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Succession Hid a Connor Roy 'Departure' Episode in Plain Sight

Within the main narrative, the HBO drama told a revealing and quite sad story about the forgotten Roy sibling.
  • Alan Ruck as Connor Roy (photo: Macall B. Polay/HBO)
    Alan Ruck as Connor Roy (photo: Macall B. Polay/HBO)

    [Editor’s Note: This post contains spoilers for Succession Season 4, Episode 2, “Rehearsal.”]

    At the climax of this week's Succession episode, there is a consequential, highly dramatic Roy family showdown under the bisexual lighting of a karaoke room in Koreatown. Shiv (Sarah Snook), Kendall (Jeremy Strong), and Roman (Kieran Culkin) have Logan (Brian Cox) over a barrel as much as it's humanly possible to do so, with their obstinance threatening to torpedo the GoJo deal. Ostensibly, it's to squeeze more money out of Mattson (Alexander Skarsgård), but in truth it's about the renegade Roy siblings finally getting their long-awaited chance to twist the knife on their dad and Logan lowering himself as much as he's capable to croak out a half-hearted apology.

    Standing on the sidelines is Connor (Alan Ruck), the eldest and by far least important Roy sibling. This entire family psychodrama is taking place amid the rubble of Connor and Willa's (Justin Lupe) disaster of a rehearsal dinner. In fact, the entire episode is layered over a long, dark night of the soul for Connor, with writers Tony Roche and Susan Soon He Stanton and director Becky Martin pulling off something slyly masterful. Without so much as taking a break from the high-stakes wrangling over the GoJo deal or the high farce of Tom (Matthew MacFadyen) and Greg (Nicholas Braun) trying to handle Kerry (Zoe Winters) and her awful audition video for ATN, they've managed to deliver the definitive Connor Roy episode without ever needing to indulge in a trendy "departure episode" to do it.

    As Vulture's Kathryn VanArendonk has put it, departure episodes can encompass a great many types of episodes, from format breakers to proper "bottle episodes." One type of departure that's become especially popular lately has been an episode that takes a break from the main narrative to focus on one (often non-major) character, telling their story on the fringes in a way that offers another angle on the main narrative. Think Ted Lasso devoting an episode to Coach Beard, or Only Murders in the Building detouring into Theo Dimas and his story. These episodes can be incredibly impactful and often pivotal; look no further than Fleishman Is in Trouble’s series-redefining detour into Rachel's (Claire Danes) life for one such example.

    You could see where Succession would be tempted to give Connor a spotlight episode. His character exists on the margins of the Roy family. He's the product of Logan's first marriage and has been treated as separate from Kendall, Shiv, and Roman for his whole life, sometimes benignly and sometimes cruelly. His younger siblings are the ones who have spent three-plus seasons at each other's throats in competition for Logan's favor because they're the only ones Logan would even briefly consider leaving the keys to his kingdom.

    Connor has always been an afterthought, and knowing that, he's kept himself separate from the family in various ways. He doesn't talk business, by and large; he's got his ranch out in New Mexico where he can exist outside of the Roy bubble when he wants to; he's been working on what might be called, with exceeding generosity, a quixotic campaign for President of the United States. But whether Connor is actually indifferent to running Waystar Royco (and thus winning his father's approval and favor) or it’s a face-saving posture has always been an open question, if never close to being the most pertinent question at any given time on this show. A detour into Connor's life would probably hold a good bit of curiosity. You'd get a window into what's actually at the heart of his and Willa's mutually opportunistic — yet plausibly loving, in its own way — relationship, and maybe see the ways in which his father's negligence and his siblings' casual dismissal (bordering on disdain) wounds him.

    Season 4 of Succession doesn't really have time for detours, though. Even if Succession were the kind of show to focus a single episode on one character, there's just way too much ground to cover before it's all over, and limited time to do so. What we got instead was even better. "Rehearsal" gave us a more revealing look into Connor than we'd ever gotten before without so much as departing from the Kendall/Shiv/Roman triumvirate for a moment.

    We don't even see Connor for the first half of “Rehearsal.” His and Willa's rehearsal dinner is a looming obligation for the other Roy siblings, even as they're distracted by Sandi (Hope Davis) and Stewy (Arian Moayed), who approach Shiv with a plan to vote "no" on the GoJo deal in order to improve their financial windfall. When the siblings do finally deign to enter the party, in full business-casual attire (including Kendall in a hoodie), Willa is already way too drunk and fleeing the scene with her friends. It seems she had something of an "I can't do this" moment while rehearsing the vows, and now Connor is not un-concerned that she might not be coming back.

