Succession: Roman Roy Was Always Going to End Up Like This

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Succession: Roman Roy Was Always Going to End Up Like This

To say that the Roy children of HBO’s Succession were always doomed to fail would be simplifying things. When raised by a father whose primary objective was to pit his children against each other, they were bound to carry those burdens even after his death. Those burdens have only worsened; the complicated-at-best legacy of Logan Roy (Brian Cox) shattered everything around his children because without him, what else do they have?

None of the siblings have been affected by this more outwardly than middle son Roman Roy (Kieran Culkin). Once a perverted rascal with high self-worth, he has become an overcompensating shell of his former self since the passing of his father. Some people have sympathized with this, while others have felt nothing but disgust for him. The reaction a viewer should have would be something in between, like how you would comfort a dog after it ate your shoes and threw up. Just remember our first impressions of him in the first season, where he masturbated his girlfriend with a vibrating phone and tore up a hundred-dollar bill in front of a kid.

But there was always something more profound and complex underneath his bravado, and seeing it be undone throughout this final season has been something to behold. We saw him pinball his way through his various characters: pathetic man-child, sex-sick puppy, fledgling fascist figurehead, and everything in between. However, the finale showcased perhaps his most authentic form, and that’s someone who just doesn’t want to be here at all. Roman never wanted to put on the performances he’s seemingly perfected throughout the show because he just isn’t fit for this type of life. He wants to be comforted and protected, perhaps at service to someone else, but that isn’t the type of person Logan had wanted in a potential successor.

In hindsight, this might have been obvious. Who in their right mind thought that Roman, with his childish antics and loose mouth, would ever be a serious candidate for Waystar CEO? While he would have his moments here and there, there never seemed to be a natural working bone in him, unlike Kendall (Jeremy Strong) or Shiv (Sarah Snook). Could he fill out a spreadsheet? Coordinate a meeting with ease or any other thing corporate suits are good at? Perhaps, but within the window that Succession allows us to peer into, he can’t. We saw him primarily as an immature and self-righteous brat who spewed out one-too-many incest jokes at family gatherings.

This should have quickly turned him into an annoying screen presence, so why hasn’t he for so many people? For starters, it’s in the way that Culkin portrays the character, seamlessly creating recognizable mannerisms and saying his lines in such a naturalistic way that you wonder if he’s really acting. One could even wonder if perhaps his own childhood under the cultural microscope had some influence on this role.

More importantly, however, there was always something just off about Roman Roy that made viewers want to dissect him. While the argument can certainly be made that this is true of all the characters, it seems integral to understanding him in particular. The ticks and clues steadily add up to some dramatic reveal that ultimately never comes, but is still omnipresent enough to where we know something is at the root of his psyche. This is especially true in “With Open Eyes,” as he would rather hide in the comforts of the shadows, not wanting to face the truth about the future of Waystar.

A figure to stand behind is what he needs, what he craves, and why he ultimately can’t be the chosen successor. His lack of drive is because he’s expected to look after people, not the other way around. It’s why he continues to be so devastated about his falling out with legal counsel Gerri Kellman (J. Smith-Cameron). While the actual ethics of their relationship will always be in question, what is clear is that he genuinely loved her. Perhaps she did for a time, as well, but it was Roman’s desperation for her to consume him fully that led to their downfall. He recognizes this and has ever since she told him at the election tailgate that he blew his chance to be hers. He can run to his mother, Caroline (Harriet Walter), as many times as he wants, but it’ll never be a replacement for the more permanent holes he’ll have in his heart for Logan and Gerri.

This all leads back to where he eventually ends the show, alone in a bar and sipping a martini; the drink of his former and perhaps unrequited lover. With Waystar Royco conducting its death march into the arms of Lukas Matsson (Alexander Skarsgård) and the truth about his lack of desire to usurp the throne, Roman is technically free. He knows that his father’s legacy will inevitably burn to the ground. He knows that the man that has given him so much terror is laid to rest in the mausoleum he himself will eventually end up in, and as such, he’s happy. He doesn’t have to play any of the characters he’s established for himself throughout the show’s run. He can run off and do whatever he wants that Logan would never want him touching, lest he risks getting the shit kicked out of him both metaphorically and physically.

But what does he really want? Who is he now that he is free? We’ll never know, and maybe he won’t, either. It’s just like the omnipresent question of what exactly happened to Roman that makes him the way he is—we have some semblance of an idea, but there’s so much more we ultimately don’t get to see. When he sips his martini alone at that bar, hoping for Gerri to come in and meet with him again, he is both smiling and crying. He’s happy and afraid of the fact that he’s free because it’s a feeling so foreign to him. Without the burdens of Waystar and Logan bearing down on him, Roman theoretically wins in the end, but what is winning in this regard if you don’t have any identity or sense of self beyond subservience? Both he and the viewer will have to figure this out, and it’ll be a lonely road paved by the mistakes he’s made along the way.

Erin Brady is a freelance entertainment and culture critic with bylines in Slash Film, Roger Ebert, The Daily Beast, and others. When not writing or watching new media, she’s either creating her own art or playing with her dog. Follow her on Twitter @erinmartina.

For all the latest TV news, reviews, lists and features, follow @Paste_TV.

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