Kieran Culkin’s performance in the ninth episode of this final season of Succession, “Church and State,” left me feeling like I wanted to punch a hole through a wall. Every emotion I felt after losing my own father, suddenly (keep this part in mind, I think it’s important here for this performance), came roaring back to life in a way I, frankly, did not particularly enjoy, but also realize only a truly magnificent performance like this one could achieve.
Here’s maybe something surprising: the third episode of this season, “Connor’s Wedding,” did pretty much nothing for me. Sure, I read all the accolades, but didn’t find it particularity realistic as the Roy siblings passed around a phone to say goodbye to their father who was probably already dead. And let me be clear here, when I say this I am talking about situations where someone is fine one moment and the next moment they are gone. This was my experience. It’s a very different thing to watch a parent go through a long illness and I do realize in that situation the passing around the phone is most likely a poignant reminder. (And people who have gone through that tell me I got off lucky. Honestly, that may be true.) But, in reality, when people die like my father did, of a heart attack, having a goodbye session like that isn’t really possible. So I just felt like Succession was trying to have their “surprise” death, while also giving everyone their dramatic goodbyes and I kind of resented the notion. I didn’t get to say goodbye. I woke up to a bunch of text messages saying I needed to call. I called. I was given the news, then that was that. (Though, the one part that I found interesting was Roman making the case they’ve seen no physical evidence Logan had died. I remember thinking that at first, too. Then it hit me, since my dad didn’t want a funeral, even now, I still haven’t seen any physical evidence.)
What’s interesting is, with a few years of perspective on this, I’m not a particularly easy cry when it comes to these types of story beats, even though I kind of assumed I was. What I’m starting to realize is I’m the opposite. It actually takes a lot. Any little hint of phoniness will take me right out of it and wind up just watching with scorn. And this is why Kieran Culkin’s irrational outbursts really got to me, because that isn’t phony. That performance is way too real. And I’ve not seen a more realistic performance of what it’s like in the days after losing a father suddenly. Where your brain is trying to process that everything has gone from fine to terrible in an instant. That there’s never going to be closure. There was not one last time to say your peace. Roman’s last words to his father were a voicemail calling his father some pretty terrible things. My last communication with my father was a somewhat annoyed text message saying I didn’t think I’d have time to come back to Missouri for the holidays that year and why couldn’t people come visit me for once? And that was that. (I think having a dad you want approval from, but also resent in certain ways, plays a factor here, too.)
The thing that really gets me about Culkin’s performance isn’t just the grief, but the randomness of it. I’ve seen a lot of people try to guess what exactly caused Roman’s emotions, but remembering that era, there was no structure to any of it. I could be fine one moment and a mess the next, to the point I just wound up staying at home a lot because it was too embarrassing to be the person crying in public again. Roman, early on, declaring he was fine because he pre-grieved was a good moment. I’m pretty sure my initial reaction was to just go play Star Wars: Battlefront II, which was released the day my dad died.
The moment that rang way too true was during Roman’s negotiation with Alexander Skarsgård’s Lukas Mattson during “Kill List” when he blurts, “I’m fucking … I’m gone. I’m like, I’m on the fucking … I’m dead. It’s over for me. It’s okay. It’s fine.” This right here is the frozen concentrate of everything I remember from that time period. I blurted stuff out like that all the time, especially when someone was pissing me off because I just didn’t have the mental headspace to deal with anything else. I have no idea if this was the line as written or Culkin added in some extra flair or dramatic false stops but this, to me, is the most accurate representation of what that time period was like.
I like to think I have, somewhat, a handle on the whole thing these days. I finally got to the point where I decided just pushing it all deep down was the best course of action because the thing I want, closure, can’t happen. I mean, at least Roman Roy got to attend a funeral. I’m envious. So what’s the point on dwelling on the impossible? And you know what? It’s mostly worked. And maybe that’s why fictional deceptions have a hard time getting to me. It’s too far down. I won’t let anyone get there anymore. It takes a truly special performance to unbottle any of that … and Kieran Culkin finally got through my defenses. Without question the best depiction of that minefield of sadness, ambivalence, rage, uncertainty, despair and defeat, while at least trying to function as a human being.
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