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Shiv Roy is not the most evil character on Succession

The Roys are all as bad as each other – and holding Shiv to a higher standard reeks of misogyny, argues Haaniyah Angus

In 2013, actress Anna Gunn, known for playing Skyler White in Breaking Bad, wrote an op-ed for The New York Times on the backlash against her character. In the piece, she detailed the vitriolic online response she had received simply because she played a dislikeable woman or a ‘shrew’. As Gunn stated in her article, Skylar is not the only female character to receive such a reaction in comparison to the anti-hero or downright villainous male characters — she cites Carmela from The Sopranos and Betty from Mad Men as other notable examples, both white women who are complex and morally corrupt, but also very much victims of misogyny in their worlds. 

Shiv Roy is no different. 

However, if you watch Succession solely via your Twitter timeline or the show’s subreddit, you’d assume that Shiv is by far the most evil out of all the characters. One Reddit post expresses incredulity at the mere thought of suggesting Shiv and Tom are as bad as each other. Another, posted after the release of the latest episode, America Decides, is titled ‘All three Roys let us down tonight, but Shiv worst of all’. One Twitter post states, “They are all evil, but when you’re constantly evil to the man you choose as a husband, from the first day of their marriage, I say you’re next level mean.”

It’s true that Shiv Roy is reprehensible. But all the Roys are – perhaps equally – and that’s the point of the show. The audience are constantly made to contend with the sins of each of the Roy siblings, sins which (irreversibly?) taint their more ‘likeable’ traits. Kendall effectively murders a man, Shiv pressures a sexual assault victim not to go through with her testimony, Roman pretty much secures Logan’s endorsement of the fascistic Jeryd Mencken as well as aiding in his election. And as much as people adore Willa and Connor, he has essentially trapped her in a cage of his own making. 

Shiv’s failed marriage to Tom Wambsgans is a particular point of contention for the fandom, with Shiv often deemed the more cruel and vindictive one in the relationship. Over the first season, she goes from a semi-loving girlfriend into a cosplay of Logan with a need to push away any form of love. It should be obvious that the way Shiv treats Tom is merely a reflection of how Shiv’s difficult childhood has distorted her view of love, similar to Roman’s inability to keep stable relationships (and his obsessive harassment of Gerri) and Kendall’s once-in-a-blue-moon appearance in his children’s lives. Perhaps it’s because Tom is played by Mr Darcy and has been ‘babygirlifed’ that audiences think he’s more sympathetic than Shiv, but I think the show has demonstrated that Shiv is worthy of sympathy too. Obviously childhood trauma is not an excuse, but clearly decades of emotional (and physical) abuse have changed all the siblings’ emotional lives for the worse. Yet only Connor, Kendall and Roman seem to be the ones that Succession fans feel bad for.

Another Twitter user argues that “[an] underrated brilliant part of Succession’s writing is how massive bleeding heart lib Shiv is the most evil sibling.” Shiv is introduced to us in season one as a political consultant, and unlike her staunchly Republican father, Shiv works for the Democrats and identifies as a liberal. A common argument like the comment above is that Shiv being a liberal easily makes her the worst because she should know better. Because if she’s so clued up on injustice, how can she be comfortable with so much of her wealth deriving from ATN, the Fox News of the Succession universe? How can she be so easily persuaded to take a picture with a fascist presidential candidate? And most importantly, how can she intimidate a sexual assault victim into silence?

My answer to that is there’s a fundamental misunderstanding of liberalism at play here. Liberals – and especially liberals like Shiv, who do it out of a need to differentiate themselves from their conservative family, rather than out of genuine care for people – are never going to be a force for morality or progress. Shiv’s politics weren’t ever an antidote to her family’s flirtation with sending a Nazi to the White House. We saw how Kendall spent a good chunk of season three criticising his father’s toxic company and telling anyone who would listen that Waystar has systematically harmed women. He became the prototypical white liberal male feminist – until it no longer benefited him. As recently as the last episode, America Decides, Kendall chooses power over family, despite having a POC daughter experiencing racism as a result of the toxic atmosphere caused by the election – and, by extension, ATN. So how is he any different? 

Moreover, why is Roman not treated in the same way? Admittedly, he never started in politics, nor did he dabble with white knighthood. But he’s an incredibly self-aware character, often mocking his naysayers and the “liberal elite” and “woke” crowd. Roman’s callousness came to the fore in the latest episode, when he claimed that calling the election for Mencken was merely a “night of good TV” and that “nothing happens” as a result of political turmoil – and it’s Shiv who actually asserts that “things do happen”. Surely someone like Roman, who actively facilitates a fascist winning the presidency, is a little more deserving of the ‘most evil’ title? 

The idea that Shiv is worse simply because she worked for a stunt double Bernie Sanders for a few weeks relies on an intentional misreading of the show’s themes and reeks of misogyny. It all feels like shorthand for saying, “Shiv should be a better wife because she’s a woman” or “Shiv should be a better liberal because she’s a woman”. But I don’t believe that should be our takeaway. If anything, Succession hammers home that wealth is an individualistic, corrupting factor that obliterates any sense of solidarity with your identity markers. Shiv’s upbringing, coupled with the fact she remains in desperate need of her father’s approval and support — something she was never going to receive — gives us an incredibly complex character that refuses to be guided by morality. Shiv was always going to turn out the way she has, and so were her brothers. As Kendall says, “The poison drips through.”

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