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The Two Words That Explain the Purest Relationship on ‘Succession’

Tom Wambsgans has metaphorically kicked his wife down the stairs. Now, it is time for him to realize the potential of his partnership with his once-whipping boy, Cousin Greg.

HBO/Ringer illustration

A couple of months ago, Brian Cox joined Cameo. As soon as I saw the news alert that he was on there, I downloaded the app and submitted a request in hopes of receiving a video from him.

And listen: Brian Cox is a dazzling actor with more than 230 acting credits across film and television. Throughout his career, he’s been in a great number of things, from Unquestionable Masterpieces (Zodiac) to Cult Classics (Super Troopers) to Blockbuster Smashes (Rise of the Planet of the Apes) to Pop Culture Institutions (The Simpsons) to Movies Where Brad Pitt Has Long Hair (Troy). But I didn’t mention any of those in my request. Because none of those were relevant to my particular interests at that particular moment.

My wife is an especially big fan of Succession. She, like so many of us, finds it to be a sharp, dramatic, brilliant, often darkly hilarious show. And Logan Roy, Brian Cox’s character and the father of the family at the center of the series, is one of her favorite people in it. Which is why I made the request on Cameo. I thought it would be a neat little gift (her birthday was only a week or so away at the time). Specifically, I thought it would be neat for Brian Cox, if at all possible, to end whatever message he felt like sending her with some version of the phrase “fuck off.” (He did, and she was very happy about it.)

“Fuck off” is the defining expression (and also the defining ethos, probably) of Succession. It informs everything, both as a statement and as a feeling. A person you’re negotiating with presents you with an option that you feel is less than ideal? Fuck off. A meeting is over and you want everyone to leave? Fuck off. One of your children expresses a very candid set of emotions in your direction? Fuck off. It always works. And it always fits. So it’s always said.

However, it was a different two-word phrase muttered during the Season 3 finale of Succession that somehow felt even more magical, and more perfect, and more profound, even if only in a fleeting sense (possibly because it was in a fleeting sense). In the 52nd minute of the episode, after Kendall and Shiv and Roman have decided to leave their mother’s wedding and use a loophole in their parents’ divorce agreement to finally force Logan out of power at Waystar, Shiv calls Tom, her husband and also the person in charge of the news branch of the family’s multibillion-dollar company. She tells him about their plan, then tells him she wants him involved (to use the news channels to spread the news as fast as possible), and then hangs up. Tom stands in silent consideration for a few moments, weighing and calculating everything he’s just heard.

As he stands there, Greg, a 10-foot-tall gingerbread man and also Tom’s accidental best friend, approaches. Before Tom can say anything, Greg begins telling Tom about how he and a woman a few steps removed from royalty have hit it off. Tom lets Greg talk, but he’s only half-listening because he’s still rolling around in his head the information that Shiv has just given him. When Greg is finished, Tom has a realization, and pivots away from the talk of Greg potentially becoming the king of Luxembourg via a countess. “Greg, listen,” he says, and then he pulls out two chairs from a nearby table while looking around to make sure nobody is within earshot.

Greg sits. He can tell that something serious is going on, so he very earnestly asks, “What’s up?” Tom, speaking in extremely and purposely vague terms, lays out a proposition for Greg: He tells Greg that a series of events are about to take place, and he implies that they will affect Tom in one way or another. Then he leans in a little bit, looks Greg in the eyes, and with total sincerity, asks, “So, umm, do you wanna come with me?” Then he waits a beat.

Greg rightfully asks for more information, but Tom denies him that. Tom won’t say what’s happening. Tom can’t say. Greg hesitates, saying he has other options that might be better, if only because he at least knows what those options actually are. And so Tom leans in further and, again with total sincerity, asks, “Who has ever looked after you in this fucking family?” It’s a statement that resonates with Greg, who has watched from afar as Father Roy and Siblings Roy have attempted again and again to rip the arms and legs off of one another during their power battle for the steering wheel of the family company.

Greg and Tom continue the back-and-forth—Tom never divulging any information and Greg begging for whatever clarity he can get. At the very end of it, after Tom’s finished laying out his argument (which is essentially “just trust me with your entire life”), when he can feel Greg beginning to nibble on the line, he sets the hook: “Listen,” he says, glancing down at his watch, but not in a way that feels like he’s being dismissive of Greg, but instead in a way that feels like he desperately wants for Greg to say yes. “I have things to do. Umm, do you want … a deal … with … the devil?”

Greg hesitates again. He thinks on it for a second. He puts his hand on his head, takes a breath, then looks at Tom: “What am I gonna do with a soul anyways?” He’s in.

Relief spreads across Tom’s face. “Souls are boring,” says Greg, smiling free and beautiful, an expression immediately reciprocated by Tom. Greg puts both of his massive hands on Tom’s shoulders, looks at him, then playfully says, “Boo souls.” Tom bursts into a laugh, and Greg laughs, and it’s beautiful and heartwarming. And that’s when Greg says the two words: Sitting back in his chair, he gives Tom his most heartfelt look and says, simply but with great meaning, “Of course.”

The “of course” there is a lightning bolt. Everyone on Succession is always scheming and plotting and backstabbing and conniving and leery of each other no matter their relationship. It’s as nasty and ruthless and emotionally venomous of a psychological environment as can be had (among billionaires, anyway). And so in this very pivotal moment, Greg responding to Tom’s wholly informationless pitch with an OBVIOUSLY I’M GONNA BE BY YOUR SIDE, YOU DIDN’T EVEN HAVE TO ASK kind of tone and smile is just massively gorgeous. It’s a lighthouse in a storm. It’s that feeling of THANK GOD after you finally pluck an impossible and uncompromising days-old splinter from your foot.

Let’s watch it again, this time just from the “Of course” moment:

It’s perfect; the warmth of Greg’s voice, the way Tom laughs a small laugh to keep from crying, the way they shake hands and then stare at each other for a second before wordlessly deciding that it’s not enough and they must stand up and hug. Perfect.

It’s the payoff of a friendship that began back in the first episode of the first season when Tom razzed Greg at a private and impromptu softball game and has now stretched across a heavy roster of bonding moments that includes the two being trapped in a room together during an active shooter threat, the two being humiliated while Logan tried to smoke out a potential rat on the team, and the two facing possible prison time for destroying evidence of various and awful illegalities committed on a cruise ship. It’s the payoff of an in-plain-sight promise (that we all missed at the time) that, if the time ever came, Tom would choose protecting Greg over protecting his own wife.

Greg telling Tom “Of course” is the exact opposite of the majority of the other conversations on the show, wherein no pure vulnerability is ever sincerely shown and no pure sympathy is ever sincerely offered.

Or, said differently: It is the exact opposite of “Fuck off.”

And that Succession can pull off both of things equally well is why Succession is Succession.