Succession comes up with an episode where absolutely everybody loses

At its dark little heart, Succession has a lot in common with the cringe comedy, the show where humor comes from how much embarrassment the characters suffer and how little the universe seems to care that they are in pain. The most notable example for American audiences is The Office, but if you’ve ever seen the original (and superior) British version of that show, then you know how good the Brits are at plumbing the depths of our most embarrassing selves for fun and giggles.

Well, Jesse ArmstrongSuccession’s creator and the writer of “DC,” the second season’s penultimate episode — is a Brit, and he’s a cringe comedian par excellence. (Check out Peep Show, the very funny Britcom he co-created, for a series that offers many kinds of jokes but is dynamite when it does cringe humor.) And “DC” is maybe the cringiest episode of Succession yet. I’ve had multiple critics tell me (and by “me” I mean Vox critic at large Emily VanDerWerff) they had to watch from between their fingers.

“DC” is also a terrific episode of the show, in a second season that has run from strength to strength. It’s so good that I turned to Meredith Haggerty, editor of The Goods by Vox and my Succession co-critic, and said, “Roman has maybe been kidnapped, and it’s the B-plot.” Incredibly, “DC” is an episode where absolutely everybody loses, and on Succession that’s a truly delicious proposition.

It ends with an ambiguous cliffhanger, but one where you totally know which direction the show is pointing and you’re already horrified by whatever is to come in the finale. (Seriously, can Succession just let Kendall, like, have a nice relationship or something? He’s the Donald Trump Jr. of this clan but he deserves at least a puppy or a kitty or a friend.)

Here are zero winners and 11 losers from “DC.”

Loser: Tom

Tom and Gerri testify before Congress.
Observe: Conclusive proof that Tom’s last name has a “B” in it for some reason.
HBO

Emily: It became clear that “DC” was not going to go particularly well for our favorite business sociopaths when the episode opened with a 60 Minutes-style TV news piece on the Waystar cruise line scandal, which featured a brief explanation of how Tom was tangentially involved. Logan turned to Tom to tell him that Tom’s mom and dad would be proud, and it wasn’t entirely clear just how sarcastic Logan was being. He might have been 100 percent genuine.

And, look, Tom is almost always a loser on this show, but “DC” takes almost unlimited pleasure in setting the character up for a long fall, then having the ground disappear beneath him so he just keeps falling. He performs horribly in front of the Senate subcommittee, pretending briefly not to know Greg (more on Greg below, of course), playing dumb about why the family’s nickname for Lester was “Mo,” and seeing just how quickly his confident façade is punctured.

The way Succession uses Tom and Greg is endlessly fascinating. The two of them are the closest thing the show has to outsiders when it comes to the Roys and their extreme wealth, and on any other series, we would be seeing the family through their eyes. But instead, they become peripheral characters, haunting the story’s edges, perpetually befuddled by what they find there. They are treated less as point-of-view characters and more as audience insertion characters: Here is who you would be if you suddenly married Shiv Roy.

And the resulting picture is not pretty: You would be constantly out of your depth, nobody would take you seriously, and your own wife would regard you with something akin to pity. Tom Wambsgans was probably the smartest, most successful guy in his Minnesota hometown. But in the world of Waystar-Royco, he’s a Shakespearean fool.

At least he has great email subject lines: “You can’t make a Tomelette without breaking a few Gregs”? Come on.

Meredith: Betrayer! As Emily points out, this is an episode where Tom acts like he doesn’t know Greg. Not only is this very rude, it’s wildly boneheaded, easily disprovable (dude’s sitting behind him), and hilarious.

Tom and Gerri (heh) get up in front of Congress together, sharing the full Zuckerbergian moment, but Gerri walks away unscathed as ever, while Tom ends up backstage (or whatever you call it when it’s the government) screaming hysterically about being “the meat in the fucking sandwich.” He’s convinced he’s a patsy and accuses everyone, including Shiv, of selling him out. But while Hugo’s suggestion that Tom be one of the few to testify is undoubtedly calculated, only Tom could screw Tom as much as Tom screws Tom.

