- Isabelle Morley, PsyD
Why Shiv's Divorce on "Succession" is Sad... And Scary
Spoiler Alert: This post will discuss examples and plots from Season 4 of Succession. If you haven't seen it, you may want to watch it first and read this after.
Succession has returned for its fourth and final season. Right from the get-go, we see the three children of billionaire media mogul Logan Roy (Brian Cox) trying to build a life for themselves since Logan will be selling his company. Once divided, now Kendall (Jeremy Strong), Shiv (Sarah Snook), and Roman (Kieran Culkin) are working together to build their own media empire. Logan's decision to sell his company instead of leaving it to one or any of his children was the uniting factor they needed: a common enemy, their father. We have watched this man and his children (and their partners and other business competitors) battle for power and wealth over three seasons, and this fourth one seems to be no different.
The End of Tom and Shiv
The more interesting part of this first episode, at least to me, is watching Shiv and Tom (Matthew Macfadyen) navigate their broken marriage. At the end of Season 3, Tom undercuts Shiv by telling Logan about his children's plan to push him out of his own company. In doing so, Tom gives Logan enough time to thwart their attempt. Shiv is shocked and hurt, two feelings she hasn't had in her marriage with Tom, a husband who has always been dutifully deferential.
In anticipation of the new season, I wrote an article predicting what would happen with Tom and Shiv after this significant rupture in their relationship. In it, I said that Shiv is "in too many other relationships in which she's devalued. So if she can't find a way to get back in the driver's seat of this marriage and make Tom subservient again, she'll leave him." And this is exactly what happens. Not only does Shiv lose control of Tom in the business world (since Tom is now a trusted confidant of Logan, while Shiv isn't), but she also has to watch Tom explore other romantic options. Shiv was the one to advocate for an open marriage, which hurt Tom, but he agreed to the arrangement because he loved and wanted to be with Shiv. He didn't, however, relish this opportunity... until now. Shiv hears that he and Greg call themselves the "disgusting brothers" because of their sexual exploits and that Tom is dating models, and this is too much for her to take.
She might have been able to swallow Tom's allegiance with her father if she could have leveraged it for her own benefit, but there's no upside to Tom galavanting with other women. She needed him to be unwavering and docile, and this challenge to the power dynamic she depended on was intolerable to her.
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The Legacy of Narcissistic Abuse
Although she works hard to project a cool, disinterested, unruffled emotional state, Shiv's true feelings become apparent in this episode. Her desire to clarify Tom's relationship with Kendall's ex-girlfriend and her repeated questions and comments regarding Tom's exploits reveal her jealousy, insecurity, and sadness. She's too defended to engage in vulnerability, but we see it nonetheless. She's hurt that Tom has found other people to be intimate with, even though it was an arrangement she herself set up. Shiv comments that Tom looks good and must be working out. She comments on where he might have had sex with models in their extravagant New York apartment. She paints a painful picture of his new private life, obviously hurt but unwilling to admit it.
Instead of showing vulnerability and working on her marriage, Shiv ends it. The risk of being honest and engaging in actual repair is something she's either not capable of or not willing to do.
You can see the childlike version of Shiv reaching out for love and comfort, even though she knows she'd be unable to accept it. She pretends she doesn't care if Tom spends the night next to her after they decide to divorce, and she allows him to grab her hand, but that's as far as she can tolerate. Tom tries to explain his actions or talk about their relationship, but this is too emotionally honest and intimate for Shiv, so she puts up walls at every turn. And we can't really blame her, given her lifetime of engaging with abusive narcissists.
That's the saddest part of this show. The children of Logan Roy appear thick-skinned, but their painful emotions are right under the surface, much more so than their father. Logan reacts to narcissistic injury with rage and retaliation, a classic response. In contrast, his children have a brief moment of genuine hurt and relational longing before they put their walls back up and lash out. They are an example of the damage a narcissistic parent can cause. Not only do they suffer at the hands of their father, but they also suffer in their relationships, as they have learned they cannot be vulnerable with people, lest it be used against them.
This Divorce Will Get Ugly
Don't be fooled by Shiv's temporary (and still covert) expression of sadness and hurt. Narcissists do sometimes show their soft underbelly, but it doesn't last. It's unbearable for them to feel emotionally exposed for too long, so these instants where we witness their internal world don't last. Shiv may have allowed Tom to lie next to her and accepted the embrace of his hand in hers, but this moment of connection won't be for long.
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Shiv feels slighted by Tom and she will do whatever she can to hurt him back. The divorce will give her an excellent opportunity to do so. We don't know what their prenup included, but we can imagine that if there was any wiggle room for Shiv to stick it to Tom, she'll take it. Not only will this get back at Tom for hurting her, but it might also anger her father, which would be a bonus to her. Further, there's a chance that leaving Tom will destabilize his relationship with Logan (something Tom considered and asked Logan about in this episode).
A divorce, even in more amicable circumstances, can turn into a power grab. With someone like Shiv, it will be an outright war. I expect her to use every resource and strategy to damage Tom in their divorce. She'll act like she's just being fair, and will feign surprise by Tom's reaction to her tactics the entire time, too. She didn't consider his happiness or wellbeing while they were married, so there's no reason to think she'll be any kinder in their divorce.
Shiv Will Struggle in Future Relationships, Too
Shiv won't be a great partner unless she engages in meaningful long-term therapy. She doesn't know how to establish real emotional closeness with the people she loves. Her experience with her family has taught her that it's unsafe to do this, and at this point, she probably wouldn't even know how if she wanted to.
There's a possibility her marriage to Tom could have been saved, but not without Shiv learning to be vulnerable, increasing awareness of her emotionally abusive tendencies, and taking the risk of having an equal partnership. Tom tried to make a marriage work, but it would likely end this way no matter what. Look at Logan's repeated failed marriages; narcissists don't stay with one partner forever, and Shiv is no exception. It's sadder to see Shiv's marriage end compared to her father, though. She has a lot of hurt and even more longing, and I'm not sure we'll see her get what she needs.