Are the Women of ‘Succession’ Finally About to Smash the Patriarchy?
On the eve of the season finale, a roundtable discussion about Siobhan Roy, female power, and the best show on TV
Season two of Succession ends on Sunday night, and there remains hardly a single character to root for in HBO’s semi-absurdist Shakespearean dramedy about the Roy family and the parasites in their orbit. However, in the second season, the women of Succession are on the rise — in particular, Siobhan Roy, the only daughter among the four adult children angling to succeed their father, Logan, as head of the family’s media-entertainment conglomerate.
On a recent evening, the women editors of Medium hyper-decanted a few bottles of Burgundy, invited a few friends over to the office, including Irin Carmon of New York Magazine, and Rachel Syme, who has been keeping tabs on the Roys for The New Yorker and The New Republic, and kicked off the conversation with a simple prompt: What does female power look like in the world of Succession?
This discussion has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Siobhan O’Connor, VP editorial, Medium: After Sunday night’s episode, the number one thing that I went to sleep thinking about was: What actually motivates Shiv? Is it fealty? Is it power? And can those things actually be decoupled, given that she is both a woman and a daughter?
Irin Carmon, Senior correspondent, New York Magazine: Well, there’s the family legacy question, right? We had a glimpse of that in the most recent episode where she says, “my family’s company is on the line.” At first, Shiv thinks she’s different from the rest of the Roys. She tries to fulfill a meritocratic path by working for a politician. It was sort of a rebellion, working for a living.
But maybe that’s why her father offers her the job, to conscript her into this Ivanka-like role for the company. There are things that Shiv can do for the Waystar Royco, even just from an optics perspective. Over the course of the season, you see how she’s buying into the values of her father, and each time she has to make decisions that put her in a more abject position for the respect of her father.
Vanessa K. De Luca, Editor-in-chief, Zora: I don’t know if Shiv’s necessarily buying into it. I think she’s always trying to work through what’s in her best interest. If that means she has to showcase that she’s for the family and for what they stand for, then she’ll do that. But she doesn’t strike me as the kind of person who is loyal to any one thing. Shiv will do whatever is necessary to get what she wants — what she wants changes from person to person, and from moment to moment.
Michelle Legro, Features editor, GEN: What did Shiv want in season one? Her wants and needs weren’t really at the forefront of that season.
Irin: The writers were setting her up as somebody who could do a job outside of the family. At the same time, she was replicating all the abusive personal and interpersonal behaviors of the family in her relationship. Like Logan, she wants to dominate Tom. He just has to take it because he wants in on the power.
Garance Franke-Ruta, Executive editor, GEN: In season one, the sons and daughter are resisting their father. In season two, they’re all, as you say, conscripted into his world, even though Logan doesn’t give any of them primacy of place.
Indrani Sen, Editor-in-chief, Forge: For the Roy children’s entire lives, their only real measure of worth has been their father’s regard. They might have at some point tried to remove themselves from him, or tried to fix this need in themselves, but they always end up measuring themselves against what their father thinks of them. I can relate to that.
Siobhan: When Logan pulls Shiv back into the company, you see the sheer delight on her face — the little girl being seen and chosen by her father.
Rachel Syme, critic and culture writer: My sense of Shiv is that she hasn’t made an independent decision her whole life. I think Succession is about a man who is a solar system and everybody is just revolving around him. All the decisions she made outside of the family were just to get her father’s attention.
You see this at the end of the first season when she’s taking on the liberal Senator Gil Eavis as a client and her father asks her not to. When she says, “You won’t bring me in. So this is what I’ve resorted to,” what she was basically saying is “I’ve been doing all this to get your attention. I even married a man who is beneath me to get your attention.” When Logan asks her to run the company, you realize this is what she’s wanted the whole time.
Siobhan: Someone says to her in the second or third episode, “He’s going to get bored of you. Logan’s going to push you out of the way once he knows he has your loyalty.”
