“Next cove, please, Julius!” declares Tom Wambsgans in Succession’s Season 2 finale, as luxurious of a command as it gets. Bobbing around the Mediterranean in his white linen shirt with his enchanting wife, Tom is like a wannabe Dickie Greenleaf—which means, by definition, he’s more like the posturing Tom Ripley. He can’t ever just lean back and relax because he’s always too busy fronting. (Even when he does put his feet up, it’s on the back of another human.) There is no detail that Tom doesn’t notice, and no observation that he can’t overprocess into grotesque ruin. Like, say, that sea urchin on the ocean floor, which makes this cove completely unsuitable. “There are infinite coves,” Tom explains to the confused, annoyed Shiv as Julius navigates onward. “Let’s find the perfect one.”
Unfortunately for Tom, he has married a woman in Shiv whose own “any port in a storm” nautical ethos is much naughtier, and whose mental state is increasingly adrift. And so, for all their searching, when the couple finally do anchor, the cove they choose isn’t even all that picturesque. Rather than unwind, Tom and Shiv unravel; instead of paradise, they’ve found themselves living out the wedding-night-gone-bad novella On Chesil Beach.
The Succession finale, like the series itself, crackles throughout with bad faith and backhandedness, with deceit and dissembling, but all of its best moments come in the form of characters saying fuck it and speaking harsh, clear truths. There is Roman calling out Eduard Asgarov’s flaky bullshit even though it means sinking a deal that had almost left him dead. There is Logan laying absolute ruin to the interest in politics that Connor Roy claims to have had since a very young age. There is the episode’s startling, satisfying ending, in which Kendall lays his cards out on the table as Greg clutches the receipts. But none of these are as raw and resonant as the confrontation between Shiv and Tom.
“You told me you wanted an open relationship on our fucking wedding night,” Tom reminds her. “You still stewin’ on that?” responds Shiv, in a cruel manner immediately recognizable to anyone who has ever defensively lashed out by going straight for the underbelly of a loved one. “Shanghaied into an open-borders free-fuck trade deal,” Tom continues, and it feels as though the scene will maintain its quintessentially ribald and above-it-all Succession-y tone. But what soon follows is a line that, a decade and a half earlier, would have instantly attained top-five emo AIM away message status, a line that Matthew Macfadyen delivers straight to the gut: “I wonder if the sad I’d be without you,” he says, “would be less than the sad I get from being with you.”
'A Marriage Story,' dir. Noah Baumbach (2019). Probably.#SuccessionHBO pic.twitter.com/L8L12GQ9Lr— #TheWatch (@thewatchpod) October 14, 2019
This isn’t the first time this season Tom has said something to Shiv that had the impact of a slap. In Episode 2, during a dinner with Roman and Tabitha in which Tom is clowned for his “agricultural walk” and, as usual, for his bachelor party sexual encounter, Shiv begins to make fun of the time she tried sending him to Logan’s tailor when her husband has finally had enough. “Fuck off, Shiv,” he snaps, and she looks stricken. This time around, though, Tom’s wounded remarks actually lead to action: Shiv’s subsequent request to her father that he spare Tom from being scapegoated is the right thing to do, and it also almost certainly precludes her from getting the top job at Waystar Royco she was once briefly promised. Logan needs a killer, after all, and not a cock in his potato salad.
Tom’s bleak admission stands out because it isn’t just familiar to anyone who has known doomed love. It also describes the Roy family’s entanglement with the golden handcuffs of their own business. When Kendall first met Naomi at Tern Haven, during a drug-fueled moment of clarity, he counseled her: “Don’t block your own escape. Just imagine getting out from under all this. … You can take the money and you can just get the fuck out.” Then, he added, she would be free. Even Logan, early this season, mused once or twice about how much easier things would be if the family just allowed a damn takeover to occur. If only Shiv had called his bluff back in Episode 1 and let him send that stock-tanking tweet!