    Given this family’s inability to acknowledge their own vulnerabilities, Connor is admirably honest with his brothers and sister in the moment: He's feeling sh*tty, and he wants to go out with his siblings and have a real night on the town at a regular bar with beer. Maybe some karaoke later. Kendall, Shiv, and Roman react in abject horror to every element of this, starting with the midtown bar that's hardly a dive even though Roman calls it "Billy Ray Cyrus' Chicken Fried Sh*t Shack" and Shiv is too scared to order a glass of red wine. The prospect of karaoke, meanwhile, makes Roman want to crawl into the floorboards and die. It's funny, of course, to watch the privileged Roys operate among the masses, though Connor is no better at it. He merely wants to be. He's seen people on TV and in movies have fun at places like this, so that's what he wants too.

    Unnerved by the setting and impatient that they're wasting time with Connor in the first place, the three younger Roys get more and more brazen about shutting him out while they argue about GoJo strategy. At one point, Shiv asks him to leave so they can talk business. Roman jokes that Connor "won having drinks with us at an auction." Meanwhile, Connor, for all his ridiculous pining for "a real bar with chicks and guys who work with their hands and grease and sweat from their hands," is legitimately in pain. He's worried that Willa may have left him, and these three are constitutionally incapable of offering anything resembling support. He's mad that this "Rebel Alliance" would risk the deal — and the payout they'd each receive from the sale of the family company — in order to make their dad grovel.

    As the episode goes on, Connor gets increasingly honest and emotionally vulnerable, qualities that aren't common among his family members. "I wanted to get married tomorrow," he says, forlornly but also with admirable clarity. "I wanted to spend tonight with my family and tomorrow with my dad, and I wanted to get my fucking money out."

    Connor even proves himself to be something of an operator here. As he wheedles the other three into coming to a private-room karaoke joint in Koreatown, he's been back-channeling with Logan to arrange a face-to-face so that the four of them can hash out whatever is hanging in the air between them and get the deal back on track. This leads to the rather ludicrous sight of Logan Roy under the garish karaoke-bar lights, approaching his three youngest children with what in his mind passes for penitence. The argument that ensues is compelling in its own way as the kids — Shiv and Kendall, at the very least — want Logan to twist in the wind at their mercy for once. Connor is on the periphery, but he can see the dynamics at play pretty clearly. He mostly wants a superficial reconciliation to get the deal back on track so he can get his money out, but he's also the only one who can see Logan's half-hearted apology as the act of a man genuinely afraid this deal is going to bust.

    It's ultimately too much supplication for Logan to bear, and he ends up leaving in a huff. After, Shiv and Kendall toast to their pyrrhic victory, but Connor, perhaps finally, has their number. He sees all this posturing and vitriol as the screaming cries of three kids who so desperately want their father to love them. Connor's superpower, he explains, is that he's accepted that's never going to happen for him. "The good thing about having a family that doesn't love you is that you learn to live without it." He calls the three "needy love sponges," an observation which reframes their righteous cruelty as something sadder, more tragic. "I'm a plant that grows on rocks and lives off insects that die inside of me," he says in a breathtaking self-assessment that sums up the Whole Connor Thing in one succinct turn of phrase. If Willa decides to marry him, that's great. If she leaves, he'll be fine. If she marries him but doesn't love him, that's fine too. Nobody loves him, and he goes on anyway.

    Connor Roy has always been a pitiable character, and not even this episode makes him somebody you'd particularly want to root for. He'd still make for a rather horrifying President of the United States even if he weren't polling at a soft 1%. And yet, when we see that Willa is there when he returns home, it's a relief. We may not like Connor any better, but we understand him so much more after this episode, in what amounts to just a few key scenes.

    There's a version of this episode that is The Connor Show, in which the Forgotten Roy is in the spotlight. It would start at the rehearsal when Willa says "I can't do this." We'd see Connor make the call to Logan as a backchannel. Maybe he has an illuminating conversation with a "regular person" at the bar while his siblings talk GoJo. Perhaps we'd have gotten the full four-minute Connor Roy rendition of that Leonard Cohen song at karaoke and lingered on the lyrics about "building your house deep in the desert" and "living for nothing now.” We didn't need it, though. In just a few scenes and maybe five pristinely assembled pieces of dialogue, we got as clear a picture of Connor Roy as we're ever going to get: the plant that grew on stones, who wants his family there for him when he gets married but will be okay when they're not.

    Succession airs Sundays at 9:00 PM ET on HBO. Join the discussion about the show in our forums.

    Joe Reid is the senior writer at Primetimer and co-host of the This Had Oscar Buzz podcast. His work has appeared in Decider, NPR, HuffPost, The Atlantic, Slate, Polygon, Vanity Fair, Vulture, The A.V. Club and more.

    TOPICS: Succession, HBO, Alan Ruck, Brian Cox, Jeremy Strong, Justine Lupe, Kieran Culkin, Sarah Snook