Frank, a character not particularly well known for his burns, perfectly summed up Wambsgans’s performance in this episode: “B+, bad plus terrible.” The Atlantic calls him “a smirking block of domestic feta.” In an episode where absolutely everyone loses, Tom loses the most spectacularly.

Loser: Roman

Roman watches a soccer match.
Roman heads out to secure some financing and maybe get kidnapped.
HBO

Meredith: I have not yet recovered from Emily pointing out that Roman’s kidnapping was a mere B-plot, and may I never.

Our Romulus is on a promising track at the start of this episode. Logan gives him the big-boy job of getting money from Edward, mysterious trillionaire scion/Roman’s soccer team co-owner. He’s quickly assured at a rousing football practice that yes, becoming a Turkish propaganda machine is still an option for old Waystar-Royco (Go Hearts! No, wait, Hibs? Who can remember? Not Ro). And it feels like we’re well on our way to setting up Succession Season 3: The Roman Empire. He even appears to know things about Turkey’s socio-political situation!

But things take a turn when Roman, Jamie, and Karl land in Turkey and a few minutes into their pitch, a hostage situation with all of the formality and doublespeak of a typical business meeting begins to unfold. (“It’s the kind of party where you have to go,” Edward explains. “It would be rude not to.”)

The group, minus Roman’s security guy Dave, is spirited away to a large ballroom to play C-suite Fuck Marry Kill (“Gerri, you’d marry Gerri you sick fuck?” Roman grills Jamie, clearly delighted, while Karl has — full disclosure — a panic attack) and wait for … okay, honestly I am not entirely sure what. The King’s daughter’s husband is reportedly taking assets and making “a power grab” and the kidnappers are very interested in the potential Waystar-Royco/Edward deal. So is this all just an elaborate negotiation strategy? What’s certain is the last we see of Rome, he’s being called on by the possible terrorists/business partners, about to find out what’s on the other side of those gilded doors. Good luck, Roman!

Emily: Succession is not a show that really does cliffhangers. Usually, when an episode ends, we know what’s happening to everybody and where they all stand heading into the next episode. When “Dundee” ended with Shiv screwing over Rhea, we knew the actual meat of that plot wouldn’t come until the next episode, but we also got to see its early stages come to fruition before Succession cut away.

So it’s a little surprising, to say the least, that not only do we not learn what happened to Roman in this episode but we can’t figure out precisely what’s up with the maybe-kidnapping he’s dealing with. However, I do like that our Roman is a boy who perseveres. He might not be sure why he’s being held in a ballroom at gunpoint, but he’ll surely find a way to entertain the whole crew. And, really, good for him. Every group needs someone to keep the mood up.

Anyway, I fully expect Roman to pull off this unlikely attempt to take the company private and therefore become the season’s biggest winner out of nowhere, but it’s important to remember that as this episode ends, he is still maybe kidnapped. It’s not the best situation to be in, even if you think everything might turn out okay in the end!

Loser: Shiv (thinks she’s a winner)

Shiv hangs out after the hearing.
Shiv might do something incredibly awful, but she’ll look great doing it.
HBO

Meredith: I’ve proven myself to be indelibly biased, but while Shiv — as a daughter, a sister, a Roy; as the wife of a “man who has two assholes,” as a human being with maybe a shred of a conscience — ultimately loses terribly in this episode, it sure looks like she’s winning.

No. 1: her incredible politico outfit, a suit dress for the ages, the flawless haircut in outfit form. Somewhere Marlene Dietrich weeps. (The hair is also maybe even better than usual? Angles of the bob brought out by the curves of the suit; this has been a fashion review.)

No. 2: her upsettingly convincing salvo to Kira, Lester McClintock’s former employee who stands poised to help Senator Gil Eavis take down the entire Roy empire. Kira’s story is a moving one: She was personally harassed by Uncle Mo, saw firsthand the tactics of Waystar-Royco cruise staff, and has actual knowledge about the woman who went overboard and was ignored because she was presumed to be a stowaway, not a “real person.” What she wants, ultimately, is to get that story out there. Shiv maneuvers brilliantly, starting off by claiming she is just there to listen and ending by offering Kira the world: money, safety, justice, and a clean house at Waystar-Royco.

