You can always tell when a TV show is in its final season, because the characters start dropping like flies. The first major casualty of Succession’s last lap was patriarch and media mogul Logan Roy, and with the season’s seventh episode, “Tailgate Party,” it would seem we’ve got our second: Shiv and Tom’s marriage. The balcony blowout they have outside a room filled with several dozen of the nation’s most powerful figures may be the most vicious exchange in the show’s history, the product of two people who are intimately familiar with each other’s weak spots aiming right for them, knowing they’re about to say things they can never take back, and saying them anyway.
The two have been estranged before, and at the beginning of the season, Shiv, wounded by Tom’s corporate betrayal and bruised by his following through on her suggestion that they see other people, told him it was probably time for both of them to “walk away with our heads held high and say ‘Good luck.’ ” But the mixture of kindness and aggression Tom showed Shiv after her father’s death—consoling her in her grief, on the one hand, assaulting her earlobes when she scuffed up his sneakers, on the other—was enough to revive their relationship for one last fling, a bout of sustained lovemaking that Tom christens the “sex Olympics.” (In a perfect gag, the episode cuts away from Shiv’s side of their sexting thread just when we’ve started to go into full-body cringe, and right to Tom’s side of the conversation, which is even more ick.)
From the beginning, Shiv and Tom have been atypical of Succession characters in that they actually seem to enjoy having sex. Roman can’t get it up for a woman unless she’s in the next room or playing dead, and Kendall’s relationship with Naomi Pierce seemed to be built more on sharing drugs than swapping fluids. But Shiv and Tom are hot for each other, and have actively used sex to repair their relationship when it’s falling apart elsewhere. This time, however, it backfires. Tom is vain about his prowess, dropping off fresh presidential polls to Shiv as a present from “Father Sexmas” and telling everyone at their party how tired he is (because his wife kept him up all night, you see). But over the course of the evening, it becomes clear that no number of climaxes can win him Shiv’s respect, and his boasts of fatigue become increasingly resentful. Shiv waited until their wedding night to inform Tom that she wanted an open marriage, and he’s been plagued ever since by the feeling that he’ll never be enough. Now he’s worn himself down to a nub trying to satisfy her, and it hasn’t changed a thing.
Shiv and Tom have wounded each other many times, but this time they’re going for the kill. You can see them egging each other on, almost giddy with the freedom to lash out. Tom tells her that she’s selfish, that she shouldn’t have married him, and she probably shouldn’t even—and here you can see him pause, aware he’s about to salt the earth—have children. (He doesn’t know, of course, that Shiv is currently carrying his child.) She tells him he’s nothing, a “conservative hick” who used her only to get access to power. That sort of arrangement may work for Shiv’s half brother Connor, whose escort turned wife told him on their wedding day that she was with him for his money, but Willa has never challenged her spouse’s dominance the way Tom has.
It’s never been entirely clear how or why Shiv Roy, heir to one of the most powerful families on the planet, and Tom Wambsgans, son of one of the more prominent attorneys in the Minneapolis–St. Paul area, came together. Over the seasons, there have been vague allusions to Shiv being an emotional wreck when they met, very lightly expanded with Shiv’s oblique reference to “the Washington situation” with “TK,” evidently a bad romantic breakup. (As an inside joke for the show’s fans among the media class, the initials of Shiv’s otherwise unidentified ex are newsroom slang for text to be filled in later.) She’s been grateful to him ever since, and also a little suspicious that, knowingly or not, he sneaked inside the gates when she was at her most vulnerable. As she points out during their fight, Tom chose the moment of her father’s first brush with death to propose to her, not far from his hospital bed; he even went so far as to muse on the appropriateness of asking an unconscious man for his daughter’s hand. She sees in him a mirror of the weakness she fears in herself, and he serves as a living reminder of the point in her life when she was desperate enough to let him know her.
But the truth is that neither of them is capable of seeing past the horizon of their own troubles. The tension in their fight is exacerbated by their simultaneous professional precarity: Shiv, who has sided with the tech entrepreneur Lukas Matsson against her own brothers, is worried that she may have made a catastrophically bad call, and Tom is worried that Matsson has been spreading the word that once he acquires the Fox News–ish ATN, Tom will be promptly relieved of his executive duties. Shiv’s never been able to take Tom’s problems seriously: Even when it seemed as if he was headed to federal prison, it was all she could do to stifle a yawn. Time and again, she’s deployed him to carry out “team tactics” that benefit only her, and he’s been left stammering as she’s flatly denied she sold him down the river yet again. When Tom complains that Shiv has been broadcasting his imminent firing to the cream of the media elite, she replies that it was only “implied, lightly, as a kind of tactical joke,” just as she’s gaslit him so many times before. When Shiv made a move to become Waystar’s CEO after the two had made plans to install Tom in the job, Shiv promised him that she’d done it “only as a play.” “Totally,” Tom nodded, as if he understood. “So … what was the play?”
Tom, meanwhile, overtly betrayed her, leaking the siblings’ attempted corporate takeover to Logan in order to get into his good graces, leaving Shiv on the outs with her father in the final months of his life. It’s doubtful that a successful seizure of Logan’s company would have involved substantially more daddy-daughter time, but at least it wouldn’t have been Tom’s fault. He knows he can’t trust her, but he also assumes that she’ll never face real consequences no matter what he does. After all, she’s Shiv Fucking Roy. He gives her a Lucite-encased scorpion as if it’s an inside joke, but she’s stung by being seen that way by someone who ought to know her best. Like the Patek Philippe watch Tom gives Logan in the very first episode, it’s a gift that matches only its recipient’s outsides.
Shiv and Tom have tried to love each other, at least. But for the Roys, “I love you” always comes with but. But I can’t forgive you. But you are not serious people. “I may not love you,” Shiv told Tom once, “but I do love you.” Now, she tells him, she doesn’t even like him. As she finishes the thought, you can see the awareness spreading across her face, saying it to hurt him but realizing its truth. As she storms off to leave him alone on the balcony, she turns and shoots him a look over her shoulder, and it’s almost a smile. She’s alone now, the scorpion, and she doesn’t even have to pretend to care.