The HBO dramedy Succession is a luscious and ludicrous series, all high-thread-count story lines and ultra-high-net-worth problems, overstuffed like an expensive yacht cushion with eye-rolls and palm trees and takeovers and teak floors. In the show’s prosperous, desperate world, even the finest things in life are disposable, there and gone like flyover land blurring beneath an airborne private jet. Merger agreements and CEO promotions are dangled and rescinded. Stately homes are fitfully occupied. Marriage vows are made and, not even hours later, totally undermined. Employees are summoned and dismissed, even terminally so.
Blink and you risk missing all sorts of details, decorative and crucial alike, in Succession’s portrayal of endless family feuds and corporate sabotage. In a show that doesn’t shy away from loud expletives and bold scenarios, it’s sometimes the quiet details that speak volumes. Like every time family patriarch Logan Roy communicates a soliloquy’s worth of range with one wordless glare. Or when his son, the droopy Kendall Roy, wakes up in his own droppings. Or when Siobhan Roy, the salty and chic only daughter in the Roy clan, lolls miserably on the beach of a faraway private cove in the show’s Season 2 finale, staring at a mostly unread novel whose tangerine-colored cover is recognizable enough: the Sally Rooney tale of infidelity and secret-keeping, Conversations With Friends.
Shiv is reading “Conversations With Friends” by Sally Rooney on the Succession finale. pic.twitter.com/WRRgPwUons— Sophie Vershbow (@svershbow) October 14, 2019
This is a cheeky detail, considering that viewers have repeatedly seen Shiv engage in that novel’s themes, but never its title. As she clutches her book, the only conversation taking place is with her jilted husband, Tom Wambsgans, and it’s not about the weather. “You told me you wanted an open relationship on our fucking wedding night,” he says, shaking his head at the intrusive memory. “You still stewin’ on that?” Shiv snaps back cruelly, and in that moment, they are not only thousands of miles away from home, but also from each other.
Over the course of two seasons of Succession, Shiv has long operated as her own island: inviting yet inaccessible, secluding herself from discovery. But Tom isn’t the only person who has drifted from her shores. As Shiv has emerged as a promising, flawed, and increasingly paranoid player in the ongoing power struggle for the family empire, Waystar Royco, her stubborn unknowability has started to affect not only her marriage but her entire livelihood, too. Shiv has long positioned herself as someone whose competence derives from her detachment, whose cold blood keeps her cool under pressure. But with so many gulfs between her and everyone else, she has gotten in over her head. By trying to appear invulnerable, she has made herself vulnerable; by trusting no one, she now has no one to trust. In Season 3 of Succession, Shiv will seek to demonstrate that she can build something meaningful. But will it all be made of sand?
“You’re scared to compete,” Logan snarls at his only daughter during a late–Season 1 family retreat that he pitched as being emotionally therapeutic for all but is, in reality, just a botched PR stunt. “You’re marrying a man fathoms beneath you because you don’t want to risk being betrayed. You’re a fucking coward.” As is often the case in Succession, Logan is an asshole, but he’s got a point. (Whether he’s aware that he’s probably the cause of this personal failing of Shiv’s is another question.) In a conversation with The Ringer during Season 2, Succession writer Lucy Prebble echoed this language. “The thing I’ve always said about Shiv,” Prebble said, “is that I think she’s so competitive that she refuses to compete.”
When we first meet Shiv in Season 1, she prides herself on being different from the rest of the Roys, having veered from the family media business toward a political career. But in reality, her character had never traveled that far from home. Tom is a hapless higher-up at Waystar Royco who along with his wife has cooked up a plan for advancement, after all, and when Shiv’s colleague/frenemy-with-benefits Nate first introduces her to Gil Eavis, a lefty politician she’ll wind up working for, it is as “the acceptable face of the worst family in America.” Over time, as her brothers start looking to expand their spheres of influence, Shiv is drawn further and further into the core of her family circle by her father.
Logan uses Shiv’s perception of herself as a lone wolf to his advantage at the very start of Season 2. When he clandestinely offers the top dog role as head of the company to Shiv, she bristles at first; her self-defenses have been sharpened like talons by her old man by then. Her skepticism isn’t because she doesn’t want the job—it’s because she does, and she’s afraid she’ll get burned if it turns out he’s not serious. But Logan knows exactly how to maneuver, convincing her that he is, that she’s the smartest, that she’s the one, even as he also knows that all three things are not necessarily true. Their little secret having been established, Logan capitalizes on Shiv’s solitude to further isolate her: from her loyal husband, from her brothers, from her career, from her grip on what’s real.
Shiv’s fear of betrayal is such that she has avoided fostering any real support network to warn her that perhaps she’s the one being betrayed. She appears to have no close friends with whom to have conversations and gain unbiased perspective. (If the biggest mystery of Succession is what happened to Roman’s wedding ring from the pilot, the second-biggest is what happened to Shiv’s bridesmaids in the Season 1 finale. Were those ladies … private-school pals? Tennis camp bunkmates? Washingtonian socialites? Cousins? Influencers? Ops?! Either way, Shiv has never spoken of them before or since.) And this go-it-alone-ness informs Shiv’s most disastrous blunders.
