The first time that I, Emily VanDerWerff, critic at large for Vox, watched “Tern Haven,” I dubbed it the best episode Succession has aired to date. The second time I watched it, my love for it only increased.
My wife disagrees that it’s the show’s best episode, but will allow that it is “the most Succession episode,” which I think we can surely agree upon. It has business machinations and double dealings galore. It has weird hook-ups and depressive implosions. It has a man pooping the bed. Like ... what more do you want?
It’s also a great example of the power of episodic storytelling. The Roys go into “Tern Haven” with a singular goal — convince the Pierce family to sell their beloved company to Waystar-Royco for the princely sum of $24 billion — and by the time the episode ends, they’ve managed the feat (though the price has gone up to $25 billion). Along the way, many of the secrets that have been simmering throughout this season are thrust into the open, and the family is at each other’s throats all over again.
It’s not often discussed that part of Succession’s strength stems from how every episode is just that, which gives the show’s serialized stories room to breathe. The Roys’ pursuit of Pierce is one of the major storytelling thrusts of this season, but each episode both reveals new information about Pierce and provides a new way for them to cast one of the Roy siblings into relief. (In “Tern Haven,” the Pierce family’s gamut of strong, progressive women stands as a long run of might-have-Shivs.)
I don’t think Meredith Haggerty, senior editor for The Goods, is as over the moon as I am for this episode, but I know she really loved it. So let’s break down six winners who came out of “Tern Haven” in the black, and three losers who came out of it very, very, very in the red.
Emily: As a woman who is a huge fan of sabotaging herself at the least opportune moment, I could hardly stand to watch Shiv’s big failure in this episode, when she, at an important dinner with both families gathered, blurts out that Logan offered her the chair of Waystar once he exits. It’s the wrong play: Logan knows it. Tom knows it. Shiv definitely knows it. But she can’t take it back.
The paradox of both Shiv and Kendall — the two Roy siblings who might actually make something of themselves — is that the more they believe they can do the job, the less they become able to do it. When Shiv doesn’t think she has a prayer at being Waystar’s next CEO, she casually displays all of the qualities that would make her a good one. When she’s told she will get the job, she immediately falls apart with anxiety at the thought that her father hasn’t yet announced her as his successor.
Then again, how often is this true for women? Power is promised but illusory. Sometimes, demanding what you’re owed is the play, even if it comes from a place of raw anxiety. And Shiv making her big announcement at dinner definitely spurs something in the Pierces. When they agree to sell to Logan the next morning, they try to demand that Logan name Shiv his successor when he announces the acquisition, the better to quell fears that Pierce’s storied journalism history is going to someone who won’t simply loot and pillage it. (RIP Vaulter.)
But Logan says no. He won’t be baited into doing what somebody else wants, and Shiv’s dinnertime declaration has clearly driven a wedge between father and daughter. It’s gut-churning and heart-breaking, and I genuinely can’t believe how much Shiv risked for something she barely believes in, beyond liking the idea of having power. I wanted to chew off my own arm. (HBO, please, put that quote on a promotional poster.)
Meredith, when we were chatting before we started this recap, you spoke really eloquently about how good Sarah Snook is in this episode, so I’m just going to ask you: What made her performance so excellent?
But before you answer ...
Shiv’s hair update: Sadly, it’s somehow the most fantastic it’s ever been. I couldn’t look away, even when I wanted to.
Meredith: Sarah Snook’s face, Emily! Her beautiful, twitching, confident, insecure, glassy-eyed face in that opening scene just murdered me. She was cocky and scared and sick and buzzing, all in waves, all at once. It was a feat. But that (muted, confused) pride came before the fall and I can’t handle it.
If I didn’t enjoy this episode as much as you did (and I can’t say I did), it’s because I am but a simple woman who cannot bear to see an almost-good-all-things-are-relative person self-immolate in the way that Shiv did (unless they’re Tom Wambsgans).
Her inability to just not speak when just not speaking would have won her the damn day peaks at that horrible dinner, but it starts in the episode’s opening scene, when she chirps that Pierce’s fallen readership just screams “buy, buy, buy,” prompting a look from Logan, and barrels on through the rest of the hour.
She insults the academic Pierce with a crack about Wikipedia; she trolls Roman’s reading recs and bullies Tom in front of everyone; she’s wrong-footed with Nan (who gives her a truly operatic glare) when she tries to compliment Pierce. Our haircut queen never says anything right! And what the hell is she going to do now?
Meredith: Logan Roy is, of course, the default winner of Succession every week — so much so that we rarely even include him. It’s no fun! What can you get the man who has everything, etc! As the CEO himself explains: “Money wins.” Duh!
