[Editor’s Note: The following review contains spoilers for “Succession” Season 3, Episode 6, “What It Takes.”]
It’s time to talk about Tom.
Over the past few seasons, one of “Succession’s” most curious early characters has seen the zeal zapped from his eyes. Remember his wedding night? When he finds out Shiv (Sarah Snook) slept with her sleazeball coworker Nate (Ashley Zukerman)? Tom (Matthew Macfadyen) is so charged up — high on the big night’s romantic vibes, his newly minted family spirit, and the recent knowledge that his seconds-old spouse prefers an open marriage — that he gets into Nate’s face and threatens to “pay men to break your legs,” claiming that “if I go to jail, which I won’t, so be it.”
Safe to say, that man no longer exists. Now, he’s the company Christmas Tree — a walking-and-talking, yet uprooted-and-dying, gaggle of branches set aside for any at-risk employee who needs to unload their “baubles of corporate wrongdoing.” (Macfadyen, always in peak form, really nails that line.) Even Greg (Nicholas Braun), Tom’s seemingly permanent whipping boy, has the gall to add his own felonious ornament to the less-than-festive spruce. “I have decided of late not to tarry too much with hope,” he tells Kendall (Jeremy Strong), who’s well on his way to a similarly demoralized state.
But for once, I think it’s reasonable to be outraged on Tom’s behalf; to wish he could escape this exorbitant punishment even when he’s done next to nothing to earn an exemption. Typically, when “Succession” characters screw up, the squirming we do as audience members is because we’re torn between an emotional attachment to these people (as people) and an intellectual understanding that they are the rot of the civilized world. We may feel for them as human beings, but we also know they are part of the problem. Tom certainly is, having done Logan’s bidding long enough (and forced Greg to do his), but the simple fact remains: He isn’t responsible for the cruise scandal. He inherited it blindly when he took over the division (at Logan’s behest) and was dropped unceremoniously into the “death pit” by his predecessor.
Macall Polay / HBO
What Episode 6, “What It Takes,” illustrates is how ineffectual the scandal and all it entails could be on Logan (Brian Cox) and the company at large. Last week, they forced the President of the United States into early retirement; this week, they’re picking a new one. Not that long ago, they were fretting over an FBI raid; now, Logan is “joking” with the acting Vice President about firing the deputy attorney general in charge of the investigation. All season, Team Logan has been in “beast mode,” trying to survive Kendall’s assassination attempt; in Episode 6, Kendall’s only mentioned when Roman (Kieran Culkin) finds out their mother is getting remarried.
Logan, and people like him, do not face consequences. They farm out their penance to whoever can absorb it, and in this case, that’s Tom. By making this “long glass of water” the new patsy, Jesse Armstrong and his team are expertly stirring our collective ire. Kendall’s targeted remark about what’s happening with the case — “Five years go by, and it’s, ‘Hey, whatever happened to the big investigation into the bad people?'” — sounds a bit too familiar to the general social sentiment toward white collar criminals; that despite a widespread desire to see the perpetrators punished, they won’t be. “Succession” isn’t operating in wish fulfillment. While you can laugh at the rich and powerful’s stupidity and pettiness, this isn’t the show to watch if you want to vicariously experience the satisfaction denied to us in reality. It’s here to make us feel the weight of what actually happens, and Tom is the chosen tool to twist the knife.
Not only does Logan deserve his comeuppance, but Tom getting it instead makes any conceptual understanding of justice feel that much closer to a personal slight. Our personal attachment has been strengthened over weeks and weeks of lamentable, relatable attacks on our prison-bound ATN head. Tom has been overrun at work (out-shouted by his own anchors), betrayed by his sad excuse for a best friend, Greg, and made into an absolute joke by the woman he fell in love with. (“I fell in love with your sister, that’s what happened,” he tells Kendall, in what seems like an honest sentiment for a backstory we’re not all that familiar with.) The hot tamale has burned through her country mouse, whether it’s telling him she wants an open relationship on their wedding night, cheating on him well before that, or encouraging him to be Logan’s sacrificial lamb in the first place.
Tom is so pathetic, so beaten down, so emotionally bullied into his current state that it’s the most he’s ever felt like one of Logan’s children. And he’s lost the will to fight back. He’s a lot like Kendall at the start of Season 2, when the once-ascendant son is acting as Logan’s lapdog because he’s too scared to do anything else. Perhaps his meeting with Tom in Episode 6 will have the same effect on Logan’s latest patsy. Will Tom’s fear of Logan and waning love for Shiv trump his desire to stay out of prison? Or will he team up with Kendall, cutting ties with a family he’s not bound to by blood? By putting Tom at the center of such questions, “Succession” doubles our investment in the outcome. Logan and his company need to face lasting penalties for the scandal because it’s their fault, but also because we can’t let them keep throwing the nearest, saddest sack under the bus instead. The stakes aren’t hypothetical; they’re real, and they feel real — as real as Greg’s “endless salty gym mat” and all the other tasteless food Tom will be eating (for free!) all too soon.
