Succession usually thrives on profane wit and eat-the-rich schadenfreude, but Sunday’s season 4 premiere offered a more melancholy form of darkness. While Jeremy Strong’s fragile Kendall Roy tends to be the focus of the show’s saddest moments, this time the characters under the microscope were his younger sister Shiv Roy (Sarah Snook) and her semi-estranged husband Tom Wambsgans (Matthew Macfadyen). After a day of bidding against one another in an interfamilial war to purchase the liberal news empire Pierce Global Media—she as a representative of her siblings, he on behalf of their mogul father, Logan (Brian Cox)—Shiv sneaks into their cold, modern home at night, rousing Tom and ending their marriage.
Both apparently exhausted, they don’t speak directly about Pierce, which Shiv, Ken, and Roman (Kieran Culkin) are now set to acquire following an astronomical offer expertly engineered by Logan’s nemesis Nan Pierce (Cherry Jones, magnificent as always). Nor do they really get into Tom’s betrayal of Shiv and her brothers, by warning Logan that they were planning to block his sale of Waystar Royco to Swedish tech titan Lukas Matsson (Alexander Skarsgård), in the final scenes of season 3, although it couldn’t be clearer that Tom would like to have those conversations. “There are some things I wouldn’t mind saying, and explaining,” he tells her.
But Shiv has already put all of her defense mechanisms into overdrive. First, she makes fun of Tom for palling around with Cousin Greg (Nicholas Braun) as “the disgusting brothers” and sleeping with models. Instead of firing back with any zingers of his own, he simply reminds her: “We agreed that we could have a look around while we had a think, right?” When he wants to have the “big talk” they’ve been planning about the future of their marriage, she shuts him down. “I don’t think it’s good for me to hear all that,” Shiv says, unapologetically protecting her own ego. Then she reverts to her family’s preferred patois of corporate-speak and cursing: “We both just made some mistakes, and I think a whole lot of crying and bullsh-t is not gonna help that. So, if you’re good, we can just walk away with our heads held high and say ‘good luck,’ yeah?”
Tom knows better than to make a big emotional scene—or, for that matter, to point out that his wife isn’t holding her head high so much as she’s holding back tears. Yet he doesn’t grovel or plead, either. This quiet exchange in their darkened home is among his most sympathetic scenes to date because, instead of telling Shiv what he thinks she wants to hear, he responds to her emotionally stunted brusqueness with a sincerity of which she seems incapable. When she suggests it’s time for them to “move on,” Tom simply replies: “That makes me sad.” Succession creator Jesse Armstrong chooses his words, and plots out his character arcs, carefully, so it doesn’t feel like a stretch to read this as a callback to Tom’s memorable line from the season 2 finale: “I just wonder if the sad I’d be without you is less than the sad I get from being with you.”
There is, of course, a lot more history worth revisiting here. We could go back to the couple’s wedding night, when Shiv flees from intimacy by asking Tom for an open marriage. His sabotage at the end of season 3 is directly preceded by her noncommittal responses to his inquiries about having children, her apparent indifference to his future at Waystar, and her stunning attempt at dirty talk: “You’re not good enough for me,” she says. “That’s why you want me. That’s why you love me. Even though I don’t love you. But you want me anyway.” As she’s battled her siblings, Tom’s appeal to Shiv has always been that he doesn’t challenge her at all.
Not that their relationship is uniquely awful in the grand scheme of the Roys’ love lives. It’s just the only one that’s been dissected at length over the course of three seasons. Sunday’s premiere showed us Ken—already divorced with two kids he rarely sees—taken aback to learn that his sometime girlfriend, Naomi Pierce (Annabelle Dexter-Jones), was spending time with Tom. (Yes, the linchpins in the Pierce bidding war are two feuding couples.) Meanwhile, the siblings’ elder half-brother Connor (Alan Ruck) is days away from marrying a woman (Justine Lupe) he met in her capacity as an escort, who panics upon hearing that he might spend $100 million on his pathetic presidential campaign, until he assures her that after doing so he’d still be rich. For autoeroticist Roman, sex is something that he inflicts on inappropriate women. Even Greg’s dating has become transactional; in Italy, he tried to trade up from Ken’s publicist Comfry (Dasha Nekrasova), and now he’s hooking up in Logan’s guest room with a woman glued to social media, who may or may not be engaged in corporate espionage.
As with every other toxic tendency that afflicts this odious family, Logan is patient zero. These days, he’s so cozy with his ambitious personal assistant, Kerry (Zoë Winters)—now introducing herself as his “friend, assistant, and adviser”—that his kids are suspicious he’s trying to sire yet another heir. What’s going on with his current wife, Marcia (Hiam Abbass)? “She’s in Milan shopping, forever,” says Kerry. Which must mean she’s enjoying the compensation she negotiated out of Logan in Sarajevo when it looked like he might be arrested, at the beginning of last season. Shiv, Kendall, and Roman’s mother, Caroline (Harriet Walter), just traded her children’s supermajority in the Waystar holding company to Logan for a property her sleazy new husband had his eye on. And then there’s Connor’s mom, whom Logan had institutionalized.
Hence the current of loneliness that runs through even the most gleefully vicious moments of Succession, a show about a family for whom reasonably equal, mutually supportive relationships, romantic or otherwise, do not compute. “What are people?” Logan asks his security guard and “best pal” Colin (Scott Nicholson), in Sunday’s episode, after leaving his depressing birthday party to mix with commoners at a diner. He answers his own question: “They’re economic units. I’m 100 feet tall; these people are pygmies. But together they form a market”—like a “job market, marriage market, money market, market of ideas” (emphasis mine).
Shiv was raised on this philosophy, so it’s no wonder that she chooses to cut her losses with Tom instead of enduring, as she so tellingly frames his suggestion that they have an open conversation, “a whole lot of bullsh-t for no profit.” Unwilling to cede any ground to Tom, she refuses his pitiful offer to “see if I can make love to you” but insists on staying put until morning. By the time they drift off, their hands are clasped together—you decide whether it’s a truce or a handshake to seal their agreement to split up—but their bodies are perpendicular, legs hanging off the bed, frozen in poses as unnatural as their monstrous marriage.
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