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Let Succession be ambiguous

The final shot of the latest Succession episode, explained and also not explained.

Logan (Brian Cox) and Kendall (Jeremy Strong) gather around a table in the Italian night.
Logan and Kendall meet for a last supper of sorts.
Graeme Hunter/HBO

After I finished watching a screener of “Chiantishire,” the penultimate episode of Succession’s third season, I figured the day-after chatter about the episode would be about how Roman Roy had accidentally sent a photo of his penis to his father.

He meant to send it to Waystar-Royco interim CEO Gerri Kelman (with whom Roman has a longstanding will-they/won’t-they), but mistakenly messaged his father instead. That moment was so memorable and so perfectly on point in regards to the series’ unique blend of dark comedy and corporate skullduggery that I figured it would be all any of us could talk about. (And the implications that Gerri could be the one to see her downfall due to Roman’s impropriety might offer a whole additional way to talk about the show’s sad, realistic depiction of workplace misogyny.)

I was sort of right. Roman’s mis-text was a topic of much delight and amusement on Twitter Dot Com and other social media sites the day after the episode aired. For instance, consider my favorite tweet on the matter and this absolutely perfect sloppy Photoshop, both of which capture Roman’s emotional journey throughout the scene.

But Succession stans were way more animated about a very different topic once the episode ended: Did the final shot of “Chiantishire” prove that a certain character was dead?

Spoilers follow!

Image of a spoiler warning

Why that final shot might suggest somebody’s dead

Okay, but seriously, if you don’t want to be spoiled on the final shot of “Chiantishire,” please exit the premises now, because I’m about to just show you that final shot.

Kendall lays on a pool float, a bottle of beer floating downward beneath him. He’s shot from below.
Kendall lets a bottle of beer float to the bottom of the pool.
HBO

So this is Kendall Roy, once the family golden boy and now the punching bag. He’s having a beer in the pool, floating in the Italian sun. His kids have excused themselves from sitting poolside, and Kendall is … not having a great time of it.

Director Mark Mylod cuts to a shot of this moment that shoots up from the bottom of the pool. Kendall sticks his face in the water, releasing the beer bottle so it floats down toward the camera, but upside down, giving everything a curious, weightless feel. Soon, we see bubbles streaming from Kendall’s nose, as the camera slowly rotates around him in a counter-clockwise direction. Cut to black.

So, uh, Kendall’s dead, right? He just drowned himself?

There’s at least somewhat compelling evidence throughout the run of the show. Kendall very frequently submerges himself in water across the first three seasons, and the first episode of season three features Kendall, fully clothed, getting into an empty bathtub when he needs to decompress for a few minutes. Succession loves its foreshadowing, and all of that water imagery might have been leading to this very moment.

Even more vital to this argument, however, is that in the season one finale, Kendall crashed a car he was driving into a pond while high on ketamine. He escaped, but the young waiter in the car with him drowned. Logan helped cover up Kendall’s involvement in the accident, thereby drawing Kendall further into his clutches. Kendall, distraught about this, has spent most of the subsequent two seasons trying to find a way to escape that dark and terrible moment, first through utter despair (most of season two), then through trying in vain to topple his father while keeping his father’s empire for himself (most of season three).

The death of the waiter comes up in “Chiantishire” as well. It’s first invoked by publicist Comfry, who tells Kendall he has an invitation to go on a podcast that is digging into the many Roy scandals, including the waiter’s death. It’s later invoked by Logan in a scene where he and Kendall have a last supper of sorts. Kendall is trying to escape his family and the family business for good, offering Logan a deal that will essentially allow Kendall to become “a ghost” (his own words!). Logan rejects this deal and taunts Kendall with the fact that the waiter’s death will forever mean Kendall is bound, at least somewhat, to him.

“How long was that kid alive before he started sucking in water?” Logan says. Maybe the episode’s final shot depicts Kendall testing his father’s theory once and for all, in a way that will scar his children. If Logan won’t let Kendall go, then Kendall might do something terrible and drastic in order to achieve that end.