The Roy-al Rumble
With Kendall clearly on the ropes, the most intriguing moment in another episode won by Logan is one of temporary ambiguity. After Kendall makes his case to Tom, trying to get a “big fish” to come over and plug up the holes in his sinking case, they share a hard truth. Tom says, “Having been around a bit, my hunch is that you’re going to get fucked. Because I’ve seen you get fucked a lot, and I’ve never seen Logan get fucked once.”
Is that line more important to Tom or Kendall? Tom may just need to say it out loud, so he can trust in the plan he’s already put into action, but Kendall is at a turning point: He could still back off and seek refuge from dear old dad. Things aren’t looking good (he fired his lawyers, my god), and he’ll need help if he’s going to keep fighting his father. Kendall makes sure to get a picture of Tom in the parking lot (as proof they’ve met, for future blackmailing purposes I assume), but did he hear what Tom said? Did he really hear it? If he did, that line may have more to tell us about Kendall’s position shifting than Tom’s — is it time to throw in the towel? Or will he find his second wind?
Macall Polay / HBO
Greg: “Some guy with an undercut just called me Soy Boy?”
Tom: “Oh, don’t worry Greg. This is a nice, safe space where you don’t have to pretend to like ‘Hamilton.'”
Greg: “…I like ‘Hamilton.'”
Tom: “Sure you do. We all do.”
This is just a perfect exchange, and perfect exchanges have to be transcribed for the world to appreciate, even if they’re already enshrined in audio-visual form by the people who actually said them.
Oh, and major props to Soy Boy for casting his preliminary ballot for no one and against one very unworthy individual: “I think I owe it to my country to say, I don’t think you should crown– or make Connor president.” Even the guy being hoisted aloft by the clowns of “the Elephant’s Asshole” for suing Greenpeace can’t stomach the idea of President Connor Roy. Never minimize the Greg window, folks. Never.
Shiv Show at the Fuck Factory
Shiv did not enter this episode in a good place, and she’s worse off exiting it. Having been vehemently scolded by Logan at the end of Episode 5 (for, you know, doing her job / saving the company), Shiv tries to make peace with her father on the way to the Future Freedom Summit. He plays along, but soon it’s clear Logan has no intention of following his daughter’s guidance.
Her top pick, Salgado (Yul Vazquez), is a non-starter; Shiv gets shut down or ignored every time she brings him up. Meanwhile, Logan enjoys toying with Vice President Boyer (Reed Birney), but he could never respect a man like that — who feigns having principles about as effectively as he feigns having any power at this Summit — nor does Logan enjoy taking the “cleanest” option. He loves the fight, in part because if he wins, he gets all the credit. That makes Menken (a devilishly charismatic Justin Kirk) all the more appealing. Menken may be a fascist who preaches “medicare for all, abortions for none,” but he knows how to get people riled up and, most important, he knows when to bend the knee. Sure, he says “fuck ATN” and claims Logan’s empire is “no longer relevant,” but that’s for show; when push comes to shove, he delivers (and opens) a can of Coke for the kingmaker. And that’s enough.
It’s more than enough to send Shiv storming away from her father and toward… her brother? Logan’s lingering look that ends the episode seems to be gauging the same question we’re meant to ponder as an audience: Did he push her too far? The last time Shiv got pissed at her dad was in the premiere, when he gave the CEO gig to Gerri (J. Smith-Cameron). Then, she went to see Kendall. Will she visit him again, now, when he’s in need of a big fish to give the DoJ and she’s again infuriated with her father? The one-two punch of private humiliation last week and public repudiation this week may send her into vengeance mode. Kendall is all too familiar with that side of his sister. But perhaps this time, it will work to his advantage.
Macall Polay / HBO
The A+ F-Bomb
It’s one worth repeating: “Having been around a bit, my hunch is that you’re going to get fucked. Because I’ve seen you get fucked a lot, and I’ve never seen Logan get fucked once.” – Tom, standing his ground… for now.
Best Line That Could Still Air on ATN
There are actually a lot of options this week, so in the spirit of the straw poll, we’re going to award three top finishers:
3. “I’m worried about prison. I just feel that because of my physical length I could be a target for all kinds of misadventure.” – Greg, acknowledging his height may make him a target for more than ridicule if he ducks into a prison cell
2. “Our vineyard! Ooo– oh, it’s a screw top.” – Tom, getting the first hint that his “earthy,” “vegetal” wine may not be up to snuff.
1. “Climate said I was going down. Climate said I should just step aside. I guess I’m a climate denier.” – Logan, rubbing salt in Shiv’s wounds as he decides to back her worst nightmare, Menken
“Succession” debuts new episodes every Sunday at 9 p.m. ET on HBO.