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On Succession, Tom and Shiv throw a tailgate party from hell

A schmoozy, boozy, backstabby good time.

Tom (Matthew Macfadyen) and Shiv (Sarah Snook) in Succession’s “Tailgate Party.”
David M. Russell/HBO
Whizy Kim is a reporter covering how the world's wealthiest people wield influence, including the policies and cultural norms they help forge. Before joining Vox, she was a senior writer at Refinery29.

Note: This article contains spoilers for several Succession episodes, particularly season four, episode seven, “Tailgate Party.”

In “Tailgate Party,” the seventh episode of the final season of Succession, Tom (Matthew Macfadyen) and Shiv (Sarah Snook), who are in a better place than ever in their relationship, are about to throw a pre-Election Day soiree at their apartment — a continuation of an event Logan (Brian Cox) threw for some of the country’s most influential political movers and shakers.

We see plenty of help — cleaners, caterers, waiters, drivers, doormen — milling about in the background as Tom and Shiv giggle about their naughty machinations. Everyone at the party is engaged in a kind of tactical bullshitting: Kendall (Jeremy Strong) and Roman (Kieran Culkin) are spreading rumors and innuendo to powerful people in hopes of tanking GoJo’s acquisition. Shiv is lying to her brothers’ faces while working with GoJo chief Lukas Matsson (Alexander Skarsgård), hoping to secure herself the role in the company that Logan and her brothers have long denied her. Matsson, it turns out, is conjuring numbers out of thin air. Connor (Alan Ruck) is trying to barter his cratering presidential bid into a prestigious diplomatic gig.

This episode is classic Succession: There’s a swanky event going on, but the main characters are scurrying around with ulterior motives, trying to outwit their opponents. The election itself is a funny little distraction: Partygoers are encouraged to participate in a cutesy game guessing which candidate will win by how much, and there’s a pervasive sense of ideological nihilism in the room — people might have a preferred candidate, but it’s all the same in the end. Hedge your bets, and get ready to cozy up to whoever ends up president.

The Roys are careless people, leaving others to clean up their mess, as the famous line goes in The Great Gatsby. But they can’t come away completely unscathed. They are full of mundane desires and wounded feelings. And most of the bullshitting they engage in during this episode boomerangs and knocks them back down to Earth.

Wheeling and dealing

In the last episode, Kendall and Roman attempted to drive up the Waystar stock price so that Matsson, unable or unwilling to match it, would walk away. Apparently, it wasn’t enough to snuff out the deal.

Now, they want to take the regulatory tack. As in, tip off someone high up in political circles to get the DOJ, FCC, FTC — doesn’t matter which scramble of letters — suspicious of the sale and investigate it on antitrust grounds. They want to invite Nate (Ashley Zukerman), Shiv’s ex-boyfriend and ex-affair partner, to the party: He’s a political operative who’s now working with the Democratic presidential candidate, Daniel Jimenez (who, in another day or so, could be the next president of the United States). Shiv acts like it’s a decent idea and then immediately calls Matsson to tell him what her brothers are cooking, insisting that he also needs to attend the party to get Nate and other bigwigs on his side. This is Tom’s worst nightmare: two men that Shiv has some kind of flirtation with at his party.

The CE-Bros are covering all their bases. They’ve already ordered the infamous Ratfucker, master of uncovering every bit of information on a person, to dig up the filthiest Matsson dirt possible.

Matsson rolls up to the party with his crew, interrupting a moment of silence for Logan. He’s unfazed among the party guests, chewing gum arrogantly and dressed in a hideous brown velvet track jacket. Shiv uses the opportunity to tell him she wants something from him: For a moment, one might expect her to plead the case for not getting rid of Tom. Instead, Shiv looks out for herself as always, asking Matsson for a “very, very, very significant role” at the new company. Despite how eager he is to flirt with Shiv, telling her how much he likes talking to her, he demurs the moment she asks for real power, which her father always denied her, too.