Would the sad that all the Roys would be without all this—the helicopters landing on yachts; the weird beach basket of impenetrable fruit; the global power and influence; Julius at the helm—be less than the sad that they’re all currently, conspicuously saddled with? As Naomi reminds Kendall, Logan loves him, sure: the broken version of him. When Roman tries to have a meaningful conversation with his siblings after a legitimately traumatic event, they mock him with squeaky voices. Shiv’s cold response to her husband’s cry for help is eerily reminiscent of the way her mother reacted in England when Kendall tried to confess to and connect with her. Even if she wants emotional intimacy (and her expression suggests she does!) she has no model for how to achieve it. Tom has long enjoyed the spoils of his Roy family adjacency, but as Shiv notes, he’s still not family. With that in mind, it’s easier for him to accept that everything around him might actually just be spoiled, to notice all the sea urchins in his midst just waiting to be stepped on.
tom: you make me sad— CZC ️ (@the_czc) October 14, 2019
Throughout its first two seasons, Succession has depicted an expensive, expansive lifestyle, with characters gallivanting across the globe, from New Mexico to Scotland, from the Hamptons to Hungary. And yet there’s still a claustrophobic element to the Roy family vantage point. Everyone spends a lot of time inside: inside mansions and car services and helicopters and megayachts, sure, but cooped up and constrained nevertheless. When they do break out, it doesn’t last long or go well. In the opening scene of this season, at an Icelandic rehab, Kendall finally gets to take a healing breath in the vast emptiness of a hot spring, only to be immediately whisked back into a car and then into a dark TV studio. Shiv, on the beach, tries to read the adulterous Sally Rooney novel Conversations With Friends, a reminder that in two seasons we’ve yet to see her actually have one. Her isolation isn’t geographic, it’s existential.
But some of the most intriguing scenes have been the ones that offer glimpses of people just outside the Roy family’s gleaming bubble, highlighting both the vast gulf between the haves and haves-not but also the narcissism of small differences between the variously privileged: Roman and his lowbrow buddies at employee training; Mr. and Mrs. Wambsgans tackily not shutting up about their wine at the wedding; the Pierce family flaunting their old-money roots; Shiv’s would-be threesome participant scraping fungus off Greg’s nails. The finale’s closing scene, with Kendall turning the tables on his perversely proud papa, gives the show’s creative staff all kinds of room to go in any number of directions in Season 3. But the beach scene between Tom and Shiv also unlocks endless and even more interesting potential: for new rivalries; for will-they-or-won’t-they drama that deals with the dissolution of a relationship rather than the first sparks of one; and for some intriguing new characters to enter the scene.
With the obligatory disclaimer that Shiv Roy is not based only on Elisabeth Murdoch, it’s worth pointing out that after the real-life heiress divorced her first husband (a college sweetheart) she then married and divorced the great-grandson of Sigmund Freud, and is now wed to a conceptual artist. Start your mental casting! And imagine the types that a wounded, proud, single-and-looking-to-mingle Tom Wambsgans might encounter were he to find himself back on the open market. Or imagine Tom with a baby and a nice life in Winnetka or Darien, letting his normcore flag fly while Shiv keeps jealous tabs! And then there’s the potential for a role reversal between Greg and Tom, as one of them does anything to stay in the inner circle and the other tries to escape. It’s unclear how much money Tom would be entitled to per that prenup, but it’s almost certainly very little, relatively speaking, whereas Greg, having helped take down Logan, might find himself back in his grandfather Ewan’s good graces and inherit that quarter-bil after all.
In the penultimate episode of Season 2, when Greg tells Connor that he’d probably still get $5 million from his grandfather even if he were otherwise disowned, his older cousin is dismissive. “Five?” Connor says, all but spitting on the ground. “You can’t do anything with five, Greg. Five’s a nightmare. Can’t retire, not worth it to work. Five will drive you un poco loco, my fine-feathered friend.” With billions of dollars, the Roys ought to be able to sleep well, is the implication. And yet their lives have long been one big fever dream, vivid but disturbing, outwardly blissful but inwardly tortured. And Tom, lying on the remote beach like some shipwrecked man, may finally be waking up, utterly spent, from it all.
Disclosure: HBO is an initial investor in The Ringer.