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Succession: The problem with Shiv Roy. – Slate

Fans of Shiv Roy have been on a journey since Succession began. At first, Shiv seemed like the clear winner of the contest her father was staging among his children. She was sarcastic, smart, and intriguingly independent compared with her brothers, who remained very much stuck in Daddy Logan’s orbit. Shiv’s vibe was even feminist-ish: She wasn’t going to beg for the role, she was clearly the more powerful partner in her own relationship, and she was capable of rebelling substantively against her father—even working for a politician who wanted to destroy everything Logan stood for and being good at it to boot. But viewers began to sour on her as the seasons wore on. For all her asserted competence, she kept making weird and kind of basic miscalculations even after she started competing openly for a role she’d claimed she hadn’t wanted. Beyond her telling Tom she was “such a total mess when we hooked up,” we’ve never gotten any real insight into the character. The girlbossier she got, the more opaque and less effective her character became. Enough of the mask has dropped to show us she wants power, but not enough has dropped to show us she’s an actual person.
At this stage in the game, it seems safe to say that Succession has a Siobhan problem.
Shiv’s combination of coyness, canniness, and ambition makes a lot of viewers love her. Plenty of others love to hate her. This may be because she’s structurally unable to escape the strategic significance of her femaleness; it’s the main way she gets singled out again and again on the show (most recently in Kendall’s repeated and vile references to her “teats”). But the issue isn’t exactly that she’s a woman. Nor is it exactly that she’s the favorite. It’s that her story remains surprisingly thin. There still just isn’t much to her—beyond chafing at her marriage and wanting the top job enough to do anything to get it—and it seems to me like by now there should be. I’ve been waiting eagerly for Shiv’s choices to be anything but dully adaptive. She’s smart, after all, and eager to impress her father whose whole philosophy requires never adapting and rejecting constraints.
But adapting is all Shiv does. Save for her surprising decision in the Season 2 finale to beg her father to spare Tom—a fascinating and knowingly self-immolating pivot toward the marriage (and away from her ambition!) that she seems to have totally forgotten about in Season 3—Shiv is strategic in a dispiritingly obvious sort of way. It’s hard to imagine her ever impressing Logan because all she does is accept limits instead of challenging or reframing them. There’s no interesting paradox there, no unusual angle of approach, no legible defining complication. We’re into the third season and that’s a little too long for a principal to remain this blurry. Shiv seems crisp (her outfits sure are), but ask yourself whose psychology you understand better: Tom’s or Shiv’s? Greg’s or Shiv’s? Roman’s or Shiv’s? Hell: Connor’s or Shiv’s? I’m not even bothering with Kendall, whose layers get more attention than all the rest combined.
[Read: This Week’s Worst Person in Waystar Royco: Kendall Roy]
This is a problem even at the level of dumb aesthetics. It’s my unpopular opinion that Shiv’s ballyhooed makeover from the S1 messy bohemian to the S2 polished pantsuit does the opposite of character work, and that it in fact comes perilously close to doing what The Office did to Mindy Kaling’s character—rewriting her so completely from the first season to the rest that there’s no real bridge to build. The OG Shiv is a bruiser with great messy hair who wrestles Roman and wears big bohemian cardigans and flats and weird unflattering pants. These are not conventional sartorial choices for political consultants in Washington; this Shiv is somewhat eccentric, and interesting.
The New Shiv, by contrast, is conformity itself. She can call Michelle-Anne a “pantsuit barnacle,” but she’s no different. It’s not that she isn’t striking—she is, of course. Sarah Snook is gorgeous, and her backless gowns are stunning and memorable. But her workaday look is so polished it wraps around again to generic. Makeovers matter, and this one turned out not to be symbolically interesting at all; if it scanned at first as the girlboss power-dressing for the job she wants, it’s pretty clear at this point that it was just one more surrender to the world her dad wants her to live in. Shiv’s look might seem powerful, but it actually marks her as one more supplicant for Daddy’s favor. At least Roman does without a tie!
