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Tom Wambsgans Said “If”

Photo: HBO

Tom Wambsgans contains multitudes. He can deliver a sincere message with one side of his mouth and unleash some of the cruelest, most foul insults with the other. He can surf along as Shiv’s supportive husband while simultaneously planning to betray her to her father. He can mount the most clown-show public presentation imaginable (“And I’m an ATN citizen”) while also bouncing around the Roy family banter with fluid capability. So it’s fitting that one of Tom’s most honest, painfully direct, bone-deep speeches, one of the rare Succession moments where someone actually says a thing outright, is also couched in the language of conditionals.

The speech Tom gives Shiv in “Living+” is, to-date, the most direct, emotionally honest moment depicted in their marriage. It’s offered as a form of apology without the actual words, a response to Shiv’s expression of hurt that Tom ended season three by siding with her father. “You shouldn’t have betrayed me, phony,” Shiv tells Tom after he says he wants her back. “If I try to say it, if I try to say the truth,” Tom responds, “it’s that when I met you, all my life, I’ve been thinking a little bit about money. How to get money, how to keep money.” He’s not saying he regrets that choice, but he is explaining why he made it: “It seemed to me that I was going to be caught between you and your dad. And I really, really love my career and my money.”

It is a blazing declaration of vulnerability from Tom Wambsgans, echoing but also surpassing Willa’s episode-four admission that yes, some of her interest in Connor is about his money. But the only way Tom is able to actually admit any of it, the only way he knows how to express the thing that is so obvious while also being so gauche for the Roy family, is by starting the whole speech with the word if.

Shiv does this too, often starting statements with words like I wonder and Maybe and Could. For Shiv, the conditional is often transactional, a mode of speech she uses with her brothers, with her father, with Matsson (“Maybe someone could … put a stick in the spokes?” is her way of asking a favor). But for Shiv, the conditional is usually more than linguistic. Just before the money speech, Shiv tells Tom that she and Matsson “have a connection,” and Tom accuses her of “keeping her options open.” It’s true, and it’s also how Shiv, consciously or not, is treating her own pregnancy. Until she tells anyone about it, the pregnancy lives in this conditional area, an option she’s keeping open without fully committing to. The call from her doctor, referencing both an amniocentesis and potential spotting, suggests the pregnancy itself may have been in uncertain territory; now, at some point still before the 20-week appointment her doctor will call back to schedule, it’s still in a liminal space. It’s an “if” baby, a card she hasn’t played but has not yet discarded, either.

“If” can be a transactional mode for Tom as well; no one on Succession can escape turning all their relationships into elaborate quid pro quo dances. But in episode six’s glorious money speech, Tom is using “if” in a very different way. It’s the “if” of imaginative play, of hypotheticals and possibilities. Shiv and Tom love to play games, after all: In past seasons, they’ve teased each other about their sexual pasts and turned their future decisions into strategy puzzles about family dynamics and how to outmaneuver their enemies. But their game-playing mode has been broken since Tom’s betrayal. Shiv offers to resurrect the dynamic by playing bitey, and it’s both desperately hot and desperately unsustainable. Bitey is a form of mutually assured destruction instead of a safe conditional space, and neither can hold out for long. So instead, Tom offers a different way forward: “if.” It’s a castles-in-the-sky proposition, playful and false, maybe in the shape of a sexual game like “If we were strangers” or a power-dynamic game like “If you were in charge.” What he says, though, is “If I try to say the truth.”

What would have otherwise been playing, an imaginary form of interaction between them, instead becomes a declaration of truth folded inside the comfortable, not-quite-real space of “if.” This conditionality is a lingua franca between them. It’s what allows Tom to say anything to Shiv because it’s the only way he knows how to communicate with her safely. “If” does not negate any of the shivering, illicit clarity of Tom’s honesty in that moment. No one doubts that he’s saying the truth or, what’s more, that this is an enormous moment of confession. But the conditional mode allows Tom a back door out of that speech once he’s done. He can lay out his naked fear and desire and then he can button it all away again because it never really happened. It was only ever an “if,” after all.

What’s even more powerful, though, is that Tom’s flipped the script. The idea he’s couching inside this safe conditional does eventually offer an imagined alternative for them, but it’s also Tom being honest. He’s revealing himself, and this thing he’s terrified of, but when the temporary, tenuous space of that “if” closes at the end of the speech, Tom and Shiv get to twist away from it. Away from the version of their lives where they live in a trailer park and dress up for three-star Italian. He voices all of this, but he does it in the mode Shiv and Tom use for safe exploration. The fact that it’s all inside an “if” doesn’t erase anything. It just gives them a bridge back to the mutual comfort zones they’d lost.

It’s why the mood between Tom and Shiv seems to shift so suddenly. He starts the next scene with his feet on her desk, confident and gleeful, not revealing that he’s listening in on her call with Matsson. They know how to be playmates again. The problem with building your entire relationship on conditionals, though, is that it’s also tenuous — ifs and maybes and coulds are more sustainable than bitey, but only by a little. Shiv may be just a little bit sort of pregnant, but that’s the kind of option that can stay optional for only so long. At some point, someone’s going to have to commit.

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Tom Wambsgans Said “If”