During a fraught dinnertime discussion at the home of the Pierce family—the Roys’ more couth counterparts, and the owners of another news corporation that Logan seeks to acquire—Shiv awkwardly calls her dad’s bluff about her ascendant future with Waystar, and is harshly and publicly smacked down for her insolence by her father. “Jeepers fucking creepers,” Tom exclaims to her later that night. “What a Shiv piñata!” The more her dad turns away from her, the more morally compromised she’s willing to become in order to get back into his good graces. In Season 1, Shiv’s stepmother Marcia snaps at her that she’s spoiled, that her father “built you a playground, and you think it’s the world.” By the end of Season 2, though, when Shiv indeed finds herself on a playground, she isn’t there to make friends but rather to oversee another woman’s ruin, intimidating a sexual assault victim into not testifying against her family’s gross enterprise.
Few of the characters in Succession are models of healthy, vibrant, or mutually supportive relationships. But even the most flawed characters typically seem to make noble efforts to connect with other humans, however faulty the signals. Kendall mostly has his coke pals and enablers, but his interactions with Stewy, his ol’ Buckley bro and current nemesis, crackle with a heartfelt resentment and regret that only true ex-friends can ever know. Roman may struggle to carry on even the slightest degree of banal small talk with most normies, but he warms to his management training buddy and has genuine (and distinct!) connections with both Tabitha and Gerri, even if they run the gamut from “eunuch bestie” to “slime puppy.”
Tom and Greg are the Jerry and George of our time. (Tom’s Fly Guys don’t get much more screen time than Shiv’s bridesmaids, and yet his vibe with them is infinitely easier to conceptualize. Same goes for what I fanfictively imagine to be Connor’s tightest-knit group: his fellow Napoleonica nerds on some online forum.) And Logan rolls deep, bringing his best buddies along with him everywhere, even family vacations, which is chill! Yeah, true, said buddies—Karl, Frank, Gerri—are also his corporate henchmen, but they go way back, man.
Shiv? Shiv kinda just has Tom, the poor guy. On their wedding night, when Shiv alludes to the circumstances of them getting together—“l was in such a total mess when we hooked up,” she says, “and I needed you so much. I was in a very bad way”—it is the most honest and raw thing we’ve heard her say. But she’s saying it to the same person to whom she’s also in the midst of blindsiding, on their wedding night, with her anti-monogamy zag.
To his credit, Tom eventually does what friends do: He calls Shiv out on her bullshit. At a dinner with Roman and Tabitha, Tom puts his foot down when his wife makes fun of his “agricultural walk” and ill-fitting suits, telling her satisfyingly to fuck off. And on the beach, as Shiv nurses her book, Tom gets vulnerable, sharing his truth: that he’s not a hippie, Shiv, and can’t be placated by some threesome with the yacht crew. He tells her he’s not sure “if the sad I would be without you is worse than the sad I am with you.” The sequence of expressions on her face—instinctively snarky, then quietly shattered—is reminiscent of another scene, from earlier in Season 2, in which Shiv is caught off guard by a loved one’s request for emotional intimacy. In that case, it’s her brother Kendall, who just needs a hug.
succession clip/scene kendall roy asks sister shiv roy to hug him then starts sobbing in her arms pic.twitter.com/6jEZ6NAYDp— succession clips and reaction videos (@successionreact) November 16, 2020
Tom’s appeal works, sort of: The next time Shiv sees Logan, she asks him not to make her husband the company’s sacrificial lamb in the face of the mounting criminal allegations against Waystar Royco. Such a show of loyalty may redeem Shiv slightly in the eyes of viewers, but it also diminishes her in the eyes of her father, setting up what is certain to be a new round of shifting allegiances, harsh observations, and ethically dubious behavior going forward. In an interview with The Times, actress Sarah Snook hinted that in Season 3 her character will once again reckon with the sting of losing her father’s affection despite having made so many efforts to insulate herself from that sort of rejection. “She loses that, and other people gain that,” Snook said, pointing out “how difficult that is for her to deal with.”
Over the past few weeks, HBO has been slowly releasing Succession teasers and materials for the long-awaited third season. One series of promotional images featured various permutations of the main characters walking down a hallway. Another, which showcased suggestive duos of characters, paired Shiv not with Tom—he was with Greg—but with her kooky oldest brother, Connor. He is seated, wearing an American flag pin on his lapel; she is hovering alongside and over him. It conjures the question: Might Shiv one day decide to hold her nose, leverage her skill set, and take Connor up on the opportunity to manage his weird yet presumably conveniently pliable political ambitions? While there would be costs, she’d certainly come cheaper than those political spooks Shiv instantly recognized—“Those are serious guys,” she tells Connor, alarmed and a little impressed, “they’re fucking pieces of shit!”—when she walked through Connor’s campaign headquarters/hotel apartment in the beginning of Season 2.
“Shiv is a passionate, driven, smart person, who I think occasionally gets glimpses of the way that her life could be integrated and whole and truthful,” Succession showrunner Jesse Armstrong told The New Yorker while shooting Season 3. “But they’re really hard to keep hold of, especially when they brush up against other people.” Her whole life, Shiv has been taught, by her family and her circumstances and her successes, that she has to stay wary if she wants to stay winning, that misplaced trust is what makes empires collapse. It’s no wonder that Shiv spends such little time having conversations with friends: She’s been conditioned to only notice the enemies of her enemies, all the way down.
A previous version of this piece misstated the name of Tom’s friend group, the Fly Guys, and misquoted Shiv’s description of Tom’s “agricultural walk.”