Rachel: There’s an interesting empathy that Shiv seems to have for these women who are his father’s mistresses, especially with Rhea. As long as we’re comparing Shiv to Ivanka, I think Shiv sees herself more like one of her father’s mistresses than as his daughter. She understands the sexual attention she can have over him because of her femininity.
Irin: She has more roles available to her, too. She can play the tough, and she can also be the one to smooth things over and clean things up.
Siobhan: But can’t we all relate to that? Isn’t that just being a woman? You’re this for one person, and that for another person.
Rachel: I think that’s why, of all the kids, Shiv has the most tension with Marcia. The sons have never felt threatened by Marcia.
I think Shiv sees herself more like one of her father’s mistresses than his daughter. She understands the sexual attention she can have over him because of her femininity.
Irin: I’m dying to understand more about Shiv’s marriage with Tom. Why did she marry him?
Indrani: Rachel, you mentioned it was something she did to attract her father’s attention. But I don’t quite see how it could have been that. He is so irrelevant.
Vanessa: He’s the guy that she bounces things off of, even if she doesn’t always listen to what has to say.
Irin: I feel like part of the message of the show is that everybody starts acting like a monster because they’re so desperate to be in this world. Tom is willing to first allow himself to be trod on by Logan, then by other Roys, and then his own wife, just so he can someday use someone as a footstool. Shiv does bounce stuff off Tom when she needs him, but other times she totally ignores him and makes big life decisions without him. Her marriage allows her to be Logan.
Rachel: I also think Tom is a man who is in the extremely rare position of being obsessed with Shiv’s family without being a threat to them. In a certain way, he’s good for the Roy brand because he’s always going to be a cheerleader without ever having any chance of usurping power from anyone.
Garance: He was also a vehicle for her ambitions in a world in which she felt she would never be able to be the one in power. That’s why he says, when she gets the offer from her father, “Isn’t that what we wanted for me?”
Michelle: I usually think of marriage among the upper classes as being about useful alliances. But in Succession it seems more weaponized, like a blunt object.
Vanessa: I was not under the impression that Marcia and Logan were even married. I just felt that she was his companion.
Irin: Marcia seems like the type of woman who is totally legible, right? She’s sophisticated, she’s charming at a dinner party, she’s beautiful, she’s age appropriate. She’s a good public face for somebody like Logan. If you think about the fact that Rupert Murdoch has been married to both Wendy Deng and Jerri Hall, Marcia’s some kind of a mashup of the foreign and multilingual — the mysterious and accomplished woman.
Garance: Logan doesn’t really know her at all because that’s not part of their deal. And they clearly have a deal.
Rachel: Don’t forget that the inciting act of Succession is that Marcia gets an extra seat on the board. She grabbed more power for herself, the kids want it, and it drives the whole family into a tailspin. That’s such a third-wife move.
Vanessa: Marcia seemed to have more power in the first season than she’s had in this season. I don’t know if that’s because the balance tipped as Shiv became more powerful. Marcia says to Logan, “I’m bored with you, if all of this can’t satisfy you.”
Garance: He’s also giving up his end of the deal in their relationship. He’s giving up his power over the company.
Irin: My husband has a theory that Logan’s promised the successor job to everybody, including Marcia. So is this another way in which Shiv is the mistress — the pretender to the throne that Marcia believed could be hers?
Indrani: I think I’m the contrarian view at this table, but I 100% believe in Marcia and Logan’s marriage.
Garance: Theirs seems like the most realistic marriage on the show. She’s also the most realistic character.
Rachel: Everybody learns what marriage is, more or less, from their own parents. When Tom’s parents come to his wedding in England, they’re these nice Midwestern people who are clearly in love. That’s how Tom sees marriage. Siobhan sees marriage as a power exchange. This is what her father and Marcia have, it’s what her father and her mother had
I think Shiv is really disappointed in Tom when she’s like, “Oh, you thought this was about love?” I think she just picked the wrong person in Tom. Not because they don’t get along, or because she’s not attracted to him, but because he doesn’t understand her philosophy of marriage in general.
