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‘Succession’ Questions: Can the Twisted Roman-Gerri Partnership Actually Succeed?

The unlikely pairing of a spoiled media scion and a seen-it-all consigliere was one of the delights of the second season of ‘Succession.’ But how far can these two actually take each other?

Abdi Farah

Midway through Season 2 of Succession, the sardonic media scion Roman Roy regards a lovely breakfast buffet inside a rival billion-dollar family’s “funny-li’l-house,” a waterfront manse called Tern Haven where he’s just been an overnight guest. He grabs a pastry with his bare hand while making sprightly morning small talk with a room full of relatives, nemeses, and coworkers. “I jerked off in Gerri’s bathroom last night,” he says as Gerri, the general counsel of family empire Waystar Royco and the godmother of Roman’s sister, focuses intently at the melon on her plate. “It was actually her idea,” Roman adds.

Everyone chuckles indulgently—classic Roman, that look-at-me clown!—not realizing, not even thinking to realize, that he’s not joking at all.

The nature of the emerging relationship between Roman, the Roy family’s bombastic youngest son, and Gerri, the family’s discreet longtime defender, is unexpected enough to those around them that it hides in plain sight, as overlooked as the servers who set up the buffet. Succession viewers, of course, already know better. One episode earlier, on the road for work and following a fizzled attempt at phone sex with his tall, hot, quippy girlfriend Tabitha, Roman dials up Gerri. What begins as a typical Roman attempt to push boundaries and elicit a reaction from the professionally unflappable executive—an ongoing gag since the very first time the pair interacted in the show’s second episode—takes a new turn when Gerri decides to indulge his interest in being shamed. “You little slime puppy,” she says, as it dawns on her that she’s not just calling his bluff, she’s getting him off. By the time the two have their first in-person “special conference call” through that Tern Haven bathroom door in the middle of the night—Gerri is on one side in satin PJs saying sweet nothings like, “You’ll never be anything but a disgrace”—they have already become one of the most engrossing couples on TV.

And now, as Season 3 of Succession gets set to premiere, they’re also a highly consequential pair in the ongoing scramble for control over Waystar Royco. During a 1-percenter ideas festival called Argestes in Season 2, Roman hatches his vision for what they could accomplish by leveraging his entitlement with her acumen. “Like, me, kind of a Jagger-Tarzan, fronting things up and swinging through trees with my little dick, singing and killing shit,” he explains, “and you, back home, cooking us soup, and making sure the numbers are right. Hmm? Rock star and the mole woman?” A retrograde vision, perhaps, but one that could absolutely wind up being realized in the future, maybe minus the soup. As Waystar Royco stakeholders demand the company improve its performance—and as Logan goes into damage control in the wake of Kendall’s bomb-dropping press conference—can the Rock Star and the Mole Woman become the hottest ticket in town? Or are they destined to remain an underground act?

Roman has long had a unique way of qualifying the talents that Gerri brings to the boardroom table. At Argestes, in addition to “mole woman,” he calls her “a competent kind of clever filing cabinet that everyone seems content to have around.” The first time they converse in Succession, as family patriarch Logan Roy lies incapacitated in a hospital, Roman tries to praise her in an attempt to promote his father’s longtime right-hand woman to emergency head of the company. “You do a good job,” he begins. “You’re a real good job-doer.”

Then he immediately gives up. “I suck at the whole corporate-flirt thing,” he continues. “I like to lube up and fuck, ya know?” A few minutes later, when he remarks, “I’ve always thought of you as a stone-cold killer bitch,” while trying not to stare at her bosom, Gerri deadpans: “Who says you don’t know how to flirt?”

Before Succession’s season 2 premiere, actress J. Smith-Cameron told me that the character of Gerri was originally written for a man. But she wound up getting, and transforming, the role. “My first day of shooting Succession, I looked on the schedule and I see ‘J. Smith-Cameron’,” actor Kieran Culkin, who plays Roman, told The Hollywood Reporter in a recent cover story. “I went, ‘You got to be fucking kidding me.’” The reason for his reaction? For more than a decade he had known, worked with, and loved both Smith-Cameron and her husband, the director and playwright Kenneth Lonergan, in projects ranging from the film Margaret to the play This Is Our Youth (a project Culkin credited in The Hollywood Reporter as being one of the three projects, Succession being another, that have defined his life).

This familiarity almost immediately manifested on-screen. Succession is a show that iterates alongside its actors, who are encouraged and expected to ad-lib as they try out scenes in various ways. And over the course of Season 1, many on set noticed that Culkin and Smith-Cameron had developed a familiar and bawdy rapport both during and in between scenes. One example came while filming that season’s finale: According to EW, producer Mark Mylod told Culkin that while he was watching cuts in the editing room he noticed one hilarious take in which both actors conversed, walked away, and then—unbeknownst to one another—each turned around to check out the other’s ass. The take didn’t appear in the final edit, but it did help influence what was to come for Roman and Gerri.

“I can say I was honestly passionate about building that relationship, because I noticed it even happening on set a little bit,” writer Lucy Prebble told me in a 2019 conversation during Season 2. “There was a fun dynamic between them—her sort of strange maternal impatience with him.”

