Succession has needed an episode like “What It Takes” for a long time. We know enough about Waystar and ATN and the Roy family to draw comparisons to Rupert Murdoch, his children, and the poisonous legacy of News Corp, or perhaps Donald Trump and his smooth-brained fail-children. If a show like Succession referenced, say, the Trump family more directly, perhaps we would understand Don Jr. as a Roman Roy type, a pitiable simp who’s eager to please the distant, abusive father who will never love him. Such a show might only hint around the impact their familial intrigue has on the real world because it would be immersed instead in the petty, no-doubt-hilarious internecine conflicts that engulf daddy and the kids behind closed doors.
The title “What It Takes” references Richard Ben Cramer’s book about the 1988 presidential election, a classic of political nonfiction and perhaps the definitive book about how campaigns operate. The ’88 election was a mad scramble to succeed Ronald Reagan after he’d reached his two-term limit, with then-VP George H.W. Bush and Bob Dole battling it out for the Republican nomination and Michael Dukakis, Gary Hart, Dick Gephardt, and a no-hope Joe Biden mixing it up on the Democratic side. There were a lot of wild twists and turns in the news media, particularly among Democrats, that led to a nominee, but it was not as if the media itself had a thumb on the scales. As in any healthy democracy, it was decided by the people of New Hampshire.
The perverse twist of “What It Takes” is that the actual process of who gets to be president — or who gets to be the nominee on the right, anyway — is completely opaque, decided in the lobbies and suites of off-the-books events rather than campaign stops and ballot boxes. Just as Logan Roy casually considered the interim CEO of Waystar from the cabin of his PJ, he could also play kingmaker from the couch of his hotel suite, despite being the man responsible for bullying the current president, “the Raisin,” out of trying for a second term. He’s looking for the next white guy that looks like the strongest contender and will agree to a hands-off approach to Waystar’s criminal misadventures in exchange for favorable coverage on ATN. These are things that aren’t supposed to happen — the DOJ is supposed to be independent of executive influence, elections are supposed to be decided by the voters — but, in the jaundiced view of Succession, do.
So who gets to be president? We’re offered four candidates: There’s the current vice-president, Dave Boyer (Reed Birney), a.k.a. “Martin Van Boring,” babbles on about being anti–Big Tech and has a gross habit of constantly wetting his lips. (“He’s like a cartoon bear and there’s always a picnic hamper nearby,” says Roman.) There’s Rick Salgado (Yul Vazquez), a RINO-type who seems to have an uncomfortable relationship to the party’s rabid base but may have mainstream appeal. There’s Connor Roy, a fringe anti-tax dipshit whose candidacy is such a joke that even his family members cannot help riffing on it. And then there’s Jeryd Mencken (Justin Kirk), a full-on white supremacist and fascist who also happens to be the most charismatic contender by far.
The bottom line for Logan Roy — and the bottom line, as we’ve learned in the real world, for Rupert Murdoch and Donald Trump — is not a question of ideology but power. Presidential candidates are assessed for their popularity with viewers and how much they might benefit ATN’s ratings and Waystar’s business interests, but what they actually believe doesn’t matter that much. Those adjustments can be made if they haven’t been made already. A network on which Ravenhead is a popular prime-time demagogue can accommodate a guy like Mencken, and the rest of the programming will fall in line, even if the advertisements get winnowed down to an online pillow distributor. Logan needs a winner, especially now, when he’s under threat from the DOJ and his shareholders.
The rift within the Roy family over Mencken is absolutely chilling. Shiv has proven herself to be nothing if not politically flexible — not long ago, she was toying with a chief advisory position with a Bernie Sanders–like flamethrower, and now she’s arguing for the least-appalling option. We’re so used to seeing Roy business as amusing full-contact sport that Shiv’s genuine panic and revulsion over Mencken’s candidacy is a cold splash of water to the face. If there was any thought that a corporation like Waystar — or, you know, News Corp — would draw the line on fascist authoritarianism, “What It Takes” perishes it. Mencken’s extremism may come back to bite Waystar in the end, perhaps giving rise to the Succession equivalents of NewsMax and OANN, but Roman thinks it’s good for business and his daddy agrees. They’re probably right.
In the end, Shiv makes a comically spineless choice. She cannot refuse to be included in a photo with Mencken and continue to be “part of the family,” so she negotiates a pose that puts her as far away from him as possible. “You win, Pinkie,” her father says about this embarrassing, ignominious defeat. She has cast her lot with her father and he will continue to abuse her for it, just as he did after she struck a deal with his bitter adversaries last week. She doesn’t smile in the photo. She isn’t next to Mencken. But she should know that she’s complicit, and we should know, as viewers of this very entertaining show, that there are no corporate guardrails to prevent the worst people from taking control of the country.
Sad Sack Wasp Traps
• Kendall’s longstanding refusal to listen to his lawyer — who, annoyingly, does not tell him everything he wants to hear — results in a serious weakening of his standing in the cruises scandal. His smug answers in a prep session (“I approved the illegal payments because I love sexual assault and I love to cover it up”) carry over into the actual questioning by DOJ officials. Meanwhile, Waystar is burying DOJ in paperwork, running a faux-scrupulous internal investigation, and gumming up the works until the crisis is yesterday’s news.
• Roman green-lighting a hit movie called Dr. Honk, about a man who can talk to cars, suggests that Hollywood might be a good place for his talents.
• Even by Succession standards, Will Tracy’s script is saltier and more colorful than usual. Choice one-liners from the “ATN primary”: “As a libtard, how do you like spelunking the elephant’s asshole?” “Hey Shiv, is it true you’re at the hatefest fest, burning books and measuring skulls down in Nuremberg, Virginia?” “I’m not saying it’s going to be the full Third Reich, but I am genuinely concerned that we could slide into a Russian Berlusconi-ed Brazilian fuckpile.”
• A wonderful episode for Tom, whose impending prison sentence has earned him the nickname “Christmas Tree” around the office because others, like Greg, can hook their “bauble of corporate wrong-doing” on his branches. In the meantime, he’s too depressed to make love to Shiv, who’s still on contraception (“It’s like throwing so much cake batter at a brick wall”), and picking through the overcooked omelets at a local diner to get a feel for what prison food might be like.
• But maybe he doesn’t have to go to prison! Kendall arranges a clandestine meeting to persuade Tom to join his team and get an immunity deal for turning on Logan. The offer sounds great, if not for the fact that Tom would be betraying his wife and throwing his lot in with a guy who always loses. At this point, Tom is so resigned to his fate that he’s ordering dinner food like Bill Murray in Groundhog Day: “I’ll take the griddle hero special with double hash browns, fully loaded, and plain waffle and a large cup of plain temperature water.”
• It didn’t seem possible for Willa to detest Connor more than after he suggested turning her play into a so-bad-it’s-good event, but using her body to curry favor with the lecherous donor (Stephen Root) responsible for the Future Freedom Summit takes the animosity to another level.
• Tom and Shiv’s vineyard is yielding screw-top wine that seems as foul as their marriage. “It’s earthy, kind of Germanic,” seems like wine-speak for “It literally tastes like shit.”
• Greg line of the week: “I just feel, because of my physical length, I could be a target for all kinds of misadventure.”
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