Inside “Succession” Episode 8: A Grim Election Night for America Goes From Thriller to Horror
For a healthy portion of Succession’s viewing audience last night, the antepenultimate episode, “America Decides,” was not an easy watch. The episode shone a bright, pitiless light on old wounds and deep scars from the 2016 American presidential election when a seemingly improbable, far-right fantasy became an inescapable and very real living nightmare.
The episode centered on Election Night in the United States, playing out across voting districts from Milwaukee to Maricopa County in Arizona, yet we more or less never left the Roy children at ATN headquarters, where the kids played kingmakers. America was choosing between the Democrat candidate Daniel Jimenez (Elliot Villar) and the far-right Republican Jeryd Mencken (Justin Kirk). Oh, yeah, and Connor Roy (Alan Ruck), who finally conceded his hapless candidacy halfway through the episode will a chillingly out-of-touch concession speech that still managed to capture, in its pure Connorian delusion, something close to poetry— “Alas, Kentucky. Alas, vanity.” Alas, Connor Roy.
While a fire rages in Milwaukee—likely set by far-right accelerationists looking to purge potential democratic votes—the power players behind ATN’s news coverage start to get impatient. Roman (Kieran Culkin) is rooting for Mencken to win thanks, in large part, to Mencken’s promise to scotch the Waystar/GoJo deal so that the kids can keep Daddy’s company rather than sell it to the charmless Swede Lukas Matsson (Alexander Skarsgård). Kendall (Jeremy Strong) nominally wants Jimenez to win, you know, for the sake of his children, but he’s trying to imagine what his dad would do and spends most of the episode waffling. Shiv (Sarah Snook) is fully pulling for Jimenez and trying to keep Tom (Matthew Macfaydan) from doing Roman’s bidding and calling Wisconsin for Mencken and, eventually, the entire election for him. She is also simultaneously working with Lukas Mattson behind the scenes to keep the potential deal afloat. Oh, and she’s pregnant with Tom’s child, the very man she obliterated in a feral fight at the end of episode 7 and was, in turn, annihilated by herself. He told her she wasn’t fit to have children.
Directed by Andrij Parker and written by creator Jesse Armstrong, the episode is almost exclusively set inside the ATN offices and offered a chilling portrait of how a single media empire, and really, just a few people within that empire, can warp the entire country’s perspective to the degree that a crime by followers of one camp (the far right) becomes a false flag operation by those in the other (supporters of Jimenez). Up is down, left is right, and the white supremacist is named the next President of the United States by a media company run by children trying to prove they’re just as cutthroat as their late father.
In an “Inside the Episode” video, Armstrong reveals that he utilized political advisors to help craft the episode, making sure that the dark, extremely tense situations he was creating were plausible. “Sometimes, we’d talk about it in the room, like ‘Does this feel real?’” Armstrongsays. “Then in 1960, the year 2000, and 2016 these unbelievably close election moments kept on coming in the U.S., and it felt legitimate to have another one.”
“I think to Roman, it really doesn’t matter to him who the president is—the president is the president, who cares. What’s best for us?” Kieran Culkin says in the video. “It’s really nice for me when I show up to work and have to play the character, and Roman has one clear objective and focus. This is how it is; just call it. That was a lot of fun to play.”
Shiv, meanwhile, spends the episode in an increasing state of alarm. While no Roman child has ever been a proper proxy for the audience—who among us grew up grotesquely wealthy—in “America Decides,” she’s as close as liberal America has to one. What’s happening all around her is a nightmare she almost has the power to stop, but only if she can convince Kendall to side with her against Roman. But Shiv makes a tactical error when she lies and tells her brothers that Jimenez has expressed an openness, should he win the election, of potentially tanking the Waystar/GoJo deal as well. When Kendall discovers this isn’t the case, he also uncovers Shiv’s backdoor dealings with Lukas, and it’s this revelation that pushes him firmly into Roman’s camp. He instructs Tom to call Wisconsin for Mencken and then, when Mencken wins Arizona, to call the entire race. “America Decides” goes from political thriller to straight up horror.
“Yes, Shiv is being clandestine about her intentions,” Sarah Snook says. “But at the same time, that’s exactly what he [Roman] is doing. He’s like, ‘I want Mencken to win so I can be top dog, I can be CEO, I can have the power.’ I’m like, that’s cool, that’s fun, but it’s Mencken. It’s Jaryd Mencken. It’s convenient it’s an altruistic side to her,” Snook says of Shiv’s stance during the episode. “Let’s remember; she’s not an altruist. But she does believe in democracy and, you know, a dictator not being president.”
The episode ends with an expression of peak cynicism from Roman, whose awfulness has always been more front and center Kendall and Shiv, who prefer to operate in the shadows and present themselves as reasonable and righteous in the light.
“We just made a night of good TV,” Roman says at the episode’s close. “Nothing happened.”
“Things do happen,” Shiv says, arms folded in a defensive position, standing at the door as if she wants to flee. And she likely does. We all do by then. And the scary thing is we know Shiv’s right. Things do happen. Bad things. And people like Roman make those bad things far more possible.
Go “Inside the Episode” with HBO Max’s video here:
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Featured image: Adam Godley, Kieran Culkin. Photograph by Macall Polay/HBO