In Episode 2 of HBO’s second season of Succession, Roman Roy and his girlfriend, Tabitha, host newlyweds Shiv Roy and Tom Wambsgans for dinner. In true Roy fashion, a family meal devolved into cruelty. Tom ate crow as Roman mocked his bland, boxy suits, while Shiv, turning dinner into a roast, ridiculed her husband’s “agricultural walk.” At the table, Tom wore a fussy, dark scarf—a pretentious accessory at such a dim gathering—which also seemed to be ridiculing him. He can take only so much reminding about how unnaturally he sits in the company of the Roy family before firing back: “Fuck off, Shiv,” he pouts, with a smirk that holds him at the brink of tears.
In Succession, Tom sits through so many of these family dinners without ever really having left the kids’ table. The four Roy siblings—Connor, Kendall, Roman, and Shiv—vie for their father Logan Roy’s assets and affection. Meanwhile, Tom, ambitious but insecure, humiliates himself with pathetic attempts to appease and, ideally, succeed Logan as chief executive of the family’s media and entertainment empire, Waystar Royco. While the batshit vulgarian Roman provides comic relief while exhibiting a ruthless competitive edge, Tom is a hopelessly tragic goof whose own wife responds to his ambition with condescension and laughter. Tom presents himself as a fully-fledged member of the family, but he’s hardly recognized as one. Self-consciously, he lacks the Roy surname—Wambsgans is a mouthful, which so many characters, including Shiv, pronounce in a mocking tone. He’s delusional enough to believe he might succeed Logan, even if the cold-blooded patriarch can barely seem to remember his name, much less his title. Granted, Logan’s hereditary heirs are all disastrous and delusional in the extreme.
But the second season of Succession has gone especially hard on Tom, the corn-fed, new-money son-in-law who simply cannot fake the funk among old-school East Coast elites. His ambitions prove ludicrous and misplaced as Logan apparently now favors Shiv to succeed him as chief executive. He’s outgrowing his friendship with Greg Hirsch—sweet Cousin Greg—the hapless, innocent cousin whom Tom manipulates as his sidekick. Tom still mentors, bullies, and, occasionally, confides in Greg, but their antics are far less boisterous than in the previous season. With a promotion from the parks division to the much more prestigious and profitable news unit, the right-wing ATN, Tom’s gotten somewhat more successful and significantly less fun. He languishes in Shiv’s shadow, struggling to accept this season’s new, unexpected possibility: Logan may well trust his bleeding-heart daughter to run the cutthroat family business.
In the series premiere, Tom agonized about Logan’s taste in luxury wristwatches. His little insecurities about class and rank now amount to a personal crisis. In Episode 3 on Sunday, Shiv dispatches Tom to a company retreat in rural Hungary, where Tom, Kendall, Roman, Gerri, and Frank all struggle to dissuade Logan from pursuing a risky, expensive acquisition. Ultimately, Logan lashes out against Roman, Gerri, and Frank, but he barely seems to notice Tom or fully register what his son-in-law even means to tell him. Tom has grown no closer to Logan in Season 2; worse yet, he’s begun to alienate Shiv, who struggles to bolster Tom’s ego as Logan tempts her with promises of inheriting the family empire. The love between Shiv and Tom isn’t gone, but it’s fading only a week after their distant honeymoon at sea. Tom entered Shiv’s world as a social climber, and now he seems destined to exit as a starter husband.
It’s easy to see the Roy siblings as trust fund caricatures. But what to make of Tom Wambsgans? In a show full of ugly tycoons, he theoretically sits closer to the average viewer’s perspective. He’s as insufferable as all of the other characters on the show, sure, but unlike the Roy siblings who strive within the 1 percent, Tom strives toward it. As Logan cultivates Kendall and Shiv as potential successors, Tom cultivates Greg as a fellow sellout. “You don’t go around talking about principles,” Tom advises Greg in their first day together at ATN, a job Greg despises. “It’s Logan’s G-spot,” Tom adds. “Man the fuck up!” But Tom can’t bring that same bravado to his encounters with the Roys, or to his inelegant rise through the company ranks—in those instances, he mostly bluffs, grovels, and pouts. He means to leap from middle-class origins to obscene wealth in a single generational bound. His ambition gives him the in, but his suits give him away.
Disclosure: HBO is an initial investor in The Ringer.