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The Unbearable Sadness of Tom Wambsgans

Now that Tom’s back in the game, he can’t pretend the game is fun again. Photo: Macall Polay/HBO

Note: Spoilers ahead for Succession season three, episode seven, “Too Much Birthday.”

Last night’s episode of Succession was chiefly, crushingly, mortifyingly, and gruesomely about Kendall Roy. He is the saddest birthday boy. He wants people to see him, and all they can see is someone who might want a fancy watch. (And the saddest thing of all is how sad he is that they don’t even know what kind of fancy watch he’d actually want.) Although they play out on a new, upsetting scale in “Too Much Birthday,” the basic contours of the Kendall Conundrum don’t change all that much. Kendall longs for approval, especially from his family. He doesn’t know what actual emotional support would look like, so he confuses spectacle and value signifiers for the experience of being valued. He has just enough self-awareness to decide against the most cringeworthy pinnacle of the performance, enough to realize how empty he actually feels, but he doesn’t have enough self-love, courage, or sheer self-preservation to exit the cycle that puts him in that terrible emotional place.

It is one of Succession’s many repeating circles, a kind of looping stasis that gives the appearance of metastability but is really just status quo. Lili Loofbourow’s writing about this season pokes at this idea (“Is Succession Stuck in a Rut?”), and Naomi Fry’s question about whether Succession is best thought of as a sitcom points to the same general premise. Succession is a show that looks like it’s running a marathon. The title suggests epic continuance, an ever-changing handoff from one generation to the next. You expect you’re sitting down for The Forsyte Saga. At this point in the show’s third season, however, the title is its chief joke because succession is the one thing that never happens. The show looks like a marathon, but it’s really just running in place.

Except — maybe — for Tom Wambsgans.

It’s hard not to focus on Kendall in “Too Much Birthday,” what with the VIP tree house and the crucifix he almost hangs from and the frantic search for presents from his kids. But there’s something striking and unsettling about Tom here, and as much as Succession continues to be the best imaginable version of a story spinning its wheels, Tom is the signal I keep looking at to suggest that things might change. All season, while the siblings squabble and tug at the lines of power, Tom has sunk into a depression, contemplating the likelihood that he’s going to jail. At various moments, it has seemed like there might be a hidden undercurrent. Maybe he’s wearing a wire? Maybe he’s going to betray the family to get out of jail time and just hasn’t done it yet? Or maybe he has a conscience, and even though imprisonment clearly terrifies him, there’s some part of Tom that actually wants to be punished?

The end of season two was this bomb that suggested a game-changing scenario: Kendall turns on his father, apparently taking Greg and all the secret cruise documentation with him. Yet as season three has played out, Kendall’s betrayal looks less dramatic. He’s still hanging around the office, still trying to get the same job he was trying to get at the beginning of season one. He’s every bit as sad as he ever was, and Logan is nearly as powerful. There’s another scene in that season-two finale, though, that in retrospect looks like a much bigger deal. Tom and Shiv are on a little deserted beach, some cove they have asked the yacht staff to find so they can have a private conversation. Tom is legitimately hurt in a way he can’t seem to shake off as he has in the past. “I wonder if the sad I’d be without you would be less than the sad I get being with you,” Tom tells her.

While Kendall’s big season-ending mic-drop move has become just another part of the familiar Succession dance, it has started to look as though Tom’s much-quieter declaration of unhappiness is the more lasting power shift. Everyone reverts to the norm once the dust settles from Kendall’s move — everyone except for Tom, who was already so unhappy playing along with the game that maybe the idea of going to prison became a relief. It was a way to get out while saving face.

Until “Too Much Birthday,” Tom’s flirtation with a criminal conviction has hung out there in the background, a classic sad-jester situation that looked as if it could easily be remedied once the threat of imprisonment disappeared. The whole prison idea was always so vague, anyhow, in part because Succession puts very little energy into making that threat feel imminent. No one hovers around in the background mentioning that the authorities are here to question people yet again. Government officials don’t phone the Roys and remind them that they’ll need to offer a blood sacrifice. So it’s not especially surprising when the specter of Tom’s imprisonment suddenly vanishes. It always lived more in Tom’s fear than in any detailed part of the plot. But for all his morose terror, something about Tom seemed excited about the prospect of leaving. He prepared for that prison sentence as if it were a bleak wedding: venue hunting, food tasting, trying to predict the interpersonal dynamics. It was the promise of change.

When that promise dissolves, Tom is supposed to revert to the norm like everyone else. He walks into Kendall’s party all raring to go, ready to feel thrilled by the closeness of his escape. But he can’t get it up. He takes drugs, and they don’t seem to work; he watches Shiv melt down, and even though he felt sidelined by her rise to power, he can’t take joy in her fall, either. The most galling is Greg. They walk through the compliments tunnel, and Tom states it plainly: “You seem much happier than me, Greg.” Greg is buoyant and optimistic; Tom cannot manage to pretend he’s happy about any of it anymore.

As the Roy siblings have spent all season playing another round of Waystar Royco musical chairs, the cursed game in which the one person with a seat refuses ever to stand up, I have wondered if Tom may be the only character who could force the game to end. It wouldn’t be because he finally decides to grab power; it would be because he’s finally too miserable to make the game worth it. Succession has become an exercise in increasingly baroque ways to make nothing happen, and the cruel, rotted misery of that status quo is just as key to Succession’s satire as its bleak depiction of wealth and the idiocy of those in power. While the Roys continue their grim, endless circling, though, Tom has sat out this round, contemplating what it would look like if he got out altogether. Now that he’s back in, he can’t pretend the game is fun again.

Although Succession is better at this circling perpetual-motion machine than any other show on TV, it’s probably time for the game to end — or at least for it to change in some pronounced way. Tom Wambsgans is now the most unbearably unhappy character in the whole shebang, and unlike the Roy family, he wasn’t born to this. He knows what it looks like to live another life. Who knows what the future will hold, but if there’s any avenue for meaningful change, my money’s on Wambsgans.

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The Unbearable Sadness of Tom Wambsgans