Irin: Connor is obviously a huge jerk, but he’s actually holding up his end of the bargain with Willa. Everyone else with a transactional relationship is constantly breaking the contract. He’s pretty openly her sugar daddy, and he’s advocating for her at all times. I think he treats her better than any other relationship on this show, and maybe that’s because he’s outside of the fold.
Don’t forget, the inciting act of ‘Succession’ came from Marcia. She grabbed power for herself. That’s such a third-wife move.
Michelle: Can we talk a little bit about Logan meeting his female counterpart Nan Pierce, and how female power works within the Pierce family?
Siobhan: I just want to call out the moment when you see the servants in the kitchen scrambling before dinner, and Nan’s up in her dressing room getting ready. Then she comes in through the kitchen entrance, probably through the servants’ entrance, picks up the roast, walks into the dining room, and then she curtsies.
Garance: It was such a perfect moment.
Siobhan: It was so perfect because it was the most macho male move, but it involved a roast and a curtsy.
Irin: And there’s also that disingenuous moment where she’s telling her servant, “You never treat yourself, have a drink.” Like, I’m not one of those bad bosses, I’m one of those cool bosses who’s going to make a totally empty offer for you to drink and relax.
Historically, the way women accessed power was through a hereditary structure. I think it just happens that the Pierces are a matriarchal family, but it’s matriarchal in the sense that there have been some Queens of England. It’s not a new model of leadership that is different from the patriarchy.
Indrani: It’s also hilarious. I think what the show does so impressively is it makes us, probably all liberals here, sit with the conservatives and laugh at the liberals. That whole weekend, those moments with the Pierce liberals are fucking ridiculous, just like conservatives are fucking ridiculous.
Irin: See, I didn’t feel like it was about liberals or conservatives. The politics of the Roy family seem mostly opportunistic. You never really see anyone be ideological, and that’s why the congressional hearing was sort of weird. I think the Pierce-Roy dynamic is more about highbrow pretension versus the grubby self-made-man image that Logan has cultivated for himself. What the Pierces are selling is their refinement. They’re the PBS tote bag of companies.
To me, the politics of Succession, as a whole, seem a little underdeveloped. Rupert Murdoch is really conservative but I don’t feel they’ve fully shown that Logan Roy’s ownership of ATN is anything but incidentally profitable.
Rachel: Rhea’s character is so interesting. She was this woman trusted with a giant role of being the CEO of the Pierce Corporation. Perhaps she was somebody that Nan appointed because she thought maybe she could trust a woman — and then she figuratively, then literally, begins sleeping with the enemy.
I think there’s a reason Rhea and Marcia butt heads. They’re both the scrappiest women on the show. I would love to know more about Rhea’s background because it seems that she and Marcia are the closest to being self-made women.
Vanessa: Do you think we’ll see Rhea again?
Irin: It feels like it’s over. But it’s striking that with Rhea’s exit, this is the first time we’ve seen somebody on this show make a principled decision. She might’ve realized she was being set up for the proverbial glass cliff. She was brought into Waystar Rouco without knowing fully the mess she would have to clean up.
Still, she refuses to go with Shiv and try to inhibit this woman from testifying. She thinks it’s an ethical line she can’t cross. We haven’t seen anybody turn down power yet.
Siobhan: You guys are giving Rhea way more credit than I give her.
I thought she was using a high-minded explanation for what is essentially abdication of responsibility. She knew what she was walking into when she walked into this company and she knew that this was going on and she knew that this was possible. And then suddenly it was like, oh no my principles!
Michelle: There was the moment when Rhea has to walk into the war room and rally the troops. It was very painful. It was also the first time I thought, can Rhea actually lead?
Siobhan: I had the same reaction.
Garance: I thought she was intentionally hanging back and not doing a good job.
Indrani: That’s how I read it too.
I find it hard when people compare the women in ‘Succession’ like, “Which one’s Elizabeth Warren?” I’m like, “None of them.”