All that real-life comfort between Smith-Cameron and Culkin brings a fire to even their iciest exchanges, in which it’s clear that Gerri is one of the only people that Roman knows he can trust—with his whiny little-kid tantrums; with his professional blowups (literally); with buttoning up his shirt; and, ultimately, with his psychosexual secrets. He is constantly pushing boundaries with her, almost as if he’s waiting for the rebuke, but she exhibits an alluring imperviousness to his attempts that is part motherly but also part seen-it-all-in-shoulder-pads corporate-toughness. (“You know where the bodies are buried,” Roman tells Gerri in that first conversation, correctly. “You probably buried them yourself!”)

Early in Season 2, Roman tries to get a rise out of Gerri as she helps him button his shirt by saying he’d like to pounce on her. She reacts as if she’s a bartender at closing time politely telling a patron to move along there, pal. “I actually hear that a lot,” she says. “Usually from men in their 90s.” Stone cold, indeed.

Roman and Gerri’s unorthodox get-together “makes weird fucking logical sense,” Prebble told me. This is true on both character and tactical levels. Logan Roy’s four children are damaged by their cold and competitive upbringing in consistent ways: all of them have trust, confidence, and impulsivity issues; all of them are jerks and snobs. Roman, as the youngest, endured an additional layer of cruelty in his youth that seems to be shaping the way he acts and feels as a young man in the world. As he remembered it in Season 1, his older siblings used to put him in a dog cage and feed him pet food. That it was actually chocolate cake, according to Connor, is so very Roy: using life’s greatest pleasures as instruments of punishment. It’s no wonder Roman has struggled to connect with women who expect something more vanilla.

The Roys, in general, think they’re smarter and more competent than they are, but—Tarzan-Jagger fantasies aside—Roman is the only Roy child who doesn’t really share that trait. On the contrary, he almost immediately melts down any time he’s expected to complete an assignment, even if it’s just a dopey class presentation at middle-management training. Often, Roman resorts to a sort of scattershot cruelty toward anyone in a certain radius as a way to cope with his own self-loathing. But as he begins to realize, with the unlikely assistance of Gerri, that maybe there’s another way to harness his obsession with rejection and failure, his character grows more focused and assured in his ruthlessness.

In the same conversation that brought the world the Rock Star and the Mole Woman—you can even buy bracelets on Etsy, if you’re seeking a stocking stuffer—Roman tries to sell Gerri on his vision in more material terms. “You will get properly ‘Fuck you, fuck you, I-don’t-even-care-about-climate-change, I’m-in-New-Zealand-with-my-own-private-army’ rich,” he says. “Not like some pathetic asshole beach-house-on-the-Vineyard rich.” Emboldened by the conversation, Roman wheels and deals and refuses to be sidelined, even if it takes a subtle nod from Gerri from time to time.

Chasing sweet, sweet international funding, he unintentionally puts his life on the line for Waystar Royco, and afterward, rather than cower and tell Logan what he wants to hear about the potential for outside financing—as Laird and Karl do—he cuts through the bullshit. (And it’s clear that Logan takes notice.) He begins to make grandiose plans, envisioning himself as CEO of Waystar Royco, with Gerri as chairman—or maybe himself as chairman, with Gerri as CEO, whatever works best, what’s the difference? He envisions their act up on the marquee, Rock Star and the Mole Woman, and in his most manic moments he can see it being even more: “Should we … get married?” he asks Gerri when they are in Scotland for his dad’s fete. Or, “Like, an equivalent, like I abduct you and force you to live with me.” That’s not an equivalent, Gerri notes. “Well, then, you kill me, you chop my dick off,” Roman says. “You eat me, I eat you, like they do in Germany.”

This is Roman’s version of a sonnet. But his more important words, with respect to Gerri, come in the Season 2 finale, during a circular firing squad of a meeting in which the family and its enablers discuss who to sacrifice to the public in the wake of a criminal corporate scandal. It is suggested that Gerri makes sense, and suddenly all the things that make Gerri a good Svengali-conspirator for Roman are the same things that make her a juicy target for a business blindside. After all, she’s technically the next in succession, the name on the documents, and the firm’s general counsel; she doesn’t just know where the bodies are buried, she has helped put them there. (When Karl points out for good measure that she used to make liberal use of the company expense account to fly her daughter first class, it is both a revelation—Will we ever get to meet this daughter??? Was she one of Shiv’s bridesmaids???—and a reminder that for all her machinations, Gerri is still just beach-house-on-the-Vineyard rich.)

Realizing his personal and his professional ways of life are under threat, Roman rises to the occasion rather than self-imploding. Speaking to his father, he successfully makes the case that Gerri should remain safe, that it would obviously be bad optics to scapegoat a woman for crimes perpetrated by men. The argument lands (for now), setting up Roman and Gerri for the next stop on their tour de bathroom door. The Rock Star has learned how to sing the Mole Woman’s lawyerly love language, and he’s realizing that the lyrics hold all kinds of power. As Waystar Royco figures out whether to stay public or go private, it’s unclear whether Roman and Gerri’s future collaborations will stay private or go public. But there is almost certainly much to come in their next big release.