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Cousin Greg—Sweet Cousin Greg—Is the Only Non-sociopath in HBO’s ‘Succession’

And now he may have been poisoned

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Spoiler alert

In the fourth episode of Succession, “Sad Sack Wasp Trap”—which HBO aired Sunday night—Tom, the imperious new head of theme parks for the Roy family empire and soon-to-be son-in-law, recruits poor cousin Greg into a white-collar conspiracy. Tom has inherited documentation of catastrophic malfeasance from a retiring colleague. Facing an ethical dilemma regarding his potential recourse, Tom summons Greg, his lackey-at-large, for emotional support and, really, a sense of shared culpability. Greg, who is finally wearing an upgraded, tailored suit, knows he should refuse to hear Tom’s cursed debriefing. “I feel like I might not like it in the death pit,” Greg stammers. “You’re family,” Tom responds. That’s all it takes. Tom reads Greg into the company’s darkest scandal, which now blots the show’s purest character. Suddenly, Greg is in too deep.

Of course, Succession has bigger fish than Greg to fry. “Sad Sack Wasp Trap” marks a low point in prodigal son Kendall Roy’s efforts to succeed his ailing father, Logan Roy, who upstages his son at the family’s annual charity gala to announce his full-time return to the company. The guests all applaud, save for Kendall, whose coup is foiled once again. In the background, Greg casts about in his new tuxedo, his apparent displacement making it easy to uniquely mistake him for the wait staff. Greg, played by Nicholas Braun, lumbers through the Roy family’s misadventures with a slack jaw, slung posture, and juvenile suits. Though he’s desperate to fit in with his cousins, Succession doesn’t posit Greg as an overeager interloper, to be inevitably seduced by the family’s prestige and power; after all, that’s Tom’s role. Rather, Greg is the good kid in a family of world-class brats. He’s the one blessed cousin who views the Roy family as a family, indeed, and not just a means toward inheritance, industrial leverage, and a series of promotions.

He’s a fool, all right: The Roy family comes to view Greg as an odd but promising pawn. He’s ill-fated prey from the very start. Upon his arrival to Manhattan in the series premiere, Greg doesn’t immediately reconnect with his distant family—initially, he’s stuck impressing himself upon the immovable concierge, and then he’s tackled rather painfully by Logan Roy’s bodyguard in the condo lobby. Logan barely recognizes his own nephew, and he invites him up to the penthouse seemingly only to prevent the paparazzi swarmed outside his apartment from reporting Greg’s bruises. Thus, Greg joins the Roy family at Logan’s birthday party, endearing himself to Tom and otherwise accompanying the Roy family in the manner of a trial membership. It’s unclear why cousin Greg has arrived, exactly, though it’s immediately clear to all but Greg himself that he’ll live to regret sticking around.

In later episodes, Greg stalks through the family’s offices with the wide-eyed obedience of a pet dog. He aspires toward simple, steady comforts, which the Roy family effortlessly provides—so long as he’s willing to run errands that are as ridiculous as they are unscrupulous. Greg must steal for Roman and lie for Siobhan. He must lay down his life for Tom, who routinely bullies him into submission. Thus, Greg subjects himself to various machinations, engineered by competing family members, that he cannot even begin to comprehend. Greg doesn’t adapt, in any comprehensive sense, so much as he mimics the family’s fashion and schedule. The one thing he’s still missing is the Roy family’s definitive capacity for cruelty. In “Sad Sack Wasp Trap,” the charity gala becomes a grand showcase for the Roy family’s dysfunction. Tom berates Greg, Connor antagonizes the event staff and patronizes the talent, Roman humiliates a waiter, Kendall humiliates his date, and then Logan, in turn, humiliates Kendall—all in the course of a single evening. Greg studies these people at a remove, neither horrified nor sympathetic. In general, Greg’s interactions with wealth are all so indifferent, if also, ultimately, compliant.

It is impossible to discuss Cousin Greg without dwelling on the peculiar dynamic between Greg and Tom—a relationship so hyperbolic and surreal that it must elicit distress and confusion among viewers. In every encounter, Tom pranks and bullies Greg, and then flatters and encourages him in the same breath. As the cowering subject of Tom’s slapstick psy-ops campaign, Greg clings to Tom if only because his angry cousin’s perverse affection is the only substantial attention the Roy family spares him. The two men, Greg and Tom, are the two primary Succession characters who lack the Roy family name, and their subsequent insecurities bind them as strange opposites in violent coordination. Tom is the sad bastard, and Greg is his punching bag. They’re both worse for the wear.

They’re a shitty family, all right? Succession suffers sociopaths as its ensemble force; even the bleeding heart, Siobhan Roy, has begun to show the Habsburgian signs of her disordered soul. The show does not offer a sensible, relatable character—only Greg, dear Greg, whose awkward collusion is as adorable, and forgiving, as Succession gets in its otherwise revolting characterizations of American wealth. Greg doesn’t share the family name, nor does he share its dark pathologies. Ideally, Greg would have gotten the fuck out of there the moment Tom described the family’s business to him as “a virus.” But that is not how temptation works, not even for Greg, who was once innocent to the point of absolute cluelessness. Greg is hardly the show’s most dogged proponent of the American dream, but he is the most insightful characterization of its whims, which leave even the most cautious, modest strivers with little to show for the compromises expected of them. Among the Roys, Greg has the least to gain, the most to lose, and too many indignities to count.

Disclosure: HBO is an initial investor in The Ringer.