Shiv’s threats are unsubtle. She tells Kira that the security detail assigned to her is “probably worse” than she even realizes and reminds her that after her testimony she’ll only be this awful story: “the first line of your obituary, the last line.” But they’re real, grounded in truth, even if it’s a convenient one. Like this past week’s New York magazine cover story about the fallout of #MeToo reminds us, there isn’t a lot of reward for telling a story like Kira’s in public. Shiv leverages that to help the family, but ultimately, the damage has already been done and there needs be a “blood sacrifice.” Speaking of …

Loser: Kendall

Emily: So we don’t, like, know know that Kendall is the “blood sacrifice” Logan so moodily intones about at episode’s end, but the filmmaking clearly wants us to think he is. Kendall is on TV. Shiv and Logan are watching. Logan glances toward the screen meaningfully. If this entire season culminates in Logan finding some way to get Shiv to betray her brother, well … that would make a lot of sense, given how many scenes have explored the Kendall/Shiv siblinghood. And c’mon. What would a Succession finale be without Kendall being squashed under somebody’s shoe?

But still, what makes this final moment of “DC” so crushing is that Kendall spent the rest of the episode doing … pretty okay. Naomi showed up to support him at the hearing. The senator from the great state of Missouri liked everything he had to say during his testimony. And the red meat he tossed to the base was exactly what the ATN viewership wanted and needed to see.

But even then, Logan still carries a crushing resentment of his son — one that I suppose is understandable given the events of season one, but also one that feels utterly disconnected from reality. Kendall keeps throwing himself at the wall in an effort to make his dad love him again, and his dad … just does not care. He will offer a few words of support and Kendall will clearly think, “Finally!” and then he’ll completely ignore Naomi when Kendall tries to introduce her. (At least Naomi didn’t say “Awesome” too many times.)

And also, like, that whole blood sacrifice thing. That’s not going to go well for our boy. (Unless the blood sacrifice is somehow Tom, the other most plausible candidate, though it’s hard to imagine just how sacrificing Tom would solve Logan’s woes.)

Loser: Rhea

Rhea wants to get out of the Roy family clusterfuck.
Rhea watches as things go from bad to worse.
HBO

Emily: For someone who was in “thinks she’s a winner” camp just last week, Rhea very quickly realized in “DC” that she’s actually a loser. This was perhaps not the most dynamic episode for our girl Holly Hunter (we stan!!), what with the way she kept walking into scenes just as they were falling apart, to offer a hearty, “How’s everybody doing?” but it was a pretty great look at a woman who’s slowly realizing just how screwed she truly is.

By episode’s end, Rhea hasn’t just lost the CEO job, she’s abandoned it. It’s not worth the effort, she realizes, and it’s hard to argue that she’s wrong. The company might survive this hit. It might even thrive past it. But the fact that she didn’t know this lurked inside of it means she can never know what else could spring up and ensnare her in scandal. She’s tainted enough as is. The only way to get rid of the poison is to completely sever herself from the situation.

So it’s what she does, and though Logan might rage, she doesn’t care. She’s the one character who maybe gets to get out of this whole thing with her head held high. Maybe.

Also at one point she says “Toodle pip,” which is v. charming.

Loser: Greg

Meredith: The idea that Greg has been, this whole time, in line to inherit $250 million is absolutely brain-breaking. I guess we knew it, but: Greg, why are you doing any of this? Go home and work at McDonald’s and just wait it out! Alas, because this is a world wherein only Logan Roy matters, naturally Greg gives up that quarter of a bil for a chance to be in his great uncle’s good graces. I’m starting to think my beloved son isn’t very smart after all.

Greg thinks he’ll be okay because he’ll still get a cool $5 million, but Connor and Tom quickly disabuse him of this notion. “The poorest rich person in America,” Tom says, as Con explains that you can’t retire or work or really do anything on a stupid $5 (again) million. “The weakest strong man at the circus,” Connor confirms. Greg, what a loser.

