“Succession,” the HBO show about a billionaire patriarch named Logan Roy (Brian Cox), could’ve been just another prestige drama about a male antihero. An old rich bastard, a corporate corollary to Tony Soprano, who grapples with the inevitability of his decline and death, ever reluctant to step off the stage.
But the second season is actually turning out to be a complicated portrayal of what female power looks like in a business world ruled almost entirely by men.
In Sunday night’s episode, “Argestes,” the show took that depiction a step further, offering a stealth look at how the Me Too era shifts the ground under the feet of the old, comfortable male guard.
Logan must now grapple with a world in which women are ascendant, or at least where they matter.
The episode, written by Susan Soon He Stanton, dug into how this moment, when women’s voices and stories of sexual misconduct are finally taken seriously, is changing the rules of the game for the elite women who’ve long been circling the center of power without being fully included. Some of them can finally take advantage of the cracks in the ceiling that the current moment occasionally breaks open.
Of course, we’re not talking about just any woman; it’s Logan’s only daughter, Siobhan, or Shiv “Fucking” Roy (as she proudly calls herself in Season 1).
In the Season 2 premiere, Logan promised Shiv ― privately ― that she was the one. He would anoint her his successor (the raison d’etre for the whole show).
She’d never dreamed it possible. Shiv (Sarah Snook) knows she can do the job, but she’s also smart enough to understand her possibilities are limited by her gender.
In the second episode of the season, Logan tells her she’ll need years of seasoning and training before she will be ready to succeed him.
She parries that her younger brother, Roman, who’s exhibited zero business acumen and undergone no training, is a top executive at Logan’s company, Waystar Royco: “You have a toddler with a hard-on for chief operating officer.”
“You’re a young woman with no experience,” he says.
“A woman. That’s a minus?” she asks.
“Well, of course it’s a fucking minus,” he says. “I didn’t make the world.”
“You make a small part of it,” she shoots back.
That exchange proved to be all wrong. Last night it was clear that the world Logan made is fast-changing and that being a woman is turning out to be a hell of a plus for his daughter.
Logan’s company is facing damaging accusations of sexual harassment and a poisonous culture. Geri, Rhea and his public relations guy essentially agree that the company needs a woman to get through the PR crisis.
“The acceptable face” is how she’s described by Rhea Jarrell (Holly Hunter). “Young Siobhan is as close to T-bills as we’re going to get” is how another man in Logan’s circle implies that Shiv can help smooth things over for the company in the wake of this latest scandal.
Shiv is apparently the one after all. She steps up to try and halt the damage.
The Ladies Of The Snake Pit
What’s remarkable about “Succession” is that Shiv isn’t the token woman maneuvering the snakepit. There are so many others down in there with her.
Especially shocking: This is a Sunday night HBO drama that not only easily passes the Bechdel test, it also features virtually no nudity or sex, though there are plenty of masturbation scenes.
“We’re not interested in having people take their clothes off, particularly women,” Lucy Prebble, one of the show’s writers, told Katie Baker at The Ringer. (Half of the show’s writers are women.) The show has an “institutional aversion to ‘tits and ass,’” Prebble said, according to Baker.
Instead of naked twentysomethings, we get a dazzling mosaic of women, mostly older (alas, all white) navigating the rooms they were never meant to enter. There’s Logan’s right-hand, Geri (J. Smith-Cameron), who seems to have a canny ability to see three steps ahead of everyone else ― and the agility to survive years of working for an absolutely ruthless and bullying bastard.
Geri’s challenges would be familiar to any woman who’s made it oh-so-close to the glass ceiling but faces that classic double-bind of being unallowed to appear truly ambitious or aggressive. Hers is a softer behind-the-scenes power that’s typically permitted to women.
Matriarch Nan Pierce (Cherry Jones), the head of a publishing empire, is not only Logan’s equal, but, after Sunday night’s episode, she’s also the woman who wouldn’t be cowed by his aggressions.
At the end of the episode, Nan’s left Logan in a sorry state, banging on her car window as she’s just spurned a $25 billion offer he’s made to buy her company. Unlike most everyone else on the show, Nan has the money ― and maybe even the principles ― to turn him down. “Good riddance to bad rubbish,” she tells him, spurning his appeal to her greed.
There’s a female Roger Ailes character, Cyd Peach (Jeannie Berlie), who acidly diminishes the entitled executive Tom Wambsgans (Matthew MacFadyen) as he tries to implement cost cuts in her bile-filled newsroom.
Rhea Jarrell is a seemingly cunning CEO playing both sides of that multibillion-dollar deal. After last night, it’s unclear if she’s emerging from this saga as a winner.
And that’s only a partial rundown of the women.
When Opportunity Knocks
Though it’s not clear what happens next for Shiv, with the Pierce deal in tatters, it’s possible that neither she nor her father nor any other Roy will be the one to lead the company.
It is notable that a Me Too scandal has created the opening ― clearing a path.
Though Me Too stories rarely turn out well in real life for the women who speak up about abuse, the era so far has created a very small handful of Shivs, women who’ve ascended to power by virtue of the small opening that scandal provides.
Over at Fox News, Suzanne Scott became the network’s first female CEO after it was roiled by accusations against Ailes and others. Susan Zirinksy was made CBS News’ first female president in the wake of a harassment scandal. Shari Redstone ― the daughter of media scion Sumner and perhaps as close to a real-life Shiv Roy as you’ll find in corporate America ― used a sexual harassment scandal to finally get the deal she wanted at Viacom. At NBC’s “Today” show, Matt Lauer’s spot was taken by Hoda Kotb (no surprise: she’s getting paid less).
This is classic “glass cliff” stuff: In real life, women and minorities are often thrust into power when the situation is so FUBAR that none of the usual white guys wants to take the job. (Think Barack Obama in 2008 or Theresa May after the Brexit vote.)
These are the smallest victories, collected by the most privileged of women and paid for with the careers and traumas of so many others.
The real world, like the world of ”Succession,” is still led mostly by men.