Season 4, Episode 8: ‘America Decides’
The day before Logan Roy died, he delivered a fiery call to arms to his ATN staff, letting them know what he expected from the network going forward. The speech was an angrier variation of the populist spiel he had given many times before, in which he insisted that the news should always be frank and unpretentious. He wanted his anchors to tell their viewers “truthful” things they had never heard anyone say before on television. He wanted ATN to be, in a word, “spicy.”
Throughout this week’s action-packed, nerve-shredding episode of “Succession,” Logan’s kids argue a lot about what the old man would want them to do, as the presidential race between the Republican Jeryd Mencken (Justin Kirk) and the Democrat Daniel Jimenez (Elliot Villar) comes down to a couple of battleground states. The big sticking point is Milwaukee, where a fire at a vote-counting facility has destroyed enough ballots to tilt Wisconsin from blue to red.
How would Logan have handled this? Would he have maintained the policy of “no brass on the battlefield” and left all of ATN’s messaging to the Decision Desk data-nerds? Or would he have seized the opportunity offered by Mencken to Roman, to shape the narrative such that the Mencken camp (and by extension the Roys) are the night’s big winners?
To ask what Logan would do, though, is to miss the real crux of the issue. It was clear from Logan’s defenses of ATN that he didn’t care whether his network broadcast the facts. He preferred “the truth” — which has a more flexible definition, depending on who is doing the telling.
On this election night, up in ATN’s executive offices, there are two competing truths, represented by the Jimenez supporter Shiv and the Mencken backer Roman. Every time Shiv tries to turn the conversation to things like Menckenite obstructionists in “victory vans,” Roman shouts, “False flag!” and rebrands the ominous vehicles as “fun buses.” The Roys are at an impasse.
Roman has a decided advantage, given that ATN already has what Tom calls a “unique perspective” on the news. While the other networks are suggesting that Mencken goons may have burned the Milwaukee votes, ATN floats theories like “electrical failure.” (Roman would prefer to go with “Antifa fire bombing.”) At one point, ATN’s Tucker Carlson-like anchor Mark Ravenhead (Zack Robidas) delivers a rant during the network’s purportedly neutral coverage, attacking leftists for trying to turn the fire to their political advantage.
Roman also has Kendall and Tom on his side, to a degree. Kendall is hesitant because he is no Mencken fan. When he mentions to Roman that he fears what a Mencken administration might mean for his adopted daughter, Sophie, his brother mocks him for caring about the ideals of American pluralism. Roman compares their whole argument to when they were kids, when Kendall would play the sober-minded big brother in order to get chicken for dinner, while the whinier Roman wanted steak.
Kendall asks, “Because we had so much chicken when you were a kid, we have to elect a fascist?” And although he is being facetious, those kinds of lingering slights are what guides the decision-making this night.
As for Tom, he is under pressure to quiet his critics by delivering big ratings for ATN’s election coverage. To get there, he endures glitchy touch-screens and a steady stream of Roys entering the newsroom’s forbidden areas. Tom remains inclined to side with Roman, perhaps because that puts him at odds with Shiv, whom he has not forgiven for their vicious argument at the tailgate party. Even when she tries to win him back by finally telling him that she is pregnant with his child, he stings her by asking if she is lying, as another “tactic.”
Shiv has a rough time overall on election night. As the evening nightmarishly shifts Mencken’s way, she has a heart-to-heart with Kendall — in a reflection of the touching Season 2 scene in which he confided to her that he would never be Logan’s choice to run the company. Here, he listens to Shiv’s argument that ATN could slow the Mencken momentum. Their Decision Desk guru, Darwin (Adam Godley), knows from historical data and exit polling where the Milwaukee votes would have gone. They could put Darwin on camera and let him explain why ATN won’t project a winner in Wisconsin.
But two things get in the way. The first is that Kendall really wants the next president to kill the GoJo deal, which Roman insists Mencken will do. So Kendall asks Shiv to take one more shot at persuading her ex-lover Nate to get Jimenez to make that same promise. Instead, she merely pretends to make the call and then lies to Kendall, saying that the Jimenez people are open to considering his proposal. This sets up the second impediment: when Kendall calls Nate to iterate more clearly what Shiv claims to have said.
There is some phenomenal staging in this episode, a lot of which involves people passing phones back and forth — and at one point even holding one phone up to another so that the people on the lines can speak to each other. But the best phone sequence is Kendall’s call to Nate, which plays out mostly unheard on the other side of one of ATN’s enormous office windows, as Shiv looks on with dread. After Kendall gets the word from Nate that Shiv never called him, he walks over to talk to Greg, who Shiv knows is aware of her consultations with Matsson.
Kendall, feeling betrayed by the sibling he trusts most, spits some icy words in Shiv’s direction and then tells Tom to make the call for Mencken. ATN really is about to help elevate an authoritarian to America’s most powerful public office because one spoiled brother is in a snit.
Although this episode is incredibly entertaining, it does cut uncomfortably closer to real-world politics than is typical for “Succession.” This show always features characters and ideas inspired by real political figures, but the creator Jesse Armstrong uses these mainly as the backdrop to the Roys’ family drama — and as a way of satirizing generally the blinded arrogance of the powerful. Here though, the way the election plays out is so much like the specific circumstances of 2016 and 2020 that it might stir up bad memories for anyone who sweated and fretted through those nights.
That’s OK, though because while Roman may “ironically” make racist comments in the newsroom and may assure Shiv that “nothing happens” when terrible people take power, Armstrong is showing here that the pettiness of the Roys and their ilk does have repercussions. Everything for this family is about banking a win in the moment, regardless of whether it might later turn into a loss. That’s what their father taught them: Take what you can, when you can, and let someone else clean up after.
So as the evening ends — with ATN having called Wisconsin and the presidency for Mencken, without having let Darwin explain that this is all just “pending” — Roman sums up what happened in terms Logan Roy would have understood.
“We just made a night of good TV.”
Tom has a bad election night, too, ending with Greg handing him his phone and saying, “A lot of very important people want to scream at you.” This is a great episode though for fans of the sicko Tom-Greg dynamic. Not willing to entrust the “Gregging” he needs to anyone other than Greg, Tom keeps his lanky lackey close at hand, relying on him for everything from a quick bump of cocaine (Tom: “This is not a thing. It’s not going in a book.”) to double-shot coffees. Tom lays out a doomsday scenario in which Greg fails to keep him from getting drowsy, Tom miscalls the results in Colorado, China invades Taiwan, the world blows up and “We’re back to amoeba.”
One of Tom’s non-Greg assistants makes the mistake of bringing bodega sushi into the office, which Tom nixes (“Tonight my digestive system is basically part of the Constitution!”) but Greg sloppily eats, ultimately leading to a stray smear of Wasabi ending up in Darwin’s eyes. Greg makes matters worse by pouring lemon La Croix onto the affected area. (“It’s not that lemony!” he insists.) True to Tom’s dire warnings, it is while Darwin is briefly incapacitated by foodstuffs that the Roys start making the decision to call the election for Mencken.
Once Connor learns he lost Kentucky (“Alas Kentucky, Willa … alas vanity”), he scrambles to appease Mencken, offering to “concede in his direction.” So we get the wonderful spectacle of Connor delivering a peppery kiss-off speech in front of a sign bearing his campaign slogan: “Enough Already!”
Just because ATN declared Mencken the winner doesn’t mean the election is over. The mess in Milwaukee needs to be resolved; and it could all end with Wisconsin flipping to Jimenez. In other words: Once again on “Succession,” a big deal remains unclosed.
Discussion about this post