[Editor’s note: This post contains spoilers for Succession Season 4, Episode 7, “Tailgate Party.”]
Just when it looked like Shiv and Tom were on the road to reconciliation, "Tailgate Party" comes along to blow up their relationship, perhaps for good this time. After an Election Eve party full of politically aligned phonies and a whole lot of under-the-radar maneuvering around the GoJo deal, Shiv and Tom take to the terrace of their Tribeca triplex and tear their relationship down in the most blistering, unvarnished, and ultimately toxic argument they've ever had. In the process, these two characters deliver what is probably the bluntest statement of Succession's thesis thus far.
In a season full of rollercoaster emotions and shifting power plays, no relationship has seen more hairpin turns than Tom and Shiv’s. They started the season separated and quickly moved toward acrimonious divorce proceedings. Logan’s (Brian Cox) death rocked them both to the core, leaving Shiv in search of someone she could cry in front of, and Tom looking for stability within the Waystar corporate structure.
Last week, it felt like Tom and Shiv were finally meeting each other on a level of mutual honesty (Tom admitting his love for money) and attraction (that game of Bitey getting Shiv's engine revving after Tom shows some actual viciousness). It was perverse but also a little bit perfect. For the first time ever, there was actual heat in this relationship that has been so coldly calculating since the very beginning of the series.
But that was when things were going relatively well. Shiv's backdoor plan to sell out her brothers to Matsson in exchange for power down the road was working out, and Tom was poised to reap the benefits in his position as head of ATN. "Tailgate Party" changes all of that, and it's stunning how quickly things devolve for Tom and Shiv after that.
Shiv’s always been too confident in Matsson being her line to power, and that becomes very clear when she verbalizes her expectation that when this is all over, Matsson will reward her with a high-ranking position in the new Waystar power structure. Matsson's awkward and noncommittal response should be all Shiv needs to hear to know that she's screwed, but it's not until she hears from Kendall and Roman that GoJo's subscriber numbers in India might be fraudulent enough to actually tank the deal that Shiv's best-laid plans really start to break down.
Meanwhile, Tom spends the entire party enduring joke after joke (which becoming less humorous as the night goes on) that he's gonna be out of a job at ATN once the sale goes through. It's not like Tom hasn't spent the entire series being denigrated — Karl did so quite gloriously only a few episodes ago — but this humiliation hits him differently. He, like the Shiv/Tom true believers in the audience, really thought he'd gotten to somewhere real with Shiv. They played Bitey! They're having incredibly aggressive sex and texting each other about it! They're finally conspiring together rather than against each other! But just as Shiv realizes she's expendable to Matsson, Tom realizes he's still expendable to Shiv. And so they take to that terrace and burn each other down.
It's hard to say which blows hit the hardest, because there are too many to choose from: Shiv calling Tom a hick and "servile" and telling him his mom likes her more than him because she's "cracked." Tom calling Shiv broken and incapable of love and saying she shouldn't ever have children. These are truths that have been stewing for months, if not years, and that have up until now been couched in jokes, only for Sarah Snook and Matthew Macfadyen to deliver them with bracing cruelty in “[add episode title].” Shiv is every bit the scorpion that Tom joked she was, while Tom is every bit the servile errand boy who can get dispatched to the unemployment line or prison without a second thought.
Before the really sharp knives get deployed, though, there's maybe the most telling part of the argument, as Shiv and Tom scoff at each other's anxieties about getting fucked over in the aftermath of the Matsson deal. Tom knows Shiv is always going to have a soft landing spot with her piles and piles of family money; Shiv knows Tom is a lamprey who will attach himself to anything he can to keep advancing his position. It's what the other despises about each other at the root: Shiv's privilege and Tom's shamelessness.
It's not an accident that all of this is happening against the backdrop of an Election Eve party that feels like it's happening in an alternate universe. Succession has tracked its in-universe presidential election through asides and innuendo but never head-on. The Mencken-Jimenez race is shaping up as a choice between proto-fascism and continuing democracy, yet inside the bubble of the tailgate party, it's all a game. As Kendall puts it, the "crypto-fascists and right-wing nutjobs" are rubbing elbows with the "venture-capital Dems and centrist ghouls." They're making bets on what the final numbers will be. They're playfully joshing their opponents from across the aisle. Out in the real world, domestic terrorists are fire-bombing polling places, but inside the triplex, politics is a sporting event.
This is Succession distilled: Inside the apartment, the obscene wealth of the Roys and 40 of their most influential friends keeps them maddeningly insulated from the real world. "It's all just money and gossip," Shiv assures Matsson at one point. That's it right there. That's Succession at its most essential. These are masters of the universe upon whose whims hang countless jobs and the political and economic fortunes of a nation, and all they've ever been concerned with is money and gossip. The show has been building to this thesis statement for years; all the palace intrigue and betrayal, Roman's indiscretions, Kendall's power grabs, who's aligned with Pierce, who's aligned with Matsson. Ultimately, Succession is a simple show of simple pleasures, deriving high comedy and riveting drama out of the wheelings and dealings of these messy, moneyed people.
Inside the apartment, the apartment is teeming with intrigue, even as the stakes are ephemeral. Matsson's subscriber numbers, Kendall's Living+ valuation, Conner's would-be ambassadorship to Oman, even Gerri's threats to Roman in order to maintain her "personal reputation management" — they’re all parlor games and power grabs. Shiv and Tom need to physically relocate themselves to the terrace to finally be honest with each other.
The scene is lacerating on both sides, as Shiv and Tom take turns exposing their vulnerabilities and going in for the kill. Some of their grievances are genuine: Tom was never valued by Shiv in any real way and has been humiliated by her again and again; Shiv felt used by Tom for her status and then ultimately betrayed. Other grievances are deflections — Shiv blames Tom for robbing her of the final few months she could've had with her father, which is an awfully optimistic way of imagining the aftermath of the kids' power play last season, had they succeeded. Tom blames Shiv for his feelings of powerlessness in a world he was never going to feel powerful in because of his meager background. They go in for the kill. "You don't deserve me," Shiv states flatly, "and you never did." And whether or not that's objectively true, it's a truth they've both suspected and feared. Saying it — saying everything — makes it finally real, in a way nothing else at the tailgate party is.
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, Alexander Skarsgard, Brian Cox, Jeremy Strong, Kieran Culkin, Matthew Macfadyen, Sarah Snook