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Is Succession Luring Its Audience into a Scorpion/Frog Scenario?

Maybe we shouldn't be looking to see who will trip Shiv up, but rather, watching to see if she's really the one we want to "win."
  • Sarah Snook in Succession (HBO)
    Sarah Snook in Succession (HBO)

    In the span of a few episodes, the second season of Succession has maneuvered its audience swiftly and masterfully to one coherent position: wondering if our girl Shiv (Sarah Snook) can maneuver her way to the top of the Waystar Royco pyramid. After her father Logan (Brian Cox) made her the offer in the season premiere, Season 2 has seen the pieces on the chess board begin to align in her favor, and the fact that she remains the least objectionable Roy — both politically and personally — means the audience, to borrow a phrase from social media, has had no choice but to stan. And stan we have! My colleague Emma Fraser has perceptively laid out all the possible stumbling blocks to this eventuality, including interference from her siblings, the capriciousness of her father, and her own indiscretions coming back to bite her. It makes sense to view the season through this lens, but I wonder if we're not all being set up for a much bigger fall than simply Shiv not getting what we all want for her. The greater danger may lie in Shiv revealing herself as the scorpion.

    If you're not familiar with the story of the scorpion and the frog, it's pretty simple: the scorpion needed to cross the river, and he sweetly asked the frog to ferry him over on his back. The frog knew that the scorpion was a natural enemy and had good reason to suspect that the scorpion would sting him, but the scorpion made the rational argument that if it stung the frog en route, they would both drown. So, thinking that he can trust him, the frog agrees. Of course, halfway across the river, the scorpion stings the frog, and as they're both drowning, the frog asks why he did it. "It is in my nature," the scorpion replies.

    At the onset of the season, I was worried that Succession was going to stumble by making Shiv too likable, that the alchemy of this series about the worst people in America would be undone by giving the audience a fan-favorite who would then become the antihero to this whole escapade. Watching these first few episodes of the season, you'd think those fears would seem well-founded. Not only is Shiv the most competent character on the chessboard, she's also the most likable by a country mile. In the season's second episode, "Vaulter," Logan, Roman (Kieran Culkin), and Kendall (Jeremy Strong) wrestled over who was most eager to dismantle and sack the entire Vaulter enterprise, even as Shiv's husband Tom (Matthew Macfadyen) was practically salivating at the thought of laying off employees in the news division in order to make his presence felt. Shiv meanwhile was safely siloed off into her own storyline. The same was true of Episode 3's "Boar on the Floor" misadventure, which Shiv productively avoided by slipping away with Willa's actor friend. Even the most recent disastrous turn of events with the Pierce family does little to damage Shiv's standing , since in the greater scheme of things, it will only sharpen the desire to see her come out on top.

    While everyone else in the Waystar Royco power structure has been complicit in everything from trying to shut down a biographer, to empowering a Nazi-sympathizing TV personality, Shiv has floated above the fray. More than that, in fact — she's advocated for making Waystar Royco a better, more responsible company. She objected to trying to buy the Pierce media empire on the grounds that somebody out there needs to be doing the news responsibly. During the "Safe Room" episode, after walking past pro-Nazi and antifa protesters outside the Waystar building, Shiv wondered aloud to Tom, "Can you imagine if someone actually cleaned up here? With a cleansing fucking zeal?" That is, of course, the ultimate fantasy for viewers of Succession. That our favorite, most capable, least evil character will not only take the reins at the top of the Waystar Royco ladder, but that she will use that power to clean up the company's multitude of sins. What a wish fulfilled that would be!

    But what if Shiv is the scorpion and we're the frog?

    What if we spend this entire season in the increasingly expectant hope that this daughter of privilege will claw her way to the top of her family's severely compromised mountain in order to dismantle every evil thing it's done, only to see her follow in the footsteps of every other person in her position throughout history: compromising her principles in order to maintain her position. In short, going back on her words in order to preserve the stability and profitability of the empire she has inherited. On the Still Watching podcast, hosts Joanna Robinson and Richard Lawson have advanced the notion that Shiv is the Ivanka Trump of the Roy Organization: the most outwardly palatable member of the family, deployed to charm us out of our revulsion and sympathize with her, before ultimately revealing herself as the ultimate family insider all along. Doesn't that seem terrifyingly likely?

    My initial fears were that making Shiv too likable would rob Succession of its barbed edges. Now I'm wondering if the writers are sharpening their weapons in order to inflict the deepest cut of all. Get us to fall in love with the possibility of Siobahn Roy and her cleansing zeal, only to have her sting us just as we're about to reach the end. The scorpion can't change her nature. It's odd that we're assuming a Roy will.

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    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, Sarah Snook