Soul-Crushing Misogyny Made “Succession” the Perfect Show for Our Time

Soul-Crushing Misogyny Made “Succession” the Perfect Show for Our Time

Soul-Crushing Misogyny Made Succession the Perfect Show for Our Time

It was clear from the start: Siobhan Roy could never win. But toxic masculinity made the men losers too.


So Succession reached its finale, with both a bang and a whimper.

(Spoiler alert: Stop reading here if you haven’t watched!)

Siobhan Roy’s semi-estranged husband, Tom Wambsgans, prevails over the Roy siblings, as GoJo monster Lukas Matsson chooses him over his wife to run the new, merged company. Why? Matsson tells Tom over dinner: “She’s smart, but I’ve got plenty of ideas, I don’t need any more ideas.” He also calls her “pushy” and “too much.” Plus, he kinda “wants to fuck her,” and “I think she’d fuck me too.” He adds, “I’m sorry if it’s weird?” But Tom says it’s OK by him. “We’re men.” Sure, Tom.

Thus Tom gets the job because his wife is too “smart” and “pushy,” and also the boss wants to fuck her and that’s too much of a “mess” even for Matsson. Poor Tom: He wins the prize, but he’s a virtual cuckold. (Of course, he knows Shiv has already cheated on him, so maybe “virtually” doesn’t sting.) That’s the whimper, but here’s the bang: Fucked over by Matsson and enraged, Shiv nonetheless casts the deciding vote for the sale of family firm Waystar/Royco to GoJo, the “streaming, betting, sports, social and everything app,” as one newscaster puts it. Thus she puts Tom on top, and shivs brother Kendall, who thought that in the end, she’d side with him to block the GoJo deal and make him king.

For some people, Shiv’s flip-flopping in the finale, destroying her brother and elevating her submissive but victorious husband, confirms what they’ve thought all along: None of the Roys are likable, but Shiv is the worst! Over the years, trying to guess who “wins” at the game of “succession,” and succeeds their towering sadist of a father, Logan Roy, super fans divided into “Team Kendall,” “Team Roman,” and “Team Shiv.” Shiv had her partisans, but she also had the most online haters (the feminist writer Susan Bordo has covered it here).

I was never “Team Shiv,” necessarily, but the Shiv-haters almost sent me there. I argued with a friendly colleague over e-mail about his anti-Shiv obsession. To Bordo, and a lot of us, it reads as sexism, even though I don’t think my friend is actively sexist, and of course he denies it.

But in what world can Shiv be the worst? Kendall literally killed someone (a waiter at Shiv and Tom’s wedding, in the Season One finale), and younger brother/masochist Roman, as the nominal head of the show’s rabid right-wing Fox News stand-in ATN, acts to declare a genuine fascist the president of the United States in the eighth episode of Season Four.

Succession is so shot through with misogyny that it’s clear nobody can really win, maybe not even Matsson, who sends his own blood to his head of communications/ex-lover and fraudulently inflates GoJo’s audience numbers. The creepy Swede is almost sure to crash and burn.

It’s a man’s world; Shiv just lives in it. No one thrives. Sound familiar?

The series also divides into “Team Sadist” and “Team Masochist.” Roman is a masochist; after forcing ATN to declare the racist fascist Jeryd Mencken the president, he goes out and gets himself beaten up by the anti-Mencken mob gathered outside. So is Tom, whom Mattson accurately calls a “pain sponge.” Logan Roy and Matsson are clearly sadists, as is Kendall. The finale’s cruelest scene is when Kendall, just before the vote over selling to GoJo, hugs a distraught Roman so hard, caressing/grinding his head into his shoulder, that he reopens one of the head wounds Roman got on the night of his beating. Ultimately, Ken didn’t get to succeed Logan Roy, but he inherited his penchant for serving love with a side of sadism.

Shiv’s some of both. She’s been cruel to Tom (like asking for an open marriage on their wedding night), but she’s also been deeply wounded by him (especially when, not knowing she’s pregnant, he says she’d be a terrible mother). And even before he comes out on top—when she still thinks she’ll be on top—she tries to reconcile with the father of her baby. She’s bad at relationships, she tells him over the phone, always afraid of the “underneaths,” a scared child’s view of intimacy. Since they’ve said the worst to one another, she suggests, maybe they can be “free” to have a “real relationship.” But Tom coldly puts her off with “Honest to God, Shiv, I don’t know.” Vulnerable Shiv departs and brittle, conniving Shiv returns. She quickly ends the call.

In the end, while her betrayal of Kendall felt brutal, Shiv’s choice was obvious: She finally realized she’d never be allowed to wield power on her own, so she picked the man she can either wield power through most reliably, or at least rely on for protection, for her and her baby. Also remember: Though Tom’s said some vicious things, Kendall’s misogyny is rampant, especially when he calls her a “cunt” earlier in the finale, while she’s still allied with Matsson. She objects, but he insists. “Cunt is as cunt does.” Maybe Kendall can take over for Tucker Carlson.

But Shiv takes her shot. “Fuck off, OK. I won. I’m sorry I fucking won. But I did… I played it better. So why don’t you take it like a man and just eat it?” Ouch.

Of course, she didn’t win. And in case we’re inured to misogyny after all these years of Donald Trump and so many monsters, remember that Matsson also justified choosing Tom over Shiv with this: “Why don’t I pick the guy who put the baby inside her, instead of the baby lady?” Why indeed.

Sidenote: Shiv is short for Siobhan. It’s obviously meaningful that her nickname is Shiv—yes, as in “shiv”—but I also think people overinterpret it, as if she’s clearly the designated worst, because they literally don’t understand her name. I do, because it’s Irish/Gaelic for Joan, and means “God is gracious.” When I was a little Irish Catholic girl, I very much wished my parents had named me Siobhan. So obviously I have an eccentric point of view, but it’s more informed than most. (Early in the finale, when she’s firmly allied with Matsson, Kendall derides her as “Joan of Waystar.” But I don’t want to overinterpret that.)

The ending feels tragic, for everyone. “It’s all fucking nothing,” Roman tells Kendall as his brother’s dream dies. (It reminded me of Tony Soprano’s miserable, emasculating mom Livia’s dying words: “It’s all a big nothing.”) Roman, I should note, seems liberated by the collapse of… everything. In his last scene, he’s alone in a bar with a martini and a slight smile on his sad face. He’s always known it’s all fucking nothing.

In their last scene, Shiv and Tom leave the site of the sale together, side by side in a black SUV. Tom extends his hand, in a rather kingly gesture, and she rests her hand on his. But this is not hand-holding; this is acquiescence. They look miserable, separately and together, the “baby lady” and “the man who put the baby in her.”

I’ll admit, the saddest is Kendall. Devastated by losing his crown, he walks the city and winds up next to the Hudson River, with the Statue of Liberty in view. Water figures so prominently in Kendall’s storyline—the waiter drowns in Season One; at a couple of low points in Seasons Two and Three, he dives into the ocean or drifts in a pool and we wonder if he’ll resurface; he’s out for a night swim when Shiv and Roman (temporarily) “anoint” him king. It seems as if a despairing Kendall might jump into the rough currents of the Hudson and give us his literal finale.

He doesn’t. But he might have been OK if he had. Following him the whole time has been Colin, Logan’s old driver and bodyguard, whom Logan called his “best pal” shortly before he died. He’s now guarding Kendall, making Kendall Logan’s successor, at least to Colin.

So Shiv got Tom, but Kendall got Colin. Who will turn out to be the better Roy protector? Barring an unexpected sequel, or a spinoff, we’re not going to find out, and I’m going to be sad about that.

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