But in “Tern Haven,” Logan is as against the ropes as we ever see him (that is to say, in a clear power position over a longtime enemy). And yet he snakes out not just a win, but a series of massive defeats: of Nan Pierce, of PGM, and — for reasons that make sense only if you’re a man whose whole being is the pursuit and maintenance of power — of a painfully thwarted Shiv.
It seems for just a moment that Logan is throwing away a wildly unlikely, company-saving deal on pure ego and control issues by refusing to name Shiv as his successor, but nope, he gets what he wants. Namely: Pierce for the low, low price of $25 billion dollars, a chance at safety from the Stewie-powered takeover bid, and no extracted promises. He makes it hysterically clear that he will never relinquish power on anything but his own terms. All that plus a free(ish) stay at Tern Haven and the Pierces’ forced, judgmental hospitality.
Congrats, buddy, hope you can take it with you!
Emily: Before season two began, I read an interview with Succession creator Jesse Armstrong in the Hollywood Reporter, and he said that what sets Logan apart from his most obvious real-world analogue, Rupert Murdoch, is that Logan genuinely is someone who built his empire from the ground up. Murdoch started with a few newspapers; Logan got where he is because he’s a cunning businessman, an amoral jerk, and a cold-hearted bastard.
So one of the things I loved about “Tern Haven” was how it put Logan in a place where he was very much out of his element. He’s new money, compared to the Pierces, who have been rolling in it for (seemingly) centuries. They have so much cash — and they’re so used to having so much cash — that they basically luxuriate in how little they need to do to live in this world. Logan’s kids are a little more used to this sort of crowd, but Logan himself, well, they're never going to be his “people.”
So even though Logan’s ultimate triumph here is at the expense of the child he’s ostensibly closest to, and even though it will surely wreck the news media of the Succession-verse even more thoroughly, the deal he makes at episode’s end is his final victory over anybody who might have doubted this up-and-comer on his way up the media ladder.
Or, as he puts it, his favorite quote from Shakespeare is: “Take the fuckin’ money.”
Winner: Sexy fun
Emily: One thing that sets Succession apart from so many other HBO dramas is that it doesn’t have much in the way of sex or nudity. This is not a show that wants to titillate you with such matters, presumably because it seems like the only way the Roys (save for Shiv) can have sex is by constantly telling themselves they’re not good enough.
Well, good for all of us, because “Tern Haven” is a non-stop sex fest! And by “non-stop sex fest” I mean “non-stop humiliation fest.” Both Roman and Kendall hook up with their would-be paramours. Let’s start with Romulus.
Where Roman fails to have sex with Tabitha (after telling her that if she turns on the lights, he’ll know she isn’t a dead woman!), he turns to his truest love: Gerri. Visiting Gerri after Tabitha’s rejection, he tries to get her to tell him what he’s going to do with his life now that he’s not going to take over Waystar. It takes her a second, but she realizes that what he most wants is to be told how awful and disappointing he is, so he can lock himself in her bathroom and masturbate. (He even tells Tabitha the next morning that he jerked off in Gerri’s bathroom, but she doesn’t believe him. The perfect crime.)
Honestly, I never fall for fictional couples anymore, but Gerrman I believe!
Kendall’s hook-up is a little more conventional, as he ends up making out with fellow addict and Pierce family black sheep Naomi (an excellent Annabelle Dexter-Jones). Naomi is a bit of an enigma. It’s not clear why she thinks Pierce selling to Waystar will free her, but I also think it’s not supposed to be. It’s a story she’s told herself, one that helps her prepare for what she knows she’s going to do. She’s almost like a Mad Men character who’s wandered into this much more schematic show, and I’m into it.
So when Kendall might take off in a helicopter (while high) or he might just kiss Naomi, he opts for the latter. But it doesn’t matter that he remained grounded. We know the crash is coming.
Meredith: Here we are again, Tom old friend, back in the loser’s column for the fifth straight week in a row.
It was always going to be a bleak vacation for Wambsgans. He’s told early in the episode that he’ll have to be a “straw man,” wearing a “hair shirt,” getting called a “shitbag,” and having his “haunches” “caned” “a bit” when the Roys meet the Pierces, which is just a little more enthusiastic description from Logan for a coming beating than even Tom can stomach. But when all is said and done: Woof. At least he didn’t throw anything this week.
His proscribed role for the weekend is unlikable and he can’t even do that quite right (“right-wing ogre, at your service,” he says, pleadingly). But despite his mealy mouthedness, he is a sore spot for the PGM team; he effectively loses his job as head of news over spinach (more on that later) and is definitely out by the final negotiation. His wife, in the room, barely blinks.
Immediately after having his own future thrown into question, Tom actually does a nice little job building Shiv back up in the hallway, but she refuses to even acknowledge cutting him down. No one cares, she tells him, to which he replies, “well technically, I care.” Ultimately, it doesn’t matter how supportive he is, as she “fucks it” for both of them. Maybe there’s a spot open in cruises.