Finally, Kendall is an addict, but for most of seasons two and three, the series has depicted him as someone who is at least trying to stay sober. He has relapsed (especially when his girlfriend Naomi is around), but he has mostly stayed away from drugs. And yet here he is drinking a beer, in what could be a subtle indication of a fall off the wagon. Whether Kendall is using this season has been a topic of discussion in the Succession fan spaces I’m in, but that beer bottle (which calls back to other scenes of him drinking throughout the season) feels like a subtle tip of the hat to the idea that, yeah, Kendall hasn’t been sober for at least a bit now.

Finally, in terms of “this sure seems like the kind of thing publicists place in the New Yorker shortly before a character in a show has a memorable sendoff,” a massive profile of actor Jeremy Strong (who plays Kendall) appeared in the New Yorker just hours before “Chiantishire” aired. What’s more, that profile made Strong seem … uh, very intense and maybe not the most fun to work with? Actors have been kicked off of TV shows for less.

So that’s proof, right? That profile? All that foreshadowing? All those invocations of the waiter’s death? That spinning shot of a man sticking his face into the water and exhaling his final breath? That descending beer bottle?

Well …

Why that final shot might not suggest somebody’s dead

Kendall, looking really bummed out, walks along a beautiful garden path.
Kendall looks so happy to be at his mother’s wedding, don’t you think?
Graeme Hunter/HBO

The most obvious argument that Kendall is still alive is that somebody found a few stray shots of him in a “coming up on Succession” trailer from a few weeks ago. These shots could be decoys utilized by HBO to throw fans off the scent of Kendall’s death, but that feels like a very elaborate way to try to fool a handful of people who might go back and piece through trailers released a few weeks ago.

So is this proof positive of Kendall’s survival? Not necessarily. Stuff gets cut from TV shows all the time. You just never know!

The other main argument against Kendall’s death is that, well, it’s really, really hard to drown yourself, especially when you’re lying on a pool float like Kendall is and especially if you’re an adult (like Kendall is). Yeah, if he deliberately tries to inhale water, he’ll probably accomplish something, but his body is very quickly going to turn against him, because your body doesn’t like to inhale water. The most likely outcome is that Kendall would play at drowning himself, only to wind up coughing out liquid.

Now, the most likely way to die by drowning in a pool is to overdose on some sort of substance, and if Kendall is using again, maybe that’s what’s happening here. Maybe we’re looking at a BoJack Horseman kinda situation. (BoJack, for the record, lived. It’s really hard to die by drowning, even when you’ve overdosed.) But as I’ve argued repeatedly, Succession is not really a show that does reveals. If something is important to the story, the show depicts it, and the handful of mysteries the show keeps from viewers (especially in regards to Logan’s dead sister Rose) are also mysteries kept from most of the characters. Kendall is one of the show’s main point-of-view characters. If he were using again, it would cut against the show’s M.O. to keep that hidden from the audience.

What’s more, you can use the idea that Kendall is testing just how it felt for that waiter to drown as a sign that he’s prepared to do at least one more deed on this planet: Go on the aforementioned Roy scandals podcast to tell the true story of what happened to the waiter. The final moment of “Chiantishire,” then, is a depiction of a decisive moment where he decides to take himself out of the headspace of a Roy and put himself in the headspace of the waiter. It’s a symbolic gesture of faulty redemption, which is something Kendall does all the time.

Succession always has an eye on what’s funny about its characters, except in a couple of circumstances. Its depiction of familial abuse is treated with grave seriousness, as I’ve argued. But its depiction of Kendall’s mental health is also treated with a stark realism that doesn’t sugarcoat the times when the character is either incredibly manic or deeply depressive. So having Kendall die by suicide in a manner that is incredibly difficult to pull off, while perhaps poetically apt, would also cut against the show’s usual M.O.

