Realistic Romance: Shiv and Tom from Succession (Season 1+2)
Welcome to the Realistic Romance series, where I analyze and assess popular relationships in television and film. In each post we will explore an on-screen couples and look at relevant psychological concepts to better understand the quality of their relationship, and determine if these partnerships are setting realistic expectations for a good relationship.
For each of these posts I will be discussing examples and plots, if you haven't seen the movie or show, you may want to watch it first and read this after.
When I watch Shiv and Tom interact, I cringe at the extreme power differential that governs their relationship. Tom's defeated facial expression, Shiv's tense demeanor, their awkward and incomplete exchanges...
Their mysterious history of how they got together, Shiv's cutthroat nature contrasted with her insecurity, Tom's cruelty as a defense against his vulnerability...
There is just so much to analyze.
I could write about this couple all day.
But since I don't have all day (and neither do you), let's focus on the more poignant moments in their relationship.
Shiv (Siobhan) Roy
Shiv Roy (played by Sarah Snook). The only daughter of Logan Roy, a media mogul with billions of dollars and, as a result, total control of his children. At first Shiv separated herself from her family's legacy, forging a path in politics, until eventually she sees an opportunity to be the head honcho of Waystar Royco and jumps feet first into the emotionally abusive and unstable deep end.
We don't know much about when or how she started dating Tom, but she hints that it was during a difficult time for her when she was not feeling her best. Tom was a stable, doting, and unthreatening partner. Shiv, although appearing highly confident and unflappable, craves external validation. In lieu of getting that from her father, she finds an eternally supportive partner who holds her in the highest possible regard. Shiv has the reins in this relationship, and as much as she plays dumb to that fact, she knows it.
Tom (Matthew Macfadyen) comes from a normal Midwestern family. His mother may be a respected lawyer, but her prestige is nothing in comparison to his wife's family's reputation. He values and lusts after the Roy's wealth and power, but also seems to have genuine affection and admiration for Shiv as a person. Tom sees them as a power couple, each helping the other to excel in their careers, even though he often ends up taking a hit instead of getting ahead. Many times we see Tom being blamed or cast aside, and he generally takes it without much more than a whimper of his dissatisfaction.
But Tom is not just a victim in this story. Although we see him being dismissed and denigrated by the Roys, we also see him being the abuser. Take his treatment of Greg as an example (Greg, the naive and dopey cousin who also seeks a piece of the family's wealth). Tom is quick to disparage and mock the young startup, putting Greg down publicly as a way of bolstering his own fragile ego and reputation, and basking in the fact that he has found someone less powerful than him that he can step on in order to reach the top.
There are several types of relationship dynamics that lead to unhealthy conflict, avoidance, or power imbalances. In healthy relationships, both partners are able to voice their feelings and needs, feel that their opinions are truly heard, know that their perspective and needs matter to the other, and have a say in making significant decisions.
Unfortunately, this is not always the case.
We'll be looking at the demand-withdrawal pattern. In this dynamic, one partner seeks to address issues or request change in order to improve the relationship. The other avoids these attempts by minimizing, ignoring, or outright dismissing them. The first partner eventually learns that there is no point in making an effort because it will only lead to rejection, hurt, and disappointment. They are forced to accept the relationship as it is, or to leave it.
The Bachelor Party
Tom's bachelor party, thoughtlessly thrown together by his soon-to-be brother-in-law Roman, is a great example of Tom's attempts to strengthen the relationship (and a great example of Shiv's dismissal of his efforts). Once Tom realizes the nature of the party (a sex party, for lack of a better description) he contacts Shiv several times to confirm what is and isn't okay for him to do at this soiree. In doing this, he is trying to clarify and establish respectful boundaries in his relationship. If Shiv said no funny business, he would have held that line. But Shiv didn't say that, and in fact, she barely said anything to clarify the actual line. Instead, Shiv made vague comments about how they are "both adults"and indicated her lack of interest in discussing it further.
