You remember the dialogue. I know you do. It was the most heart-wrenching conversation on television in 2019—and that’s saying something, considering it came between two people for whom I didn’t realize I could feel anything but contempt.
In the final episode of Succession’s second season, Tom Wambsgans and Siobhan Roy sit on a beach. A typical newlyweds move, it seems at first, but the exchange that follows shows these characters are much closer to divorce than a honeymoon. “I think a lot of the time, I’m really pretty unhappy,” Tom says after an extended silence.
Shiv responds, “What are you saying?”
Then Tom drops the hammer: “I don’t know. I love you, I do. I just, uh, I wonder if—I wonder if the sad I’d be without you would be less than the sad I get from being with you.”
If you’d been watching Succession closely, you knew this type of a conversation had to be coming. After all, a person can take only so much, and as actor Matthew Macfadyen (who plays Tom) said in 2019, his character was rapidly barreling toward his breaking point. But what made this scene so interesting was the fact that Tom is usually the one taking verbal blows from the Roy clan, not dishing them out.
The best descriptor of Tom Wambsgans is “punching bag.” He takes shit all the time and from all sides. Take a scene from earlier in that same episode. All the major Waystar Royco players are sitting at a table on Logan Roy’s yacht, plotting how to get themselves and the company out of the cruise-scandal mess. As they talk, Logan decides the company needs a blood sacrifice—someone it can offer up to the masses so the rest don’t go down with the ship. The further they get into the conversation, the more fingers point toward Tom. Roman kicks it off by saying Tom is the most logical option; Kendall hops on board immediately after; and Shiv ends it by calling her husband “like family … but also not.”
This moment comes mere weeks after Tom was thrown under the bus before his congressional hearing, placed in a second-tier panic room while ATN was in lockdown, and told to be the family’s ideological scapegoat during dinner with the Pierce family. It’s also after Shiv basically forced Tom into an open marriage on their wedding night. Logan turns him into a boar on the floor; Shiv throws her affairs in his face; at a dinner, Roman calls him a corn-feeder who looks like a Transformer and Shiv laughs.
This isn’t to make Tom out to be blameless—he punches down just as often as he gets hit (justice for Cousin Greg) and is one of the least morally centered people on the show—but to show that his mini-implosion at the end of last season was a long time coming. And an even bigger one may be on the horizon.
A character study of Tom Wambsgans is a character study of white middle America. Specifically one part of white middle America, where passive-aggression reigns and “nice” has a double meaning.
Tom being from St. Paul doesn’t come up a lot. It was briefly mentioned during a Season 1 car ride when Tom told his mother he wouldn’t be home for the holidays because Shiv made a face when he mentioned it. And Roman brings it up at that notorious Transformer dinner, saying Tom looks like “a divorce attorney from the Twin Cities.” But even if hardly anyone talks about it, Minnesota Nice is intrinsic to his psyche. And after spending so much time around a rich and powerful family, those fake niceties have turned into Impostor Syndrome. Tom’s never in the loop, so he constantly snivels around trying to glean whatever scraps of information he can. He’s not treated like a real member of the family, so he tries to shoehorn himself into roles and jobs he’s woefully unprepared for. He degrades coworkers, covers up crimes, acts like an entitled idiot, and excuses literal Nazis all in the name of fitting in. And yet, he still doesn’t.
At the end of last season, he finally seemed to figure out that the Roys will never accept him—but the question now is, did he realize it too late? At this point in his life, Tom doesn’t have a ton of options. He moved to New York to explore opportunity and eventually become a big enough deal that he could lord his successes over everyone back home. (A not wholly uncommon thing to do if you’re from the Midwest, and an asshole.) All along the way, his motives have been selfish, ruthless, and driven by a desire for money and excess. But now that he’s gotten what he wanted, he’s finding it all to be a bit twisted.
He has the perfect wife, but she wants an open relationship. He has the big, important job, but he’s had to do and say unspeakable things to earn it. He’s a member of one of the wealthiest, most influential families in the world, but even his wife thinks of him as their squire. From the outside, he has it all; from the inside, he has nothing.
Even abandoning it all and running back to Minnesota with his tail between his legs doesn’t seem to be a fitting option anymore. Sure, Tom ended last season by chowing down on his father-in-law’s chicken and telling his wife how unhappy he was. But even as he achieved some internal clarity, things on the outside only got more confusing. For as much as Tom may tell Shiv he could be less sad without her, leaving New York and the Roys behind would be admitting defeat. What would his former classmates say if he showed up back in St. Paul like nothing had changed? The Fly Guys he abandoned at his bachelor party? His high-profile lawyer mother?
Then there’s the question of whether he even can leave. After all, the Roy family knows he was complicit in destroying evidence of the cruise scandal, and Logan is just the kind of guy who’d drag everyone down with him if he truly started to sink.
No, for as much clarity and (temporary) backbone as Tom gained at the end of Season 2, he seems just as high and dry as ever. Now comes the time to see what he does with his back against the wall.