Michelle: So let’s finally get into the unforgettable scene with Shiv on the playground with the female cruise employee who is ready to speak out against the company and possibly ruin them all.
Rachel: It’s not the first time Shiv has had to run cover for her father as the woman in the room. When the cruise story broke and she was at Argestes, she says, “I’m not going to be the face of this.” But she knew she would, she got on the plane. Here, she’s telling the victim the same thing: You don’t want to be the face of this, you don’t want this to ruin your life.
Michelle: I feel like she was both being honest and using honesty as a weapon. She was like: “This is this who I am. I’m going to lie to you. But you know what? They’re all going to lie to you as well. So you need to figure out what’s best for you.” I feel like Shiv was looking in a mirror, like telling herself that.
Indrani: What she says is also true.
Irin: We just did an issue at New York Magazine where we interviewed 25 people who had reported sexual harassment and assault. And having done about half the interviews, it was like Shiv’s monologue was ripped from the headlines. She is utterly self-interested when she makes the argument that it wouldn’t be worth it for the whistleblower to come forward. But Shiv’s also not wrong about the consequences. You have two or three days in the limelight, but your life gets torn apart. We rely on people like that to put themselves on the line for any kind of justice to be done.
But if you are making a pragmatic decision on a playground, it’s not a crazy argument. It’s so interesting how sometimes the writers show Shiv as perceptive and competent, and sometimes they show her fucking things up. This was a moment where you see her come into herself as someone who knows how to close a deal.
Garance: I felt like this moment was also a narrative setup for a new story arc that we’re going to be seeing in the next episode and possibly the next season. Is Shiv going to go against her father as a way of trying to clean up the company?
Irin: I profiled Shari Redstone for New York, and it’s fascinating to see some of the parallels between her and Shiv. At CBS, Shari was locked in a power struggle with Les Moonves over the future of the company that her father, Sumner Redstone, had built. Moonves was suing her to take away control of the company when Ronan Farrow, with the help of many sources, exposed that he was a serial harasser and abuser.
This was actually the lever by which Shari Redstone took over the company. These men’s spectacular fuck-ups gave Shari a narrative to justify her own rise. Before she had just been the spoiled little rich girl who the men didn’t want to have in the meetings. And then all of a sudden, here’s Shari who believes in good governance and cleaning up messes. There’s a way in which that’s true, but it’s also extremely convenient.
Indrani: I don’t think Shiv told us a single lie during that whole playground speech. She may or may not actually be cleaning up the company for the right reasons, as you say with Shari Redstone, but I don’t think there are any lies in there.
Michelle: Shiv has been relying on soft power this whole time and I feel like this was her most impressive soft power moment.
Irin: They literally spell it out, right? She calls it “soft-skills, lady-duty shit work.”
The Pierces are a matriarchal family, but it’s a matriarchy in the sense that there have been some Queens of England. It’s not a new model of leadership that is different from the patriarchy.
Michelle: Is Waystar Royco run by soft power or hard power?
Rachel: Hard power. If you’re talking about Logan.
Siobhan: Throw-you-across-the-room hard power.
Michelle: What about Gerri? Is Gerri running the company with soft power?
Rachel: I don’t think Gerri has any real power.
Irin: There’s a Gerri at every company. General counsel is often the highest rank to which women can ascend in the corporate world. It’s a reliable shock absorber role. Gerri’s sort of hiding in plain sight and just there to make things work.
Rachel: So is Karolina [head of PR for Waystar Royco]. I think what’s really interesting is that most of the people in Logan’s orbit that run cover for him are women. The head of PR for the whole company and the general counsel for the company are women. It’s a really interesting choice.
Irin: I think the show sets you up to root for people not because they’re good — there are no good people — but because they are competent. Megan Greenwell wrote that great piece in Deadspin where she used Kendall’s takedown of Vaulter as a jumping-off point to talk about the sheer incompetence of most media executives.