Meredith: Congratulations to Shakespeare, who is held above “poor Jesus” and worshiped in the Pierce household.
The Bard is invoked most explicitly during that bad dinner party’s grace, when Naomi recites a few lines about honor and reputation from Richard II, but the dude is really everywhere in these scenes of fancy families grappling for power and dignity.
We’ve got children jockeying for their father’s kingdom (in King Lear fashion), and a lost young prince struggling to care about his young and beautiful love interest while obsessing about a mother figure (Roman’s pretty damn Hamlet-y, even if he doesn’t know the plot). There’s also a long-suffering wife frozen for years in plain sight (Marcia, finally popping up this episode, is sort of like A Winter’s Tale, if you squint), and people on drugs nearly crashing a helicopter (I want to say Cymbeline?).
Shakespeare is just one of the cultural shorthands that lets us know that the Pierces Aren’t Like the Roys — as though Logan didn’t just give Frank a watch engraved with a Tennyson line, but I digress. Still, as you mentioned, Emily, Logan pulls out his favorite sonnet in the end.
Loser: Nan Pierce
Emily: “Tern Haven’s” portrayal of the entire Pierce family is a very efficient sketch of a certain kind of old-money snootiness. And nobody is keyed into that snootiness more than Cherry Jones as Nan Pierce, a woman who is used to being better than everyone and even more used to reminding you of it. She is the anti-Logan in many ways, casually comfortable with her wealth, intellectual, and certain of her righteousness above all else.
So if she’s the anti-Logan, then she has to lose in this episode. And lose she does. She tries to hold firm to her principles, to her belief that PGM can be gobbled up by Waystar without its essential character changing, so long as she finds just the right combination of assurances from Logan. But he says no to her plan to have Shiv (immediately!) become his official successor, and somebody within PGM eventually caves. The sale goes forward.
I’m very interested to see if this character returns, or if the Pierces continue to be represented by Rhea (Holly Hunter) instead. Something tells me this is the last we’ll see of Nan and that she’s now ensconced in Tern Haven, feeling some regret but mostly enjoying all of that Waystar money.
Emily: Kendall? A winner? What? The guy shit his own bed and then got a nasty glare from the maid who had to clean up his mess. That single shot — of the maid giving him a look — is almost the whole show encapsulated in a nutshell. I could write an essay about it. (I’m going to, in fact. Look for it soon.)
Yes, superficially, Kendall remains in a terrible place. He’s using again. He’s certain he’ll never succeed. He was contemplating suicide just last episode. He’s shitting beds. But at the same time, watch how good he is at shifting with the various currents in this episode, at keeping conversations going, at making sure things never get too fraught. He’s really good at being a Roy, even when he doesn’t realize it.
And with Shiv crashing and burning, well ... where else is Logan going to look when choosing who will take his place? Kendall might seem down, but as far as I’m concerned, things are looking up for him! (Have I said that every week this season? It's possible.)
Plus, Naomi! That seems like it will last and blossom into a beautiful love story with no real chance of something horrible happening. Right?
Winner: The lesser Pierces
Meredith: Ah, the Pierce family: Nan, Naomi ... Mack? Paul? Marmie? Massimo? Red Pants Guy? As you pointed out, Emily, this moneyed clan is even less relatable than the Roys, and I for one honestly couldn’t keep them straight (I believe it’s actually Mark, Peter, Marnie, Maxim, and Red Pants Guy, but feel free to check my math).
But the Pierces were a hilarious jumble of upper-class nonsense — double PhDs from Brown, fluent Latin, a disdain for Oprah’s book club, the Brookings Institute, secret drinking, Nantucket red pants — and while none of them had the sway with Nan that Naomi seemed to, and all of them will likely see their family legacy go up in flames, they’re at least about to (continue to) be hella rich. Plus, Maxim has Con’s State Department waiting for him.
Never have they known real work, and never will they have to. Long live the lesser Pierces!
Winner: Spinach, king of leaves
Meredith: An unexpected winner this week, spinach isn’t just popping up because it’s very good for you (helps your heart, reduces your risk of cancer, reduces cholesterol!) or because it's the color of the true winner, money.
No, it’s because spinach, as Tom declares it during a particularly brutal pause in the generally brutal Pierce/Roy family dinner, is the “king of edible leaves.” As everyone assembled waits to see Tom’s reaction to the possibility that he won’t retain his job as head of news in a post-acquisition world, Wambsgans — possibly having a dissociative episode — sing-speaks a little ode to the side dish as he spoons himself a helping of “his majesty, the spinach.” Hear, hear, that’s one vegetable that won’t be losing its position soon.