By Umber Bhatti
As audiences, we are both mesmerized by and sympathetic to morally corrupt characters. Whether it be our collective concern for Walter White despite his descent into venality, the way we’re glued to watching couples self-destruct on TLC’s 90 Day Fiancé, or the conflicting feelings we have for broken characters, such as Joaquin Phoenix’s Joker, we’re obsessed with the bad guys.
This contradiction — rooting for somebody despite their ethical flaws — is evident in how viewers excitedly tune in each Sunday to watch the Roy family on HBO’s Succession. The drama (and comedy) about media mogul Logan Roy and his four children — all vying to be the sole successor in the billion-dollar family business Waystar Royco — has been hailed as the best show on television. Week after week, viewers tune in to watch the family’s machinations unravel, enthralled by the spectacle and intrigue. But mostly, struck by the ridiculousness of it all.
The Roys are insanely privileged: They’re white, filthy rich, and control practically all the news (not Pierce, however). Yet, they seem to live empty and unfulfilling lives. A portion of the show revolves around the siblings’ attempts to outshine one another in a bid to win their father’s approval. There’s Kendall, the once poster-boy of the company who props himself as a savvy businessman, but has a crippling drug addiction. The ever-so-cocky Roman, who is sarcastic and funny, but clearly insecure in his ability to lead. Connor, the oldest and the outcast of the family, who lives on a ranch in New Mexico, deluding himself into running for president. And then, there’s Siobhan.
As a 24-year-old Muslim woman and the daughter of Pakistani immigrants, it’s hard for me to relate to anyone from Succession. The Roys are so out of touch with reality — they’re clueless to how much a gallon of milk costs. In a way, their demarcation from hardworking and "ordinary" people, the way they live in a surreal privileged bubble, makes them more palatable. Yet, despite recognizing how spoiled, advantaged, and morally bankrupt they are, I’ve somehow found myself rooting for them. Especially for Siobhan. She’s my favorite, and I want her to be the next CEO of Waystar Royco. Some of my love for Shiv is due to Sarah Snook's convincing acting. Whether it be her hilarious facial expressions and telling smirks, or the way she rocks high rise trousers, Snook carries Shiv with confidence and ease.
My admiration for Shiv started out as quite logical. Throughout most of Season 1 she makes a number of commendable decisions: pursuing a career outside of her father’s grasp, staying faithful to her fiancé despite temptation, and being a political advisor to a presidential candidate actively campaigning against her father. When Logan attempts to bribe Shiv to leave politics and join the business — praising her as his smartest kid — Shiv calls him out for promoting her brothers before her. She refuses the offer, her not-so-subtle way of saying "fuck you" to her greedy family.
And then, her moral character begins to crumble. Once she learns of some shady business regarding her family’s cruise division, she uses it for leverage. Despite her earlier pledge, she cheats on her fiancé. After tying the knot, she basically states — not so much as asks — that their marriage be an open relationship, a testament to her selfishness. She leaves her career in politics over an argument in which she’s unwilling to acknowledge her privilege. And just like that, Shiv goes back to competing with her brothers for the top position at Waystar, at whatever costs.
As a viewer I winced a few times wondering how Shiv could go from openly denouncing her family to wanting in so badly. Yet, for a moment her choices seem to pay off. In Season 2, Logan promises Shiv the crown jewel — she will be the next CEO… until a few episodes later when he refuses to announce her as the successor publicly. Throughout the season, Shiv’s future at the company hangs in limbo. Though she’s still denied a place at Waystar’s inner circle, when the cruises scandal is publicized, Logan suddenly finds her useful. She is guilted into taking the heat, used as the "token woman" as her brother puts it, and subsequently chastised. In the most recent episode ("Return"), Shiv continues to get played as Logan, with the help of a new friend, kicks his daughter to the curb, essentially reneging on his promise to promote her as the next successor.
I admit, I want Shiv to be better. But, I also understand why she chooses not to be. Her political experience serves her well to be CEO, yet she keeps getting the shorter end of the stick. As the only girl in the family she knows she must be bold and aggressive. During different moments in my life — professionally, academically, and personally — I have been talked down to or seen as less than my male peers. Afterall, the wage gap exists because in our sexist and patriarchal society, women are deemed inferior. I know we’re worlds apart, but Shiv’s dogged belief in herself is motivating. And it’s something I wish I had more of when navigating male-dominated spaces.
In a way, Shiv reminds me of the women from Hustlers. The dramedy, starring Jennifer Lopez and Constance Wu, is based on the real-life scandal where a group of strippers got rich by drugging sleazy Wall Street men. Shiv and the characters in Hustlers grew up in very different circumstances, yet as I sat through the film somehow justifying the dancers' illegal actions, I couldn’t help but think of the lone Roy girl. In both Hustlers and Succession, men are running the show and women get used as pawns — that is, until the women decide to take back their agency. These women occupy a moral gray area. We can acknowledge their actions are wrong, while recognizing that the system has been rigged against them (some more than others, of course).
A scene from Hustlers.
As J. Lo’s character says at the end of the movie, America is a strip club. "You have people tossing the money and people doing the dance." This metaphor could be appropriated to describe the Roys. In the fragile ecosystem that is her family, Shiv is a strong competitor, often outsmarting her brothers. Yet, she’s still made to perform a complicated dance, paradoxically forced into being both nimble and rigid — a feeling many women can relate to.
Earlier this season, Kendall mocks his younger sister, asking "Does she think she’s Beyoncé or something?" No, Shiv’s not there yet. But even with her flaws, I admire and empathize with her. After all, there’s something to be said about a woman who can go toe-to-toe against seedy men in power.