I think one of the inherent comedies of the show is that you’re seeing how arbitrary and flimsy all the Roys business decisions are, and how everyone is bullshitting at all times and just trying to save their own hide. I think to the extent that anybody is rooting for Gerri — or in fleeting moments, for Shiv or Marci — it’s because they are slightly less foolish.
Garance: Do we think that some of the pleasure of the show is just schadenfreude about the rich? The gawking impulse to show people this world of incredible wealth, and at the same time to make the people who inhabit it totally hateful so that you can enjoy disliking rich people at a moment in history of massive inequality.
Irin: Rachel, was it your New Yorker essay about the fashion of Succession where you argue about how banal and generic their consumption is?
Rachel: The way they’re dressing really belies how few exciting things they’re doing with their money.
Irin: They have no taste, right?
Rachel: It’s actually almost like they have an excess of taste, I would say.
Everything they wear is incredibly tasteful, tailored, beautiful, cashmere, the finest Italian merino. The best you can get. They just don’t have any style.
There’s a Gerri at every company. General counsel is often the highest rank to which women can ascend in the corporate world. It’s a reliable shock absorber role.
Michelle: Can we talk about the episode when Shiv blurts out that she’s the chosen successor at the Pierce dinner table, thinking that is going to sway the needle? I feel like she’s never ever going to go back to that kind of move again.
Indrani: I felt like my like blood pressure went up watching that scene.
Siobhan: There’s a theory of female leadership, right? Where when you are true to your natural style of leadership, you can be successful. When you try to emulate the leadership styles that you have observed being successful for other people, it tends to backfire.
I think with Shiv, you see this interesting vacillation between the two: when she’s true to her own style of leadership, she uses soft power. And whenever she tries to do something where she’s like, “I’m just going to take my seat at the table,” it blows up in her face.
For me, Succession is all about women and power. I relate deeply to various versions of it, trying to understand what to learn from it. And I’m left with this sense that pretty much every expression of female power on the show backfires in some way. Where do women get to express power in a way that isn’t then critiqued?
Irin: But just to push back at that a little bit, Kendall, Roman, Tom — they are all engaging in the power struggle in totally inept, clownish ways, where they occasionally might hit on a good strategy. It feels like the only person who has held onto power is Logan — and he’s a monster. Why are we looking for a positive exercise of power? They’re all horrible. In their world, power means being a monster.
Vanessa: I was so disappointed with how Rhea’s storyline ended. When her character was introduced, I was like, oh, finally a woman who is powerful, who knows how to play the game but still seems very self-possessed. Maybe she will bring some sense of honor to this very messed-up family. And then to see how it all fell apart was disappointing. I felt like Rhea turned out to not be any better than the rest of them, and I wanted her to be.
Rachel: But what did Rhea really want? I mean, she wanted to take over Fox News basically. How honorable could she be? There’s an arch capitalist in all of these characters. That’s the problem. I find it hard when people compare the women in Succession like, “Which one’s Elizabeth Warren?” I’m like, “None of them.”
‘Succession’ is all about women and power. And I’m left with this sense that pretty much every expression of female power on the show backfires in some way.
Michelle: So do we think that Logan’s going to actually give the company to Shiv? Or would he rather drag it into the ground?
Irin: In the case of the Redstones, which I do think is an inspiration for Succession, the moment with Kendall where Logan says he’s going to give the company to him, and then he tears it back, that happened multiple times with Sumner Redstone and Shari Redstone. And it really took until he was at death’s door, totally incapacitated in his nineties — but she did it. So when Logan won’t name a successor, that’s also ripped from the headlines. “I’ll never die” — that’s a real thing that Sumner Redstone would say. I think they would have to drag Logan out of Waystar Royco on a stretcher. That is the only way in which anyone else gets to take over.
I think what’s interesting about the show, in the end, is this question of scale. Everything that happens to the Roys would be the worst thing that ever happened to another person or company. At the end of the day, they’re still rich and still fighting. The Roys are the iceberg: They are too big to fail.