Shiv and Tom’s Relationship in “Succession” Says a Lot About Marriage

It might be time to split, but something keeps you hanging on.

succession tom and shiv sitting on the bed
Though Shiv and Tom’s marriage could be blown to smithereens at any moment, the "Succession" audience remains invested

Even for those who don’t watch Succession, the twists and turns of the show’s plot are virtually inescapable for someone who spends any amount of time on the internet. At this point, you probably know the gist: a family of media moguls is battling it out, Shakespeare-style, for the leading role in Master Mogul: Return of the Mogul. The three main siblings were bred to see each other as competition and consequently resent each other in a way that is a not-so-secret secret. And now, in this most recent season, you probably know that sister Shiv Roy is in the midst of a spectacularly failing marriage with husband Tom Wambsgans, executive in the family’s modest little media empire. Their relationship has blossomed into one of the show’s central and most compelling plot points, growing increasingly more gripping once Shiv’s pregnancy is revealed in the episode “Honeymoon States.”  

The Wambsgans-Roy union has been troubled from the start, marked by a dramatic proposal, career betrayal and a hefty serving of infidelity. By the end of Season 3, things go downhill fast. “I wonder if the sad I’d be without you would be less than the sad I get from being with you,” Tom tells Shiv after exposing the siblings’ plan to overthrow their father. Ouch.

Season 4 has continued pouring salt in the wound. In “Tailgate Party,” the episode right before the election, Shiv and Tom exchange serrated jabs that reek of a relationship’s bitter end. “I think you are incapable of love,” he says to Shiv, “and I think you are maybe not a good person to have children.” The twist? Tom doesn’t know it yet, but Shiv is, of course, actually pregnant. As Vanity Fair reported a couple weeks ago, the episode’s directors, who said the brutal scene was painful to film, also didn’t even know Shiv was pregnant. (They knew the actor portraying Shiv, Sarah Snook, is pregnant in real life, but Shiv’s pregnancy wasn’t yet written into the scripts.)

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Though Shiv and Tom’s marriage could be blown to smithereens at any moment, the Succession audience remains invested in it. Like in real-life relationships, a handful of breakthroughs — ahem, the “orgasm Olympics” — have reminded us why Shiv and Tom got together in the first place. There are shimmering moments when the two can still make each other laugh (and apparently come…and come again) that keep viewers’ eyes glued to their screens. We recognize Shiv and Tom’s toxic behavior because even those of us who don’t dabble in their same lethal, Succession-y insults in our own relationships may still emulate their delusion — clinging to the good things about a marriage even when they’re vastly outweighed by the bad. 

As Jessie Thompson wrote recently for The Independent, whether or not Shiv and Tom really love each other is up in the air, and it’s a question many of us try to answer in our own lives when we feel our own relationships fall apart. “Why did they get married?” Thompson asks, “And why aren’t they divorced yet?” 

Well, divorce might be on the horizon. The marriage must have effectively ended, Thompson argues, when, in “America Decides,” Shiv tells Tom she’s pregnant and all he can muster is, “Is that even true?” Up until that moment, many wondered if there was hope for Shiv and Tom. Even for those of us who do not come from media royalty, that’s what makes a break-up so impossibly hard. There’s always hope that it could get better — that you’ll qualify for the orgasm Olympics again this year — even when you know deep down that it’s time to throw in the towel.

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