Meanwhile, Jeryd Mencken (Justin Kirk) — the ultra-conservative Trump caricature and Republican presidential candidate backed by the Roys’ news network, ATN — wants Roman and Ken to convince Connor to drop out. The latest poll numbers are showing a tight race, and what Mencken wants is to “divert the Conhead stream to the Mencken river,” as Roman explains. It’s asking a lot — Connor proudly boasts that he’s getting 4, 5, even 6 percent in Alaska — but it’s not a firm no, depending on the trade. Like he’s offering a piece of gum, Roman suggests Connor take the ambassadorship to Somalia. Connor declines; he’d prefer something in Europe, or the UN. Connor even suggests North Korea as an idea. “I could open it up like Nixon did China,” he says, eyes glittering at the prospect of such fame. They go back and forth with offers and counters, talking about entire countries like they’re just trading cards.

This sort of arrogance resonates particularly strongly in “Tailgate Party,” though it’s always true of the world these characters inhabit. The Roys are the 1 percent. Of course they’re dismissive and careless about the little, practically invisible people around them. Tom straddles this divide, often both perpetuating their cruelties and being a victim of them; he doesn’t come from money, and late in this episode Shiv even outright calls him “striving and parochial” — the poor little boy from Minnesota.

Yet Tom has learned a lot during his time in the upper crust, and there are plenty of ants on the sidewalk for him to squish, too. The morning of the party, Tom announces layoffs at ATN through a group video call. Well, he doesn’t — he hands that unpleasant baton off to Greg (Nicholas Braun), who reads off a script that’s an echo of so many real-life corporate layoff memos: “This was a difficult decision, but necessary to protect the future of the company. It wasn’t taken lightly, but only after exploring all available options. It’s not a layoff, it’s a conscious uncoupling from an employment-based relationship.”

They don’t even have the humanity to tell everyone in person, despite being in the ATN offices, nor the bare minimum decency to tell each person individually. Instead, the meeting attendees are told that if they’re on the call, they no longer have a job.

More than 100 people have just lost their livelihoods, and it’s not even an itch on Tom’s conscience. He goes about his day, worrying about the wine and how tired he’ll be after hosting such a magnificent, important party.

End game

Despite their carelessness, these wealthy snobs are often shocked and disappointed to learn there are sometimes consequences to their messing around. Tom axes a bunch of his employees but bristles at the truth that his head is on the chopping block, too. Matsson, at the party, is telling practically everyone he meets that once Waystar is his, Tom will be out. Tom tries being a kiss-ass, but Matsson can tell and isn’t impressed by it. As Shiv joins the conversation, Matsson sets up another one of his cruel jokes by complimenting their apartment. “Who’ll get to keep it in the divorce?” It elicits uncomfortable laughter, but neither of them tells him that they’ve agreed to get back together.

Matsson is losing track of his Rube Goldberg machine, too. The GoJo men harass Ebba (Eili Harboe) — his head of comms and sometimes lover to whom he sends half liters of his own blood — like it’s all fun and games, but she’s had enough. Kendall, who hasn’t been having much luck with his regulatory strategy, catches on that something is off and approaches Ebba. She spills quickly: Sexual harassment is the least of Matsson’s worries. The real mess is that he’s been lying about his subscriber numbers in India. It’s better than anything the Ratfucker could have told Kendall and Roman. It turns out Matsson, like the Roys, is a massive bullshitter, too.

Roman’s once-romantic rapport with Gerri (J. Smith-Cameron) appears irrevocably over, too. Her appearance at the party gives Rome some hope — maybe she’s not that upset anymore about him attempting to fire her last episode. Frank (Peter Friedman) dispels that misconception: She’s “incredibly angry,” he says. Roman tries to sidle up to her later to smooth things over with his usual silly, unhinged, inappropriate charm. Gerri informs him coolly that she’s done with Waystar, wants a nine-figure payout, and has hired “personal reputation management.” If any of them undermine the narrative she tells about the company in the next five years, she tells Roman, she’ll sue and release the multitude of dick pics Roman has sent her.

“I could’ve got you there,” she tells him wistfully, suggesting she could have helped Roman become a real leader of his father’s empire — but he threw it all away.

