Shiv Roy’s pregnancy reveals the heart of ‘Succession’ (2023)

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(CNN) — Note: The essay below contains spoilers for the final season of “Succession.”

Critics have long debatedwhether the HBO show “Succession,” created by Jesse Armstrong and concluding its run on Sunday, is fundamentally a drama or a comedy. In its earlier episodes, the comedic and satirical elements were what felt unique to me—the hilarious meanness of the barbs these characters launched at each other brought a “Veep”-like energy to the show.

However, somewhere around the end of season three—perhaps when theaudience was left wonderingif Kendall Roy (Jeremy Strong) had drowned in a pool—the tragedy of the story began to overwhelm the comedy.

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“Succession” is still wickedly funny in the most zeitgeist-y way, but ultimately, it’s destined to be remembered as a tragedy of Shakespearean proportions. The show’s final season has revolved around the Roy siblings’ reactions to the death of their father, Logan (Brian Cox).(HBO and CNN share the parent company Warner Brothers Discovery.)

The audacious choiceto kill off the show’s patriarchin episode three was initially shocking, but it has allowed the writers to patiently sift through the fallout from his demise and portray the jockeying for dominance among his children and other power brokers.

In the episode immediately following Logan’s death, the audience finds out that the youngest and only female sibling, Siobhan “Shiv” Roy (Sarah Snook), is pregnant. For a show that has some of the best one-liners in TV history, “Succession” has also given us a uniquely nihilistic portrayal of pregnancy, devoid of joy and hopeful anticipation.Ironically, for a show all about family lineage and inheritance, children are almost completely absent and childrearing is left to minorcharacters, like Kendall’s ex-wife Rava (Natalie Gold).

The reception ofShiv’s pregnancy

Reproductive rights have become a focal point of national politics, and while I’m alarmed by the criminalization of abortion—and pregnancy, as we’ve seen women who suffer miscarriages come under suspicion—I’ve also experienced the wonder of my body creating new life and look back fondly on my pregnancies. One of this show’s many tragedies is that Shiv doesn’t get to experience this.

“Succession” has shown us the countless ways Logan’s brutal parenting style and pitting of his children against each other has wrought emotional damage on them. How many times have we witnessed Kendall’s attempts to either beat his father at his own game or get out of the toxic family business completely?

In episode two of this season, Connor Roy (Alan Ruck), who has always beenthe butt of running jokes, devastatingly proclaims: “The good thing about having a family that doesn’t love you is that you learn to live without it.” Similarly, we’ve seen Roman (Kieran Culkin) make terrible, impulsive decisions in the wake of Logan’s death, culminating inhis emotional collapseduring the funeral episode.

As for Shiv, fans’ curiosity and speculation around her pregnancy has surged. In chat groups and on Twitter, I’ve seen fans wondering whether the baby is really Tom’s (Shiv’s estranged husband, played by Matthew Macfadyen), how far along she is, whether she has gotten pregnant through in-vitro fertilization or even whether she might be having a baby via surrogate.

To be fair, the audience is given very little information initially. After Logan’s death, we see Shiv’s doctor informing her that the results of the amniocentesis are encouraging and we learn that she’s less than 20 weeks pregnant. It is the day after her father’s death, so a muted reaction seems appropriate, but Shiv shows no happiness, or even relief, when given this news.

Shiv has also imbibed alcohol on more than one occasion, even accepting the offer of cocaine by the Roy family’s corporate rival Lukas Matsson (Alexander Skarsgård) in episode five—though we never see her actually snort it.Having afew drinks during pregnancy is unlikely to cause lasting harm to a fetus, but Shiv’s behavior was predictablymemed to death on social mediaas evidence of what a terrible mother she would be.

Despite all the fan theorizing and mockery, the show’s penultimate episode crystallized for me how tragic this pregnancy storyline really is.

What makes Shiv’s pregnancyunique

Many TV characters, from Erica Kane on “All My Children” to Cristina Yang on “Grey’s Anatomy,” have struggled with the choice about whether to remain pregnant or not, but that’s not really the case with Shiv. Her decision to have an amniocentesis–a test intended to identify genetic or chromosomal health conditions in a fetus—is a strong indicator she’s invested in the pregnancy.

Later in the episode where her condition is revealed, Shiv suggests she wanted her dad to meet her unborn child.If he hadn’t gotten on that plane, she says, he might have lived for 20 more years, “so he could rock his grandkids to sleep.” Tom responds with gentle sarcasm (knowing how absent and aloof Logan was with his existing grandchildren): “As he was evidently so keen to do?” He’s attempting a reconciliation in their rocky marriage, but she rejects it.

