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The Matriarchs of ‘Succession’

In the second season of HBO’s drama about the ultra-rich, Shiv, Gerri, and the show’s other female characters are taking a more prominent role, independent of the man-children who are so desperately clinging to their power

HBO/Ringer illustration

When J. Smith-Cameron recorded an early audition tape for the HBO series Succession, she first read the lines for a dude named Gerry. Gerry was a lawyer-fixer type with Michael Cohen–style duties, mopping up the corporate and personal messes of the impossibly wealthy family behind a global media conglomerate. And, as Smith-Cameron remembers it, Gerry’s run was finite: “Only definitely meant to be in episodes 2-6 of Season 1,” she writes in an email from somewhere with bad cell reception up in Canada. “There wasn’t any sign that it was going to be such a rich, ongoing role.”

But soon Gerry became Gerri, and soon after that Smith-Cameron was cast to play the role in all its potent-subordinate glory. And now, with Succession returning for its second season on Sunday night, she is thriving within the show’s gnarled, lush ecosystem, her character both deeply rooted and in bloom. As one of the most trusted deputies to the ferocious Logan Roy, the Waystar Royco chief, Gerri is the one who gets it done and knows it all and makes it go away. She is still that lawyer-fixer type, with those Michael Cohen–style duties, but she’s also the “fairy godmother” to Logan’s only daughter, Siobhan, and the one to reassure his youngest son, Roman, that a failed rocket launch only blew off a few thumbs (oh, and maybe an arm). She takes conspiratorial backyard-huddle meetings like any worthy operative, but she does so in Uggs.

“Ever since I saw Helen Mirren in Prime Suspect, I’ve wanted to play a middle-aged, super competent professional woman who is nonetheless beset by vulnerable situations which she handles one at a time,” Smith-Cameron says in her email. “In some kind of roundabout way, I have a taste of that with Gerri.” Smith-Cameron is not alone here: Age excepted, you could say roughly the same thing about a number of the women of Succession’s second season, some of them evolving old favorites and some of them new, but all of them toothsome performances of women both in and adjacent to power.

Sarah Snook’s Shiv Roy, the youngest of Logan’s four kids and the only girl, finds herself caught between her extrafamilial success as a political strategist and the temptation to finally assert her place as the smartest one at the Roy family kids’ table. Marcia, the cipher of a stepmom who last season lashed out in savage form at Shiv (“[Logan] made you a playground and you think it’s the whole world”), begins to publicly take stock of the cards she holds. The cast’s splashiest offseason addition, Holly Hunter, will soon join the series as Rhea, the no-bullshit CEO of a respected news operation who has the wry countenance of someone who has seen some shit but also knows exactly how and when to start some herself. (Another Season 2 newcomer, Jeannie Berlin, also exudes this kind of powerful business broad energy, while Cherry Jones straight-up buzzes with WASP sting, a patrician foil to Logan’s patriarch.) Even women with supporting roles on the show and in Succession’s internal universe, like the Waystar Royco media-handler Karolina, or the Connor Roy man-handler Willa, reckon daily with how to manage vulnerabilities—their own, and others’—in order to meet their goals.

In Succession’s first season, half of its credited writers were women—accomplished, trenchant women, from young playwrights to a veteran of British comedic television—and the majority of them have returned this time around. “I appreciate the complexities and the ugliness that they write into the character of Shiv,” says Snook, speaking by phone from Brooklyn last week, “rather than just making her sort of like a paragon of female power.” It is never that simple, after all.

Succession’s Sunday premiere revolved, as the series so often does, around the premise of its title, asking this ongoing question: Who will take over? It featured Logan Roy—that lion-in-cable-knit who in seconds can go from laying low to leaping for the jugular—making two big decisions. The second one was that he wanted to acquire a big ol’ respected legacy publication in order to make family empire Waystar Royco too big to buy, all Blob-like and takeover-proof. The first one, delivered privately to his daughter, Shiv, was that he wanted her to succeed him. “Is this real?” was her disbelieving, and repeated, response.

