‘Succession’ and the Deconstruction of Fake Feminism

In the final episode of Succession’s first season, Siobhan (Sarah Snook) turns to her ex-boyfriend, narrows her eyes and hisses “I’m Shiv fuckin’ Roy.” It is a triumphant victory cry, a menacing threat and maybe even an insult. It elicited gasps and celebratory ‘ooooh’s, like Shiv was a comedian who had quieted a heckler with a particularly cutting joke. This line establishes her as someone equal parts terrifying and captivating. She is both a capable businesswoman and a vengeful heiress. The show wants you to be invested in both figures.

Siobhan Roy’s tangential relationship to the plot of the first season works to shroud her in mystery. Shiv is as impenetrable and unwavering as her father. The comedy of Succession is mined from the gap between perception and reality; these characters may think they are being friendly, personable, or even relatable, when they are really being patronising. Of all the Roy children, Shiv seems most aware of this gap, she seems to be the most capable of bridging this metaphorical chasm and delivering a line, or making a choice, that is so inscrutable it neither reveals who she thinks she is or who she really is. She chooses to work for senator Gil Eavis (Eric Bogosian), a left-wing Democrat. The show never seems to settle on why she works for senator Eavis: is she just seeking revenge against her father? Does she believe Gil could be the next President? Is she left-wing herself? Is she even a Democrat? The show purposely refuses to offer us conclusive answers to these lingering questions.

Image credit: HBO

None of these characters are supposed to be admirable, in many ways they are all despicable. Every time there is a shot of one of them climbing into a private helicopter or languidly wandering into their shiny, multi-story Manhattan homes, you are reminded that they are exceedingly, embarrassingly rich. Every broken relationship is self-inflicted collateral damage in the ceaseless pursuit of power and money. But that is what makes the show so great: you are still invested in their lives. The audience is drawn in and forced to grapple with the question which underpins the entire show: which Roy child will take over from Logan (Brian Cox)? Which child should take over?

Shiv is different from her siblings; she is not as tragic and anxious as Kendall (Jeremy Strong), she is not as arrogant and demanding as Roman (Kieran Culkin) and she is not as bizarrely misinformed as Connor (Alan Ruck). In short, she is not as erratic or obvious as her brothers. Any worthwhile pondering over the aforementioned questions leads to the inevitable conclusion that Shiv is best suited to take over Waystar Royco.

There is a certain satisfaction derived from admitting Shiv is the best equipped Roy child. She is an intelligent, competent woman and the simple part of my brain likes seeing capable women outsmart all the lesser men around them. In the first episode of the second season, Logan finally offers Shiv the chance to be chief executive of Waystar. She barters, she measures out her immediate response and then she tearfully admits “why did you never ask me, huh? I would kill this!” There we have it, Logan has finally recognised what the audience knew all along.

Image credit: HBO

Any twisted sense of faux feminist satisfaction crumbles before the end of the season. Logan rescinds his offer to make her CEO and Shiv is fired from working at Gil’s prospective chief of staff. Just like that, Shiv is swiftly reduced to the level of her incompetent brothers. But still the audience could probably say with a certain degree of confidence, “she is morally deplorable but better than most of her family.” That is, before the ninth episode.

Several women who worked for Waystar’s cruise line have come forward to speak out about the sexual abuse that was rampant and ignored. One of these former employees is willing to be a witness for a televised congressional hearing. When the Roy family catch wind of this plan, they send Siobhan and Rhea (Holly Hunter) to track her down and convince her to stay silent. As they approach the park where they plan to ambush the witness, Rhea turns to Shiv and says “Look, I’m not going in…Siobhan, you don’t have to do this.” In a chilling display of absolute loyalty Shiv responds calmly, “If she speaks and she’s compelling…then that’s it for my family’s company. So, yeah. I do have to.” Shiv steps out of the car and for the next fifteen minutes the audience watches as she craftily convinces the former witness that she is her friend, that she wants what is best for her, that sharing her story will only result in slut-shaming and no real change. It is an eerie scene that, not for the first time, cuts through the glamour and opulence of the Roy’s lives to highlight their inherent abhorrence.

Image credit: HBO

The writers never try to convince the audience that Siobhan is commendable, but they are keen to point out that her fierceness is rooted in her ability; “I’ve always thought you were the smartest,” her father tenderly points out. Admiring her from a feminist perspective is tricky, yet the audience cannot help but respect her for other reasons. They respect her tenacity, her focus, her ability to construct witty retorts at a moment’s notice. The show has drawn attention to her flaws before, but it is only when Shiv so expertly dismisses this woman’s experience of abuse as a mere roadblock in her family’s journey to success that the audience is truly disgusted by her.

Shiv is unwittingly the figurehead for a kind of feminism that is not really feminism at all. A woman whose rise to the top of the corporate ladder was so swift that you momentarily forget that she did not have a glass ceiling to break through. A woman whose confidence is so all-consuming it takes a moment to remember that she has never had to fight to be recognised for her talent and ability. Siobhan Roy is empowered by her inherited privilege and the show never loses sight of this, even if I did for a moment.