Succession ’s Election Day Episode Weighed the Real-World Consequences of the Roys' Machinations
Nicholas Braun and Matthew Macfadyen in <i>Succession</i> season 4, episode 8 "America Decides" Credit - Macall Polay—HBO
Spoiler alert: This article discusses details of Succession season 4, episode 8.
Who is to blame for Jeryd Mencken claiming victory at the end of “America Decides,” the third-to-last episode of Succession’s fourth and final season? Maybe it’s the Menckenists or, you know, whoever it was who burned down a vote-counting center in Milwaukee containing 100,000 absentee ballots that almost certainly would’ve heavily favored Jimenez. Maybe it happens because Roman gets too close to Mencken, or because Shiv has been going behind her brothers’ backs about GoJo, or because Kendall craves power more than he wants to be a good dad—or because all three of them are grieving their father while trying to prove they can live up to his titanic legacy. Maybe America can thank Tom for his spinelessness or Greg for just following orders. Hell, maybe Mencken is poised to take the White House because Ken’s preference for roast chicken prevented Roman from eating steak often enough as a child.
No matter how you apportion blame, the Roys deserve much of the credit for putting Mencken where he is at the end of Election Day. (Unlike ATN, I’m not going to presume he won until we find out how the Wisconsin situation is resolved… but, well, Succession has never been an optimistic show.) The family’s culpability hardly begins with Tom and Greg’s 5 p.m. check-in. It goes back at least as far as Logan’s anointing of Mencken as his GOP primary pick, midway through Season 3. But really, I think we’re supposed to understand a neo-fascist’s probable ascent to the presidency as the culmination of work that began with the founding of the Roy media empire, decades ago. “America Decides” reckons with the broadest possible consequences of the bitter inter-corporate and intrafamilial power struggles that have made the show so entertaining. And it’s a case study in how the world changes slowly, then all at once.
The evening starts out normally enough. It’s hectic, sure. “I have PGN to the left of me, and I have FVA to the right,” Tom complains to Greg. “I gotta deliver the best election numbers ever because my bosses want to rip my heart out as a peace offering to all comers.” He’s also running on no sleep and excess agita because he and Shiv threw a “tailgate party” in their penthouse last night, during which they got into the nastiest fight of their marriage. Ken phones with the self-evident exhortation: “It needs to be gangbusters tonight… Market’s watching. First Super Bowl, how we gonna cope without the king?” Still, Tom’s expectation seems to be that, stray annoyances aside, the Roy kids will follow their father’s tradition—and a key tenet of journalistic integrity—and stay out of ATN’s hair while the votes are being counted.
To that end, ATN’s decision-desk decider Darwin offers a measured pre-game analysis tailored to the network’s Mencken-leaning audience. “Our early read would be: closer than polls have suggested.” He also warns that any inside information leaked while voting is still underway could get them in trouble. Tom backs him up: “You heard the man—zip it.” But Darwin doesn’t know that Tom is seething over the news that Greg has partied his way into Matsson’s confidence and seems to know more about his wife’s backchannel with the Swede than he does. (A classic Wambsgans line: “Information, Greg, is like a bottle of fine wine. You store it, you hoard it, you save it for a special occasion, and then you smash someone’s f-ckin’ face in with it.”) Soon, he and Greg are going to prep for the long night ahead by snorting coke behind a whiteboard.
The Roys also seem ready, early on, to let the ATN staff “do their thing.” One turning point is news of voter suppression. In Florida, vehicles that Shiv calls “Nazi vans” but Roman shrugs off as “fun buses” claim to be ferrying voters to the polls but have instead allegedly abandoned at least one little kid by the side of the road. Then there’s the Milwaukee fire. Nate urges Shiv to make ATN cover what is almost certainly the act of extremist Mencken supporters looking to destroy votes in a heavily Democratic district of a crucial swing state. “Who watches the watchmen?” Nate prods. Shiv: “Who watches the watchmen? I f-ckin’ do.” So begins our weekly tragic-hero arc. She’s the Roy who meddles in ATN’s coverage first—sparking a chain reaction whose results will horrify her. There’s painful irony to the fact that she puts her privileged finger on the scale for the sake of saving democracy. Then again, her intentions were never entirely noble. As Shiv tells Matsson, a Jimenez win would be “good for democracy, great for us.”
In America at large, Election Day is a battle between a run-of-the-mill Democrat and a right-wing populist the likes of which the country has never seen before. (It’s funny: I hadn’t expected Succession’s election to echo 2016 more than 2020. But it makes sense when you consider that the show premiered in 2018 and creator Jesse Armstrong clearly went into it with a vision for how it would parallel contemporary politics.) But within the Waystar Royco offices, it’s a battle between Establishment liberal Shiv and nihilistic edgelord Roman. “Nothing matters, Ken,” he tells his brother later in the episode. “Dad’s dead, and the country’s just a big pussy waiting to get f-cked.” Sensitive as he can be to the people close to him, Roman has repeatedly shown that he has no empathy for regular Americans. He’s had violence inflicted on him, and he wants to inflict it on people he considers inferior to him—now that he’s grieving Logan more than ever.