Snook, who grew up outside Adelaide in Australia, spent a lot of time initially figuring out how to portray someone whose upbringing and environs were both geographically and conceptually foreign to her. (Her research included poring over Lauren Greenfield’s big Generation Wealth coffee table book.) “I’m personally not from wealth,” Snook says. “It’s not something I’m familiar with, and I don’t have friends who are in that sort of lofty, elite category of wealth either. That’s quite an alien thing to me.”

In conversations with showrunner Jesse Armstrong and executive producer Adam McKay, Snook found that even if she couldn’t quite relate to the trappings of wealth, she could envision what its “corrupting influences can do to the foundation of a family,” says Snook, who is the youngest of three sisters. “That’s where I was like, oh, yeah, that’s my entry point.”

There are few things more foundational than a good sibling rivalry, particularly when the goal is to get some shine from dad. “The Logan Roy Empire is almost the Oxford Dictionary definition of patriarchy,” Smith-Cameron writes. But Shiv’s character in Season 1 of Succession mostly opted out of the battle for father’s approval waged by her brothers Kendall and Roman. (Her half brother, Connor, was always more interested in ordering Napoleon’s desiccated penis as a historical “curio” than in taking over the family biz.) Some of Shiv’s reluctance was theoretically ideological: One of Waystar Royco’s big enterprises, ATN, is a Fox News–like media outfit, whereas Shiv specializes in the art of political gamesmanship for candidates on the Democratic side. Positional purity has never been the strong suit of the 1 percent, however, so that reason feels like a bit of a front.

To hear both Snook and Succession writer Lucy Prebble tell it, Shiv’s preference for operating from the sideline has deeper roots. “The thing I’ve always said about Shiv,” says Prebble, speaking by phone from the U.K., “is that I think she’s so competitive that she refuses to compete.” Keeping power at arm’s length and engaging with it from a critical distance is its own kind of power, and in Season 1, Shiv stayed hard to get. You can’t lose, after all, if you don’t play. “She’s spent a long time carefully constructing a life outside of the company in order to protect herself from her dad,” says Snook. The problem is that her father is on to her.

Prebble calls it “slightly heartbreaking” to watch Shiv go against her self-protective instincts and exhibit true vulnerability, and indeed, seeing the cracks in Shiv’s armor begin to develop in the Season 2 premiere is hard to watch. How quickly that trademark “I’m Shiv-fucking-Roy” facade melts, and that buttery voice goes up a half-octave. But it’s also exciting to witness, to get to watch a fascinating, flawed woman on the brink of a major life stress test, and to daydream about the unspooling mess of plot possibilities before her.

Prebble joined the writing staff of Succession with a résumé that already included, among other things, stylized creative plunges into the worlds of both high-level financial corruption and high-class sex work. She wrote a play with the self-explanatory title Enron, which premiered to rave reviews in London in 2009, and from 2007 to 2011 she adapted an anonymous sex worker blog into the television series Secret Diary of a Call Girl. Asked what drew her to write scripts about corporations (another of her plays takes place during a pharmaceutical trial), she says that she finds it strange that more writers aren’t interested in tackling structures and systems, given the influence they have in anyone’s daily life. “Like, to me, the question is: Why is everyone so interested in writing about their personal relationships?” she says. “I’ve always been more of a fan of the novelistic approach of people like David Simon with The Wire, for example, when you’re actually looking at how people and systems interact with each other to produce a certain result.”

All of this was likely part of why Armstrong offered her a spot in his writers’ room, though there was another element that may have inspired Armstrong to keep her in mind: “Jesse and I had been in the same bar the night that Brexit, like, happened,” Prebble says. “Fairly memorable, in a way.” (Armstrong has quite a knack for such encounters: Part of Succession’s origin lore involves the very first table read for the pilot episode taking place on the night Trump was elected.) Prebble’s colleagues on the writing side include Susan Soon He Stanton, another playwright whose work often features complicated families, and Georgia Pritchett, a longtime collaborator of Armstrong’s who has written for programs ranging from Tracey Ullman’s Show to Veep.

