Earlier this week, CNN went forward with a “Town Hall” event featuring former president Donald Trump only days after a jury swiftly ruled against him in a civil case brought by the writer E. Jean Carroll, who had accused him of sexual abuse and defamation. Critics have rightly called out the Town Hall as a farcical platform for Trump’s campaign that allowed him to spew largely unchecked lies before an audience of Republican and right-leaning independent voters in New Hampshire who were explicitly told not to boo should they even feel inclined. CNN boss Chris Licht said afterward that “America was served very well” by the broadcast and that CNN had “made a lot of news, [and] that is our job.” In The Atlantic, however, Megan Garber got hung up on that bit of phrasing:
This is vertical integration of the worst kind. The network “makes news” and then talks about the news that has been made, and then agrees that the news that has been made is dangerous to the republic.
Toward the end of tonight’s bone-chilling episode of Succession, after the CE-bros opt to press their fat thumbs on the scales of democracy, Roman sums up the fiasco thusly: “We just made a night of good TV. That’s what we’ve done.” The coming episodes will almost certainly reveal that Roman, Kendall, and Tom, in their eagerness to play the roles of cable-news kingmakers, will have wagged the wrong dog. But Jesse Armstrong understands the perverse, top-down, ratings-grubbing incentives of cable news so well that “America Decides” can barely be called prescient for seeming so timely. What the Roys pull off in delivering their “night of good TV” is just a more craven, inept form of business as usual. It was one thing for Kendall to promise eternal life, but he’s gone too far this time.
(Before I go any further, however, I want to tell you on the down-low that exit polls say Jiménez. No leaks, please.)
Armstrong’s diabolical script for “America Decides” — the irony dripping from that title is like the Xenomorph blood in the Alien movies — takes the past two presidential Election Nights as a template, which may explain the sinkhole that has opened up in the pit of your stomach. From 2016, Armstrong revives the spectacle of a far-right fringe candidate outperforming the polls and eking out a surprising, surreal victory against his liberal opponent. And from 2020, he reconfigures that startling moment when the Fox News Decision Desk got out in front of the competition to call Arizona for Joe Biden, which enraged a Trump campaign that was counting on the network to prevent reality from interfering with its narrative of reelection. Here, it’s a premature pending (but really not pending) call on Wisconsin that swings the electoral vote in Jeryd Mencken’s favor and a legitimate call in Arizona that forces ATN to crown the king from the corner they’ve painted themselves into. (Armstrong also seems to draw from reports that an “inebriated” Rudy Giuliani advised Trump to declare victory on Election Night. Again, it sets a narrative that’s hard to reverse.)
Nonetheless, Election Night on ATN starts with pro forma pre-returns coverage about irregularities at the polls. Before Greg even gives him a cocaine bump, Tom is hitting the news floor to ask after a viral scoop about a woman who had reportedly voted for Jiménez 40 times under her dead mother’s name. (He is disappointed to be informed that she’s “not a well person.”) This night’s coverage is when the “ATN voice” must yield to the sober data of polling stations, but the young guns in Waystar’s post-Logan executive class all have agendas that supersede the democratic process. Tom needs a ratings bonanza if he’s to have any hope of a future at ATN News now that he has lost Logan and his tenuous reunion with Shiv has collapsed. Meanwhile, Roman and Kendall are still focused on sabotaging the deal with Matsson, and it seems like a back-channel deal with Mencken is secure if they can just do their part to make him president. Kendall seems queasy about the situation — maybe “smashing the country to pieces” isn’t such a swell idea? — but he’s flexible.
These high-level machinations are invisible to the viewing public, of course, which might be alarmed to know that the election chaos was made possible in part by the ATN chief being on the outs with his wife. But “America Decides” beautifully dovetails the election with the personal drama that has been building up all season long. Though we know Kendall has plans to “reverse Viking” the Swedes and appoint himself the sole leader of a media kingdom larger than his father ever had, Roman sees them as aligned in killing Matsson’s deal. Now, via Greg, the word is starting to slip out that Shiv has been advising Matsson behind their backs, hoping to lock down the deal in exchange for some undefined place at the new company. (That Matsson hasn’t actually promised her a thing is a typical Shiv-scheme problem, though her instinct to bet against her brothers’ plans is sound.) With Nate blanching over Kendall’s blunt discussion about scotching the deal in exchange for favorable Jiménez coverage over the first 100 days, Roman’s voice rings loudly, especially when he discovers Shiv’s betrayal at the worst possible time.
The precursor to that revelation is a terrific scene between Kendall and Shiv where she reads her brother’s insecurities about Mencken, which rest partly on his worries about Roman’s tight relationship with him and partly on his concern that helping elect a fascist may make the world a worse place for his daughter. He’s honest about his desire to run the company if Matsson’s deal is blocked, and he seems surprised and pleased that Shiv seems to have no objections to it — not knowing, of course, that she’s in cahoots with the Swede. Still, Shiv’s panic over Mencken was legitimate from the start: “Mencken’s the nightmare, plausible in a decadent era,” she tells Kendall. “He says the bad shit. He believes the bad shit.” It isn’t far from Kendall’s mind that his decision on Mencken relates to his failings as a parent. He doesn’t want to be like his dad, but, as he says, “maybe the poison drips through.”