She shuts him down. Tom tries to communicate about boundaries of acceptable behavior in unique circumstances, and Shiv minimizes his concerns. Her message is clear: we don't need to talk about these things, this isn't important to me, and stop calling.
We see Tom learn the lesson, once again, that his needs are not important to Shiv.
The Wedding Night
On the night of their wedding, Shiv surprises Tom with the fact that she wants their marriage to be open. By this she means she wants them to be able to pursue extramarital sexual relations. On its face, this is fine. Some couples agree to have open relationships, and there is nothing wrong with that arrangement. The issue is how Shiv approached it. She had been acting as though their relationship was already open without having the actual conversation to discuss this, and as a result she was being unfaithful while leaving her partner left in the dark. This is Shiv's nature, to act like things are "understood" and then feign surprise or indignation when she is questioned on her behavior.
In the moment, Tom was clearly taken aback but not willing to share his true feelings. As he often does, Tom muffles his emotional reaction and pretends to be more okay with what's happening than he actually is. He is trying to keep the relationship alive by not voicing his very real hurt and anger. Tom had an opportunity to say no to Shiv's request, but it meant risking the end of his relationship with her, and so he unhappily acquiesced. This is a recipe for resentment. Tom wasn't actually comfortable with this arrangement and he felt blindsided into agreeing, but will harbor unhappiness (and eventually voice this at the end of season 2).
The Point of Change on The Yacht
After seeing Tom stumble through every challenge and hurt, it's a breath of fresh air to watch him finally express his actual feelings. After being tossed up by Shiv as the potential scapegoat for the cruises scandal, Tom finally reaches his limit. He's willing to accept a lot of unsatisfactory agreements with Shiv in their marriage, but only with the understanding that it will help his career, and having Shiv jeopardize his job and reputation was one step too far.
On a secluded beach, we finally see Tom stand up for himself. Enraged by the risk of losing his career in order to protect the Roys, he tells Shiv how he really feels about their open marriage. Is it a little late? Absolutely. Ideally he would have told her this much, much earlier, but it took the possibility of losing his career to give him enough courage to speak up. This is a pivotal moment for them, where the power imbalance is shifted so that Tom has a more equal footing in the marriage.
As I think is no surprise, it's not a great relationship. There is a concerning lack of communication and openness, not to mention empathy, between these two. Shiv's one-up position, bolstered by her unbelievable wealth, makes for an unhealthy dynamic where her partner is just trying to keep her happy. Shiv doesn't seem to actually care about others' feelings, her husband included, which makes her a difficult partner. Her self-involvement, insecurity, and dismissive attitude are not a recipe for a successful partnership.
With all that said, though, here's where Tom went wrong. As much as I acknowledge Tom's one-down position in this relationship, he is not a total victim. He chooses to stay in a relationship with Shiv, even when he finds out upsetting truths such as her infidelity with a coworker on their wedding night, and he chooses to stay because he wants in on her power. He wants some of that money and prestige. And in order to do that, he is making a deal with the devil... so to speak. Instead of requiring respect and communication, or holding his boundaries, or walking away, Tom stays.
Overall, I give them a C- for their relationship grade. Is it outright abusive? At times, absolutely yes. But more than emotional or psychological abuse, I see a problematic dynamic that one or both of them could resolve, but don't. It's not a healthy relationship by any stretch of the imagination, but both Shiv and Tom knowingly remain married for their own ends. There is an unspoken (or perhaps spoken) agreement that their marriage isn't just for love, rather, it's a pragmatic and purposeful relationship where they each get something they need.
Could they make it work despite its shortcomings? They sure could. And we may very well witness them do that in season 3. I predict a more businesslike approach, where Tom is able to make more career-related demands from Shiv, who will acquiesce in order to maintain the unwavering doting and stability she gains from the marriage.
*Update: if you want to read more about their dysfunctional relationship, including what a transactional relationship with a narcissist means, check out my post on Shiv and Tom from season 3.
Want More Like This?
If you have a favorite on-screen that you'd like to be a focus of this series, let me know! I'll be writing on all couples, from the obviously healthy to the clearly destructive, and everything in between.