After a fantastic article by The Shatner Chatner on Josh Charles’ specific appeal (which put a name to the nebulous concept of the “Hot Tired Man”), I felt that culturally we were in a safe space for me to mention that I have a crush on Succession’s Kendall Roy. This is a controversial take for a number of reasons, and the reactions to my reveal were fairly gendered. From women, a relief that they were not alone in feeling the same way, and from men there was a very resounding, “what the fuck??”
Our Politics Editor, Shane Ryan, essentially goaded me into writing a piece that explains the unconventional attractiveness of Kendall Roy, so here I am publicly working through this secret shame. Yes, Succession’s Number One Boy and “whatever Dad tells me” zealot Kendall, who was best described by critic Matthew Zoller Seitz on Twitter as “Poor Kendall Roy. A Byronic schlump. Nutless Heathcliff wandering the moors, sniffling.” So what, exactly, is the appeal here?
Well, it’s a combination of things. But first, I do acknowledge the problems with Kendall. They are obvious, and have less to do with looks (Jeremy Strong is an attractive dude who looks great in a suit, there’s no questioning this), and more to do with the fact that he is a drug addict whose substance abuse problems directly led to the death of one person. He’s pretty spineless, is under his father’s complete control, and is often a sleazy lil shit. He’s arrogant one minute and completely, to borrow a term, “nutless” the next. He can gut a media company in the worst possible way, flashing his douchebag status like the Bat Signal, and yet I still care about him and root for him to win. Why?
A lot of this is down to Strong’s performance, because he basically gives Kendall a soul. He shows us a Kendall who is complicated and layered and nuanced in ways that make you believe if the circumstances of his life were even slightly different, he would not be such a colossal asshole. But even now, he is not irredeemable; there is still some good in him hidden beneath decades of hurt and cowardice and a twisted sense of morals. He’s earnest and wants to do the right thing, except that his father’s poisonous influence keeps sending him down an anxiety-riddled path of drugs and unrepentant narcissism. Ultimately these are Kendall’s choices, yet more than any of his other siblings, Kendall seems like he can still be saved.
And that, friends, is one of the biggest requirements for a toxic crush: wanting to save someone. Kendall is begging to not just be helped but to be rescued by the healing power of your love. That siren song is so terribly potent. That, plus Kendall’s Tired Man vibe (see the Josh Charles link above) and the sense that he is too sensitive for the vicious environment his father has cultivated at Waystar, creates the confusing attractiveness of this character. He’s damaged, but he’s not rotten. There is hope for him, and that glittering feeling of seeing his potential is both toxic and intoxicating.
I considered doing an entire piece that more generally asked “which Succession character are you the most toxically attracted to?” because they’re all problematic in their own way. Are you into desperate social-climbers like Tom, pulled in by the morally agnostic Shiv, see the appeal of Connor’s rich-but-delusional paradox, or want to help Roman work through his issues by humiliating him? There’s a little something for everyone’s neuroses. (Of note, Roman has a lot of the same qualities as Kendall, which is why they are often at odds, but Roman has a genuine “cool guy” wall of glibness built around him that makes him more emotionally insulated. Kendall is a walking raw nerve).
There is a pathos to Kendall that all overachievers and strivers and people-pleasers will recognize and empathize with. He’s a man desperate to win back some kind of control in his life, which is true of every character on the show in different ways (even Logan keeps losing his stronghold on his children). Kendall has the potential for greatness, if he could just get out of his own way. The attraction there is for the fixers, the troubleshooters, and the healers. Kendall is too spineless to really fit the Bad Boy with a Heart of Gold archetype, and it’s uncertain if he does in fact have a heart (we know he has a troubled conscience, but beyond that, it’s unclear). Still, throughout the foul-mouth cacophony and relentless backstabbing and jockeying for power in Succession, there is a quiet little sparkle of hope in Kendall that he can escape it all, find himself, and get a real win. And crucially, we genuinely want that for him. So perhaps there is non-toxic key to Kendall’s attractiveness: His very real desire to be loved. So love him! There’s nothing shameful about that.
Succession Season Two airs Sunday nights on HBO.
Allison Keene is the TV Editor of Paste Magazine. For more television talk, pop culture chat and general japery, you can follow her @keeneTV