[Editor’s Note: The following review contains spoilers for “Succession” Season 3, Episode 7, “Too Much Birthday.”]
“Succession” is too smart to try to top itself — not this soon, and not when it comes to “L to the O.G.” That thought was running through my head while Kendall (Jeremy Strong) prepped a karaoke rendition of Billy Joel’s “Honesty” for his 40th birthday bash, teasing an “epic” sequel to last season’s monument to mortification at his dad’s 50th anniversary party. Kendall is a proven stage presence, no doubt, but with the rhyme scheme still fresh in everyone’s minds (“A-1 ratings, 80K wine / Never going to stop baby, fuck father time”), how could Kendall (let alone the “Succession” writing staff) expect an encore to live up to the first show? As tantalizing as the “nut nut, full boar” follow-up initially sounds (a flying crucifixion?!), Naomi Pierce (Annabelle Dexter-Jones) serves as the collective voice of reason, checking Kendall’s assertion that he’s gone “anti-fragile” by couching her approval with “Yeah… I think.”
That moment, paired with the always electrifying cut-to-credits, also sets Episode 7 on a tragic trajectory. Because of course Kendall isn’t going to get to do what he wants on his much-hyped birthday celebration. Parties thrown to mask people’s inescapable problems rarely serve as the escape they’re seeking, and Kendall’s reality has been closing in on him for weeks. He’s fired his team of lawyers (whose initial acquisition represented an early win for #TeamKendall). He botched his Department of Justice interview. And the supposedly damning documents he got from Greg (Nicholas Braun) aren’t enough to take down Logan Roy (Brian Cox). All it takes is a card from his father to remind Kendall just how dire his situation has become and send him spiraling through the rest of his party — lashing out at his siblings’ business dealings, stumbling through his stack of presents like a drunk Godzilla (if only he was still wearing his dragon-breasted jacket), and, yes, abandoning his big performance.
But just like Kendall’s overconfidence can screw up his grand schemes, his genuine pain can lead to happy accidents. After his vehicular manslaughter cover-up in Season 1, Logan takes pity on him, shielding him from any formal investigation while, yes, side-stepping Kendall’s bear hug. In Season 2, when Logan tries to make Kendall the “blood sacrifice,” the down-and-out son finds his backbone and goes in for the “kill.” When Kendall is at his highest, there’s always something that undermines his happiness. When he’s at his lowest, there’s always something that pulls him back to his feet. (The same dichotomy can be seen in miniature during Episode 3, “The Disruption,” when Kendall backs out of Sophie Iwobi’s show following his sister’s scathing letter, only to end on him smiling as news reports follow the DoJ raiding Waystar Royco.) Thus is the life of an excessively wealthy man whose emotional facilities have been gutted by abuse. He can pay for the party of his dreams, but he can’t escape the hurt caused by his family (or fill that party with actual joy).
And yet, that hurt may help him in the long run. Episode 7 is as much about Shiv (Sarah Snook) saying “fuck it” as it is Kendall not singing his song. The last few weeks have seen notable splits between Shiv and her father. In Episode 5, Logan screams at her in front of the full team after she barters a deal with Stewy (Arian Moayed) and Sandi (Hope Davis); he picks the presidential candidate she deems off-limits in Episode 6; and in Episode 7, he entrusts Roman (Kieran Culkin) to negotiate with Lukas Matsson (Alexander Skarsgård), and Roman — enjoying being Daddy’s No. 1 boy — distances Shiv even further from the family business. That’s enough for Shiv to drop a little something extra in her cocktail and cut loose on the dance floor, but is it enough to send her over to Kendall?
Dasha Nekrasova and Jeremy Strong in “Succession”
Macall Polay / HBO
Maybe! Shiv did not take kindly to learning Logan has been sending goons after Kendall’s kids and seems to be searching for any excuse to abandon ship. Given Kendall’s sorry state of mind (and general air of desperation), she could leverage the CEO spot in exchange for helping him destroy daddy. It’s what she said she wanted in Episode 2: “If I were to back you against dad, I would need to take over,” Shiv said during the impromptu sibling gathering. Back then, Kendall was riding high and told her “that’s not possible right now.” But that was then, as they say, and circumstances have shifted. Logan’s birthday card has Kendall thinking about leaving the business altogether. If he could stay, keep his shares, and remove their father, that might be worth answering to his sister — at least, for a little while.
Directed by Lorene Scafaria (“Hustlers”) and written by series veterans Tony Roche & Georgia Pritchett, “Too Much Birthday” is a marvelous blend of maximized imagination and calculated character arcs. The party itself (named “The Notorious KEN: Ready to Die”) is a sight to behold: the pink birthing canal entrance, the sippy cup cocktails, the future newspaper exhibit (you just know Kendall hired the “‘BoJack’ guys” to write those headlines), the recreation of Kendall’s childhood treehouse, and the “compliment tunnel”? Not only are all of these perfectly plausible concoctions of Kendall Roy’s wildest fantasies (as well as what he would think of as “cool”), they’re also prime targets for the show’s patented savagery — and the Roys do not disappoint. Good luck picking a favorite jab — personally, I’m torn between Roman’s too-late realization that his sex joke regarding his mother’s vagina is more gross than funny and Connor flipping out over his fake headline — but “Too Much Birthday” is absolutely not too much birthday for the viewers; in fact, it should earn Emmys for production designer Stephen H. Carter, art director Marci Mudd, and set decorator George DeTitta Jr. (if not Scafaria and the writers, as well).