Even Kendall comes face to face with the repercussions of his involvement with Waystar. He finds out his daughter, who is not white, was recently harassed by a racist fan of the ATN anchor Mark Ravenhead, who is basically an alt-right Nazi. Kendall’s reaction isn’t to be crestfallen that their craven news coverage is directly impacting his children — he’s not going to take some grand stance against ATN’s extreme bias. He asks his ex-wife why his daughter was “out on the street.” The Roys may be highly sheltered most of the time, ferried from private cars to private jets, but not even the ultra-rich can always be cosseted from reality. Rava (Natalie Gold) balks at the implication that her parenting is to blame, throwing it right back at him — he barely even calls his daughter. Kendall protests that everything he’s trying to do with Waystar, including ATN, is for his children. Sure. Logan said that, too.

Shiv’s little game of playing both sides — pretending to be on her brothers’ team but actually feeding intel to Matsson — explodes in her face, too. Ken and Rome, suspecting nothing of her deception, tell her excitedly about Matsson’s made-up numbers. (Never mind that Kendall was shot down hard in the last episode for also thinking of inflating earnings projections.) Alone with Tom on their balcony, Shiv tears up at the fear that she has nailed herself to the “Matsson cross.” She’s so quick to lose faith and jump ship, so easily rattled by what or who she wants.

Broken people

At the start of the episode, Shiv and Tom are almost sickeningly affectionate; he gives her a bizarre knick-knack of a scorpion as a gift. They’re not going to divorce after all. As the party dwindles, however, they have the biggest fight of their relationship. Tom tries to reassure Shiv’s fears but has had enough of her woebegone act. He points out that she feels guilty about betraying her brothers but doesn’t think twice about her accomplice Matsson planning on firing him. They say ugly things to each other — the kind you can’t ever take back.

Shiv admits how angry she is about his gift. He thinks of her as a stinging, venomous scorpion? She has some creature comparisons to make, too: Tom is a hyena, a “street rat.” She’s not only calling him poor, she’s calling him a grasping vulture. He calls her selfish and tells her that she should never have married him. She didn’t even want his baby. “I think you are incapable of love,” he says. “And I think you are maybe not a good person to have children.”

It’s a stake through her heart. It’s unclear if Shiv is still pregnant, but she was earlier in the season, and she clearly has yet to tell Tom. She says the nastiest thing she can think of — that Tom betraying her to side with her father at the end of season three is what drove her and Logan apart, keeping her away from him in the last few months of his life. Tom doesn’t claim this blame. “It’s not my fault that you didn’t get his approval,” he says. “I have given you endless approval, and it doesn’t fill you up because you’re broken.”

Like that, the coy flirtations they’ve been playing with for the past few episodes are snuffed out. Honesty can foster powerful intimacy in a relationship, but this is the kind of raw, harrowing truth that drives two people apart for good.

Shiv is a broken person, as is everyone else in the Roy family. Succession doesn’t ask its audience to pity the billionaire, but it displays how corrosive power and privilege can be even to the people benefiting from them. Wracked by paranoia, they look down from their penthouses and see how far they have to fall. In many respects, their riches shield them from harm, wrapping them in a protective layer that cushions them from the inequities and indignities that the less fortunate face daily. But that layer has also suffocated the part of the brain that allows them to trust and love others as equals.

Matsson sums it up in a scene with Shiv, telling her, “I thought these people would be very complicated. But they’re not. It’s basically just money and gossip.” That’s all they know, and they’re impoverished by it.

Kendall, armed with the knowledge of GoJo’s bullshit numbers, tells Frank his new plan. He wants to rewind everything about the deal. Instead of selling to GoJo, “We pillage their village,” he says. “Waystar acquires GoJo.” And he reveals why he’s fundamentally broken, too. Throughout the season, Kendall has kept up the artifice that he and his siblings are in this together. They’re sharing power. But like a moth, he’s drawn to the destructive, all-consuming light. He hasn’t consulted with Shiv or Rome about this idea because he’s not interested in their opinions. He’s been bullshitting them — and maybe himself — the whole time. “One head, one crown,” he says.

Earlier, looking out the window from Shiv and Tom’s triplex at the midtown Manhattan view, Matsson observes at one point that it looks like Legoland to him. An amusement park, not a real place where real people live. And from this height, the skyline really does look like Lego blocks — plastic pieces arranged in a striking display, with no humans in the scene.

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