kendall roy's terrible horrible no good very bad birthday party
on self-delusion, and what we can't control, and the abrupt end of party season
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In my single favorite moment of television I watched this year, a young woman determinedly tries to sell the concept of dinner parties to a room full of her coworkers. Mythic Quest is a comedy about people working on an MMORPG (Massive Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game). Poppy, one of the lead engineers, is a genius at what she does, but less experienced when it comes to social interactions such as, say, dinner parties. Her big idea for the game is a feature called “dinner parties,” in which players can meet up and… talk? do nothing? stand around? It’s unclear. Poppy gets roasted mercilessly by her colleagues for the idea, which only makes her more attached to defending it. “Dinner Parties” makes no sense— and later has dire unintended consequences in the game—because, as is almost immediately clear, Poppy has never been to a dinner party, and isn’t really sure what one is. She is excited about parties in a way that only someone who has never been to a party can be.
The “dinner parties” joke is endearing because it is all too relatable; every one of us who has ever thrown or been to a party is to some degree Poppy. Parties are always acts of desperation and make-believe, and sometimes, or even often, the make-believe is about pretending you are someone who has ever been to a party, or even knows what they are.
Lots of characters on television this year spent the length of an episode trying to convince themselves and the people around them that they knew what a party was, and had ever been to one before. Most memorably, in the seventh episode of Succession’s static, fascinating third season, Kendall Roy throws himself a fortieth birthday party. Kendall Roy’s fortieth birthday party does not go well. But we already knew it would go that way, not just because Kendall Roy is a monster bloated by self-pity and incapable of self-awareness, deformed by the series of frosted glass boxes in which he has lived in his life, but because Kendall Roy is the male lead in a prestige television show, and is having a fortieth birthday party.
Kendall’s birthday is a perfect distillation of what Succession does best— how its most brutal tragedy is indistinguishable from its most vertiginous comedy, how it insists on showing the absolute pinnacle of wealth without ever making one thing about that wealth look aspirational or appealing, how inexhaustible it finds the vein of human foolishness that comes from taking oneself seriously, how it manages to make the stasis of people trapped their own patterns feel like narrative forward motion—and it is also part of a television tradition. Kendall’s terrible horrible no good very bad birthday is a direct callback to another fortieth birthday that also did not go well at all.
Don Draper’s fortieth birthday party, in the opening episode of Mad Men’s fifth season, is a disaster. In certain ways, Don’s party is the opposite of Kendall’s: Kendall plans his birthday party himself, and is the only person with any enthusiasm for it, a fact of which he is obviously and painfully aware. He knows that nobody thinks this is good, or fun, or cool, that nobody wants to celebrate his birthday, that everybody thinks this is a joke. He knows his birthday is embarrassing, just like he knows how pathetic and useless all his big gestures are. But he can’t get from that awareness to any resulting change. Nobody changes on Succession, which is the source of both the show’s devastation and its forty-car pile-up of murderously good jokes. Kendall has just enough self-awareness to be miserable. Again and again we watch him frantically try to convince himself that whatever is happening is not happening. Kendall’s fortieth birthday patty is a disaster of his own making; one might even call it an act of self-harm.
Don Draper on the other hand—also a monster, also self-deluding, also cocooned in a thick layer of wealth, also without any real friends, and also turning forty—does not want a birthday party, which everyone knows except his new wife, who throws him one. A person who had seen Don Draper once on the street could have probably guessed that this is someone who would hate a surprise party, but Megan wants to throw a party, so she throws Don a party. Almost every person Megan invites to the party shares trepidation about it. But it doesn’t matter; the life Megan has imagined for herself includes fabulous surprise parties, so she throws a surprise party.
Each party goes terribly, and they both go terribly in a way that is about the failure of self-delusion. Both parties collapse in the space between who the people throwing them wish they were, and who they actually are. Kendall is not a cool guy who throws cool parties; Megan is not married to a man who wants to host a party, or who has any real friends. TV shows love a party because parties are where the lies people tell themselves collide with material facts. Everyone’s secrets gather in a room and put their coats on the bed and ask the host to get them a drink. At a party, reality is visible and shared, unable to be manipulated the way it can be in our minds, when we are alone. The fact of a party itself, the choice to throw one, is an act of self-delusion. A party is always tone-deaf, out of step with the world beyond the walls that contain it.
