‘Succession’ Recap: A Sex-Fueled Tom and Shiv Hit Their Breaking Point
This post contains spoilers for this week’s episode of Succession, “Tailgate Party.”
If you are a fan of prestige TV in general, chances are you have heard the fable of the frog and the scorpion many, many, many times. It is among the most overused thematic devices of this era, which has been dominated by shows about terrible people doing terrible things to those who’ve trusted them, simply because it’s in their nature.
“Tailgate Party” knows better than to have anyone summarize that story for the benefit of the three viewers who don’t already know it. But its opening scene does feature Tom giving Shiv a very peculiar present to celebrate their happy and sexually prolific reconciliation: a scorpion in a glass case. One minute, Shiv is delighted to be back in the company of this man who seems to be gratifying her more than ever before, both emotionally and physically. And the next, she is baffled by this gift and its deeper meaning. Tom tries to play it off as a gag — like he’s a less openly arrogant version of Lukas Matsson, the man he is so desperate to impress — but Shiv can’t understand how the joke works until Tom first explains who the scorpion is supposed to be. “You, I guess,” he stammers out.
Like the frog and the scorpion drowning in the middle of the river because the scorpion couldn’t resist stinging the frog, the joke is actually on both of them. Yes, they are back together, smiling and ravenous and flirtatious. And yes, each of them secretly hopes that this is real — Tom wants Shiv to genuinely love him, Shiv wants Tom to be with her to raise their child — but it can’t be. We know it, and deep down, they do too. They are too fundamentally damaged, too ruthless, too accustomed to using other people, for this to work out.
And over the course of “Tailgate Party,” we see them get further and further out into the water, until their relationship is destined to drown as soon as the barbs come out.
A lot of other things happen in the episode, albeit none quite as compelling. The hour takes place on the day before the presidential election. Mencken is down four points in the polls to Jimenez, and it seems as if Logan has doubly screwed over the GOP: first by pushing out the incumbent POTUS, then by putting his stamp of approval on an unapologetic hatemonger whose followers have everyone frightened, up to and including Kendall’s daughter Sophie(*).
(*) Kendall, as is so often the case, is unable to internalize blame for any role he has played in being part of an operation that would endorse this monster, and instead ends up lashing out at Rava. Like always, Natalie Gold’s performance says so much in such a short amount of time about the many, many, many ways Rava’s ex-husband somehow keeps coming in below her expectations after all these years.
It’s entirely possible that Succession is aiming for a Trump-esque surprise where Mencken outperforms his numbers and wins — Logan Roy’s final Fuck You to a country and planet he took so much pleasure in damaging — but for this episode, everyone is feeling particularly vulnerable. The Roys’ hand-picked candidate is in big trouble, the bump the company’s stock got from Kendall’s fraudulent Living+ pitch is fading, Roman is trying and failing to make things right with Gerri, and Matsson has to come to, as he has colorfully described it to Shiv, Logan’s “bullshit pre-election braindead, AOL-era, legacy media, putrid stuffed mushroom fuckfest,” in order to fend off Kendall and Roman’s latest attempt to sabotage the deal via federal regulation. Cousin Greg seems at ease in his newfound role as ATN’s hatchet man, blithely performing mass layoffs over Zoom(*) because, as HR has told him, “I look like I care but I don’t.” And Connor is pleased to find himself in a brief position of importance when Roman, on behalf of the Mencken campaign, tries to convince him to drop out of the race in exchange for an ambassadorship. But other than those two, it’s anxiety and misery everywhere in Tom and Shiv’s apartment.
(*) Like Season Two’s Vaulter story, the cold ineptitude of the Zoom scene will ring disturbingly true to so many people in media, as well as all the other American industries enduring mass layoffs in the name of appeasing shareholders and protecting executive bonuses.
There’s a lot of gamesmanship at the party, as well as many reminders that mutually assured destruction for the Roy brothers and Matsson would probably be the best outcome for all involved. Kendall’s numbers from the investors meeting were bogus, but so are GoJo’s numbers in India, which comms chief Ebba only tells the Roys after Matsson once again can’t stop himself from being emotionally abusive to her in front of others. This news gives Kendall the confidence to think that he can pull a complete switcheroo on the deal, going back to his dad’s original plan for Waystar to buy GoJo, rather than the other way around. There are two problems with this plan, though. One is that Kendall plans to cut both Roman and Shiv out of the loop on this — “One head, one crown,” he tells Frank — when the siblings’ unity, however shaky, has been the only thing working for them of late. The other is that it’s Kendall Roy attempting it, and Logan’s Number One Boy will always find a way to sabotage himself in the end, his self-immolation as inevitable as death and taxes.
