HBO has played host to plenty of dysfunctional marriages in its time, but few have matched the salt-the-earth cursedness of Shiv Roy and Tom Wambsgans on Succession. Last week’s episode, “Tailgate Party,” put Shiv and Tom’s unhappy union in the spotlight once more, as the two staged a blowout argument on their patio during a party. As anyone who’s caught even a few episodes likely knew, however, this marital implosion has been years in the making.
Shiv and Tom’s balcony throwdown is one of those arguments from which there is no return. (For a couple that gets off on gift-based negging, biting each other, and corporate betrayal, that’s saying a lot.) Tom called Shiv an unfit mother with no sense of self, and Shiv shot back that he’s a “servile,” “conservative hick” whose biggest turn-on is her family name. With each shouted insult, years of marital subtext finally spattered against the walls in bold print.
And yet, throughout this terrace tête-à-tête, I could think of only one thing: chicken.
We’ve seen Shiv’s mistrust and disdain for Tom emerge in dribs and drabs from the beginning, and Tom’s feelings of resentment and rejection have been simmering for just as long. The last time their relationship got this rough, Tom wound up storming onto a yacht to yank a piece of meat off of his father-in-law’s plate. “Thank you for the chicken,” he hissed. The line was as bewildering as it was iconic.
From their introduction to their relationship in the premiere, to the chicken, and to the party’s brutal fight, this partnership has blended love and maliciousness—the instinct to embrace and to intentionally hurt. Those impulses have flowed, in varying degrees at different moments, from both sides. But is either of these sad, sad people really to blame for all this toxicity? Or have they leapt into this cesspool together?
“The Washington Incident”
Shiv and Tom’s relationship seemed clearer-cut during the show’s first season—before people started staging rebellious acts through poultry. She was a cocksure political consultant who reveled in her husband’s floundering efforts to join the ultra-rich world that helped create her. Tom, meanwhile, seemed to be coated in wax. Impervious to his future in-laws’ scorn, he was just happy to be in the room, handing Logan Roy a watch he clearly did not like. (And whenever the blows that come with acting as the Roy family punching bag became too much, there was always Greg to bully around.)
Future seasons have borne that first impression out, but like most people, the Roys and their corporate parasites all become even more fascinating over time. We now know, for instance, that Tom and Shiv met during one of the most emotionally tumultuous periods of her life—“the Washington incident,” as she calls it. The revelation called to mind Tom’s proposal in Season 1, as Shiv’s father lay dying: she was a mess, and he swooped in. Shiv’s hubby has a knack for catching her most vulnerable moments, and his support often comes with strings—like the words, “For richer or poorer.”
Shiv’s mistrust in Tom was inevitable; given her family history, who would she trust? Her father had her older brother’s mother institutionalized before abandoning him emotionally. Her own mother is as cold and calculating as her father and seems to relish cutting her children down—especially Shiv. Logan has spent all of his children’s lives playing them against one another, and it seems they largely grew up socially isolated—bonding only with each other and friends of their father’s business associates, all of whom would be equally compromised. Tack on a culture of rampant misogyny, and it’s hardly any wonder that Shiv would seek out a man whom she thought might live contently under her thumb.
Tom might let Shiv say awful things to him, and he might’ve slumped in silent resentment during her affairs, but does she really hold the power in this relationship? It felt intentional that when he cornered her on the stairs earlier this season to remind her of their early intimacy, he described that era as the time when they “first knew” one another. Intentionally or not, Tom’s gentle euphemism spoke to a compromising truth about their relationship: over time, he has become closer to Shiv than anyone. And how many people have ever really known her, anyway?
However compromised his intentions might’ve been from the beginning, Tom’s years with Shiv have also given him a front-row seat to the toxic family dynamics that raised her. It’s what made his betrayal at the end of Season 3, when he tipped Logan off to Shiv and her siblings’ plans to usurp Waystar, so treacherous—even if it was payback for Shiv’s many, many cruel acts. At the same time, Tom sometimes does seem to express genuine care for Shiv—especially in moments when she’s struggling with her family.