Most of us who went to high school in America had to read a novel about parties. The Great Gatsby takes places across several parties, each of them miserable in their own way, including one that ends in several fatalities (Kendall Roy, notably, refers to himself as “techno Gatsby” at one point, and his scene in the pool near the end of the third season could be read as a reference to the novel). People rightly make fun of it when anyone— a rich college student, a corporate event group, Governor’s Island—throws a “Great Gatsby themed party.” A party that takes this book, or its protagonist, as its supposed theme misses that the book is a tragedy, and that the parties in it represent the failure of the American Dream
Those aren’t great themes for a party. But a “Great Gatsby themed party” is also stupid because the parties in the novel just seem like a really bad time. Every party in The Great Gatsby is Kendall Roy’s fortieth birthday party. If Jay Gatsby could have had a compliment tunnel in his West Egg mansion, he absolutely would have. Gatsby’s parties sound uncomfortable and sweaty and boring and exhausting; reading the party scenes in the novel makes my lower back hurt. I would definitely refuse to check my jacket at the coat-check. These parties are a muggy, desperate room telling itself a story about generational wealth, and the failure of individualism, and the impossible equation set up between love and money under capitalism. Also it really seems like the kind of party where you’d spend forty-five minutes trying to talk your incapably drunk friend out of driving, and then not have any way to get yourself home.
A party occupies the space between what we want and what we think we should want. Poppy doesn’t know what a dinner party is, but thinks she should want to host them. Kendall Roy thinks he should have an enormous blow-out fortieth birthday party, but once it’s happening, he can’t even fool himself about what a bad time it is. Don Draper thinks he should want human connection, marriage and friendship and camaraderie, but his birthday party reveals that he simply doesn’t like people very much. Very few people actually want to throw parties; most of us spend our lives pretending to want things we don’t really want, pretending that we know how to have a good time, and that we know how to be a person in the world, just like all the other people, the ones who throw dinner parties, and have friends, and know how to have fun.
Much like Succession itself, parties seem to be about movement and action, but are actually about standing still. There is a sort of a hollowness at the center of a party; sometimes the party nearly defeats the hollowness, and sometimes it embraces it until nothing else has any space in the room, such as Kendall Roy’s try-hard birthday. A party is a place where nothing happens. I have spent so much of my life dressing up, and getting ready to go stand in a room, and standing in a room, and eventually going home, confused that nothing happened. Nothing is supposed to happen at a party, of course. In outside world, things unceasingly, relentlessly happen. A party attempts to offer an escape from all that.
But what even is the point of talking about parties right now? The world, or my world anyway, has moved away from parties, and back to things happening. A couple weeks ago, I was ready to throw myself back into it, all the shit I claim to hate, and actually love, and also at the same time actually hate. I had missed the lavishness of people all getting together in a small space for no purpose at all. I was ready for the shared delusions; I wanted to pretend that there was something to celebrate, that we had gotten through something. I wanted the roar and hum of people crowded together in rooms struggling to hear one another. I wanted to eat cheese and sit in weird ways in chairs, and try to remember how to talk to old friends and acquaintances again. December was rushing too fast down the calendar but it was party season, all come back again and spelled up in lights over the intersection.
Time and consequences telescoped in on one another. I canceled the rest of the month’s parties, in a little cascade of resignation over the course of a day or so. At the last one, four of us stood queasily outside doing rapid tests on a stoop in the cold. This was too much reality for a party. The rooms of the world close their doors so quickly; the size and shape of things changes so often and so fast, so much without warning. Life shifts from event to memory before we notice that the process has begun.
