It Was Never Going to Be Shiv

Her strongest move in Succession turned out to be the lock on her self-constructed cage. Photo: HBO

To hear Shiv tell it to Roman as they loiter on the beach while elder brother Kendall goes on another of his highly symbolic dives into the water — first a place of death, then a place of rejuvenation, and finally, by the end of the Succession season finale “With Open Eyes,” a place of melancholy delusion — daddy Logan probably never thought in the long term, never could imagine a future for Waystar Royco in which he wasn’t at the helm. There is truth to that, since Logan was still giving fiery speeches about being a news pirate only a day or so before his death. But there’s also truth to Roman’s reply to Shiv: Logan didn’t really want any of them. Didn’t want Kendall, the junkie addict; didn’t want Roman, the sexual deviant; and probably didn’t want Shiv, though he offered her the job in the second season.

That job offer allowed Succession to pull Shiv closer into the narrative and to set her on a chase for the CEO job that led her to inevitably abandon all of her alleged ideals. “It’s a fucking horrible job that clearly kills you,” Kendall says to Shiv to dissuade her from continuing to pursue the top spot, but like Logan, Succession was never really serious about placing Shiv at the apex of Waystar Royco. Instead, her character’s function was always to show how the power and the money — yes, the money — will corrupt and corrode anyone who comes into contact with the institution providing that influence, even a woman espousing liberal and feminist ideologies and worrying about the future of the American democracy, the undermining of which has made her family billions of dollars. When “With Open Eyes” ends, Shiv is actually physically closest to power at Waystar Royco by being married to Tom, who has betrayed her again to be named Lukas Matsson’s American CEO, the position she was promised. But her strongest move in the entire series is voting for the GoJo deal and against Kendall. “My opinion counts for more,” Shiv had said to Logan in the third season. Her sale-clinching decision in the fourth is the only time that’s proved to be true; it just happens to be the lock on her self-constructed cage.

For the most part, Succession has an “all these people are terrible” policy, and it hardly holds back on terrors committed by Shiv’s siblings. Kendall has now convinced himself that he both wasn’t present when a waiter died at Shiv’s wedding and that the recounting of his death was a lie to his siblings to gain their sympathy in Italy; Roman got cozy with neo-fascist Jeryd Mencken and ushered him in as president; Connor, bless him, blew through $100 million to convince nearly 1 percent of Americans of his political nonsense. But what Succession did by making Shiv so rabid to run the company she once claimed to despise — and, before then, by making her a foot soldier in Logan’s mission to silence sexual-abuse whistleblowers — was suggest that she was uniquely at fault because of her womanhood, because of the “flexible” morality she boasted about to Matsson and Mencken, because of her knowledge of who her father was and her actions in service of him anyway.

“He couldn’t fit a whole woman in his head,” Shiv says at Logan’s funeral in “Church and State,” and Succession cuts to a shot of Gerri and Karolina, their heads bowed, their faces in profile, their looks inscrutable. Maybe they’re ashamed, or maybe they’re uncomfortable with Shiv speaking for them, or maybe they’re thinking about how they weren’t on Matsson’s kill list and how much more rich they’re going to be when GoJo takes over Waystar Royco. When Tom enters for the ceremonial signoff in “With Open Eyes,” triumphant and smug and ebullient, he asks for Gerri and Karolina. They are exceptionally good at their jobs, so he has reason to want to keep them around. But there’s also a sense that he believes if these women would stand by Logan’s side through the “no real person involved” scandal, through the tossing aside of Rhea, through the elevation of Kerry, then they’ll stick around through anything. They were exposed to a pathogen that goes by the name Logan Roy, and that disease is irreversible.

Whether Shiv should have known better is a question Succession dances around quite often. There’s been a mini-trend in TV lately in which the evils of capitalism are made even sharper, pricklier, and more detestable when they come from the mouths of white women: Maria Bello’s home-improvement-store heiress in Beef, whose mansion is practically a museum of pilfered ethnic artifacts; Jennifer Ehle’s Ayn Randian investor in Dead Ringers, who justifies her nonchalant cruelty toward anyone less affluent or more idealistic by saying, “It’s the system, and I’m happy to play my part.” Put Succession’s own Nan Pierce in this category; her politics are more left-leaning than Logan’s, but man, what a pretentious, money-grubbing matriarch, disinterested in any kind of real social change and simply frothing at the idea of getting more cash for her company, even as she melodramatically calls the bidding war “disgusting.” The puerile triumph of feminism is when a woman can be just as awful as a man, and each of these series gets a little bit of thrill out of portraying a woman in this way — this self-centered, this brusque. Bello’s Jordan and Ehle’s Rebecca are seductive figures, their offers of money drawing other women into their orbit and distorting their priorities. In Beef, Ali Wong’s Amy sells her company for millions, but keeps working afterward, trading time with her daughter for a vacation house; in Dead Ringers, Rachel Weisz’s Elliot Mantle gives up her desire to treat women of all social classes for money to fund a state-of-the-art birthing center that must be profitable. Each trade-off suggests it’s easier to be inside the light than outside of it. Shiv talks about Logan being the sun that shone, but she’s talking about all his warmth provided too.

When Shiv, Kendall, and Roman try to buy Waystar Royco’s rival outlet PGN in fourth-season premiere “The Munsters,” Shiv tells Nan she’s divorcing her ATN-leading husband in an attempt to prove her bona fides. The SheEO archetype isn’t always single, but their spouses — as Bello’s Jordan says in Beef — are the wives in the relationship, the ones in charge of the family home and domestic life. That’s the role Shiv gets slotted into at the end of Succession, though. Another form of “daddy make-work” awaits her, one in which Shiv’s desire to remain close to capital and control crystallizes her into the person Logan Roy trained her to be. Shiv is the kept woman, the “pregnant cello” carrying the “real” Roy bloodline, the wife who puts her hand on top of Tom’s offered one in a car ride she had initially declined, back to a home she had abandoned, back to a marriage in which her husband says he’s not sure if there’s “anything left.” In the closing minutes of “With Open Eyes,” Roman is free, comfortable in his realization that the Roy children “are bullshit … we’re nothing,” while Kendall is killed by Shiv’s figurative coconut, wandering New York City in a haze of delusion and despair. Both of them are out at the company their father had alternately promised to them. Only Shiv remains, power-adjacent but powerless, a scorpion out-stung in the playground she thought was a whole world.

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It Was Never Going to Be Shiv