”There are virtually no women in comedy writing,” Pritchett told The Telegraph in 2002, “and I don’t know why, because 95 per cent of the time it’s great. It’s lovely being the only woman in a roomful of men. It’s mainly executives that are the problem. I was working on a show with three men and we used to get memos and faxes to ‘Tim, Paul, Simon etc’. And I was always the etc.” Not so with Succession: “Jesse has excellent judgment when it comes to writers,” Smith-Cameron says, “and is obviously happy to collaborate with women.” Having these voices in the writers’ room “does actually make an obvious difference,” Snook says.

It isn’t just the gender composition of the writing team that contributes to Succession’s strong performances, but also the manner in which the entire co-ed team operates. When it comes to sex scenes, for example, Succession has an institutional aversion to “tits and ass,” Prebble says, and to gratuitous couplings that do nothing to advance plot. “Jesse and us, we’re not interested in having people take their clothes off, particularly women,” she says. Though that doesn’t mean that the show doesn’t use sex; far from it. One encounter that takes place midway through the second season (and which developed as writers took note of some naturally evolving chemistry on-set) actually made me gasp in disbelief and delight.

And then there’s the directive, collaborative, iterative manner in which the entire team operates. The writers are present and participatory in a way that is unusual for typical TV shows. “They’re just perceptive,” says Justine Lupe, who plays Willa, the on-the-payroll girlfriend of the strapping and delusional Connor Roy, who funds her aspiring playwright career in exchange for her agreeing to try to learn to love him. “Like, the chemistry they’re picking up on between characters, that spark. You see them kind of catch that spark and then turn it into a fire, which is a really neat thing to witness.” The characters in Succession may not always be respected by their peers, and they frequently don’t deserve to be; they are selfish and greedy; they cover up high crimes; they are by turns incompetent and cruel. But they are respected by the process, which doesn’t judge. The goal is fidelity, and the result is a group of characters who feel organic and twisted and true.

When Lupe talks about writers catching sparks, she speaks from personal experience. Her audition for the role of Willa involved a breakup scene with Connor, and she spent the first season flipping through each new script to see when it was coming. Instead, it never did, and the writers leaned further into the comedic discomfort of her and Connor’s interactions and the particulars of her kept-woman situation. (When Lupe got the script for a Thanksgiving episode last season in which Roman described her as once being “on that hot-party-girl-who-wouldn’t-look-twice-at-you-slash-hooker borderline,” the description caught her eye. “It’s so specifically perfect,” she says. “It’s like, one sentence that kind of sets up a whole world for the character.”) Succession is a show that features a strong female gaze, that gaze being Willa’s extremely rolled eyes.

Willa sighs heavily at her patron boyfriend from Manhattan to Austerlitz, his New Mexico ranch, the kind of sprawling, remote place that has a way of feeling claustrophobic despite its size. (When she asks how far away the nearest Starbucks is, Connor says, ominously, that he has a Keurig.) At one point, inspired by having read a disturbing article about how people go about breeding thoroughbred horses, Prebble suggested a story line in which Connor tries to convince Willa to have a baby—through a surrogate, so as to preserve her figure. “And Jesse was like, that’s way too far-fetched,” she says.

But in late July, The New York Times ran an article about the accused high-rolling sex criminal Jeffrey Epstein, and one of his chilling goals: “He hoped to seed the human race with his DNA by impregnating women at his vast New Mexico ranch,” the article explained. (This past weekend, Epstein died by suicide in a federal detention facility in New York.)

This tends to happen with Succession, this sort of unexpected free fall into the uncanny valley between the program’s enlightened satire and the dark realities of the world, and while sometimes it’s on purpose, often it’s truly not. You can make credible cases that the Roys are based on the Murdochs, the Redstones, the Mercers, the Kennedys, the Trumps, which tells you less about the Roys than it does about the same-y, dysfunctional selfishness inherent to ultrapowerful families.

The series actually does have a plot point originally sprung from the twisted life of Epstein, Prebble says, but it’s not even Connor: It’s Lester, the lech who ran the corporate cruise lines of Waystar Royco and used his position to proposition girls. In Succession’s world, this illegal and immoral racket is still being covered up, by men and women (Gerri, Shiv) alike. And in the real world, across many industries, women do the same thing every day; Prebble sees it in entertainment all the time. “Women are producers up to a certain level, then it’s only men,” she says. “And then above that level, it’s only men who have a sort of right-hand woman who takes care of stuff for them. In the most sinister world, that looks like Jeffrey Epstein and his fixer woman.”