Roman has no such misgivings. “My team’s playing your team,” he hisses at Shiv as the evening begins. “It’s only spicy because if my team wins, they’re going to shoot your team.” When a fire erupts at a polling center in Milwaukee, Roman latches on to the levers of power with both hands. Who’s to say which candidate the burned votes of Wisconsin’s largest city would have favored? ATN’s poor, exasperated election-desk head, Darwin (a wonderful Adam Godley), can definitely say whom they would favor, but Roman has no trouble steamrolling over him, especially since the feckless Tom can’t even keep the Roys off the news floor. The compromise solution to label Wisconsin a “pending call” is to Darwin what the goosed-up Living+ figures were to the company’s numbers guy. Darwin needs some cover for information he knows to be wrong — and in the end, he doesn’t even get that. No “pending.” No camera time for his caveats. Just a new president.
We know enough about the success rate of the Roy children’s big moves to guess that their Election Night shenanigans will blow up in their faces. But “America Decides” speaks to a cable-news ecosystem that does a lot of America’s deciding for it. Just as Trump remains a ratings bonanza, Mencken is great television. (To quote Darren Rovell’s immortally stupid tweet, “I feel bad for our country. But this is tremendous content.”) Mencken’s speech seizing on the ATN call, declaring himself “something clean” in a polluted land, doesn’t sound much different from Travis Bickle, in Taxi Driver, hoping that one day “a real rain will come and wash all this scum off the streets.” Scary stuff, perhaps, but horror is always a popular genre. For a sleazy little corporate apparatchik like Roman, a future in which Mencken gives the Roy brothers control of Waystar while offering tremendous content is a win-win.
Sad-Sack Wasp Traps
• News of the Shiv-Matsson alliance is filtered through Greg, who immediately spills it to Tom, as expected. “Information, Greg,” says Tom, “it’s like a bottle of fine wine. You store it. You hoard it. You save it for a special occasion. And then you smash someone’s fucking face in with it.”
• Kendall takes rich-divorced-dad absenteeism to new levels by having a dark SUV follow Rava and Sophie around for their protection as “an extra layer of Bubble Wrap,” which of course scares the hell of them.
• Tom to Greg on why he should go back to fetching him coffee: “If I get drowsy and I miscall Colorado … instability! And the U.S. loses credibility. China spots an opportunity and invades Taiwan. Tactical nukes. Fucking shit goes kablooey. And we’re back to amoeba. It’s a long way back from pond life because you failed to get me a double shot.” (Turns out you don’t have to be drowsy to miscall a state.)
• One more great Tom-and-Greg exchange in a night full of them: Tom is furious that his disgusting brother won’t snort cocaine with him because Greg had coke the night before and doesn’t want to get addicted. “What are you saying?” Tom screams. “Aztecs are stupid? Don’t be a racist little bitch about it.”
• Alas, Connor’s presidential ambitions come to an end as the polls close and Schrödinger’s ballot box opens in Kentucky, where Mencken is declared the winner. He has no regrets, though: “It just makes an election so much more interesting when you’re in it.”
• Wonderful piece of acting from Sarah Snook in the scene where Shiv pulls Tom aside to apologize for her harsh words on Election Eve. She expects him to apologize in turn but then gets hit in the face with the bottle of fine information wine instead. His pissy disbelief over her pregnancy revelation (“Is that even true? Or is that like a new position or tactic?”) genuinely surprises and hurts her, and Snook expresses Shiv’s wounded reaction by barely pushing a “What?” through a veil of sadness.
• Connor believes his $100 million is still worth a minor ambassadorship, and he has cooked up the rhymes to pitch for it: “Organize a little coup down in old Peru? Put me in a van to Tajikistan? Couldn’t I just be our fun guy in Uruguay?”
• “‘Respect the process.’ ‘Count every vote.’ He’s so fucking dull”: Hugo on Jiménez says a lot about what actually matters for network executives and what doesn’t.
• Shiv’s threat to Greg over Matsson (“How about I offer for you to keep your internal organs on your inside rather than I pull them out your asshole?”) is ineffectual in a way that recalls Kendall’s trying to use the same language in a position of weakness against Stewy. Colorful threats can still be empty threats. Even a dope like Greg is smart enough to realize that.
• Funniest scene of the night has to be Darwin accidentally rubbing his eyes with the wasabi from the bodega sushi, which Greg then attempts to wash out with the acid of a lemon-flavored seltzer. “It’s clear,” pleads Greg. “It’s natural, like medical.”
• Subtly excellent moment between Greg and Jess in the pregnant pause before he relays the news that ATN will call the election for Mencken. That we never get a chance to know Jess beyond her faithful service to Kendall makes this little beat more powerful. Greg and Jess are adjacent to power; they’re messengers and facilitators. Now, they’re standing between their bosses and a dark, transformational change in the country. But they can’t stand there for very long.
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