Some thoughts on Succession’s season 3 finale
by Mitch Pollock
“You want to make a deal with the devil?”
A hell of a lot happened on Succession this year. The HBO drama was all gas, no breaks in its third season: in just four weeks, we saw a climactic shareholder vote for control of Waystar, the choosing of a new presidential candidate, Kendall’s obscene 40th birthday party, negotiations with a tech giant on a potential merger, and a significant storyline involving Roman’s dick – all before this week’s final hour. In “All the Bells Say,” showrunner Jesse Armstrong and the other writers gifted us with one of the most consequential episodes yet. It fundamentally transforms the lives of the Roy children and redefines their relationships with each other and their father. Forget about all that for now, though; this blog is about one man. Sunday’s finale proved that Tom Wambsgans is not only the heart of the show, but the key to answering its biggest questions.
Succession is about abusive relationships. In Logan Roy’s world, abuse is like a river, starting at the head and flowing down the Roy family tree and the Waystar org chart in equal measure. Logan manipulates and humiliates his kids; they do the same to their staff, friends, and family. Rinse and repeat. “Hurt people hurt people.” This finale, and really the entire show, asks what it takes for those people to exit the vicious cycle. The Roy siblings spring into unified action this week when they catch wind of their father selling the company behind their backs – a betrayal of every promise he’s ever made. They’re finally done taking the shit. Unfortunately for them, so is Tom.
Oh, Tom, I could kiss you. In a show full of beaten dogs, he’s the puppy you most want to take home. Before dissecting his big moment, let’s briefly review Tom’s miserable life through three seasons. His relationship with Shiv Roy catapults him from Midwestern lawyer’s kid to mid-level executive at the biggest media company in the world, and son-in-law to the guy in charge. Quite a climb, except the view sucks. He’s irrelevant at Waystar, where the Roy men dismiss him as a corn-fed mediocrity. The only useful thing he’s done, from the company’s perspective, is cover up the cruise line sexual misconduct scandal – a deed that sees him facing down a possible prison sentence for much of season three.
His home life is somehow worse. Tom was never promised a large role at Waystar, but he was promised certain things from Shiv at the altar (emotional support, an equal partnership, love) that she constantly withholds. She cheats on him with a Washington D.C. twerp named Nate. She requests an open relationship on their wedding night. She repeatedly condescends his desire for a larger role at Waystar while using him to further her own CEO ambitions. She responds to his potential imprisonment with barely concealed indifference. Last week, her idea of naughty foreplay was to tell him, “You’re not good enough for me … you love me, even though I don’t love you.” Oof.
None of this makes Tom a saint. He puts up with all of it because he lusts for power and doesn’t want to give up his 1% lifestyle. Even so, the writers continuously pepper us with reminders that Tom wasn’t raised like the Roys and isn’t really like them. He shows strong initial judgment when told about the cruise scandal; he’s ready to call a press conference before Shiv talks him out of it. He’s a sometimes clueless but nevertheless loving husband. He has an “agricultural walk”! He’s certainly got his flaws (delusion, greed, selfishness, mistreating those beneath him) but he’s a deeply vulnerable human being trapped by his own bad decisions.
Essentially, he’s a normal guy who sold his values and decency to join the elite, while still employing an “aw shucks” nice guy act that, so far, has gotten him nothing but a loveless trap of a marriage and a doomed career that has colleagues calling him “Terminal Tom.” At least until now. There were hints before this week that Tom’s rosy delusions about his marriage were starting to crack (see: the best scene in the show). There were also hints that Tom’s confident, ruthless side was ready to emerge (see: the chicken). After he learns of Shiv’s plan to confront Logan, Tom sits down with his one-time protégé Greg and shows the true Roy he’s become. When Greg’s cagey about joining him in his big move, Tom gets in his face, calls him a “fucking joke,” and asks, with a Logan Roy-esque bite, “Who has ever looked out for you in this fucking family, huh?”
And it works: Greg agrees to the “deal with the devil.” It even ends in a hug! Tom tips Logan off to the scheme, and hours later, he’s playing dumb while comforting the wife he just stabbed in the back. We’ll have to wait until next year to see the fallout (which will be agonizing), but it’s safe to say Tom will start season four a few spots higher on the Logan Roy totem pole. Quite a turnaround for the company’s designated fall guy. The lamb becomes the lion.
Disclosure time: I cried real tears after this episode. You think that’s stupid? Some of you cried during Avengers: Endgame. I think it was the pure shock of Tom’s heel turn, combined with the catharsis of seeing someone free themselves from a manipulative loved one’s grip and look out for themselves for once. The irony is that the Roy siblings were attempting to do the same thing with their father, only to be undermined by the ultimate underling. I feel for them, too. It was thrilling to see a finally united trio stand their ground against Logan, especially a stuttering but courageous Roman.
The Roy kids are victims of the cascading fountain of mistreatment, same as Tom, same as everyone on this messed up show. Watching them each grapple with their trauma, strive to overcome it, fail, and strive again: that’s the magic of Succession, the most psychologically compelling show since Mad Men. Underneath all the corporate satire, cringe moments, and dick jokes, there’s a real, raw humanity, and every character reveals a piece of it.
The doomed hope of every empathetic viewer is to see the siblings turn their backs on the empty promises of power and fatherly love and go live happy, healthy lives – but it’ll never happen. They’re stuck. Tom is the same, in every way but one: he chose this life. And while he may be a sweetheart at his core, he loves Shiv too much, and craves luxury and power too desperately, to ever quit the Roys. At the wedding in Tuscany, he decides he’d rather start acting like one. Therein lies the cognitive and emotional dissonance that make this show the best on television: do I celebrate Tom for standing up for himself if he sells even more of his soul to do it? Do I want him to win or escape?
Ultimately, I’ll be in his corner no matter what. I’m a Midwestern boy; I’m a Wambsgans man. Tom’s wild arc, thanks to brilliant writing and actor Matthew Macfadyen’s effortless range, has made me laugh, cry, and scream at my television, often in the same scene. He’s been a sad sack, a maniac, a victim, a bully, a buffoon, and a broken heart – and now, maybe, a killer. I’m not getting off this train anytime soon. Team Tom, always.