So, of course, Roman gravitates toward Mencken, a powerful surrogate father figure who can give him the tough love he craves. He pays Jeryd a friendly visit. Then he agrees to steer ATN’s Wisconsin narrative away from Menckenist mischief and towards preemptively calling the state for Jeryd. To that end, Roman gives a fiery ATN personality some incoherent talking points that basically amount to Ken’s “all your guns are gonna be ladies” joke from last week. He cuts a deal with Schrodinger’s president, Connor—who got bored recording footage for no one and is now fantasizing about life in Europe as an ambassador of minor influence—to concede in Mencken’s direction, whatever that means. (Con’s deeply weird concession speech is a highlight of Alan Ruck’s performance: “I happen to be a billionaire. Sorry. But honestly, America, you flunked it. I guess you’re gonna have to find some other poor mook’s paps to suck on.”)
By the time ATN has to decide whether to call Wisconsin for Mencken, as its competitors to the right have already done, or wait for the state to determine what it’s going to do about the burned ballots, which would be the responsible course of action, the Roys have all been on and off the floor for hours. The idea that Tom and Greg possess the authority to keep “brass” off the “battlefield” was always laughable. Only Logan could’ve done that. And it isn’t a far leap from the ATN floor to the room where Roman announces that he, Tom, and Darwin are going to make the big decision “together.” Darwin, who looks like he’s about to have a panic attack, is negotiating to contextualize the Wisconsin situation on-air, alongside a graphic clarifying that the call is “pending,” when wasabi finds its way into his eye and Greg—iconically—tries to wash it out with lemon-flavored LaCroix. (Another unwitting Mencken accomplice: bodega sushi.)
In the end, the swing vote belongs to Ken. From an ideological perspective, he agrees with Shiv when she reminds him that “Mencken’s the nightmare… He says the bad sh-t. He believes the bad sh-t.” Unfortunately for her, Mencken is also much more morally flexible than her pals in the Jimenez campaign. Jeryd agrees in no uncertain terms to put the regulatory kibosh on the GoJo deal in return for ATN calling the election for him. Desperate, she pretends—maybe because she knows this kind of shady deal-making won’t work with Jimenez’s people, but definitely because she secretly wants the GoJo deal to happen—to call Nate and see whether the Dems would also be willing to trade a win for some extremely specific tech-industry reform measures.
Ken is already torn, at this point, between a conscience that tells him Jimenez will create a better future for his kids and the monstrous ambition that has been gnawing at his soul for as long as he’s been alive. Now he’s had a taste of power, and a taste of actual on-the-job success with his Living+ presentation, and he’s having trouble backing away. “I have sometimes felt like I could do it. Like I should do it,” he tells Shiv. “Me. Just me.” He also says: “I don’t think I’m a very good father.” It even occurs to him that acquiescing to Mencken would be selling out his children for his career, the same way his dad did. “Maybe the poison drips through,” he reflects.
Who knows what he’s on his way to deciding when he calls the Jimenez team, catches Shiv in her lie, and then finds out she’s been going behind his and Roman’s backs with Matsson all along? Her betrayal gives him an excuse to make the selfish choice, even if it means putting a right-wing troll in the White House. It’s the second time in one night that Shiv, convinced that good ends justify underhanded means, sows the seeds of her own downfall. (Lest we forget, she also finally told Tom she’s pregnant.) Watching Mencken speak, Ken concludes: “He’s a guy we can do business with.” You can tell he’s trying to convince himself more than anyone else.
It’s his siblings who go on to articulate the consequences of what they’ve just done, beyond the Roys and ATN and Waystar and GoJo. “We just made a night of good TV,” Roman declares. “Nothing happens.” (I can’t be the only one who heard, in this rationalization, an echo of CNN defending Wednesday’s predictably catastrophic Trump town hall.) Shiv, who has been a principled defender of democracy but also a self-interested, undemocratic traitor to her family, remains aghast. “Things do happen,” she insists.
If “America Decides” really is an alternate-universe reenactment of Election Day 2016, then we know that she’s right. Ken’s ambition and Shiv’s duplicity and Roman’s anger and Tom’s cocaine and Greg’s seltzer and the steak and the chicken and the Roy kids’ Daddy issues and the empire Logan spent his whole life building while the people around him struggled to understand what he wanted and why he wanted it—it all adds up to a demagogue at a podium pretending to America that one of its most elite families didn’t just decide, for its own selfish reasons, to put him there. “Don’t we long, sometimes, for something clean, once, in this polluted land?” asks Mencken, in a speech that would make Steve Bannon proud. “That’s what I hope to bring, not something grubby with compromise.” There are sure to be a lot more lies where that came from.