'Succession' season 4, episode 8: 'America Decides' (2023)

Kendall (Jeremy Strong) gives in to his true nature. Macall Polay/HBO hide caption

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Macall Polay/HBO

'Succession' season 4, episode 8: 'America Decides' (2)

Kendall (Jeremy Strong) gives in to his true nature.

Macall Polay/HBO

The gist of it

In an excruciating hour of TV, the Roys camp out at ATN to run election night coverage. Roman is perfectly ready to interfere to hand the election to Mencken, Connor just wants to be relevant, Kendall is trying to hang on to a tiny shred of the better person he keeps telling himself he is, and Shiv doesn't know anymore whether she cares about the country or just wants to get back at her brothers for pushing her aside. By the end, ATN has gone all-in for Mencken and the election is destined for litigation, and the siblings' solidarity has shattered. And Succession has perhaps laid out, more clearly than it ever has, exactly what it is about.

It's election night, and yes, it's hard to watch

We talk sometimes about a particular movie or show being a "tough sit." Often, that means it's a brutal depiction of trauma or violence, just pain upon pain, and no matter how important the story is to tell, sitting through it is deeply unpleasant and might even repeatedly tempt you to just turn it off.

"America Decides" is a different kind of tough sit for two reasons. The first is that seeing an election manipulated in a way that feels so plausible — create chaos in a part of a decisive state where the split of votes is predictable, hurry to declare victory, tell everybody there's nothing to be done, oh well, we've already put up the chyrons — is like an advance haunting by a malevolent ghost.

But the second is that for four seasons, Succession has been inviting the audience to hate the Roys, sure, but also find them entertaining and pitiable. Here, in the antepenultimate episode, the stakes change.

It's in the title. Because America does not decide. That's the joke — or it's a joke. "America decides," but really a handful of broken men in a closed office, with the assistance of the grasping and the passive consent of the weak, decide. And even if you can see the humanity of these terrible people, it will do nothing to save you from them.

There's a fire in Wisconsin

Complicity

Darwin, like Jess and the Gerri/Frank/Karl/Hugo group, represents part of Succession's examination of complicity. There's no question that he wants to do the right thing on election night itself, but he has doomed himself to advancing a fraud by refusing to see ATN for what it is and treat it accordingly a long time ago.

We begin the evening at ATN with Tom and Greg, who fortify themselves with cocaine as they obsess over the need to get everything right for all the parties who are watching. Oh, how glorious to know you are in the hands of elite decision-makers! (There's a fabulous sequence in which they whisper to each other instead of listening to the briefing from Darwin, the guy who runs the decision desk, which tells you how much they care about getting everything right.) At first, it seems like Tom's biggest disaster will be a tech problem with the touchscreens. But the bigger problem caused by the tech meltdown is that it gives him exactly what he does not want: Roman, Kendall and Shiv walking around the newsroom floor where they do not belong and where he does not want them.

As for Greg, it turns out that after the tailgate party, he did a lot of cocaine with Matsson, and at some point, Matsson spilled the beans about his alliance with Shiv. Just another gain for Greg in return for his willingness to debase Ebba in public!

Going into too much detail about the plot is rather depressing, but: The inciting incident for the episode is a fire at a vote-counting center in Milwaukee. The burned votes could be enough to take Wisconsin from Jimenez, who would get the overwhelming majority of them. And if Mencken can claim Wisconsin, he may win the night. Roman is eager to hand the whole thing to Mencken. Kendall hesitates, but if you know Kendall, you know he will go along, because even when he knows right from wrong, he has a splintered popsicle stick where his spine should be.

Greg (Nicholas Braun) and Tom (Matthew Macfadyen) just want to do some cocaine and announce some election results, but life gets in the way. Macall Polay/HBO hide caption

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'Succession' season 4, episode 8: 'America Decides' (4)

Greg (Nicholas Braun) and Tom (Matthew Macfadyen) just want to do some cocaine and announce some election results, but life gets in the way.

