Courtesy of Katelyn Sliwinski

About a year ago, HBO’s “Succession” was wrapping up its third season. I’ve recently decided to rewatch it while basking in my memories of watching it as it aired a year ago — my roommates and I on the edge of our seats, following intently as if it was an installment of “The Real Housewives” despite its serious tone. I even passed up studying for my French final to watch the season’s finale, a memory that sits fondly with me despite its consequences. It was fun to be online during the airing of the show because of the funny commentary and viewers’ artwork in response to each new episode. Fandom influences many of my viewing experiences, and my relationship with “Succession” has certainly changed because of it.

Created by Jesse Armstrong, “Succession” is a comedy-drama centered around a family of billionaires and their constant struggle to usurp the CEO of their company, Waystar Royco. The main characters feature Logan Roy (Brian Cox, “The Independent”), the company’s founder, and his four adult children. Each of the children have their fair share of egregiously first-world issues — being born into a family of incredible wealth and influence and promised the role of a lifetime — and many of the show’s plot points showcase their complex family dynamics. The show is not shy to highlight Logan’s abusive behaviors toward his children, implying that many of their issues come from a rough childhood, as well as showing how their upbringing has affected their relationships with others even into adulthood. 

“Succession” is a particularly fascinating case, as it highlights moral grayness in its leads; this parallels other well-regarded shows such as “Breaking Bad,” “Mad Men” and “The Sopranos.” On paper, it is very easy to hate the characters of “Succession”; Armstrong was heavily inspired by the Murdoch family in creating the Roys — both families have the same amount of scandal, wealth, power and disdain for those beneath them. They are the picture of capitalism gone too far, of gross wealth that’s gotten out of hand. Yet these hints of past abuse and sibling love make me unable to look away. The show’s focus on broken family dynamics tugs at my heartstrings ever so slightly, and keeps me crawling back in hope that the Roys gain some humanity.

Atmospheres online surrounding the show are broad: Over the past year, there seems to have been an increase in younger people enjoying “Succession.” IMDB’s demographics ratings suggest that the bulk of viewers are 30-44 years old, followed by viewers 18-29 years old. Though younger people are not as popular within these demographics, from my experience online, I’ve noticed many people in their late teens and early 20s becoming enthralled, particularly with the character Kendall Roy (Jeremy Strong, “Armageddon Time”).

Kendall is arguably the protagonist of “Succession.” He’s the second-eldest son, who at the start of the show seemed most likely to win the position of CEO. However, his deeply depressive personality, struggles with drug addiction and heavy reliance on his father’s opinions quickly unravel his chances. Posts sympathizing with Kendall’s sadness from a female perspective have become increasingly common on Twitter and Tumblr. Searching Kendall on Pinterest yields search suggestions of “Kendall Roy sad” and “Kendall Roy aesthetic” and merch like this “Team Kendall” Twilight-style shirt went viral online recently. Fans of him often call themselves “Kendall Girls” as if he was the star of a boy band. All of this constructs a narrative of Kendall online that often romanticizes his story, erasing his misdeeds in favor of making him a relatable figure of mental illness.

It shocks me coming back to “Succession” and seeing what he’s actually like. Kendall is an abysmal soul, and the show does not hide that. One of the first things we learn about him is his messy divorce, as his ex-wife references him doing cocaine off of his children’s iPads. He is pathetic, willing to throw around billions of dollars to piss off a relative. His sentences are heavily bulked with curse words and penis jokes as though he’s still in high school. Within the first three episodes of the show, he makes a business deal that pulls his family’s company out of debt while doing cocaine in the bathroom with his college best friend. He also engages in anti-union practices, following orders from his father to fire an entire company simply because they were rumored to unionize.

He positions himself as a progressive later on in the series — a strong figure, a force to be reckoned with. Yet it is so clear that these are illusions. The minute he has time to himself, he wears a deeply hollow, somber expression. He is a man made up of corporate buzzwords, tweeting about “listening to women” and never listening to a single woman around him. He is a sad child at heart, dependent on the approval of his father yet desperate to pull away from him. Yet these “sad child” actions are on a giant scale: He is worsening the lives of average workers, majorly altering stocks and tossing money around like it’s nothing in brief fits of outrage. 

Kendall is a fascinating character for this reason. He can easily be read as a depressed teenager, yet his position in society does not fit that mold. It’s a harsh contrast — the rich, successful businessman in a state of permanent regression and terminal sadness. “Succession” is masterful in its characterization, in its portrayal of humanity. One moment, I view Kendall as a plague of late-stage capitalism; I feel it is impossible to ever remotely understand him. But when he kneels in the dirt, saying “I’m all apart,” “It’s fucking lonely” through tears, he suddenly becomes painfully real. I feel this tweet sums up his tragic character quite well.

There is a wide range of reasons why people (particularly women) have latched onto Kendall. I think it’s certainly possible that one can identify with him; at his core, that desperation for family approval is so heartbreaking and real. For one, this Reddit post positing, “Any other women heavily relate to Kendall?” has 579 upvotes, clearly indicating his relatability. He is a grown man who wishes that his feelings would go away, yet they run his life. He clearly feels guilty for participating in the system, and his constant struggle over his actions may ring true for some viewers. I think it’s important to acknowledge his many flaws, though, rather than reducing him to his pitiful boyish nature.

Additionally, a lot of Kendall’s fan base started ironically; he has been compared to Elon Musk, and to some, the idea of treating someone like that as a “soft boy” was funny. However, like many things online, the joke has spiraled out of its original context, and now we have arrived at a place where people are editing Kendall to Mitski songs (and yes, she’s seen them). The line in the sand is unclear — I often can’t distinguish between ironic and sincere Kendall edits. I feel as though it’s a mix of both — that we can laugh at ourselves for the absurdity of loving Kendall and love him nonetheless. 

I’m not immune to Kendall myself. I love to hate him, but I have related to him, too. I don’t know if I can call myself a “Kendall girl,” but I can certainly offer some insight as to why people love him. In a world where the job market is strained, where I have been thrown off focus by COVID-19 and have been unable to see what I truly want in a job, I can picture myself in Kendall’s shoes post-graduation. Kendall is financially and socially successful, yet has such a lack of emotion and joy about these things. I don’t know if I’ll find that work that satisfies me, and with work being such a central element in our lives, “Succession” often gets me to ponder that. It’s a malaise I know I’m not alone in feeling; I’ve had peers who have told me they chose their major solely to secure wealth. They’ve said they don’t think they’ll like anything they do, so they might as well make money. There’s this kind of underlying tiredness with the way things are that Kendall shares with a lot of people in my generation, and our lack of knowing what to do about it can make us sink into embarrassing sadness. There’s almost a comfort in seeing a grown, successful businessman in a state of disarray similar to that of myself as a teenager. I feel more human because of him.

I see Kendall on stage rapping for his father, and of course I cringe and laugh. Yet that small, still-emo part of me can see right through him, can see him throwing himself at the world in hopes of gaining meaning out of it all. I may be more of a Kendall girl than I’d like to admit, but I don’t think there’s shame in relating to fictional characters.

Daily Arts Writer Katelyn Sliwinski can be reached at ksliwi@umich.edu.