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This Is Vintage Tom and Shiv

Photo: HBO

You can graft a Shakespearean read onto various elements of Succession: Logan Roy’s similarities to King Lear, Kendall’s positioning as Prince Hal, and, for a while there, Tom and Shiv’s resemblance to the conspiring Macbeths. The couple was aligned in season two, when it seemed as if Shiv would take over Waystar Royco and keep Tom as her right-hand man, and again in this season’s “Living+” after a round of Bitey and an honest conversation about money seemingly smoothed out their monthslong estrangement and united them in Lukas Matsson’s corner. But to borrow a phrase from another of the Bard’s works, violent delights have violent ends, and the blowout fight that poisons Tom and Shiv’s latest reconciliation is as telegraphed as Romeo and Juliet’s deaths. Their quarrel in “Tailgate Party” is a shockingly nasty 180-degree turn for characters who were just sex-ing and sexting each other, but it’s fueled by venom and resentment plucked directly from previous episodes that have foreshadowed all the ways Tom and Shiv were bound to fail.

Bicontinental-sophisticate heiress Shiv and midwestern normie Tom are an opposites-attract duo, and in the first season, Succession recurrently emphasized their differences. His appetite was uncouth, and her infidelity was a shock; he was the striver at her family company, and she wanted nothing to do with the conservatism of ATN. What they found in their relationship was a degree of comfort and acceptance that Waystar Royco wouldn’t provide for Tom and that the Roys wouldn’t provide for Shiv. But is shared outsider status enough to maintain a marriage? Not when your default communication style is absence and denial.

In “This Is Not for Tears,” Tom shares that he’s often “really pretty unhappy” and ponders if he’d be happier without Shiv — a revelation to which she has no response and that leads to the hilarious visual of Tom channeling his rage into chomping Logan’s chicken. In “Chiantishire,” Shiv’s foreplay with Tom is primarily about how she’s out of his league and doesn’t love him, revelations her husband hesitantly pokes at the next morning. “Should I maybe listen to the things you say directly in my face when we’re at our most intimate?” he asks, and “Living+” and “Tailgate Party” raise that question again — first, by positioning Tom and Shiv as emotionally mature adults who can get it on and move forward in their marriage with no shadow of the past, and then by revealing them as grudge-holding malcontents who easily, even ardently, spill out all the insults and indignations they’ve stored up like so many shares of Waystar Royco stock.

All the symbols of Tom and Shiv’s problems are there, hiding in plain sight in the bland, soulless home where Father Sexmas and his scorpion bride are living again after their “little break.” In “Living+,” it felt as if Tom and Shiv had turned a corner with his admission that he betrayed Shiv for money and her complementary acknowledgment that she would never do anything just “for love.” They convinced themselves they each knew who the other was, but that illusion doesn’t last very long. Tom gifts Shiv an arachnid-featuring paperweight that he calls a “joke,” but comparing your wife with a predatory, deadly creature isn’t exactly nice. Is this his version of what Shiv did to him in bed in Italy: cruelty masquerading as cheekiness? Even if it’s a genuine present, Tom’s “I love you, but you kill me and I kill you” is a too-soon dismissal of his alignment with Logan and hers with Matsson. Scuffing up sneakers and flicking ears is one thing, but giggling about your relationship as a charade of backstabbery is another.

But this kind of diminishing isn’t new for Tom or Shiv, and neither is the use of a metaphor-laden object to highlight what’s festering between them. When Tom instructs the tailgate-party servers to push the red wine from his and Shiv’s vineyard, which last appeared in “What It Takes,” it’s a tell that their relationship is closer to where it was in season three than either would care to admit. “It has quite a funk to it … It’s not very nice, is it?” Tom said about the wine back then, and it has only gotten more sour, more pungent, and more unintentionally reflective of its creators’ relationship. (Frank says it “smells like wet dog,” which raises the question: Where was Mondale during this party?) And similar to how the scorpion paperweight backfires on Tom when he tries to get one over on Shiv, so too does him shoving a glass of the fizzy red into the hands of political adviser Nate Sofrelli, with whom Shiv cheated on Tom back in season one.

At Tom and Shiv’s wedding, Tom forced Nate to pour his glass of wine back into a bottle, an absurd display of classist masculinity aimed at the guy who cuckolded him. When Shiv tells Tom in “Tailgate Party” that Kendall and Roy are inviting Nate to further sabotage the GoJo acquisition, Tom puts on a dispassionate face (“What do I care?”) before trying to intimidate Nate when he arrives. But Nate doesn’t take Tom’s bait. He accepts the winkingly offered glass of wine and then walks away, denying Tom his victorious moment of pettiness and embodying the past neither he nor Shiv has really dealt with. Between Nate’s unbothered presence, Matsson’s casual implication that he’s “definitely” going to fire Tom once he’s bought ATN, Shiv’s refusal to plead Tom’s case, and the partygoers’ distaste for the couple’s “light, fruity red,” the tension between the pair just keeps fermenting as the night goes on.

With all those totems of their long-simmering unhappiness convening at the tailgate, it’s no wonder Tom and Shiv turn on each other. Matthew Macfadyen and Sarah Snook drag this fight into a devastating place, their lobbed barbs creating a greatest-hits list of their injuries and wounds. After the initial faux-tentative questioning that drives so many of Tom and Shiv’s attempts to level with each other (“I wonder if we shouldn’t clear the air”), the dialogue from Will Tracy, who also wrote “What It Takes,” becomes very declarative. The exhaustion in Macfadyen’s voice when he says to Shiv, “You’ll be fine — you’ll always be fine,” transforms from conciliation into fury: “It’s not my fault that you didn’t get [Logan’s] approval. I have given you endless approval, and it doesn’t fill you up because you’re broken.” Tom is in free fall, but Macfadyen delivers these lines with precision, all dithering and stalling gone. When directors Robert Pulcini and Shari Springer Berman use Succession’s customary quick zoom to emphasize Tom’s “You were going to see me get sent to fucking prison, Shiv,” and “Your sense of who you are, Shiv, is that fucking thin,” they’re adding visual exclamation points to his list of grievances.

That ferocity is a shock for Shiv, whom Snook plays as if she’s on her back foot and whom Pulcini and Springer Berman shoot mostly in close-up as she parries Tom’s outburst, fights back tears (especially when he attacks her ability to be a mother, unaware that Shiv is pregnant), and settles into a frown that aims for haughtiness but looks like agony. But even so, she’s self-possessed enough to press Tom where he’s most vulnerable, including his family origins (“street rat,” “hick,” “parochial”) and his unearned ambition (“You’re fucking me for my DNA”; “You’re servile”). These are all things that Tom and Shiv have said to each other before in some way, shape, or form, but the pacing and antipathy here create the impression that the couple was, at some level, prepared for this moment, eager to aim their stingers and start jabbing away.

Admittedly, the heat of this fight seems a little exacerbated once you think about the entirety of Succession comprising one year and the events of season four, in particular, spanning ten (nonconsecutive) calendar days; the bitterness between Tom and Shiv is so strong that it hints at a lengthier rise and fall for their marriage. But to return to the Shakespearean comparison, Romeo and Juliet took place over five days: their instant attraction at the Capulets’ ball, their decision to get married, their hasty plan to fake Juliet’s death after Romeo’s banishment, their ultimately tragic ends. Maybe time becomes irrelevant when your schemes get the better of you and when those violent delights, “in their triumph, die like fire and powder.” With all the impetuous ways that Tom and Shiv tried and failed to balance love and ambition, they were always bound to explode.

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This Is Vintage Tom and Shiv