In the end, however, Shiv’s self-protective instinct can work a little like a self-fulfilling prophecy. By refusing to trust in Tom, she creates an excuse to betray him again and again. Knowingly or not, she seems to comfort herself by re-enacting her father’s abuse with her husband—placing herself safely in the position of perpetrator rather than survivor. But the knife cuts both ways; By doing so, Shiv also hurts herself, or at least all of the pieces of her psyche that still genuinely love Tom.
How else does one explain that Season 2 chicken fiasco, which sums up so much of Tom and Shiv’s messy marriage?
“The Sad I Get From Being With You”
During that season finale, the Roys and all their corporate flacks had come aboard a yacht to decide who would take the fall for the company’s cruise scandal. Really, they’d come to sit and wait for Logan to choose which of them would fall on the sword. True to his nature, Logan made sure to make the process as gladiatorial as possible. (All the better to make sure everyone remains in competition with one another and not him.)
The sharks quickly turned on Tom—and rather than dive in to save her husband when he asked for someone to describe his positive qualities, Shiv started tossing out chum. Tom was actually the perfect candidate, she argued, because he’s both “family” and “not family.” She’d made sure of that from the beginning.
Later on, as the two sat on the beach, Tom finally called his wife out for throwing him out to the corporate wolves—and for putting him in an impossible position when she asked him for an open relationship after they’d already married. Perhaps tellingly, he referred to their marriage as a “trade deal.”
“I love you,” Tom said. “I do. I just, uh, I wonder if, I wonder if the sad I'd be without you would be less than the sad I get from being with you.”
Shiv mimicked her father’s cold aloofness as she listened to Tom’s words, but the camera zoomed in on her pained expressions. As much as she wanted to prove that she possessed the killer instinct her father covets in a successor, “Pinky” couldn’t do it. Instead, she begged her father (behind closed doors) to spare Tom. Kendall got the ax instead—an outcome Shiv likely knew would follow.
That moment, when Shiv implicitly betrays her brother to save her husband, is among the show’s most heartbreaking displays. It upends a tender moment from earlier in the episode, before Logan’s arrival—when the Big Three Roy siblings shot the breeze and joked around like people who actually loved each other. These fleeting flecks of happiness, peppered throughout the series, are a devastating reminder of what Logan has stolen from his children; the intimacy and trust each of them needs (and which they occasionally find in one another) also just happens to be the one thing they repeatedly sacrifice in their race for Daddy’s crown.
Even Tom, a dingleberry on the Roy family’s bottom, can see this. After years of watching the Roy family work, he’s seen firsthand how hollow their love can be. He said as much without saying it in that Season 2 finale, when Shiv tried to talk him off the ledge of their argument with an “I love you.”
“I love you,” he repeated back before picking up a pebble and tossing it into the ocean. “I love this rock. Bye, rock! You’re dead. What does it mean?”
It’s after that discussion that Tom stomps up to Logan’s table and mimics the pathology he’s watched constantly. By taking the chicken, Tom took what he wanted without consent or apology. It’s what Logan has always done, both with the country and with his family. It’s his way of moving through the world, and he taught it to his daughter, too.
Sunday’s fight, like all the other fights, will leave Shiv to drown in a painful truth. Just like the rest of her siblings, who wish they could be as emotionally impenetrable as their father seemed, she’ll never actually be Logan Roy. Instead, she’s just one more person Logan Roy has hurt. It’s the kind of truth some people avoid for most or all of their lives. It might seem safer to find a husband who lets you bite him as long as he can bite you back. We’d all rather feel like someone sitting at the table than just another chicken bone left to sit in the sun. In some ways, Tom knows that better than anyone.
When Shiv finally cornered Tom into explaining his decision to throw her under the bus to save his relationship with her father, he was remarkably honest. “It seemed to me that I was going to be caught between you and your dad,” he said. “And I really, really, really love my career and my money… If you think that’s shallow, why don’t you throw out all your stuff for love? Throw out all your necklaces and jewels for a date at a three-star Italian, yeah? Come and live with me in a trailer park, yeah? Are you coming?”
Shiv’s response? “I’d follow you anywhere for love, Tom Wambsgans.”
“Thank you for the chicken,” indeed.