But obviously, that’s not the real loss. The real loss comes when Greg’s name is invoked during the shadiest part of the Senate hearing (the document-destroying part, about all the documents they’ve destroyed), his best friend and mentor fully goes Mariah Carey/Peter from the dang Bible on him, and his ensuing freakout gets him yelled at by none other than Logan. Greg is likely still somewhere “outfuckingside,” thinking about the $245 million dollars that Uncle Ewan will be giving to Greenpeace.

Loser: Connor

Emily: On the pure level of “I enjoyed watching this happen,” seeing Alan Ruck react excitedly every time Logan or Kendall made a good point was one of my favorite things about this episode. The medium shots of the testifying characters with other people known to us showing their complete lack of poker faces in the viewing gallery made for a terrifically theatrical sort of experience, capturing all the pomp and emptiness of a Congressional hearing that is going nowhere.

But on the level of “Connor, wyd?!” I think it is an indisputable sign of a loss that the character hears that his political supporters have dubbed themselves “Conheads” and thinks, “Sure. I can work with that.” Sand futures could quadruple and he’d still have to deal with the name “Conheads.”

Loser: Gil

Gil asks the Roy family questions.
Gil listens with growing incredulity.
HBO

Meredith: Senator Gil Eavis thought he had the Roys dead to rights — a buffoon like Tom on the stand and an ace like Kira in his pocket. But with Kendall Roy, of all people, landing a few solid return blows during his testimony and Shiv talking Kira out of testifying, it’s more than regular ATN talking-head opportunities that Gil stands to lose. He could have accepted the easy win that Shiv offered him — Bill’s head on a platter, more and more TV time — but in risking it all, he stands to add a win to Waystar’s column, making the Roys that much more untouchable, especially if the company survives to see some foreign investment.

Loser: Logan

Emily: Logan is so close to losing it all, and he knows it. But he’s also so close to keeping it all, and he knows that too. What’s gotta be most frustrating for him is that the correct path forward isn’t really clear. There are so many ways that literally any choice he makes could turn out to be disastrous, and that has to be driving much of the rage he displays throughout this episode. And when Rhea leaves the CEO job behind, it’s clear that rage will only go so far in getting others to kowtow to him.

Does he come through the Congressional hearing with his head held high? Sure. But he’s also going to metaphorically sacrifice one of his children and has also asked his beloved daughter to completely debase herself in the name of keeping the company alive. Now, granted, this is exactly what he wants — he wants his children’s fealty more than anything else. But at what cost, Logan?

Technically, Logan is probably a winner this week simply because he doesn’t unambiguously lose. But the man keeps finding new ways to sell his soul and the souls of his loved ones. Long-term, karma-wise, the guy’s a loser.

(Also: Marcia has apparently left him and it doesn’t seem like he wants to think too hard about it. See how long you can keep hanging out in the denial stage of grief, pal!)

Loser: the phrase “uh-huh”

Emily: Have you noticed how often people on this show say “uh-huh”? And with Brian Cox’s exact cadence? It’s almost more than this beloved affirmational phrase can handle! Save “uh-huh” before Succession destroys it (or, at the very least, make a supercut of everybody saying it and post it on YouTube; I would like to see it).

Loser: Lester

Meredith: Uncle Mo isn’t exactly resting in peace. Lester McClintock is revealed on 60 Minutes to have been the main perv on a metaphorical ship of pervs, and the accompanying headshot shows a picture-perfect dirty old man. His gross-but-true nickname is shouted out during the Congressional hearing, under the flag and everything. This whole sordid, drown-y, rape-y, depersonalizing business has been laid at his feet, and death doesn’t seem like it would stop Logan Roy from tormenting a man. Sure, it’s probably easier being not-alive for the ramifications, but god, what is everyone in the Bad Place saying about him? You know the Roys are well-connected there.

But Lester could have the last laugh. For one thing, he got away with it in life, and for another, we’re still poised to hear his side of the story, via Logan’s seemingly forgotten unauthorized biographer. A much-anticipated book release indeed!