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Succession Just Depicted America’s Worst Nightmare for Election Night

Nothing that happens in "America Decides" is all that implausible, and the result is a stomach-churning hour of television.
  • Jeremy Strong (Photo: Macall Polay/HBO)
    Jeremy Strong (Photo: Macall Polay/HBO)

    [Editor’s note: This post contains spoilers for Succession Season 4, Episode 8, “America Decides.”]

    Succession’s in-universe presidential election has been simmering on the back burner since Episode 1 of the series, when Shiv (Sarah Snook) was working in politics and shopping around for a Democratic candidate to hitch her wagon to, or later in Season 1 as Connor (Alan Ruck) kicked off his own quixotic campaign for leader of the free world. In Season 4, the contest between proto-fascist Jeryd Mencken (Justin Kirk) and Democrat Daniel Jimenez (Elliot Villar) has been looming like D-Day. Shiv, the only character on this show who has credibly expressed anything close to left-leaning politics, has been warily eyeing the polling numbers and dreading what a Mencken presidency might mean for the country, while everyone else has been muttering about what it might mean for business interests.

    Election Day arrives at perhaps the worst possible time for the Roy family. Logan's death, the impending GoJo deal (and Kendall and Roman's desire to have it killed), and Shiv and Tom's rapidly disintegrating marriage combine in "America Decides" to make a toxic brew that may well doom the American republic. You wouldn't think that the petty disputes and childish tantrums of one family, however obscenely wealthy, would be able to have such a deleterious effect on the nation, but creator Jesse Armstrong (who has sole writing credit on this episode) makes the chilling point that the country may well be in exactly that precarious a position.

    It's the Roy family's first Election Day without Logan, and Kendall (Jeremy Strong), Roman (Kieran Culkin), and Shiv are taking the old man's position up in the executive suites at ATN. Meanwhile, downstairs, Tom (Matthew Macfadyen) is going absolutely insane from both the pressure to deliver the on-air goods and the aftermath of his knock-down, drag-out argument with Shiv the night before. The compressed timeline this season, with each episode more or less occurring on consecutive days, is felt most strongly in this episode — no more so than when following Tom, who looks like he has been awake for 100 hours and copes with it by busting Greg back down to Greg status, which means surreptitiously doing coke with him and procuring food that isn't the abhorrent mini-mart sushi somebody put in the conference room.

    Politically, things are looking grim for democracy, and Tom is on the frontlines of trying to keep ATN's conservative viewership (and moneyed interests) happy while maintaining the veneer of a respectable news organization. Mencken supporters are engaging in brazen voter intimidation, which ATN is refusing to cover, despite the Jimenez team (and Shiv, to no avail) pushing them to. Shiv and Roman are locked in an ideological battle where Shiv points out all the underhanded and blatantly illegal stuff the Mencken side is doing while Roman reflexively brushes everything off as antifa "false-flag" bullshit. Kendall, meanwhile, has no idea where to come down on all of this because he has no actual values besides wanting desperately to appear like he's upholding his father's legacy. He responds to last week's news that his daughter was being harassed by Mencken supporters by having Rava and Sophie tailed by a security car, which only terrifies his ex-wife and daughter even more.

    The rubber meets the road with an incident in Milwaukee, where a polling place has been set on fire and absentee ballots torched. Roman smirkingly plays the plausible deniability card as Shiv ever more strenuously makes the rather obvious case that targeting absentee ballots in an urban area like Milwaukee would naturally disadvantage Democratic voters. Nate, on the phone from Jimenez headquarters, makes a similar case, but the truth here matters a lot less than the implications of the truth. The incinerated absentee ballots put Wisconsin's electoral fate into question, with Jimenez's lead shrinking everywhere else. The question on the table is whether to leave Wisconsin uncalled and wait for the inevitable court case to settle the issue or — as the Mencken camp and Roman are pushing — say "sorry about it" to the absentee ballots and call Wisconsin for Mencken, who has the lead in counted votes.

    Succession has toed a fine line with its election story thus far, careful to keep its real-life parallels from becoming strict 1:1 allegories. Just as the Roys have always been "the Murdoch family… kinda," Mencken has been less a Trump stand-in and more the embodiment of the creeping authoritarianism/fascism that has become troublingly less fringe over the last decade. Still, "America Decides" feels like Armstrong's most overtly pertinent episode, which is probably why it's an excruciating viewing experience from start to finish.

    Nothing that happens in this episode is all that implausible: voter intimidation, escalating violence, the brazenness of authoritarian candidates to declare victory just because they can, and the willingness of right-wing media to support that narrative. As is often the case with the Roys, villainy doesn’t have to be some well-oiled machine. The chaos and incompetence of a bunch of failsons and corporate toadies promoted past the level of their competence can have the same results as sinister conspiracies. Ultimately, it’s not the Federalist Society that dooms the republic but Roman’s shitty little rich kid nihilism, Kendall's weakness, Shiv's conflict of interest, and Tom's wounded pride and self-interest.

    Roman is at his most reprehensible this week, motivated by a noxious cocktail of edgelord bravado, daddy issues, and at best a privileged disinterest in the consequences of creeping fascism. But he also proves to be better at working Kendall than Shiv is. He knows that Kendall wants to look good but wants to kill the GoJo deal even more, and Roman gets Mencken to explicitly promise to kill the deal if elected. Shiv tries to appeal to Kendall's sense of himself as a good guy, and she almost has him. But she's unwilling to ask Nate to get Jimenez to offer the same promise, because she's still aligned with Matsson and doesn't actually want the deal to die. And when Kendall gets Nate on the phone, Shiv can no longer keep all her plates spinning. Kendall and Roman learn she's been trying to snake them, and while they've each also been trying to snake her, it's all the upper hand they need to get Tom to call Wisconsin — and thus the election — for Mencken. And so America falls into the hands of a legitimately terrifying fascist because Siobhan Roy got caught with her hand in the cookie jar.

    The dominos that have lined up all season to lead up to this outcome have been unsettlingly mundane. The Roy siblings are like the three little pigs of conservative complicity: Roman the nihilist edgelord in his house of brick, willing (eager, even) to watch the world burn outside; Kendall with his paltry house of sticks, too weak and self-interested to want to stop what's coming, even if it means putting his own daughter in harm's way; and Shiv, building a house of straw around her comparatively more compassionate political ethos but ultimately so compromised by her wealth and status that even her genuine desire for a better outcome is doomed to fail.

    The allure of Succession has always been that it's entertaining to watch these rich jerks play power games and say horrible things to each other and throw their money around and fail. "America Decides" purposefully hits too close to home with a scenario that feels all too possible. It's a gripping episode that makes you want to wrestle your way out of its grasp and escape whatever fate Jesse Armstrong thinks we might have waiting for us.

    Succession airs Sundays at 9:00 PM ET on HBO. Join the discussion about the show in our forums.

    Joe Reid is the senior writer at Primetimer and co-host of the This Had Oscar Buzz podcast. His work has appeared in Decider, NPR, HuffPost, The Atlantic, Slate, Polygon, Vanity Fair, Vulture, The A.V. Club and more.

    TOPICS: Succession, HBO, Jeremy Strong, Jesse Armstrong, Justin Kirk, Kieran Culkin, Matthew Macfadyen, Nicholas Braun, Sarah Snook