Boar on the Floor No More: The Transformation of Succession‘s Tom Wambsgans
“Do you want to make a deal with the Devil?”Photo Courtesy of HBO TV Features Succession
Tom Wambsgans, strive all he might, will never be a Roy. Played with pitch-perfect perfection by Matthew Macfadyen, he spends most of Season 3 making a compelling case (Jeremy Strong’s Kendall be damned!) for the coveted accolade of “Most Pathetic Character.” Wife Shiv (Sarah Snook) treats him like a pet at best and with open disdain at worst. His true partner Greg (Nicholas Braun) seems to be outgrowing him. He’s terrified of an impending prison sentence and even after that threat dissipates, a depressing truth remains: Tom has wasted his life servicing an empire and an emperor who are not his to claim.
But all empires fall, and Waystar Royco is no different. Logan Roy (Brian Cox) recognizes that he runs a business in decline. It’s time to make a deal, and there are worse ways to be conquered than via multi-billion-dollar buyouts. Succession is fond of its historical and mythological metaphors, and in its bombastic season finale, we’re treated to another one by Lukas Matsson (Alexander Skarsgård). In his pitch to take over Waystar, the tech mogul recounts how ancient Romans contemplated dressing slaves in matching cloaks, until they realized that the slaves would then see their superior numbers, revolt, and kill their oppressors. By the episode’s end, the Roy siblings emulate the fable. Finally they’ve realized the only way to topple their father is to stop stabbing each other in the back long enough to band together.
“All the bells say: too late.” Another Roman Empire metaphor beats them to the punch, only this one’s told by Tom who casts himself as the leader of it all, with Greg by his side. The pair’s psychosexual relationship (“Prove it!”) has always been one of the show’s most fascinating. But while Tom spends most of the season unraveling over prison blogs, Greg’s on the up, brokering his deal to come back into Logan’s fold without Tom’s input.
Tom, who turns to Greg for the intimacy he won’t get from his wife, can’t handle the shift in their dynamic, and so he tells Greg the story of Roman Emperor Nero and his slave Sporus. Nero pushed his wife down the stairs, had Sporus castrated, and married him instead. With a sad smile, Tom delivers a truly killer line: “I’d castrate you and marry you in a heartbeat.” (And so launched a thousand Tom x Greg fancams!) In the finale, Tom recalls the scene with one glorious “Sporus” and makes good on backstabbing his wife. It’s telling that his move is also one that reasserts his position over Greg and keeps them close together. But when he cajoles Greg to give up his soul and make a deal with the devil, he’s speaking in a mirror when he asks, “Who has ever looked after you in this fucking family?”
Certainly not Shiv.
Following Tom’s Season 2 finale beach confession that he’s unhappy in their marriage, Shiv only briefly, feebly attempts to balance their love portfolio. The moment Tom acquiesces to her, she can scarcely contain her eye rolls at his legitimate fears of prison. He hyper-focuses on having a baby in his desperation for Shiv to stick around. In penultimate episode, “Chiantishire,” Shiv tells him plainly under the guise of dirty talk that she doesn’t love him but knows he wants her anyway. When he’s reeling the morning after (“Sometimes I think, should I maybe listen to the things you say directly in my face when we’re at our most intimate?”), Shiv dismisses him as being manipulative.
Their marriage is so entrenched in this pattern that, in some ways, Tom’s big betrayal feels like a twist ending. But Succession has never been the type of show to deal in twists. It’s much more interested in fully marinating in its characters’ psyches and following them to expected emotional conclusions. The writers might love subverting expectations, but explosive moments always have the necessary legwork backing them.
Season 3 let things build up and fester. In the middle stretch of episodes especially, wheels seemed to spin without much traction. Kendall lost his allies and imploded; Roman (Kieran Culkin) descended into further cruelty the closer he got to Logan; Shiv continued to be an embarrassing dumbass with a great ass; Connor (Alan Ruck) was, well, Connor. Poor pathetic Tom was easy to dismiss. He’s been a non-player throughout Season 3, and really, throughout Succession’s entire run. Ambitious yet spineless, Tom was Shiv’s perpetual yes-man, the emasculated doormat who agreed to an open marriage on his wedding night. Logan considered him so immaterial that he didn’t hesitate telling Shiv, “You’re marrying a man fathoms beneath you because you don’t want to risk being betrayed” … in front of Tom.
But the country mouse stuck it out, steadily climbing the ranks and giving full-hearted oinks as commanded. By the start of Season 3, he finds himself in Logan’s inner circle, a position he cements further when he offers himself up as a sacrifice for the cruises scandal. Logan starts asking his opinion and actually seems to show interest in the answer. When the patriarch suffers from a UTI during “Retired Janitors of Idaho,” Tom is the first to rush to his aid, earning a gruff “thanks, son.” Tom can scarcely contain his filial glee in his reply: “Anytime, Pop. Papa.”
Needless to say, “personal bathroom attendant” isn’t Tom’s dream job title. Early on in the season, we receive a reminder of his aspirations when first Shiv, then Logan, questions whether he wants to be interim CEO. Tom waves the suggestion off as if it’s never crossed his mind with the self-deprecating hem-hawing of someone that absolutely 100% has thought about it. Don’t forget that before Shiv joined the family business, he angled to be top dog himself. Tom loves Shiv, and he loves what she represents, so he withstands all the humiliation that one puffer-vested-Minnesotan can take. His breaking point doesn’t come when she manipulates him, or when she says she doesn’t love him. It’s when she once again doesn’t even think to consider his position in her corporate plans.
Succession branches off a simple question: Who will be the next CEO? (Or, as writer Demi Adejuyigbe puts it, “Who will win the kiss from Daddy?”) For viewers, the answer has always seemed to lie with the Roy children. But Logan’s developed a pattern of looking outside the family, first with Rhea, then Gerri, and now Matsson. In embracing his status as an outsider, Tom finally sets himself up as a real competitor and shakes the show’s foundation in the process. He’s making his own fucking pile.
Annie Lyons is a culture writer from Austin, Texas who loves all things coming-of-age and romantic comedy. You can find her on Twitter @anniexlyons probably debating another Moonstruck rewatch.
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