Team Kieran or Team Pedro: who are you backing in the battle of the leading men?

And now, the Oscar for best naked dance through a stately home … Yes, the seemingly interminable “awards season” – as industry luvvies like to call it but real people mostly don’t – has finally entered its endgame.

From early January’s Golden Globes to next weekend’s Oscars, it’s been two oxygen-hogging months of “noms”, “nods” and “snubs”; of red-carpet pose-striking and unfunny opening monologues; of gracious losers’ rictus grins and smug winners’ weepy speeches.

One highlight of this year’s backslapping bonanza has been the blossoming frenemyship between Pedro Pascal and Kieran Culkin. The fortysomething actors – who play Joel Miller in The Last Of Us and Roman Roy in Succession, respectively – might be HBO stablemates but they’ve been pitted against each other on pretty much every shortlist. Forget Barbenheimer. The latest portmanteau rivalry on everyone’s lips is “Paskin”.

Culkin and Pascal (with Arian Moayed, left) at the Emmys.
Culkin and Pascal (with Arian Moayed, left) at the Emmys. Photograph: Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic for HBO & Max

Their playful faux-feud started at the Golden Globes, when Culkin ended his acceptance speech for best actor in a TV drama by saying: “Suck it, Pedro!” At which point the camera turned to Pascal, who was sitting in the audience and pretending to cry. A week later, when Pascal attended the Emmys wearing a sling, he joked that his shoulder injury was due to “Kieran Culkin beating the shit out of me”. This time, the camera cut to Culkin, giving his sparring partner a deadpan death stare while everyone around him laughed.

The bantz-packed bromance peaked with Pascal’s amusingly unprepared speech at the Screen Actors Guild awards last weekend. Collecting his prize for best male actor in a drama series, Pascal admitted that he had tucked into the complimentary booze because he had presumed Culkin would win: “I thought I could get drunk. I’m making a fool of myself.” Afterwards, he told the backstage interviewer Tan France that he was going to “make out” with Culkin at the afterparty as his revenge, adding: “He’s the greatest.” The pair then threatened to smell each other’s armpits (don’t ask), before hugging it out. It was enough to melt even the most hardened Hollywood-watchers’ heart. It’s a homoerotic romcom waiting to happen.

With the TV portion of the awards blitz now over, it’s time to declare a victor in this battle of the box-set besties. MH

Team Kieran

Kieran Culkin as Roman Roy in Succession.
Kieran Culkin as Roman Roy in Succession. Photograph: HBO

He was the potty-mouthed slime puppy who provided approximately 50% of the laughs in Succession – and a hefty portion of its heart, too. Kieran Culkin hasn’t just scored a hat-trick of major wins (an Emmy, a Critics’ Choice award and a Golden Globe) but proved himself the undisputed don of the 2024 gong-giving circuit.

When it swaggered on to our screens in 2018 in a blaze of F-bombs and grey cashmere, Jesse Armstrong’s sweary, super-rich saga was about “No 1 boy” Kendall Roy’s self-defeating desperation to inherit his dad’s business empire. The brattish junior sibling, Roman, was strictly B-list. “A toddler with a hard-on,” as sister Shiv put it. While Jeremy Strong went method to portray Kendall with such haunted intensity that it was often painful to watch, the deviant, charismatic “Romulus” emerged from his big bro’s shadow to become everyone’s favourite Roy-boy – even his tough-to-please dad’s.

By the time Succession entered its fourth and final season, Roman the Showman had become its MVP. Culkin peeled away his character’s goofy exterior to lay bare the dysfunction beneath. All rheumy eyes and jittery mannerisms, he was bullied into firing his mentor and true love, Gerri. He manoeuvred a neo-fascist into the White House just for the lolz, before masochistically goading protesters into attacking him. He breezily insisted he had “pre-grieved” for Logan before proving that he totally hadn’t. Culminating in that raw funeral meltdown, Culkin delivered a visceral portrayal of grief – interspersed with caustic one-liners and licking blocks of cheese.

He was rightly promoted from the “supporting” to “lead” actor categories for this year’s awards. Culkin’s mantelpiece now groans under the weight of three individual trophies, alongside several shared gongs for Succession’s ensemble.

