‘You’re still seen as a token woman, wonk, woke snowflake’ … Sarah Snook as Shiv Roy. Photograph: HBO/David M Russell
Season three of the daddy issues drama speaks volumes about the monstrous Man Club that rules society – and even billionaire’s daughter Shiv Roy can’t escape its sadistic clutches
The Guardian-Flannery Dean
Everyone eats their share of dung beetle surprise on Succession – HBO’s unrepentant daddy issues drama – but the women’s portions come heavily seasoned with the patriarchy’s favourite ingredients: sexism and misogyny. Even billionaire’s daughter Shiv Roy (played by Sarah Snook) can’t escape it. “It’s only your teats that give you any value,” her brother Kendall (Jeremy Strong) shouts after she rejects his offer to join him in another one of his patricidal business plans. Even before then, he couldn’t help but put a pin in her dreams of taking over the company: “You are too divisive … you’re still seen as a token woman, wonk, woke snowflake.”
“I don’t think that, but the market does,” he explains.
Kendall’s comments represent the kind of primitive sibling warfare Succession does beautifully, as well as the wider state of gender politics. Women aren’t permitted to succeed in this world as women – only as proxies or pillars for male power. Even then, good luck getting a man to take you seriously. Shiv’s husband, Tom (Matthew Macfadyen), offers cordially to hold her ageing dad’s “sceptre” while he urinates, but quails at the threat to his masculinity that taking a direct order from his wife would represent. “Of course it’s a minus,” booms Shiv’s father, Logan (Brian Cox), in season two after she wonders if her sex is an impediment to being taken seriously as his successor. “I didn’t make the fucking world.”
Now in the final leg of its third season, the series puts society’s attitudes towards women in the foreground. Its full-throated embrace of the ubiquity of discrimination – at home and at work – is revelatory. Despite much humour, there is a fundamental seriousness evident in its depiction of this world in all its brutishness.
No one on the show escapes the sadistic exercise of patriarchal power, but the women are cannon fodder of a different kind. They are held in place by their perceived value, which, in season three, is briefly inflated by the #MeToo-inflected scandal that has blown up around Waystar’s cruises division.
Post #MeToo, “girls are worth double”, says Kendall. As he and Logan prepare for battle again, they pay big money to shore up their female flanks. Expensive professional women pop up beside them like thought bubbles. Kendall wins the hand (and credibility) of the lawyer Lisa Arthur (Sanaa Lathan), while Logan names Gerri (J Smith-Cameron) interim CEO and recalls his estranged wife, Marcia (Hiam Abbass) – a costly rehire for the philanderer.
Kendall collects PR-savvy female employees, offering up an enlightened spin on the Playboy mansion, complete with one real oversized bunny for his kids. “All these brilliant fucking women,” he tells Greg (Nicholas Braun). “I must be doing something right.”
When Lisa takes him to task for his arrogance, however, her dazzle dims and she is fired. “Turns out she’s a toxic person,” Kendall clucks.
Kendall and Logan compete to win Shiv’s female credibility. Logan, who spent most of season two avoiding his daughter, now checks his phone relentlessly, concerned she may have jumped ship. Kendall courts her by saying: “You’re the one I want.”
Prior to her entry into the family business, Shiv’s wealth conferred many protections and helped her defend her significant ego. When she is wooed into the family fold and named Waystar president, however, it turns out she is not much more powerful than the cruise ship dancers.
Shiv may not think she is on a par with the women the Waystar “wolf pack” gobbled up and spat overboard, but the show’s writing suggests parallels. Shiv’s career as a Waystar chorus girl starts in season two. After she joins her brothers on a panel to defend the company from the unfolding scandal, she describes the act as a performance. “I was dancing,” she says.
This season, her big corporate coming-out party, Waystar’s town hall, demands yet another performance from Logan’s only daughter, but Shiv’s debut is drowned out by Nirvana’s Rape Me. It’s a hard song to dance to – all Shiv can do is stagger off humiliated.
At Kendall’s joyless birthday party, Shiv is dancing again – badly. She kicks off her heels and goes full-on Elaine Benes on the dancefloor. Her performance doesn’t go unnoticed.
Greg wonders whether she is dancing her “demons” out. Roman mocks her mercilessly and, like Kendall, affirms her sex as the liability that will always relegate her to token dancer for this army of hurt boys. “You thought it was going to be ladies’ night,” he sneers. “You were wrong. All the men got together in Man Club and decided: ‘Sweetheart, everything’s fine, so …’”
Indeed, the Man Club has consolidated in season three and become darker. The man her family anoints as the next president of the US, the fascist social media influencer Jeryd Mencken (Justin Kirk), pokes a hole in Shiv’s fantasy of reforming Waystar’s rotten corporate culture “from the inside”. Logan and Roman are programming a primitively persuasive form of rogue male power for the future and Shiv isn’t a power player here.
“Are you a part of this family or not?” Logan snarls when she balks at joining a family photo with Mencken. Shiv’s acquiescence is her vanquishing moment – she is an insider now, the lone pretty face in an ugly crowd.
It is a source of endless frustration that Shiv never connects Brightstar’s dots, that she assumes declaring that she eats “red meat” with the randy carnivores inverts the food chain rather than affirms it. But Succession’s greedy, ambitious women aren’t much smarter than its men – and neither are they exempt from paralysing daddy issues. Although Succession makes hay of sexism and misogyny, Shiv’s failures suggest that oestrogen isn’t the hormonal equivalent of cultural disinfectant; like testosterone, it might just be another primitive force that throws out mixed results when courage is absent and the market is the only thing anyone cares about.
Succession is on Sky Atlantic/Now TV in the UK and HBO in the US