In the midst of an expensive, empty-hearted Tuscan wedding during Sunday night’s Season 3 finale of Succession, Tom Wambsgans makes a rich proposition to the only person whom he believes is truly there for him, for better and for worse. “You could be heading away from the endless middle,” he tells his cousin-in-law, Greg Hirsch, seeking his loyalty in an uncertain time, “and towards the bottom of the top.” If there’s anyone familiar with that trajectory, it’s Tom. Two season finales ago, during his own wedding, Succession made it clear that Tom sprung from a different realm altogether than the one he was marrying into, that he was just a middling Midwestern boy as seen from the penthouse heights of Manhattan.
His parents wouldn’t shut up about having chipped in for the wine; his powerful new father-in-law almost didn’t even arrive. Tom didn’t seem to dwell on the chasm between status, but he surely had given thought to it. A few episodes earlier, Logan Roy had told his only daughter, Siobhan, that he saw right through her chosen relationship: “You’re marrying a man fathoms beneath you,” Logan yelled to Shiv at the time, “because you don’t want to risk being betrayed.” Still, Tom has kept climbing, albeit shamelessly and on shaky ladders. Rung by rung, he has seen firsthand that the scenery doesn’t change much: unless you’re at the tippy-top, there’s always gonna be a bunch of assholes overhead.
“I admire you, man,” Kendall Roy tells Tom in the sixth episode of this season as he tries to get him to join in cahoots against Logan. “You’re a long way from home. You’re far from the tree. You’ve played your hand well, and you’re sitting at the top table.” (The top table, apparently, is a diner booth.) Tom replies that he fell in love with Shiv, simple as that. “Sure, man,” Kendall says. “The country mouse and the hot tamale.” All this negging fails to work on Tom, though, who is accustomed to being put down, including and especially by his wife. He tells Kendall he can’t take his side. “I don’t mean to be insulting,” Tom says, “but having been around a bit, my hunch is that you’re going to get fucked. Because I’ve seen you get fucked a lot, and I’ve never seen Logan get fucked once.”
In Succession’s Season 3 finale, that streak seemingly continues, and it is heavily implied that Tom is the reason. After learning that their father intends to sell Waystar Royco—and, crucially, the family’s control of the conglomerate—three-quarters of Logan’s children band together and rush to blindside him with their intention to block the supermajority required for the deal. Instead, they learn that Logan is already in the midst of revising a divorce agreement with their withholding mother that would obviate their power altogether. “Who told him we were coming?” Shiv seethes, and moments later the apparent answer gets a shoulder-squeeze from Logan, walks through the door, and innocently asks a stricken Shiv how she’s feeling. It is Tom, lowering himself to ascension, and it is about time.
Over three seasons, Tom has been a subject of ridicule and an object of pity—in turn inflicting the same damage onto Greg. Like so many bullies, Tom’s treatment of those he perceives to be beneath him is reflective of the way he feels treated by others; he is a grownup who struggles to move past the I endured it, so you must too frat-hazy mindset. It isn’t just his wife’s family members who demean him to his face and behind his back, it’s the hot tamale herself.
She tells him on their wedding night, in the Season 1 finale, that she wants to experiment with an open relationship. In Season 2, she makes fun of Tom so hard during a dinner party that he finally snaps and speaks the Roy family language, telling her to fuck off. In that season’s finale, during a miserable cove-hop in which Shiv vacillates on whether she, like, loves her husband, Tom wonders aloud whether “the sad I’d be without you would be less than the sad I get from being with you.” During that same conversation, when he brings up Shiv’s proposed wedding-night arrangement as being something that nags at him, she scoffs. “So you’ve been stewin’ on that?” she says.
As depicted through Matthew Macfadyen’s once-optimistic, now-glum performance, Tom has been marinating so long in that hurt that he’s beginning to pickle. Like his and Shiv’s marital wine, he is corked. (Or, to be more precise, unscrewed: Watching Tom go from happily opening that biodynamic bottle in Episode 6 to declaring “You kind of have to meet it halfway, right?” to admitting it was “not very nice, is it?” was a heartbreaker, both at the time and even more so in retrospect.) His wife’s idea of pillow talk is to tell him she doesn’t love him; her version of starting a family includes hitting pause for, oh, maybe a decade; her form of professional mentorship revolves around prison time as a skill set. Tom becomes known as the family and company Christmas tree, someone upon which to hang crimes like ornaments. But Christmas trees aren’t only ornamental, they’re also highly flammable, and when Tom realizes that Shiv’s sibling mission doesn’t involve much thought as to his future at the company, he is lit up anew.
While it isn’t as explicitly shown as Roman’s dick pic, it seems apparent that Tom tipped off Logan. (Throughout this season, fans have wondered whether Tom might turn against the family—was he wearing a wire, perhaps?—but instead he directs his intel inwards. Also, were those donuts his doing?!) He tells Greg that things “may be in motion,” asks if he wants to come with him to points unknown, and references the name “Sporus” for the second time this season. The first time was back in Episode 4, when Tom, facing the prospect of time in the slammer, corners Greg in his not-exactly-corner office. (LackeySlack HQ, you might say.) “Greg, what do you know about, um, Nero and Sporus?” he asks, and Greg responds that he isn’t familiar with that particular IP. “Well, Nero pushed his wife down the stairs,” says Tom, “and then he had Sporus castrated and he married him instead […] I’d castrate you and marry you in a heartbeat.”
In a New Yorker profile of Succession creator Jesse Armstrong that was released at the beginning of this season, the story of Nero is mentioned as one of several random details that inspired the writers and show runners while they brainstormed. Others included chats with the writer Gary Shteyngart, whose research for the novel Lake Success included a lot of chats with watch-obsessed masters of the universe; a “close look at Crime and Punishment”; and other stories of antiquity like “Caligula and other dissolute Roman leaders.” Caligula’s reign, which included an obsession with a horse, ended when he was assassinated by his guard and succeeded, as the story goes, by a total oddball uncle named Claudius, who was installed in large part because he was such a longtime family punch line that no one thought he would ever actually be much of a threat.
Exactly what Tom hopes his personal outcome is here remains a little unclear: Does he think his shows of loyalty have earned him entry into the echelon of a Frank or a Karl? Will we hear him call Logan Roy “papa” again? Is he just hoping for the simpler life, atop fat stacks of cash, with a version of Shiv who isn’t singularly focused on, and increasingly damaged by, her family succession struggle? (Some observers have noted that the Nero of yore doesn’t just kill his wife, he kills his pregnant wife, and that in the show’s closing scenes, a gut-punched Shiv is touching her abdomen.) Would such a life even be possible, anymore or ever? Tom is likely about to find out what the hypothetical sad he’d be without Shiv will be like.
Shiv says aloud that “Mom fucked us,” but it seems to be dawning on her that maybe Tom fucked them, too. Perhaps he was fathoms beneath her, but Tom has now upended the yacht. He has risen from the endless middle to the bottom of the top—but plenty of people can and have managed that. Tom also did something far trickier, and far thornier: He went from country mouse to rat, and in doing so he’s potentially shaken up the very premise of the show’s title. Once a total outsider, Tom may now be the call coming from inside the house. And what’s more unsettling than that?