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The Devil Wears Pantsuits: How ‘Succession’ Uses Shiv As a Weapon

On Sunday night, Logan Roy’s only daughter picked family over morality once and for all. But it’s not exactly like she broke bad, because the truth is she’s never been good.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The biggest roadblock to joining the Succession fan club, most recently articulated by Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg, is that there’s no one to root for. Speaking objectively, this is true: To a man (and woman!), the Roy family and its entourage are loathsome individuals, as selfish and cruel on a personal level as their corporation is on a global one. But the human brain cannot help itself. To survive hours upon hours in the Roys’ company, it needs a life raft; after Stockholm syndrome sets in, courtesy of said quality time and some highly entertaining dialogue, it may even want one. And there’s no more attractive life raft than Siobhan “Shiv” Roy (Sarah Snook), the media scion who’s served as this season’s de facto protagonist.

The natural tendency to develop sympathy for characters we come to know is, in theory, an existential threat to Succession’s entire thematic project. The show has built a reputation as an admirably unflinching prosecution of the .001 percent. As those of us who struggled through early episodes know, however, some nuance and levity are necessary to keep Sunday night’s entertainment from becoming a TED Talk on the moral tax of wealth. On the other hand, too much of either risks blunting the blade of Succession’s guillotine; some think it already has. “It’s a show about a decadent billionaire family that falls in love with its subject, and it carries the audience along with it on the strength of the writing,” critic Aaron Bady wrote in The Week this summer, a backhanded compliment delivered toward the end of a piece titled “The Problem With Succession’s Half-Baked Class Politics.” If familiarity really did breed contempt, Succession would have nothing to worry about. Unfortunately, the opposite is true.

Even if one were immune to Roman’s (Kieran Culkin) puerile sense of humor or Kendall’s (Jeremy Strong) abject suffering, Shiv is almost tailor-made to wear down one’s defenses. At the series’ outset, she’s the only Roy child to have built a career for herself not just outside her family’s sphere of influence, but as far away from it as possible, becoming a Democratic aide to various left-wing politicians. (It doesn’t take a psychologist to read Shiv’s profession as an act of rebellion against her father’s right-wing propaganda peddling.) That means she at least commanded our respect, if not our affection. Compared with the flailing failsons who surround her, Shiv is capable, shrewd, and evaluated as such by people who don’t share her DNA. She may not have earned everything on her own merits, but at least she’s earned something.

There’s also the matter of identity, which Shiv herself is all too willing to spin to her own advantage. Shiv is the lone woman in a family of men, making her the only Roy to have experienced anything remotely resembling disenfranchisement or marginalization. Whatever the cards stacked in her favor—wealth, beauty, whiteness, education—Shiv knows what it’s like to be dismissed because of who she is, or have some aspect of her experience exist slightly outside of her immediate control. In the warm bath of privilege that is the Roys’ default way of life, it’s tempting to gravitate toward the one who’s felt the bracing winds of adversity, even if it’s only been a light breeze. And it’s especially tempting to those of us who have more in common with Shiv than we care to admit: other professional, often white, women quick to play the “stale pale male” card against our peers and slow to acknowledge our complicity in the systems we claim to disdain.

Succession is well aware of Shiv’s appeal and what it says about those who succumb to it. In less skilled hands, her charisma and underdog status could be a liability. But this week’s “DC” proves Succession has enough of a handle on our reactions to use them against us, turning the urge to stan into proof of our weakness, and by extension the culture’s, instead of the show’s. The episode marks Shiv’s point of no return, choosing family over decency by convincing a victim of the Waystar cruise line’s abuses not to testify before Congress. In so doing, she secures a definitive victory over Rhea Jarrell (Holly Hunter), Logan’s would-be successor who proves insufficiently dedicated to the cause. She also attains it at the cost of any plausible deniability about who she is, either on her part or the viewer’s. Succession’s latest maneuver is dastardly in its efficacy, making it worthy of Shiv herself.

The truth is that Shiv has never been a good person, only the least operatically bad. Even before she reentered the Waystar fold, she kept a foot in it by marrying Tom Wambsgans (Matthew Macfadyen), the “block of domestic feta” who lives to do her father’s bidding. And when she rejected Logan’s initial offer to join the company, it had less to do with ethical concerns than self-preservation, plus enough perspective to realize Logan wanted to keep her in line, not acknowledge her talents. (She also kept encouraging her Bernie stand-in boss to pivot to the center. The left is where the energy is, Shiv!) It may have felt good to watch her reject Logan’s “transparent attempt to buy me off,” but she wasn’t exactly doing it for the right reasons.