Logan Roy often has a number of women in the room, and he even sometimes listens to their advice. Gerri is his version of the “right-hand woman who takes care of stuff,” though despite the obvious trust he has in her, Logan still subjects her to his volatile whims: In the Season 2 premiere, he needlessly (and pretty Trumpishly) taunts her, in front of a room of people, with the prospect of getting the Waystar Royco top job. Snook suggests that his reliance on Gerri may actually indicate some level of disregard, given his inclination toward kingly paranoia: “Oh, I’ll keep a person closest who can never really topple me,” Snook says, guessing at Logan’s inner voice, “who can never really take over.”

But Shiv is someone who can take over. Logan isn’t stupid: He knows the goods when he sees them, and his trim adult sons—the impulsive, brooding weenie Kendall and the impulsive, brooding wiseass Roman—ain’t it. Compared with Shiv, or Gerri, or some of the other women still to appear in Season 2, “I think of the sons as a little bit more either incompetent,” Prebble says, “or weak, actually, and cowardly.” Last season’s mano a mano showdown with Kendall had its thrilling moments, but Kendall was forever outmatched by his old man. Roman, bless his heart, is emotionally still a child.

Shiv is a tougher nut, but she still cracks. During a disastrous family retreat to New Mexico in Season 1 that included a famous corporate therapist getting carried off in an ambulance and featured Kendall Roy getting high on crank, a lashing-out Logan set his only daughter in his sights. “You’re scared to compete,” he said. “You’re marrying a man fathoms beneath you because you don’t want to risk being betrayed.” Shiv fled in tears, and Logan was, of course, correct; he didn’t rise from nothing to be a global rainmaker without getting pretty good at figuring out what bruises he could poke along the way.

As a person who is self-aware enough to know that when she feels too strongly or loves too deeply she can no longer feel in control, Shiv has built up some pretty sturdy defense mechanisms. (Sometimes she even uses them to attack: poor Tom, being accosted by demands for an open marriage on his wedding night!) But Logan knows all the codes to disarm them; he has a grip on his daughter’s Achilles’s heel even as he looks her in the eye and tells her that he wants her running Waystar Royco.

Logan’s announcement in the Season 2 premiere that he wants to buy another news business sets up the soon-to-come debut of one of the most anticipated characters this season, Holly Hunter’s bright-eyed, deadpan arrival as a rival media CEO. The writers had Hunter in mind when they fleshed out her character, Rhea, during brainstorm sessions, but not in any realistic sense; her name was more of an aspirational placeholder, recognizable shorthand for “woman with stones.” It was a happy shock when Hunter signed on to the project for real.

“I was sitting there in the trailer with Holly Hunter,” says Lupe, “being like, I’m not trying to fangirl out, but I’ve got to say, like, I can’t believe you’re there, and I’m here!” It stands to reason that the show’s vivid and realistic treatment of women was not lost on a performer like Hunter—or like Berlin, or Annabelle Dexter-Jones, or Cherry Jones, whose upcoming performance as the head of an old-money family is a real masterpiece. And as more and meatier roles for women crop up in Succession, there’s an auxiliary benefit: All the scenes in which these “powerhouses,” as Lupe calls her coworkers, bounce off one another. They antagonize and negotiate; they gossip and giggle; they threaten and love. And in the show’s second season, they increasingly do all of this sans men, often outnumbering—and outranking—the guys who are so desperately clinging to the power they have left.

These newcomers enter an already-established universe, a Narnia on Benzos and ketamine. But back when Smith-Cameron auditioned, Gerry was still a man and she was left a little bit in the dark. “I didn’t have the scripts,” she remembers, “just these isolated scenes.” So without much to work with, she relied on her feminine instincts to fill in the blanks. “And right away I thought: This woman thinks Roman and Kendall are rather ridiculous, and actually kind of disgusting.” And lo, Gerri—and the fully realized world of Succession—was born.

Disclosure: HBO is an initial investor in The Ringer.


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