It’s no coincidence that the particular birthday party at which both Kendall and Don find themselves abjectly miserable is their fortieth, an age understood as a rubicon. The party Megan—more than a decade her husband’s junior—throws for Don is a younger person’s party, appropriate to the way people her own age might gather and let loose. Don is at sea in it; one of the better things Mad Men did was to absolutely commit, from the jump, to letting you know that its handsome, smooth-talking protagonist was old and square, rapidly being left behind by a world in the throes of a youth-led revolution. Megan throws Don a young person’s party to celebrate him no longer being one, and the party does nothing so much as make him look old. Kendall throws himself a party stuffed with what he thinks are the trappings of youth and cool, and succeeds only in making himself appear old and uncool. His fortieth birthday party is a massive self-own, a million-dollar “how do you do, fellow kids.”
Like everyone else, I am older than I was when all this started; the crowded rooms available to me are different ones now. Last week, I thought about the parties that someone I haven’t seen in years used to throw, the way soft, bright rooms used to light up when I was younger, when I was sure that every next doorway I entered was where my whole life would finally change. Almost immediately, being canceled, parties changed in memory. The rooms got larger, warmer, quieter, more welcoming. The noise got less desperate. When I haven’t been able to go parties in a while, I forget how many of them, even small and unspectacular ones, are really Kendall Roy or Don Draper’s fortieth birthday. Somebody gets up and sings a sexy little French song and nobody knows how to react; somebody has done the wrong drugs in the wrong order, and yells at the people in the compliment tunnel. I rewrite the parties in my mind, inventing them further from reality, in the same way Kendall does in the middle of his own party, until he can no longer sustain the delusion.
Television loves to show a party being interrupted by an horrific historical or personal event, as if that’s what we earn by having parties. If parties are fundamentally spaces where nothing happens, then they are ripe for that floor-collapsing feeling, in which bad news out of nowhere craters a hole in our lives. An event is almost always bad news. Generally— as I have recently been reminded— when things happen, it’s not a good thing. Nobody likes it when things happen; things that happen are, if you round up, universally not great. Plagues and tornadoes and family estrangements are things that happen; parties are the opposite of these, static and optional, a waste of time. Kendall’s birthday party goes wrong because it is an embarrassment to begin with, but also because things happen. His siblings arrive to spoil the party, and his interactions with them, and with his ex-wife — and, remotely, with his dad— are actual events, things that happen, the opposite of a party. The party goes badly because something happens at the party.
We can only deceive ourselves for so long. Eventually something happens, and when something happens, it turns on all the overhead lights in the dark bar. Parties try to be sites of escape, and for that very reason they often end up as scenes of absolute realty. Sitcoms love parties—the ones about groups of young people in big cities are often strung together by party episodes—because sitcoms are farce, and farce relies on characters telling outrageous lies and then having to try to support those lies through a series of impossible circumstances. Comedy and tragedy are much the same at their extremes, and parties are where they collide. Kendall’s birthday episode is a breath away from being a sitcom episode: A silly man throws himself an embarrassing party, people dance poorly and make fools of themselves, family secrets are dramatically revealed. Every party is a sitcom, and every party is Kendall’s fortieth birthday, and every party is Poppy pitching “dinner parties,” trying and failing to get her colleagues to believe that she actually knows what a dinner party is.
The Mythic Quest episode, being a sitcom, ends sweetly: Poppy and two of her colleagues are at work late, and open a bottle of wine. “Aw, it’s Poppy’s first dinner party,” says one of the other two characters, and Poppy tries to defend herself, and it’s funny because he’s obviously right. But there’s a sense of a warm, closed room, the promise a party makes that everything will be ok, that a few people sharing something to eat or drink in a small space can shut out the cold. Don and Kendall’s parties never accessed that space to begin with; the delusions they attempted were too grand and overblown to allow any connection between people, or warmth inside of closed rooms.
Here, the season of parties shuts down with a whimper; December is just December, gray and tired. I go inside; I change my patterns. I whittle the numbers down. A party is ten people, and then it’s four, and then it’s just two, myself and the person with whom I share the space where I live, sitting together in a room that smells like pine trees and radiators. Even this is a party; we gather in a room, we put up lights and listen to music, and we hope that nothing will happen. We brace for the events, and we frantically try to tell ourselves that they won’t occur, that inside this warm room, our inventions can hold. Sometimes believing in one another’s delusions is a form of love; sometimes that’s a party.
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