Which is why Logan’s second attempt was more successful, and crushingly so. Deep down, Shiv has always been as entitled as her brothers; she isn’t necessarily qualified to run a multinational company because she can string together a sentence and hasn’t committed manslaughter, but she certainly thinks she is. So all it takes to reel her in is a slightly more emphatic overture, under circumstances just different enough for Shiv to think it’s plausible. With Kendall’s takeover attempt failed and shareholders anxious for reassurance, possibly in the form of a successor, Shiv allows herself to believe Logan intends to hand her the reins despite the obvious red flags: no public announcement; no timeline for one; even risking a lifesaving acquisition over the right not to make one, hardly the act of a soon-to-be-retiree. In the moment, we watch her go through something like the five stages of grief. “Is this real?” she gasps, afraid to undo a lifetime of wall-building. Eventually, she accepts, jarringly vulnerable in her relief and joy. All Shiv has ever wanted is acknowledgement, and giving it is Logan’s trump card in marshaling his forces during a time of crisis. Immediately, she caves, becoming as loyal in her own way as kicked-to-the-curb Kendall.

It’s hard not to feel for Shiv as a child hopelessly out of her emotional depth. (“She thinks she’s smarter than she is,” Rhea coolly observed in “Return”—or maybe she’s just smart enough to convince herself she isn’t controlled by her feelings.) But in retrospect, the moment Shiv allows herself to make helming Waystar Royco her top priority is the moment she’s lost. “I really want this,” she tells Tom, surprised at the intensity of her own desires. Waystar is a corrupt organization, and adopting its goals as her own inevitably corrupts Shiv. Younger, female, and ostensibly liberal, she has the optics to assuage skeptics like the Pierce family and take the edge off a PR crisis. The problem is that Shiv wants to use these qualities to further her chances of taking over Waystar, not guide her ethos as commander in chief.

Nothing has clarified Shiv’s surface-level draw, and her ice-cold deployment thereof, like her handling of the cruise scandal. When she and Rhea are deputized to confront her former boss’s star witness, Shiv is furious—not because she’s being asked to do something against her principles, but because the task at hand is “soft skills lady-duty shit work.” The line is a deft parody of the sort of feminism that would lead someone to idolize Shiv in the first place, the kind that’s been weaponized by real-life analogs like Ivanka Trump. Shiv is a woman, and therefore any indignity she suffers is an act of oppression—even when that indignity is oppressing another woman by silencing her testimony. She even casually compares her father’s harassment of the witness with her CEO bait-and-switch, as if the two are remotely comparable instances of workplace discrimination.

Rhea ultimately balks at the prospect of intimidating a survivor out of coming forward. “You don’t have to do this,” she assures Shiv, under the mistaken impression she’s operating from the same set of compunctions. “If she speaks and she’s compelling, then that’s it for my family’s company,” Shiv responds. “So yeah, I do have to.” She’s unable to hear the absurdity in insisting her allegiance to her family isn’t a choice, or that the survival of that family’s wealth is a matter of life-or-death importance. She is, however, speaking the truth as she sees it, which is also how she gets the victim to back down. Platitudes (“I’m here to listen”; “I think you’re really brave”) fall flat. Only an honest accounting of her Machiavellian worldview makes headway: “You can’t trust anyone,” Shiv says. “You just have to be smart, so listen to everyone and make an assessment. Because, frankly, I want what’s best for me. … You have to think about what’s best for you.”

Her target does, and decides what’s best for her is not becoming the next Christine Blasey Ford. Now we know what Logan meant last week when he told his daughter that, despite her political leanings, “you fucking get it.” Shiv has skin in the game, giving her the dedication—and obedience—to Waystar’s depravity an outsider could never have. By episode’s end, she’s earned a place at Logan’s side, but only a tentative one; her father’s still flattering Roman and trusting Kendall to face down senators by his side. Shiv has conclusively forsaken her dignity for the privilege of being one Roy sibling among many vying for their father’s approval. The Succession character we’ve been trained to like the most has achieved her greatest victory. It’s agonizing to watch.

That agony has as much to do with our own compromised morals as Shiv’s. The limits of representation are now well-publicized, as are the perils of equating successful women with success for women. But it’s one thing to understand these concepts, another for a show to force you to confront who you’ve been cheering on all along. It’s not even accurate to say Shiv has broken bad, because Succession’s point is that she was never all that good. Earlier this week, a popular BuzzFeed quiz promised to match users with a Succession character, exactly the kind of identification the show warns against and “DC” dismantles altogether. When I took it, I got Shiv. I let my cursor hover over the “share” button, before deciding it wasn’t something to brag about.

Disclosure: HBO is an initial investor in The Ringer.