Macall Polay/HBO

Connor sees his last grasp at relevancy slipping away and decides to play his own small but vital role in legitimizing(-ish) the Mencken "victory" by conceding in a speech that ultimately winds up sounding like a very long message board comment from a person who only writes message board comments. Shiv, meanwhile, gets caught by Kendall and Roman in her various deceptions. And she, who genuinely believes she wants a better world, has an ethical imagination so cramped that the only thing she can imagine doing about any of this is doubling down on her alliance with a different disgusting amoral billionaire than the ones she's related to.

There's a lot to say about how things unfold. Let us take our three primary amoral siblings one by one.

Roman

Roman thinks Mencken will block the GoJo deal, and he knows proximity to power will benefit him. But even if he didn't, Mencken's politics simply appeal to Roman, who has increasingly peppered his chatter with disdainful references to the kinds of marginalized people he knows will bear the brunt of whatever Mencken plans to do. Roman was born with an almost unimaginable array of advantages, and still, all he wants is to find new people into whose faces he can kick dirt. Roman is mean and small, and he loves this stuff. His father was a genuine bigot, and so is he. He doesn't need a business motivation to embrace Mencken.

Furthermore, ever since the Living+ launch, Roman has felt — with apologies for the inadvertently literal reference to some of his past history — impotent, and he's so mad about it that it blots out the sun. He would rather be a powerful bully in an apocalyptic hellscape than a small-potatoes failson in a society that still benefits from libraries and ice shelves. Remember what he did to Gerri when she wouldn't tell him that he was as good as Logan? Now he's pretty much ready to fire the world. Kieran Culkin is exceptionally good in this episode, because he is unafraid to make Roman unequivocally loathsome, with very little winking to soften it.

Kendall

After what he did at Vaulter, after he covered up his killing of the cater-waiter, after the way he turned a sexist bazooka on Shiv the minute she didn't go along with his plan to unseat Logan, after the way he's treated Rava, it's a credit to the writing of Kendall and to Jeremy Strong's performance that it has been possible to hold out some tiny crumb of hope that in there somewhere, there is a person who is better than his father. It has been hard at times not to at least pity him when his face crumples from sneering to slack-jawed, when he collapses on the shoulder of Shiv or Stewy.

But Kendall is weak to his very bones and always has been, and there are moments in this episode where you can watch him realize it, accept it and embrace it: I am weak, I am watching myself choose my position and my power over the long-term safety of my own daughter, this is who I am, what else can I do? All Kendall wants, as a bona fide coward, is to blame somebody else for the outcome he's already decided to bring about, and when he learns that Shiv lied about calling Nate and has been working with Matsson, that becomes his excuse for doing what he already wanted to do in the first place. With Kendall, as much as he hates himself, it is always, always someone else's fault.

Shiv

Shiv has long been defined by her hypocrisy. She has imagined herself as a good person stuck in a pit of vipers while enjoying her extraordinary wealth and doing nothing to disrupt her family's empire. In fact, when the family's power was threatened by congressional hearings, she stepped in to silence one of its victims. She's always been a fraud, a woman who wants to be a billionaire and also dance on the head of a pin of moral superiority, threading the needle of insisting she's exactly one percent more principled than her father and her brothers without it costing her a single Armani jacket.

The best liar, or maybe not

The Sarah Snook performance in this episode is stellar. Often, the show has suggested Shiv is a better liar than her brothers, but not this time. Her growing panic as she realizes she's caught and her cartoonish stammers as she tries to lie her way out of it suggest that her constellation of crises has robbed her of some of her unsettling calm.

And when she's caught red-handed being exactly the kind of operator that her brothers have been, she can't even be honest enough to say that's all it is — you tried to get me, so I tried to get you. Instead, she starts talking about the consequences for the country, which will always be a losing argument among a room full of Roys, because none of them care about anyone but themselves, and none of them believe for a minute that they are part of "the country" when it comes to experiencing consequences. If Shiv cared about the country, she'd have done something about it before she got caught.