The ­lower-profile SAG awards bunging a late bauble to Pascal, total dude as he is, feels like a consolation prize by comparison.

Culkin invented the whole “Paskin” subplot during a self-deprecating Golden Globes speech that began: “Sorry. Burping. Indigestion. Didn’t need to say that. This is a nice moment for me, but I’ve blown it already.” Asked on the red carpet about a potential Roman Roy spin-off, he correctly responded that it was “a horrible idea” – although he did impishly add that a sitcom about Cousin Greg could work.

At the Critics’ Choice bash, he used up most of his stage time riffing about how his real-life wife, Jazz Charton, and Succession co-star Sarah Snook are obsessed with plucking out his ear hairs – but classily still found time to thank Succession’s camera operators by name.

At the Emmys, Culkin gave his on-screen father Brian Cox a big whiskery smacker on the lips, before strolling on stage and insouciantly throwing his jacket to the floor because he “couldn’t do the button up”. He thanked his wife and their two children, before taking the opportunity to say: “Jazz, I want more. You said maybe, if I win.” A gone-too-far flourish worthy of Romey himself.

Succession has now ascended to prestige TV heaven, whereas we haven’t seen the last of The Last of Us. Season two of the post-apocalyptic epic is about to go into production. Pascal’s time will come again, but this is our final chance to crown Waystar RoyCo’s incorrigible court jester. Arise, King Kieran of Culkin. Here’s a Rennie for that pesky indigestion. Suck that, Pedro. MH

Team Pedro

Pedro Pascal as Joel in The Last of Us.
Pedro Pascal as Joel in The Last of Us. Photograph: Warner Media/HBO

Watching Pedro Pascal’s eyes being gouged on Game of Thrones made the hearts of millions of television fans ache. None of us ever wanted to watch the beloved Chilean ­American star be defeated again. Not by a fungus-driven apocalypse, an evil intergalactic empire or a perfectly cast Culkin.

While Succession was great – and that final episode featuring Kieran Culkin having his stitches ripped out before heading for a lonely martini was chef’s-kiss perfection – the crown of prestige television should be placed safely on Pedro’s head. What’s that Culkin? You are in an era-defining show? Try being the best thing in three of them.

Post Covid, just about the last thing any of us wanted to do was to contemplate the futility of existence in a post-apocalyptic hellscape, but Pascal made this scenario appointment television, lighting up the screen with his very relatable dose of PTSD. Even though he was paired with the glorious Bella Ramsey, and a whole episode of The Last of Us sidelined them both in order to luxuriate in the tender love between Nick Offerman and Murray Bartlett, there was never any doubt who the lead actor was.

Whether Pascal is riding a horse across a barren landscape in search of a cure, accusing the Succession star of beating him up at the Emmys or accepting a SAG after having had a few too many, he is the platonic ideal of MCE – main character energy.

Meanwhile, Culkin has been part of a wonderful ensemble cast, and let’s face it, he may have accumulated a few more shiny statuettes this awards season but “lead actor”? Are we sure about that? Even when he told Pascal to “suck it” as he clasped his Golden Globe, the camera cut to dear Pedro, wearing a sling that coordinated perfectly with an embroidered Bottega Veneta turtleneck. Pascal, of course, feigned laughter then tears in a three-second reaction shot, highlighting his range and how eminently meme-able he is.

With Barry, Succession and Curb Your Enthusiasm all coming to an end, in some respects Culkin’s and Succession’s ensemble awards feel like a figurative farewell to the golden age of television. But when SAG rightly handed Pascal his award on Sunday, it was a reminder that there is still lots of life in the medium yet. As long as we have actors willing to give their all to knotty, complicated stories then the small screen has a bright future. Succession was ultimately about dealing with the end of an empire, and the death of something that cannot be replaced. Conversely, Pascal in The Last of Us tells us something we urgently need to hear. That even after a pandemic, an actors’ strike, a fungal apocalypse and five episodes of The Idol, we should not abandon hope. Good times lie ahead, and even if our parents and HBO make the odd misstep, Pedro Pascal will save the day.

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