In the following episode, Shiv plays hot and cold with Tom, which she’s done for their entire relationship—she has never allowed herself to be truly vulnerable with him because both her parents doled out their “love” in transactional, contingent ways.

As the season continues, there are two separate, intimate moments in which she could have told Tom about the baby, butdidn’t. Also somewhat implausibly, althoughthey have sex multiple times, Tom doesn’t seem to notice any changes in Shiv’s body as her pregnancy progresses.

The couple has an ugly (and impeccably acted) fight on their balcony at the end of episode seven, propelled by Tom’s exhaustion that he tried to warn her about and she ignored. Horrible insults are hurled back and forth, andTom says: “I think you are incapable of love. And I think you are maybe not a good person to have children.”

This is a callback to her own mother Caroline (Harriet Walter) in season three,who told Shivshe regretted having children and that Shiv had made the right decision because “Some people just aren’t made to be mothers.”

Caroline is a terrible mother,arguably an even worse parent than Logan. Shiv has two bad parenting models—one who sees her children as an inconvenience (Caroline), and the other as pawns to be manipulated (Logan)—so it’s not surprising that we’ve seen little indication of happiness from Shiv about having a baby.

In fact, her reasons for continuing with this pregnancy are still, with only one episode left, very opaque. But one would expect at least a sign that Shiv actually wants this. Instead, her revelations about the pregnancy in the past two episodes have only doubled down on the dark overtones.

In episode eight, Shivreveals the news to Tom in the middle of election night, just as he, the head of a cable news network, is dealing with overlapping crises. She pulls him aside to make up after their balcony fight and when he appears unmoved, she throws the Molotov cocktail about her pregnancy: “Actually, also, I’m pregnant. Yeah, by you.”

His response is devastating: “Is that even true, or is that like a new position or tactic?” Clearly hurt, Shiv ekes out a weak “what?” She’s reaping what she sowed—she has manipulated him so many times that it’s natural that his first response is disbelief.

The casual brutality of the Roy family

The other reactionsto Shiv’s news are similarly dispiriting. Roman immediately makes an incest joke, Kendall asks her whether the baby is Tom’s and Caroline sizes her up immediately, saying, “Blimey!” and making it all about herself, asking why Shiv didn’t tell her.

Matsson also lets on that he knows, insinuating it might present a problemfor her ambitionto be CEO of Waystar, the company he’s trying to acquire.Shiv’s responseis brutal: “She’s one of those hard bitches, right? Who’s gonna do, what, 36 hours of maternity leave? Emailing through her vanity cesarean.Poor kid will never see her.” This is of course an allusion to how distant Logan and Caroline were as parents.The saddest thing is, she’s throwing her fetus under the bus and there’s a good chance Matsson still won’t give her the job.

Shiv’s later conversation with Tom and Caroline compounds the tragedy. When he asks why she didn’t tell him sooner, she says, “Because it seemed so sad, Tom.” Notably, Caroline then comes over and says to Tom, “Lovely news. Well done, you.” Meanwhile, she has yet to congratulate her own daughter.

Tom responds, “If it wasn’t such a total fuckin’ disaster, it would be a dream come true.” Finally, when Caroline turns to Shiv and indicates how hard raising a child is, Shiv reiterates her intention to be an absent mother: “Oh, no, I’m not gonna see it. I’m just gonna do it the family way…I mean, they don’t grow up emotionally stunted, do they?”

All these interactions are dripping with mean-spirited sarcasm, and Shiv is seemingly in denial about how a baby will change her life, or complacent about the fact that she will pass on her emotional damage to her child. We know Shiv is posturing for power, so she may not actually believe the things she says or end up parenting the same way she was parented—and sadly we’ll never get to find out. But, as a mother of two, I’m struck by the absence of genuine excitement and goodwill about this news.

No one congratulates Shiv or inquires about how she’s feeling, and she’s not even allowing herself to fantasize about motherhood. She’s so caught up in beating her brothers at the succession game that she can’t see this baby as anything but an obstacle.

Ultimately, this storyline is a perfect encapsulation of the larger tragedy that is “Succession.” As suggested by Ewan Roy’s (James Cromwell) searing eulogy at the funeral, Logan’s true legacy is his children’s emotional inheritance of his self-isolation, selfishness, greedand lack of self-awareness, which leads them to hurt other people. Shiv Roy’s pregnancy speaks volumes about the emotional rot at the core of this family.


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