How Does Shiv Roy From ‘Succession’ Incite Hatred, Pity, and Solidarity All At Once?
Succession’s Siobhan (Shiv) Roy is a beast of a woman — the least-fucked-up of media tycoon Logan Roy’s four children, Shiv is smart, successful, and powerful. But she’s also mean, selfish, greedy and manipulative. Played to perfection by Sarah Snook, Shiv’s is a character the viewer can easily hate; it’s also a character that’s most worthy of rooting for.
Succession is a poignant tale of dysfunctional familial relationships, roiling around in obscene amounts of wealth and power — it follows Logan Roy (Brian Cox), the head of media conglomerate Waystar Royco, who is a ruthless old man (also terrible father), and his aforementioned fucked up kids. After illness strikes Logan, his children — Shiv, Roman (Kieran Culkin), Kendall (Jeremy Strong) and Connor (Alan Ruck), scramble to make themselves appealing as the next CEO of the company. Little do they know, though, that Logan isn’t even close to ready to give up the product of his blood, sweat, and tears to what slowly unravels as a bumbling group of blithering idiots (his children) — except Shiv, of course.
In Shiv, Succession‘s makers do something revolutionary — they portray a deeply flawed woman and give her no absolution. Shiv, a political adviser who made a career outside of her family business, starts off as, and remains, terrible. She conspires with her brother Roman while their father’s life hangs in the balance; she cheats on, manipulates and disregards her partner, Tom’s (Matthew Macfadyen) feelings; she works toward getting progressive political leaders elected only to about-turn and cover up a disastrous rape-and-murder scandal within her own father’s company.
Related on The Swaddle:
But Shiv is also smart — it quickly becomes clear that she is one of the finest minds in the fictional political milieu and knows how to get her way; she is shrewd — a broken moral compass enables her to go after what she wants, when and as she wants it, without much consideration for consequences; she is isolated — as the only female contender to Logan’s company, we find Shiv often combating inherent, biting sexism within her family, which, at the end of the day, still fails to cloud how adept she is at a job she probably will never get.
Snook, through killer expressions, dialogues heavy with subtext, and revolutionary outfits, makes it known that Shiv, like everyone else in the show, is not to be trusted — she, like her family members, mistrusts everyone, is insecure to a fault, spends way too much time thinking of one-upping her siblings, and is power-hungry. A potent scene is when she’s out on a walk with Roman in season two, when she tells her underconfident brother, “I think you’re a super-talented superstar” with an earnest smile, straight face, with love dripping from her tone — and we know she’s straight-up lying. The inner workings of Shiv’s mind are always open for the audience to see and dissect, a liberty showrunners don’t provide for the other characters in the show. Shiv, at least to the audience, is unabashedly transparent — Snook makes it an essential aspect of the character she plays, one that renders Shiv predictable, thus trustable, and sets her apart from the rest of the Roys.
Shiv doesn’t tolerate any typical toxic pent-up emotional suppression, which honestly under the circumstances of the family dynamic seems like a pretty obvious route to take with one’s own personality. Not Shiv. Even after a problematic childhood replete with what seems like verbal and physical abuse, constant berating and neglect, Shiv seems to evolve out of the experience with relatively good communication skills, a simple trait that cannot be attributed to her brothers who mainly talk in lewd metaphors involving anuses and dicks. She is still vulnerable around her bully of a father, who knows how to manipulate his children into subservience. With Shiv, we can see and empathize with the fight she puts up to his authority, even as we know she stands no chance.
Shiv is transparent; we know her; we get her; we can attempt to understand her — she betrays a kind of vulnerability that her family shies away from. In her communications with her husband Tom, she lays bare her thoughts and fears; she lets him into her planning process even if he serves as simply a sounding board. Snook’s vulnerable portrayal of Shiv, especially set against the tight-lipped, ruthless-on-the surface-bumbling-on-the-inside stick figures of her brothers, is a refreshing character trajectory in a show that often gets a bit too indigestibly toxic at times.
Even with Tom, whom Shiv undeniably treats like shit, we get a glimpse of the inner workings of her mind. Tom, an innocent-eyed gold digger with a mediocre intellect latches onto Shiv for career growth, and both him and Shiv know she is too good for him. When it suits her, Shiv takes advantage of him, treats him as a dispensable, easily-replaced support system. But Tom’s also one of the few people who at least attempts to understand Shiv beyond the abrasive tough gal exterior — even though he fails often, Shiv knows she needs him as her confidant, and the social power she wields over him buys her his loyalty. Embroiled in the family drama, and too busy plotting her rise to the top, we see Shiv as a friendless person — derided by the people around her for who she is, how she behaves and what she wants. In the end, we start seeing Shiv as a woman who knows she’s supposed to be powerful, but settles for being self-aware — enough to have the brains to look past Tom’s faux, leech-like love, and use it to her own advantage.
Related on The Swaddle:
Too often in society, we judge abrasive, manipulative women more harshly than men who exhibit similar characteristics — perhaps because women-as-docile-servants is a trope too subconsciously ingrained within us across generations. Even when feminist interpretations of pop culture attempt to laud past films and TV — such as stanning Regina George from Mean Girls or exhaustively quoting Pooh from Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham — the trope of the ‘bad’ woman almost always gets redeemed, as if her character can only be palatable if there is hope for her at the end. This soon-to-be-absolved portrayal often feels measured, just enough to know it’s revolutionary without actually invoking any derision toward a character.
In Shiv, we’re left with no doubt. Everyone on Succession is irreversibly fucked up. Shiv Roy might just be able to turn it around. We see that ‘keeping it together,’ not betraying emotion can only lead to explosions — Kendall, with his murderous past, history of drug addiction and monosyllabic subservient answers — seems like a walking time bomb. Roman, in whom past abuse by the hands of his father has manifested in severe, unaddressed mental health issues– seems to only know to masturbate in random places and throw his weight around. In communication, in vulnerability, in competence and in honesty (to the audience), Shiv shines, even with the bad bits.
Sure, Shiv is terrible. But she’s also goddamn terrific.