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Shiv Is Exactly Who You Think She Is

Sarah Snook as Shiv Roy in Succession.
Shiv, almost feeling guilty for a second for betraying her gender. Photo: HBO

It’s tempting to think of Succession’s Shiv Roy as someone worth rooting for, if only because the people around her so clearly aren’t. Her father has no moral compass. Her brothers are, respectively, an addict, a slimeball, and a nincompoop. Her husband, as evidenced by his testimony before Congress in this week’s episode, “DC,” has as much of a spine as your average sidewalk slug. The fact that Shiv is competent, astute, and frank about her ambitions — and on top of all that, a woman who has to deal with all these ridiculous men — makes her one of the few Succession characters that you’re almost, almost tempted to admire. (The fact that she can rock a backless dress doesn’t hurt either.) I mean, when you take a “Which Succession character are you?” quiz, you want to get Shiv as your result, right? (I got Tom Wambsgans. I think it’s because I chose Fozzie Bear as my favorite Muppet.)

But as Succession heads into its season two finale, “DC” reminded us that we definitely should not admire Shiv, or want to be anything like her. In the most distressing scene in Sunday’s episode, Shiv (played with sneaky ruthlessness by Sarah Snook) convinces Kira (Sally Murphy), a victim of sexual harassment and abuse in Waystar Royco’s cruises division, not to testify before Congress about what she’s suffered. By doing so, Shiv Roy proves once and for all that she is a true Ivanka, a woman who rah-rahs feminism in theory but is really only invested in doing her daddy’s bidding, regardless of the ethical lines that get obliterated along the way.

When Shiv learns from her old boss, Sen. Gil Eavis, that Kira will be called as a witness, Logan and Kendall immediately decide that Kira has to be stopped. Against her better judgment, Rhea decides to handle it with Shiv. “This doesn’t feel right,” Rhea says as they head to a city playground where Kira agreed to meet. “No,” Shiv says, completely missing the point. “It’s lady duty, soft skills shit work.” What’s wrong, in Shiv’s mind, is that she’s been asked to handle a “lesser” task, not that she is about to intimidate a fellow woman and a witness, which, in addition to being unethical, is also illegal.

When they arrive at the playground, Rhea changes her mind about meeting Kira. That’s because, even though she’s not perfect, Rhea tends to ingest at least some moral fiber at breakfast every day. When Rhea tells Shiv that she doesn’t have to go through with the confrontation either, Shiv corrects her: “If she speaks and she’s compelling, then that’s it for my family’s company. So, yeah, I do have to.” That’s the moment when the true Shiv, the one who values her father’s company and her status within it above all else, emerges. (It’s also the moment that finally convinces Rhea she can no longer have anything to do with the Roys or their business endeavors; by the end of the episode, she’ll walk away from Waystar, Logan, and the CEO job.)

Shiv’s manipulation of Kira is unsubtle but masterful. She starts out by trying to seem like she’s on Kira’s side. “I’m here to listen,” she says, even though she doesn’t ask Kira any questions about what happened to her. She plays the “woman-to-woman” card, removing her heels as if to suggest they’re on equal footing, then complaining about how much she hates wearing them. (Shiv Roy: She’s just like you. She gets it.) The pattern in Shiv’s herringbone suit dress even resembles Kira’s, though Shiv’s ensemble is more chic and probably ten times more expensive. Their clothes are a reminder that they’re both women, but otherwise live in different worlds.

When Kira responds skeptically, Shiv makes a point of noting that she doesn’t trust her dad. She also says that she wants to clean up the operation in the cruises division, too, and suggests it’s something that they could do together if Kira doesn’t testify. But the move that ultimately proves to be most effective is brutal honesty. After Shiv acknowledges that she isn’t trustworthy and has her own personal agenda, she reminds Kira that so do the senators encouraging her to testify, then she lays out what her life will look like if she speaks out: Kira will be the center of media attention for a few days, but that will fade and nothing will change. The fact that she was sexually harassed by Lester McClintock — a man with the nickname Mo, as in “Mo Lester” — will hang over her for the rest of her entire life. People will call her a slut. They’ll never see her for who she is without thinking first of what she said before Congress. Her assault will be the first line of her obituary, Shiv says in frank but chilling words, and it will be the last.

What’s interesting about Shiv’s faux “honesty” is that it really is honest. If Kira goes public, there’s a distinct chance that no significant change will come of it. That’s something that, as women, both of them know as well as they know that high heels hurt. Of course, testifying before Congress about her experience would, ideally, put another dent in a misogynistic machine that needs to be broken. But what Shiv says sounds so plausible to Kira that it’s easier to believe she has more to lose than gain.

It’s easy for us watching at home to believe, too. There are very strong shades of Dr. Christine Blasey Ford in this situation with Kira, and the fact that this episode airs on the one-year anniversary of Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation by the Senate only drives that point home even further. Before Ford came forward last year, she feared the exact scenario that Shiv lays out on the playground: “Why suffer through the annihilation if it’s not going to matter?” she told the Washington Post at the time. If you were a friend of Kira’s, it’s very possible you might give her the same advice that Shiv did. The difference is that a friend would genuinely be trying to protect her. Shiv is not. It’s disturbing how similar those efforts can sound, even when the motivations behind them are so opposed.

Succession is a dark show, obviously. But there’s something about this moment that is extra-dark. There is zero comedy in it, not even a wry remark to put a button on the scene. It reminds me of what Logan did to Roman a couple of episodes ago: Shiv’s conversation with Kira, and the fact that it has the desired effect, lands like a slap.

There is one tiny instant when Shiv seems like she might feel a sliver of remorse for what she did to Kira. It’s after her father congratulates her. The camera holds on her face for a moment after Logan walks away. She is smiling, but then her face straightens up for a moment. The smile fades and she appears to be contemplating something, but — snap! — in a millisecond it’s gone.

Shiv did what she needed to do. She made her daddy proud. I wonder, though, if she should be worried? I swore that in the distant background I could see other women watching Shiv talk to Kira, and that one of them was holding a camera as though she were filming the conversation. We’ll see what happens in the finale. But if Shiv’s attempt to undermine a fellow woman winds up being exposed by a woman, that would offer nice poetic justice. It’s easy to stop one lady from blowing a whistle. But Shiv hasn’t considered that there are always more ladies and, potentially, more whistles.

Shiv Is Exactly Who You Think She Is