This mimics a broader tendency in the writing for Shiv, which uses shallow external signifiers to portray her as bold when she’s actually disappointingly reactive. It would be one thing if Shiv were mysterious—that is to say, if you found yourself genuinely and repeatedly surprised by what she was thinking, or by her approach to a problem. Or if she were brilliant and capable of swinging the room by making a compelling and unexpected case. But she mostly isn’t. She’s mostly obvious and predictable. Her analysis of Logan’s position in the second episode of Season 3 is so conventional it functions as exposition. Her conversation with Tom about defecting is more promising: She seems to be on the verge of joining her brothers to take her father down. But the terms of the debate depends on them; Shiv’s analysis is that they could take down Logan if all four of them went for it. Shiv, being the obvious heavyweight in that group of siblings after Kendall, could have made an actual move. She could have taken the initiative and told Kendall she was in, for example, rather than wait for both her other brothers to answer first and peel off. She could have driven the outcome she wanted. Instead, she waited for others to say what they were going to do. And reacted.
I’m frustrated by this particularly after the season’s first episode because it actually showed us Shiv expressing vulnerability, which is rare—even if it’s to the wrong person, her brother’s lawyer. “I don’t know what my dad did and I don’t know what my brother did and I don’t know what the firm did,” she tells Lisa. “I’m in a fucking fuck pie here, Lisa. Can I clean it up? I don’t know. I have a plan. But I could easily get crushed between these two fucking men, and I need to game things out, and I need to do that with someone who can give me a read legally and culturally and politically and socially and it’s a lot. I trust you.”
I’d have loved to know what that plan was—how she saw herself making it to the top as a lone actor. But we didn’t get it.
The same is true of her discussion with Tom when he asks her if she wants the job. “You can get too fucking clever with this can’t you,” she says. “I don’t want to be buried like Miss Havisham with a bonnet full of clever stratagems so yes. Yes I want it.”
Is this … remotely surprising? After Logan finally tricked Shiv into admitting she wants the top job in Season 1, can we imagine a world in which Shiv would now say, “No, I don’t want it”?
Snook plays Shiv as fascinating and enigmatic, with a lot going on behind her eyes, and it’s a testament to her extraordinary chops that she’s able to produce the impression of depth that she does. But the writing isn’t doing her any favors. Shiv is the least developed Roy, and it isn’t close. I don’t think this was intentional: Shiv is supposed to be intriguing. Her casual treatment of Tom, her discomfort with monogamy, her apparent lack of friends, and her refusal to do the soft, womanly stuff are all meant to set her apart as “strong.” But Succession has relied so heavily on Snook’s remarkably enjoyable repertoire of smirks and eye-rolls that it forgot to supply her character with substance.
[Read: Succession Isn’t What It Pretends to Be]
This is partly because Shiv is written—perhaps in an effort to overcompensate for her womanhood—without much vulnerability. The Roy boys have defined traumatic cores: Ken’s struggle with addiction is a deep and complicated storyline. So is his ruined marriage, his remorse over the waiter he left to drown, his narcissistic need to perform both his reverence and his antipathy toward his dad. We have spent time with him alone and we’ve seen him unguarded. We’ve spent less time with Roman, but we’ve seen his soft side too: Kieran Culkin laces his irreverence with nervousness and bendy physicality. He can deliver an epic burn, but his body around his father cringes, looks down and away, cowers. He’ll speak while swinging from a staircase without appearing to do so. His psychosexual complex is interesting, and his anarchic approach to things make sense: It’s not perfectly spelled out, but there’s a trauma history that would produce this constellation of wit and wiriness and affection.
And then there’s Shiv, who we know had some difficulties in her past, but we still don’t know what they were. And she can’t produce a vision to save her life. That memo she wrote for Logan became an instant object of fun for her whole family, and whatever ideas she might theoretically import from her political consulting life feel focus-grouped and thin—in no small part because Shiv’s own approach to her political work was drenched in irony.
It’s frustrating, in other words, that when Kendall lays out a vision, however grandiloquent, for a global Waystar Royco, Shiv’s response is parochial and reactive: “We’ve all been trying to navigate our way through conflicting loyalties and that’s difficult.” In a show stuffed with bro-y braggadocio it indulges and deconstructs, Shiv is—despite swagger that’s supposed to show she can play with the boys—impotent.
Maybe the shine has gone off certain signifiers of powerful womanhood in the years that stretched between Season 2 and Season 3. We’re kind of exhausted by the visual politics of the pantsuit now. The polish and sarcasm that made Shiv seem fascinating and inevitable at first just feel tired at this point—we’ve seen her screw everything up too much to fall for any merely aesthetic promises. Something is off. Shiv correctly calls Kendall’s performance a “peacock fuck show,” but it’s hard to see how her dance is any different.
Slate is published by The Slate Group, a Graham Holdings Company.
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