One way to think about Shiv in this episode would be that her despair is informed by a concern for the world her child — about whom she finally tells Tom, only to find that he doesn't necessarily believe her, so broken is their relationship — will inherit. But another is that she is preparing, inevitably, to repeat the way her father raised her, perhaps singing the song in a slightly different key, but getting to the same refrain: I got mine, and anybody who doesn't like it can f*** off.

Moving toward the endgame

The tension in Succession has always been that everybody knew these people were terrible, but they were also human. They could be, in some moments, kind or funny or even insightful. They could certainly be legitimately in pain. Still terrible people — but rounded-out human characters with stories and arcs. This episode is the one where I think the fundamental point of the entire enterprise is made: Their complicated humanity is genuine but so what? Sad, jealous, hurt, abused, mistreated, conflicted, they are all these things. But they operate upon the wider world as instruments of destruction in the lives of real people, and in this episode, the magnitude of that destruction is pushed right up to the front edge of the stage.

Do you ever wonder why people who are awful have friends? Do you ever think, "Why is this person, who seems relatively normal, defending this person, who seems monstrous?" Succession speaks to that. You can see how people with the luxury of ignoring concrete outcomes could think Roman was funny and really not malicious. You can see how they could receive Kendall as a tragic and damaged kid who just wanted his dad's approval, or Shiv as a lone blue dot in a red family with a dry wit and the only one with the sense to be embarrassed by ATN.

And yet. The disaster that they are perpetuating doesn't care about those things.

Just hang this in a museum and call it "Weakness Enjoys A Snack." Macall Polay/HBO hide caption

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Macall Polay/HBO

'Succession' season 4, episode 8: 'America Decides' (6)

Just hang this in a museum and call it "Weakness Enjoys A Snack."

Macall Polay/HBO

It's been common to refer to Succession as a tragedy, King Lear-style, and some elements are there. We have central characters who experience a downfall due to their own inescapable flaws — four Roy children failing in their quest to escape their father's poisonous legacy because they themselves are too broken. But if you think of it purely as tragedy, Succession is limited in its meaning by the fact that it is, truly, about the Roys. And if it is only that, then it is what it has sometimes been accused of being: a fetishizing of the psychology of terrible rich white people with an attitude about wealth and power that can seem glib. The Tragedy of Macbeth, after all, refers to the tragedy that is Macbeth's existence, not the consequences of Macbeth's actions for other people. King Lear and Hamlet follow the downfalls of their royals, not the consequences for their subjects.

Succession is tragic (and comic), but "America Decides" serves a crucial purpose: It places their family mess in the context of what it posits is one of the most consequential days in the history of the country, and it states that as much as this family is tragic, it's more important that it's destructive and dangerous. If Roman, for instance, wants to live inside his tragic flaws, that's fine. If Kendall wants to bring about his own downfall? Have at it, buddy.

But here, you see Succession's point of view about wealth and power and media, and it's not glib at all. In this episode, there is this reminder that because of the consolidation and concentration of extreme wealth and political and media power, this family's tragic flaws can take everyone else down with them. This is the episode that most effectively does what this show needs to do in order to feel like it captures the moment: It recognizes that the Roys' mean, shrunken souls are everybody's problem, because of the power of the ultra-rich dynasty itself.

It's no accident that after all the bluster of this episode, we stand and watch Jess and Greg as Jess visibly panics about Mencken becoming president. For his part, Greg insists he's only a tiny cog in the Roy family machine and nothing he can do will make any difference. Jess can see what's happening — and perhaps she is having her moment of realization that she, too, is culpable. If you make the machine run, it doesn't really matter how you feel about it. Because what matters is the machine, not the complex humanity of its operators, when you're being crushed in its gears.

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