“Succession” is too smart to fall for its own trap, but brilliant enough to trap audiences in their own expectations. By setting up an “epic” party only to end it with the kids more divided than ever, showrunner Jesse Armstrong fashions an exacting, excruciating hour of television. Anything can happen in the final two episodes, as Logan looks to emerge from the fog of war with a big-ticket acquisition and Kendall clings to the hope that his righteous insurrection can still come to pass. Tom “Free Man!” Wambsgans (Matthew Macfadyen) isn’t as happy as he should be. Roman is all-too-secure in his nasty, bro-y business tactics. Shiv’s loyalty is teetering. The only certainty is that not everyone can emerge victorious, and none of them will end up happy. The brilliance of “Succession” is that, just like the Roys, we desperately want to find out who succeeds anyway.
Nicholas Braun and Matthew Macfadyen in “Succession”
Macall Polay / HBO
So my hunch that Greg and Comfry (Dasha Nekrasova) had already hooked up may have proven inaccurate, but their burgeoning romance took a huge step forward in Episode 7 — and Kendall helped move things along in the only way he can get anything done these days: inadvertently. After telling Tom about his crush in the birthing room (Tom’s response — “It’s like a haunted scarecrow asking out Jackie Onassis” — is an all-timer when it comes to belittling Greg), the “nine-foot Cro-Magnon man” goes seeking Kendall’s approval to ask out the “goddess” PR rep. He, somewhat expectedly, says no — “You’re like the world’s biggest fucking parasite. You’re a human tapeworm” — but the vehemency of his refusal upsets the bullied man-child. So he asks Comfry out anyway.
What Greg doesn’t fully realize is how much shit Comfry already takes from her demanding boss. She’s sent to make Connor remove his jacket (only Kendall gets to wear a coat at his party); she oversees Kendall’s nixed karaoke crucifixion; she’s tasked with discrediting Greg in the press, and that’s all just what she’s told to do at a party where she’s also instructed to “get your drink on.” So when Greg approaches her with a polite request to go out, at first, she’s more confused than flattered; it’s only when Greg mentions that Kendall said she couldn’t go out with Greg that Comfry pivots. “You know, I’ve spent a week researching where to get lunchboxes from the ’80s to serve canapés from, like the one he used to take to school,” Comfry says. “And then he decided that he didn’t want lunch boxes, so now I have all these He-Man lunch boxes in my apartment, and I have to resell them on eBay, and his office wants receipts.” Her “yes” to Greg’s invitation isn’t a “yes” to Greg; it’s a “fuck you” to Kendall. Greg may not realize it, but I doubt it would dampen his spirits if he did. The date is set. Drinks will be shared. Greg… good luck?
Also, give Nicholas Braun all the awards just for how he lifts his desk. Comic genius.
And I’m no poet, but this little stanza has to be eligible for the Pulitzer:
Apologies Greg, I may have gotten a little carried away
But I just popped ’round to say
That nobody is going to jail.
Slime Puppy Time
Roman, Roman, Roman. When are you going to learn? Yes, you did well with Mencken (Justin Kirk) last week. Yes, you knew how to barge into the treehouse, connect with Matsson, and hook him with a pee pact. (They may not have crossed streams, but whatever that bathroom visit was, it bonded these two.) But you have to recognize two things: a) know when you’re swimming with sharks (Matsson, a savvy tech entrepreneur, could easily be using Roman for his own gain), and b) don’t ignore the allies you already have in hand. Roman may snare Matsson, but he alienates Shiv, and Logan won’t be too pleased with his prideful son if Shiv allies with Kendall.
Jeremy Strong in “Succession”
Kenny on the Rhyme
When Kendall talks to Rava (Natalie Gold), there’s a wall of gold records behind them — are those… Kendall’s? Like, aspirational mock-ups that he actually expects to earn for his burgeoning rap career?
The Tom-elette Times
Tom is free! Tom is free! Tom is… definitely going to jail?
(OK, OK — I actually don’t think anything can happen that will revert Tom back to Christmas Tree status, but it’s just as crushing to see how even safety from his most feared reality isn’t enough to overcome the sadness he feels being with Shiv.)
The A+ F-Bomb
“I ate some bad fucking fish!” – Connor, who shit his bag on a camping trip, but it’s not his fault, it’s Logan’s, definitely Logan’s
Best Line That Could Still Air on ATN – *Tie*
“Hey, scooch over a little bit, buddy?” – Tom, politely asking Greg to move aside so he can flip his desk and kick over his drawers
“Wind in your hair?” – Roman, practicing his favorite sport: mocking Frank (this time, for his baldness)
“Prove it.” – Greg, politely asking Tom for proof that he has “the dick the size of a sequoia and fucks like a bullet train”
“Succession” debuts new episodes every Sunday at 9 p.m. ET on HBO. The Season 3 finale is set for December 12.
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