The Poem That May Unlock the 'Succession' Finale

What will become of Kendall Roy?

succession, brian cox, jeremy strong
HBO

The final 10 minutes of the penultimate episode of Season 3 of Succession offer a rapid change to the power dynamics that had been developing. Roman, previously riding high in the Roy family hierarchy, is felled by the fact that he sends a dick pic meant for Gerri to his dad, Logan. This gives Shiv, who had faced Logan's repeated condescension, an opportunity to step up, belittle her brother, and reclaim her throne as Daddy's favorite girl. And then there's Kendall, face down on a raft in a gorgeous pool in the Italian countryside, beer bottle beside him, his face subsumed by the water. The outrageous circumstances of Roman's indiscretion are paired with Kendall's brutal dejection, a state from which it almost seems he might never return.

Succession is not a show that people theorize about the way they did, say, Game of Thrones, but heading into the Season 3 finale, viewers are buzzing about what might befall Kendall. He has tried to fight his father with moral superiority and lost. In "Chiantishire," when all the Roys have gathered in Tuscany for the wedding of his mother, Kendall tells Logan he's willing to cash out and leave Waystar. Logan will not let him go, reminding him of the body count he left behind in the crash that killed the waiter at Shiv's wedding. It's with this in mind that we find Kendall in the pool. He gives an impassive response to his kids, who explain they are going inside, then lets his beer drop and buries his head in the water. Is Kendall dead? Dying? Does this moment imply he has already taken his own life or may soon attempt to do so, acting out the suicidal ideation that the series has alluded to time and time again?

Despite the fact that fans are now eagle-eyeing the trailers to see if they can find actor Jeremy Strong in any shots from what is presumably the finale, Jesse Armstrong's series is not a puzzle box, and I don't think it can be "solved." That said, Armstrong has given his viewers an Easter egg that links each of the three finales to one another. In true Succession style, it requires a little literary analysis.

Each of the two prior season-ending episodes have taken their titles from the John Berryman poem "Dream Song 29." As podcast host Kevin T. Porter posted in an Instagram story even before last night's episode aired, this year follows that same path. Berryman's "Dream Songs" revisit a recurring and semi-autobiographical character named Henry, a character of misery not unlike Kendall. Berryman, according to The Atlantic, was known as a pioneer of "confessional poetry." He won the Pulitzer Prize for his collection 77 Dream Songs, and died by suicide in 1972.

The first season finale was titled "Nobody Is Ever Missing," the last line of "Dream Song 29," wherein Berryman explains that "never did Henry, as he thought he did, / end anyone and hacks her body up / and hide the pieces, where they may be found." Henry didn't kill someone. Kendall did, but he killed someone his father would later refer to as a not a "real person," in the callous way the Roys brush off crimes against those below them. There is someone missing, but to the Roys it is simply "nobody."

Season 2's finale, where Kendall retaliates against Logan by blaming him for Waystar's crimes during a televised press conference, was "This Is Not for Tears," while next week's is "All the Bells Say." In the context of Berryman's poem, that line is "All the bells say: too late." Just what is too late? Is it too late for Kendall to live? Or too late for him to be saved in a more metaphorical sense? Or is the allusion to something else entirely?

In an interview with Vulture published when Season 2 ended, Armstrong, as is his wont, was reluctant to overanalyze the use of the poem. "It has a terrifying sense of that feeling Kendall has at the end of the last season, wondering if something could have happened," Armstrong explained. "In Berryman’s poem’s case, in the end, [a death] hasn’t happened. But it has happened to Kendall. When I was looking at possibilities, that line struck me as pertinent to this episode as well." Clearly, Armstrong has once again found relevance in this motif. I'm not sure it can explain what exactly will happen next week, but it can, once again, provide a glimpse into the pit that is Kendall's headspace. Unlike Henry, who can check and know that he hasn't cost someone their life, Kendall knows he has. The bells are chiming for him.

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Esther Zuckerman is a senior entertainment writer at Thrillist. Follow her on Twitter @ezwrites.