic and cockily sincere. If a guest considers some piece of design to be over the top, Kendall can always say, “But it’s funny, right?”

Here are just a few of the attractions awaiting those guests:

  • As they walk in, they are greeted by a big sign above the door, reading “The Notorious KEN Ready to Die.”

  • Once they enter, they pass video-screens showing wriggling sperm before heading through a passageway made up of pink, pillowy folds, leading to a coat-check room where a greeter in a nurse uniform says, “You’ve just been born into the world of Kendall Roy.” (Shiv, looking back at what is clearly meant to symbolize her mother’s birth canal, says: “Cold and inhospitable. Seems to check out.” Kendall, hearing his younger brother’s concerns about the tastefulness of this display, says: “Roman, relax. Yes, you can take it home with you.”)

  • Behind a curtain inside, there is a room containing giant-size mock-ups of newspaper front pages, predicting pathetic futures for Kendall’s family. (Connor, who is now up to 1 percent in the Republican presidential polling, is livid at this little joke. “What if McCartney tweets this?”)

  • There is a “compliment tunnel” filled with lush greenery and actors saying nice things about anyone who enters. This hilariously flusters Tom, who came to this party to cut loose but ends up finding Kendall’s flourishes irritating. (To be fair, Tom thinks he “took the wrong drugs in the wrong order.”)

  • There is a room flanked by video screens depicting a raging fire, which appear in the episode right as Kendall receives his “birthday present” from Logan and Roman: a sentiment-free greeting card and a term-sheet listing the amount Waystar is willing to pay him to leave the company forever.

And then there is the treehouse.

This episode is credited to the screenwriters Tony Roche and Georgia Pritchett, with Lorene Scafaria in the director’s chair. I don’t know if credit for the treehouse goes to one of these people or to the series’s creator, Jesse Armstrong, or to someone else; but it is a conceptual masterstroke. This week, all the Roy kids reunite to fight about whom their dad wants to be in charge. And here is Kendall, standing in front of a literal treehouse, built in the middle of his party, telling his siblings they can’t come in.

Kendall’s pettiness is, to some extent, justified. When Roman, Shiv and Connor first show up at Kendall’s party, he seems genuinely happy, giving them hugs that appear to be heartfelt. But then he learns the real reason Shiv and Roman are there.

Waystar needs to upgrade its streaming platform by partnering with the tech company GoJo, run by the mercurial Lukas Matsson (Alexander Skarsgard), who earlier that day skipped a meeting with Logan and sent his underlings. Kendall has Matsson — whom he calls “the Odin of codin’” — stashed away in his treehouse, where any illicit thing he needs is supplied by Kendall’s own “one-man dark web.” (“He’s not a good guy,” Kendall says to Matsson about his drug dealer. “Enjoy.”)

When Roman and Shiv try to enter, Kendall personally blocks them, saying, “The treehouse is cool and you’re not cool.” He calls his siblings Nazi-lovers while he is “a defender of liberal democracy.” As his brother and sister argue that landing GoJo could raise the family’s net worth, Kendall replies, “I have to weigh that against the consideration that no losers are allowed.”

Ultimately, Roman weasels his way into the treehouse anyway, where he appears to connect with Matsson. Roman pitches Waystar’s library of broadly popular entertainment and news content (not the “gay moms” or “wheelchair kids” the other media companies are selling); and he talks up GoJo’s platform, which unlike Waystar’s doesn’t take over 30 seconds to load a page. Matsson seems amenable to some kind of deal, so long as he never has to interact with the meddling, out-of-touch dinosaur Logan. (“When will your father die?” he asks earnestly, to which Roman chuckles and then mutters, “We’re laughing here, but that is my dad, so …”)

This is the second “Succession” in a row where Roman notches a big win; and he is not gracious about it. He skewers Shiv, who has been excluded from the offer to buy Kendall’s shares, shielded from the decision to send private investigators to harass Kendall’s children and is absent when Roman gets a tentative yes from GoJo. Roman also insinuates that Shiv might be annoyed by rumors that the Justice Department is ending its investigation into Brightstar without sending Tom or anyone else to prison. If true, that would squelch her secret hope that the wicked Waystar dudes might be shoved out of her way by the long arm of the law.

Shiv can take comfort, though, in knowing that on this show, no Roy thrives for long. Roman is likely overestimating how much power he has to make deals on his father’s behalf; and it is possible that deep in his bones he senses something is off. That may explain why he later tries to goad Kendall into hitting him and then gives his brother a shove in the back that sends him sprawling. Maybe Roman is trying to hasten his own inevitable comeuppance.

It’s too bad for Roman, then, that Kendall is already too beaten down to stand up for himself. From the moment he gets Logan’s term sheet, Kendall starts to spiral — first slowly, and then in a hurry. He abandons his plan to sing Billy Joel’s “Honesty” in front of his guests while hanging from a cross. He falls into a maudlin mood, making what may be references to tragic F. Scott Fitzgerald characters (and, yes, “Citizen Kane”) by promising to buy his girlfriend, Naomi Pierce, “a diamond the size of the Ritz-Carlton and a couple of newspapers.”

The real triggering moment for Kendall, though, is when his ex-wife tells him to keep an eye out for a present from his kids, wrapped in rabbit-patterned paper. The missing gift eats at Kendall — almost as much as it bothers him that his brother Connor refuses to pay him the simple respect of taking off his coat at the party. Finally, he starts tearing through his pile of presents until he breaks down sobbing. Here is a man who seemingly has everything, except for some cheap handmade trinket that represents his children’s love.

Surely somewhere off in the distance, an old man is whispering, “Rosebud.”

Due Diligence

  • Shiv is getting concerned about Logan’s possible affair with his assistant Kerry, while Roman thinks this is actually one of the most normal things an aging oligarch could do. Shiv’s instincts may be right, though. After Matsson skips the meeting, Logan is swayed by Kerry’s blithe encouragement to ditch GoJo.

  • The Roy family also questions Greg’s romantic interest in Kendall’s public relations agent Comfry (Dasha Nekrasova). Their skepticism ranges from Tom’s relatively mild comment that the relationship would be “like a haunted scarecrow asking out Jackie Onassis” to Ken’s savagely calling Greg “a human tapeworm” (and then refusing to clarify whether he’s kidding). But while Comfry may have to feed damaging intel about Greg to the press — something he clumsily forgives in an exaggerated southern accent, for some inexplicable yet delightful reason — she is so annoyed with her boss that she agrees to a date anyway. Her assent may be rooted in “rancor or pique,” but Greg will take it.

  • Kendall has a grand vision for his party, hoping that even “the imagineers” and “the D.J. crew” will enjoy themselves as they work. (“No boundaries if you’re cool,” he insists.) He is especially stoked about the group of kids he hired to perform Wu-Tang Clan covers; but when he cancels his performance, he has to drop “tiny Wu-Tang” too. (Genuinely remorseful, he says, “Tell them they’ve got it all ahead of them, yeah?”)

  • Kendall’s siblings show some crack comic timing when they ask him who’s at the party and he answers, “Who isn’t?” Without missing a beat, they rattle off a list: “Your dad.” “Your mom.” “Your wife and kids.” “Any real friends.”

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