Regularly scheduled programming: How Shiv on ‘Succession’ redefines the antihero trope

A woman presents in front of a crowd.
Claire DuMont SC ’23 explains how “Succession” helps expand the roles of female characters. (Courtesy: Macall B. Polay/HBO)

This column contains spoilers for “Succession.”

In the season one finale of “Succession,” it is Shiv Roy’s wedding day. Typical of a finale, multiple climactic plot points occur in the episode as everything built up in the previous episodes comes to a head. Potentially one of the most shocking events in the episode happens when Shiv (Sarah Snook) asks her new husband, Tom Wambsgans (Matthew Macfadyen), if he wants an open marriage in the middle of their reception.

“Succession,” now on its third season on HBO, follows the Roy family led by patriarch Logan Roy (Brian Cox) and his four children, Connor (Alan Ruck), Kendall (Jeremy Strong), Roman (Kieran Culkin), and Shiv. Logan is the CEO of Waystar Royco, a huge media conglomerate, and the driving force of most of the plot is who will take his place — who will succeed him. 

From the moment I started “Succession” almost two years ago, I have always felt drawn to Shiv’s character. As the only daughter in the Roy family, she is meant to stand out. Because of this, when I first started the show, I tried to look for traits that made her different from her openly greedy, power hungry and vicious brothers and dad. What makes Shiv interesting, however, is that she is just as cruel and eager for power as they are, and that she subverts female character stereotypes.

The scene in the season one finale set the tone for Shiv and Tom’s relationship throughout the rest of the show so far. Their interactions often do not seem like those of a couple and are usually painfully awkward to watch. At the end of the second season, Tom tells Shiv directly, “I wonder if the sad I’d be without you would be less than the sad I get from being with you.” 

In the second episode of season three, Shiv ends a phone call with Tom with “I love you,” to which Tom replies, “Thank you.” Shiv asks if he loves her too and he responds asking “Why? Why do you wanna know?” These moments of dialogue make up only some of their strained relationship, and I am often left wondering whether or not they actually love each other. I have also always been struck by how Shiv and Tom reverse the roles of an unhappy marriage on TV. 

The early 2000s marked the beginning of TV’s second golden age with shows like “The Sopranos,” “Mad Men” and “Breaking Bad.” These shows had many aspects in common, as all were critically acclaimed prestige dramas and some of the first shows to center a complex male antihero. Tony Soprano, Don Draper and Walter White were some of the first main characters that made the audience question whether or not they should side with the main character, which had previously been the norm. 

The popular TV of today also frequently utilizes the trope of the antihero, in shows like “Ozark,” “Better Call Saul,” “Bojack Horseman” and “Succession.” Shiv is representative of how the antihero trope has evolved to include the female antihero, often as a counterpart to a male character. Instead of the male main character feeling unhappy with his wife, Shiv is unhappy with her life with husband Tom, proposing they have an open relationship. Rather than reusing the cheating husband trope that typically came with these antihero shows, “Succession” changes the narrative through the relationship between Shiv and Tom. 

Outside of her relationship with Tom, Shiv embodies the personal traits reminscient in Tony, Walter and Don. Shiv sometimes seems as though she is doing things for others or the greater good, but at the core of most everything she does is her own self interest, just like her siblings and the other characters in the show. She embodies the figure of the antihero as it exists in today’s popular culture, making her one of the most interesting characters on “Succession.”

Shiv’s position with the other characters as an antihero and a compelling character does not excuse her often selfish and morally ambiguous actions. In past antihero dramas, especially “Breaking Bad,” the wives of the male characters received sexist backlash because of their role as an obstacle to their husband’s success. Her character shows that women are not confined to a role of wife and mother characters among prominent stories driven by the male characters. Shiv is emblematic in a step towards change in how female characters are portrayed in stories. 

Claire DuMont SC ’23 is one of TSL’s managing editors. She was almost named Siobhan and anxiously awaits the new “Succession” episodes every Sunday. Although she is a big Shiv fan, she connects the most with Cousin Greg.

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