Midway through the third season of Succession, Tom Wambsgans tells his underling and cousin by marriage, Greg Hirsch, a colorful anecdote from an empire in decline. “Sporus was a young slave boy—he was Nero’s favorite,” Tom (Matthew Macfadyen) explains. “Well, Nero pushed his wife down the stairs, and then he had Sporus castrated, and he married him instead. And he gave him a ring, and he made him dress up like his dead wife.” As Greg absorbs this history lesson, Tom extracts the relevant subtext: “I’d castrate you and marry you in a heartbeat.”
In the HBO dramedy’s much-discussed season 3 finale, Tom sets that prophecy in motion. An ambitious executive at Waystar Royco—the media behemoth led by Brian Cox’s cutthroat octogenarian patriarch, Logan Roy—and the husband of the boss’ only daughter, Siobhan “Shiv” Roy (Sarah Snook), he does the corporate equivalent of pushing his wife down the stairs. When Shiv tells him that she and her brothers Kendall (Jeremy Strong) and Roman (Kieran Culkin) are teaming up to block Logan from selling the business, which would jeopardize what the siblings see as their birthright, Tom turns around and warns Logan. Which raises a question, going into the show’s fourth and final season: Could Tom Wambsgans be the successor Logan is looking for?
There are plenty of reasons to doubt him. Tom got an appreciative slap on the back from his father-in-law after betraying the younger Roys, and when the new season opens, he has penetrated Logan’s inner circle. But before that he was essentially a satellite of Shiv, always entering rooms unnoticed and offering opinions no one seemed to hear. Capable of delivering floridly profane monologues to—and blowing off sadistic steam at—the slightly more marginal Cousin Greg, Tom the middle-class striver nonetheless seemed content to back his formidable wife.
Read more: Everything You Need to Remember About Succession Ahead of Its Final Season
Yet it was Shiv who miscalculated in season 3. Just scrupulous enough to question her family’s flirtation with neo-fascism and flee, humiliated, when a renegade Ken blasted Nirvana’s “Rape Me” at an all-staff meeting as she tried to spin a potentially ruinous sexual-misconduct coverup, Shiv watched Roman replace her as Logan’s heir apparent. She took out her anger at this demotion on her husband, in much the same way that he would often unload on Greg, even as Tom spent several episodes panicking that his willingness to take the fall for Waystar’s corruption would land him in prison—a sacrifice no one, least of all Shiv, seemed to appreciate. When the couple’s ongoing discussions about having kids ended in talk of freezing embryos for up to a decade, followed by Shiv’s pillow-talk bombshell—“I don’t love you”—it was clear she had pushed him too far.
It would be a mistake, however, to interpret Tom’s betrayal as entirely emotional. Sure, in the past he’s seemed to be in awe of Shiv (if not quite as impressed with her as she is with herself). You can imagine him burning her because he thinks ruthlessness will win him her respect. But he has also found a way to use the inside information she’s thoughtlessly dumped on him throughout their relationship to his strategic advantage. Earlier in the season, when Ken tries to exploit his brother-in-law’s scapegoat status to recruit him to the anti-Logan resistance, Tom demurs. “Having been around a bit, my hunch is that you’re going to get f-cked,” he says. “Because I’ve seen you get f-cked a lot, and I’ve never seen Logan get f-cked once.”
Foreshadowing aside, that kiss-off not only finds Tom growing the spine to spar with a Roy, but also reveals the siblings’ blind spot. Each has their own fatal flaw. As Logan’s terminally spacey eldest child, Connor (Alan Ruck), succinctly puts it: “Roman’s a knucklehead, Shiv’s a fake, Ken’s screwy.” Collectively, in trying to take down their father and in a project the trio embarks upon in season 4, they share an inflated confidence in their own abilities born of inherited power and privilege. He may fret about the lack of good wine in prison, but Tom is grounded enough to see that Logan has been so successful—and his children haven’t—for a reason. He’s also more likely to remain invested in the company (or what’s left of it should the sale he helped engineer in the season 3 finale go through) once Logan is gone than Logan’s kids, who are competing for their dad’s love more than anything else.
Tom Wambsgans is a nasty, venal, nihilistic person, as anyone hoping to take Logan’s place must be. “Tom would open the gates to the death camps,” Macfadyen told Vanity Fair. That level of moral flexibility, which serves Tom well as head of Waystar’s right-wing news operation, ATN, must surely count as an asset to someone of Logan’s particular political convictions. Yet he’s not an ideologue or a loose cannon. He’s not sanctimonious like Shiv or emotionally volatile like Kendall or prone to humiliating the family through performative onanism like Roman or silly and foolish like Connor. He isn’t a stiff suit like Logan’s aging deputies Gerri (J. Smith-Cameron), Frank (Peter Friedman), and Karl (David Rasche). Neither is he fickle; it takes years of mistreatment, followed by a flurry of bad decisions, for Shiv to lose his loyalty. Love aside, it seems that he simply wants to back a winner. And for the first time, he’s starting to believe that winner might just be himself.
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