There it was in the Succession series finale, the line women know to be true. Over dinner, Lukas Matsson (Alexander Skarsgard), the epitome of 21st century bro manhood, is admitting to Tom Wambsgans (Matthew Macfadyen) the reasons he doesn’t want Tom’s estranged wife, Shiv Roy (Sarah Snook), to be his company’s U.S. CEO.
Is she “a bit too much,” he wonders. She’s “kind of pushy.” She’s smart, “but I’ve got plenty of ideas.” He’s not thrilled that she’s pregnant. Plus, he wants to have sex with her, and “I can’t deal with the mess of that.” And then he says it: “So if I can have anyone in the world, why don’t I get the guy who put the baby inside her, instead of the baby lady.”
My skin went cold with recognition. Showrunner Jesse Armstrong and his writers said it out loud: There’s just something about women, the femaleness, the otherness, that some men don’t like. They don’t like pushy. They don’t much care about smart. They have complicated feelings about mothers. They acknowledge women’s sexual power, but they don’t want them to have other powers. Given a choice, they prefer the guy.
Now that Succession has wrapped, a big part of the etherverse is claiming that Shiv’s vote to sell the company to Lukas rather than leave it in the hands of her brothers Kendall (Jeremy Strong) or Roman (Kieran Culkin) is vengeful and/or out of character. I disagree. Shiv has been nudged inexorably toward her fate since the pilot, when her cruel titan of a father, Logan (Brian Cox), lures her back from a political career under the false promise that he’s chosen her to succeed him. (A few episodes later, he’s saying offhandedly to her brothers, “You know it can’t be your sister,” and they’re nodding in agreement, and no one even has to spell out why.) Then the events of the final three episodes make Shiv’s choice inevitable.
Here’s why, from the simplest reason to the deepest. First, Shiv has no reason to be loyal to her brothers. The day after Logan dies, Kendall and Roman cut her out, agreeing that they two would run things. When she tries to manoeuver around them via Lukas, they have the gall to resent her for it.
Second, her brothers’ self-interest and moral vacuousness legitimately frighten her. Politically, Shiv leans liberal. She makes queasy compromises throughout the series – watch her squirm in season three when Logan forces her to pose for a photo with his choice for U.S. president, Jeryd Mencken (Justin Kirk), a right-of-Trump republic destroyer. But on election night in episode 408, when the stakes could not be higher, her brothers dismiss her concerns, calling her unhinged, a mad witch, hysterical – all the words people hurl at women who say things they don’t want to hear.
Roman calls the election for Mencken simply because he might chase Lukas away. Ken calls it out of spite. She begs them one last time, “Ken, please, who are we?” But she sees the answer, and it horrifies her.
Third, she’s pregnant, and that’s a lot. She “jokes” to Lukas that she’ll abandon her child for her job, because that’s the world she’s fighting to stay in. But she has to be terrified. So when Lukas forces her out, who can blame her for retreating to her baby’s father? Her own mother could not be a worse role model. I want to kiss the writers on the mouth, so deftly do they show us that.
In the finale, Lady Caroline (Harriet Walter) invites her children to her lush Barbados home – allegedly to nurture them, but in truth, only because her current husband, Peter, wants to pitch them a business idea. She can’t bring herself to put drops in her son’s injured eye. She can’t even feed them. “Modest rations,” she says, slapping a single platter onto the table; later, she snatches back from them the only food in the house, “Peter’s special cheese.” And feeding one’s children is literally a mother’s primal job.
Finally, Shiv caves to a more powerful man because she has been conditioned from birth to do so. From the opening credits, where a girl watches her mother watching her husband walk away, to Shiv’s eulogy for her “dear, dear world of a father” (such a telling line), she has sought – and been denied – male approval, on an almost cellular level.
Logan “kept us outside,” she says at his funeral. “When the sun shone, it was warm, yeah, it was warm in the light, but it was hard to be his daughter. He was hard on women. He couldn’t fit a whole woman in his head.” (Another brilliant line.) Ken, in his eulogy, lauds Logan’s lust to “own and make and build and profit and improve,” and he’s rewarded with applause. No one applauds Shiv.
In pieces like this, people keep calling Shiv a girl boss, a term that seems like a compliment but is actually a diminishment. She’s anything but. She’s as intelligent and competent as anyone else, but she spends her life on the back foot, forcing her way into rooms that don’t want her. People also say she lives up to her name by stabbing her brothers, but really, she does Roman a favour by freeing him, and she saves the world from Ken. (Watch her flinch when at Logan’s funeral, Ken says, “that magnificent, awful force of him … my God, I hope it’s in me.”)
The person Shiv sabotages is herself. By internalizing and accepting the world’s low expectations of and for her, she damns herself to her mother’s fate, waiting in an Escalade for a husband whose hand she can’t bear to hold. Her choice is tragic because she can’t see another.
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