When Game of Thrones was the HBO Sunday night offering, it felt at times like the show was in a game of one-upmanship with itself in terms of escalating graphic violence against women. It was so much so that when a prequel to the series premiered in 2022, its first episode made this subtext almost comically explicit, with a speech given by a queen about how the birthing bed is women’s battlefield, delivered in the same episode in which she is later cut to pieces to free the baby she cannot deliver herself.
As nakedly gory as that all was, it is HBO’s current Sunday night required viewing that offers up this lesson about the reality of womanhood even more chillingly. Succession, a series about siblings fighting over their father’s corporate throne, is bloodless compared with the tales of Westeros, but it is no less unsparing in its depiction of the limitations that women inherently face as the result of a toxic combination of biology and patriarchy.
Since the first episodes in which covered-up rapes on Waystar Royco cruise ships functioned as a sort of sideshow plot device, Succession has made it clear that women are a disposable good in a world that rewards a man like CEO Logan Roy. The theme has been embedded throughout subsequent seasons, but Succession’s fourth and final season and the most recent episode, “Church and State,” in particular, have underlined that point exquisitely. The undercurrent of Shiv’s pregnancy has been an isolating factor for her all season, complicating her estrangement from her husband, dividing her from her brothers, and possibly fueling her slightly uncharacteristic concern about the future of not just their world, but everyone’s world. Her utterance at the end of an election in which a fascist was declared president by the Roys’ right-wing news network—“things do happen, Rome,” whispered in response to her brother, who is playing king without a second thought to the consequences—was almost spoken more to herself, as she stood in the corner seemingly contemplating the world that had just been created for her offspring.
Things do happen. They proceed inevitably when you are a body that can also end up a vessel, an experience that Shiv is feeling all too acutely this season. The transformation of her body in “Church and State,” as her pregnancy becomes public—to her family, yes, but also to her business partner Lukas Matsson, who bluntly views it as a liability—highlights the lack of privacy that such an experience requires. Shiv’s funeral dress, a wrap number that somehow both looks queenly and like it might be a bathrobe, essentially swaddles her, as she tries, as always, to use her clothing as some kind of armor. But there is also something soft about this outfit, underscored by the realization of her estranged mother, Caroline, upon a single glance, of her daughter’s pregnancy.
Shiv has spent most of this season acting as if what is happening to her internally is not happening to her externally. She has handled many a drink—and even a vial of cocaine—this season without clearly taking a sip. But that motif is finally exploded toward the end of the episode, when she swallows her Champagne in front of Tom at the funeral reception. She does it like it’s a dare, her eyes locked on his—an attempt to take power back, after a series of conversations in which she has been told she is powerless. Her body is a vessel; it is becoming not her own. With one swill of alcohol and an arch tone, Shiv tries to wrest back some control, to show her husband that maybe she can still be in charge.
Succession has always been an incredibly cold show, and the women who survive in its world do so largely by playing the men’s game. Shiv is as foul-mouthed as her brothers, almost as crass and uncaring. General counsel Gerri is clearly the most competent of the three older guardsmen of Waystar Royco, animated by a cold anger and long-simmering feeling of being fed up that she’s done all that she has for the Roys while tap dancing in heels (see: her incredibly feminine outfit at Connor’s wedding, where she gets fired by, of all people, Roman). The other women in the series, whether it’s Marcia, Kerry, Caroline, or Rava, are all some version of cold or flat—hardened or worn down by all that the men in this world demand of them. (Willa, perhaps the only woman who does not fit this mold, has been finding some surprising happiness this season after wading through plenty of complexity, even as her relationship and her husband remain a consistent joke.)
“My father couldn’t hold a whole woman in his head,” Shiv says at her father’s funeral in an impromptu eulogy. The best evidence of this inability is sitting right in the front row, where Shiv’s mother sits with her fellow wives and mistresses, a pew of brunettes discarded by Logan. That isn’t even the behavior from her father that Shiv is most worried about. Later, at the $5 million mausoleum that seems to have room for children but no place for a partner, she asks Karl and Frank what kind of man her father really was. The intention of her question—and its answer—is clear: Her father was a bad man. A lot of that was plainly visible, in the empire he created. But there was more, too, and of course it will go unspoken.
It’s almost too on the nose that in the next scene, Kendall approaches Logan’s former bodyguard Colin, peppering him with lightly guised insults about how a man like him is too strong for therapy. All three of Succession’s remaining male players lose their shit in this episode, breaking in grief and anger: Kendall in front of ex-wife Rava, Tom in front of Shiv, Roman in front of the entire world. It’s almost too clear a point about the cost of patriarchy—that it hurts men too.
Succession has always ostensibly been about a father’s relationship to his children (though Kendall makes a good argument that it, like everything, is really about money). As the show comes to a close, it is clearly trading in themes of life and death, legacy and lineage. Kendall’s relationship to his own children has been a horrific side note all season, an example of the cost of doing the disgusting business the Roys do. The answer to the big question hanging over the series—who, after all this, will succeed Logan?—will be left up to next week’s finale, but if I had to guess, Shiv is not going to end up on top. Her biology is dictating her destiny—and only men get to be monsters like Logan Roy.