None of this material — including a triumphantly vengeful Gerri telling Roman that she wants hundreds of millions in severance in exchange for not sharing all the dick pics he has sent her — is bad, by any means. Connor and Maxim Pierce trying to figure out a good diplomatic posting that Mencken would actually give him is particularly amusing, including Connor’s belief that he can smooth things over with North Korea the way Nixon did with China. But it all feels very much in the shadow of what’s happening with the party’s two hosts.
If Tom’s present wasn’t concerning enough, the rest of the evening is filled with flashing neon alarms for the relationship. Shiv accedes to Kendall’s request to invite Nate to the party, and the presence of his wife’s ex feeds into all of Tom Wambsgans’ basic insecurities. Worse, Shiv has to spend most of the party escorting her new ally Matsson around, and thus seems to be on the same page with the Swede as he brags to half the guests that he plans to fire Tom once the deal is complete. Things just get tenser and tenser between them, and the worst part is that all of it is for nothing. Nate refuses to help Kendall(*), and Shiv realizes that she has betrayed her family, and her husband, to align herself with a man who is far less powerful and reliable than she had assumed.
(*) Kendall fails in getting Nate’s assistance, and Nate fails in attempting to convince Kendall to stop cosplaying as his father. “Ken, I don’t know what you think this is,” he says, with a hint of genuine concern in his voice. “I’m not Gil. You’re not Logan. That’s a good thing.”
But then, pointless betrayal is par for the course for these two. Later, when the two are verbally tearing each other to shreds away from the guests, Shiv accuses Tom of depriving her of having a relationship with her father in the last months of Logan’s life. As we know, Tom did that to make a craven alliance with a man he wasn’t expecting to die. But if he blew up their marriage for what turned out to be only a temporary gain, what did he really destroy? During their argument, all the dirty laundry gets aired out:
Tom’s desperate social climbing, and Shiv’s vulnerability at the time they met.
Tom potentially going to prison for the family, and Shiv only kind of caring.
Shiv never really loving Tom, and, more importantly, rarely trying to hide this fact.
Among Tom’s grievances is that Shiv didn’t want to have his baby. He doesn’t know that the woman he is screaming at is increasingly pregnant(*), and at one point describes her as “incapable of love, and maybe not a good person to have children.” It is an even deeper cut than he imagines as the words escape his lips, and it would be the cruelest thing either of them has said, except for all the others. But what makes this fight so rough — and so, so, so spectacularly played by Sarah Snook and Matthew Macfadyen — is that nothing said is unfair, or untrue. They are bad people who have been bad for each other. Always and always and always.
(*) Given how far along Shiv is, and how much sex they’ve been having since the LA trip, Tom has to be even more oblivious than usual to not recognize her condition. Or perhaps he’s just so scarred by her past refusal on this subject that he can’t even envision that it is happening.
After last week’s episode, I saw my social media feed light up with an unusual sight: Tom and Shiv ‘shippers, surprised to find themselves rooting for these crazy kids to make it work. Heck, I’ll admit that I was at least somewhat one of those people. Succession is such a nasty show about nasty characters that it’s understandable for people to cling to anything that suggests basic human function and the concept of happiness. But with shows like these, we — and Tom and Shiv, for that matter — aren’t so much the frog foolishly letting the scorpion hitch a ride, but a different frog in the proverbial pot. The temperature feels comfortable at first, and we are all acclimated as it gets hotter and hotter, so that we don’t even think to try jumping out before it hits a boil. And with that, our hopes for them, and their hopes for themselves, are cooked. There was never a way Tom and Shiv’s relationship could have ended any differently, no matter how much they tried to convince themselves that the water was just fine.
And unlike the first frog, whose only sin was being too generous of spirit toward the scorpion, Tom, Shiv, and those of us in the audience have no one but ourselves to blame. We knew what this was, from the start. But we got in anyway, and now it’s too late to feel anything but the heat, and the pain.