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Succession Season 2 and the Shiv "Problem"

The youngest Roy isn't a liability yet, but the show's producers will have to play their cards just right.
  • Sarah Snook as Shiv Roy in Succession (Photo: Peter Kramer/HBO)
    Sarah Snook as Shiv Roy in Succession (Photo: Peter Kramer/HBO)

    Spoiler alert: This post contains spoilers from this week's season premiere of Succession.

    HBO's Succession started its second season Sunday night in a very different position than it was in last summer. With the end of Game of Thrones, Succession is now arguably HBO's buzziest drama, and while the level of acclaim and viewer enthusiasm isn't at Westeros levels, anticipation was definitely high. Fortunately, with a strong kick-off to this season's major storyline (Logan maneuvering to take the company to #1 among all legacy media), along with the absurdly vulgar comedy elements that helped Succession rise above last year's competition (including an episode-long runner about rotting raccoon carcasses stuffed up the chimney of the Roy family summer home) the Season 2 premiere did not disappoint.

    After loving the show's first season, and worrying that the second might be a letdown, I studied the premiere for signs of creative slack, and arrived at some measure of concern over one character in particular, who threatens to take Succession down from the inside, like a disgruntled child attempting a corporate takeover from within. I'm worried there might be a Shiv problem.

    Or rather, the environment is fertile for a Shiv problem. Of course, the folks who make Succession — including creator Jesse Armstrong — could avoid this by sticking to what makes the show great. However, in order to do so, they'll need to run counter to the increasing popularity of one of its best characters. And at this point in the series, it's hard not to love Shiv. Played by Sarah Snook with a mixture of cunning and bemusement, Shiv is the youngest of the four Roy siblings, and the one who was best able to create an identity for herself beyond the family business. True, she's always maintained her ties to the Roy clan, and she spent much of Season 1 trying to figure out the most advantageous way to leverage her family's standing to benefit her position as a political operative, working on the presidential campaign of a Bernie Sanders-esque populist. And true, she also spent much of Season 1 cheating on her fiancé Tom (Matthew Macfadyen) with a sleazy ex-boyfriend who was working on the campaign with her. But Shiv was so good at what she did, and so successful at compartmentalizing her family hangups from her political ambitions, as well as her sexual interludes with her ex from a genuine (if deeply strange) partnership with Tom, that it was hard to hate her. Couple that with the fact that everyone else on the show is so much worse than her — from her devil of a father, to her Machiavellian stepmother, to sniveling Kendall, to passively cruel Roman — and before long, Shiv went from being the least-worst Roy to everyone's favorite character.

     Shiv Roy (Sarah Snook) occupies a precarious position at the center of Succession (HBO)

    This was borne out in a big way in this week's season premiere, both onscreen and off. Onscreen, Logan Roy (Brian Cox) gathered his children at the family's stinking summer home (in the middle of winter) in order to ask their advice: In the face of a hostile takeover attempt (one that Kendall abandoned but which is still being carried out by Stewy and Sandy), should he sell the company or stick around and fight? Kendall is too shell-shocked by the events of last season's finale to offer much of a coherent plan; Roman avoids giving real answer until he gets his dad behind closed doors and ultimately advises a slash-and-burn course of action ("play the markets [...] fucking startups, shitting on pension funds"); and eldest son Connor is still entertaining quixotic plans to run for president. Not only is Shiv the only viable candidate to take over Waystar Royco when Logan steps down, but she rattles off an incredibly competent and forward thinking plan to do so. And if that wasn't enough, she allows her humanity to peek through that formidable veneer to show just how much it would mean to her if Logan were to hand her the company. As a viewer, it was all I could do not to cheer.

    Which is exactly the problem. The secret of Succession is that it threads the needle, playing as a show about the kind of rich masters of the universe that continually wreck things for the rest of the country, while continuing to be an entertaining watch that doesn't leave viewers feeling dirty afterwards. The show's characters are one-percenters whose amoral actions and petty grievances repeatedly screw things up for themselves. It's a stealth comedy in the skin of the kind of antihero shows we've been conditioned to like and respect. Shiv is the character who comes closest to tipping that delicate balance because we want her to win too much. In a cursory examination of the morning-after reactions to Season 2's premiere, enthusiasm for Shiv was at an all-time high. In short, she's the queen of this show, at least for the moment.

    Of course, this isn't necessarily some harbinger of doom, mostly because Armstrong and his team have yet to betray any sense that they don't get it. Shiv hasn't become the hero of this series — not yet, anyway. In her back-room wranglings, she managed to secure a position for Tom as the head of global news broadcasting, despite the fact that she told Logan she would ultimately want to ditch Waystar's stake in news entirely. She's also, as of this week's episode, still working for Gil's campaign. And given everything we know about her — supremely self-interested and holding no strong political beliefs of her own — it's very likely she'll ultimately screw over a very worthy political cause in order to get what she wants.

    In other words, there are plenty of avenues available for Shiv to further complicate herself and obliterate any notions that she's the "good" Roy, because quite likely, there are no good Roys. And that's just the way it should be.

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    TOPICS: Succession, HBO, Sarah Snook