You can make an argument that Kendall will die this season (a.k.a. in the finale) but hasn’t just yet. It’s an argument I’m sympathetic to, given just how powerful the foreshadowing of Kendall being trapped in some way has been all season. But I’m also not going to make any predic — (Kendall gives an interview to the podcast team that reveals he was there when the waiter drowned, then implicates his father in the cover-up. He then dies by suicide at a wedding that is heavily attended by the paparazzi, who will surely make it into an even greater spectacle. Season four is all about the Roy family trying to suppress the podcast, a very real textual expression of the subtextual idea that the one thing the Roys can’t stop is the inevitability of their business model’s death at the hands of the decentralized information-gathering tools of the internet.) — tions.

So that’s it, right? You can’t argue with shots of Kendall from an episode that hasn’t aired yet! He’s going to be back, and it would be really weird if the series suddenly turned into Six Feet Under or Dexter and had a Kendall ghost lurking around to haunt everyone. We did it! We proved Kendall is alive!

Or …

Is Kendall alive or dead? The answer is: He can be both.

I won’t pretend that Succession (or at least the HBO marketing team) isn’t trying to tease the “is he or isn’t he?” nature of that final shot. The speculation by fans of the show isn’t being discouraged by the show’s PR team, at the very least. The “next week on Succession” preview that aired after “Chiantishire” doesn’t feature Kendall at all, which is a pretty classic way to preserve suspense as to whether a character is alive or dead. The HBO PR team, at least, knew we were going to be talking about that moment.

I think that goosing this particular discussion is a mistake on the part of those marketers, honestly. This is a binary question, and we’ll quickly know, next week, whether Kendall lived or died. What’s more, as with so many binary questions on TV shows that air week to week, lines will be drawn and viewers who were very much convinced Kendall was dead will probably end up disappointed if he’s alive and vice versa, simply because it’s natural to want to be right. Turning a marvelous, ambiguous shot into a guessing game cheapens the shot.

But look beyond the marketing and what’s happening here is what always happens with Succession when it does anything a little ambiguous (and when it does anything completely unambiguous, to be honest): People are freaking out about what the answer in the shot is, instead of what the meaning of the shot is. We’re so het up about whether Kendall is alive or dead that we miss that, within the shot, he’s kind of both.

Think about it. This shot depicts yet another absolute nadir for this man whose family treats him like a rock they drop into a deep pit to see how long it takes him to hit bottom. He is alive, but he might as well be dead. He tried the whole resurrection thing when he went against his dad, but he lost pretty conclusively. Now, lying on this pool float in the Italian sun, all he wants is for everything to just … stop.

That read of the shot is true regardless of whether Kendall is alive or dead. When we see him, he is both physically alive and spiritually dead. How he navigates the vast gulf between those two states of being will be the work of the rest of his life, whether that’s a few more minutes or several more decades.

“Physically alive but spiritually dead” also describes an HBO character in a famously ambiguous final shot that may or may not depict the moment of that character’s death: Tony Soprano in The Sopranos’ series finale. The point of that show was always that Tony and his families (professional and personal) were forever bound by their self-centered, narcissistic choices and the psychological baggage they refused to unpack. We watched the entire show waiting for Tony to realize any of the ways he had screwed himself up, even a little bit, and the series finale was a long explanation of why he couldn’t change and never would. It doesn’t matter if he dies in the series’ final shot because he’s incapable of change and therefore already spiritually dead.

But Kendall isn’t Tony Soprano. He has many other paths he could take. He’s realized how deep his father’s rot goes, and he’s realized that he can’t defeat him just by trying to have a better PR and/or legal strategy. The solution might be to own up to what he’s done and seek redemption, or it might be to just slink off and live a life of luxury, slowly sliding into obsolescence. And, yes, if he physically dies, all of that will be impossible to do. But if he confronts his utter despair head on, if he confronts his family’s role in whatever mental health issues he faces, if he accepts the harm that he has done in the world and tries to atone for it, then he might figure out a way to carve out a meaningful life for himself.

Unlike The Sopranos, which was steeped in Catholic dread, Succession is not a particularly religious show. But submersion and emergence from water is a potent symbol of rebirth in a lot of different religious traditions. (You might know it as “baptism” within the Christian tradition.) Don’t think of “Chiantishire’s” final shot as a simple binary between life and death; think of it, instead, as a character on the precipice of a moment when everything might change.