The eighth episode of what is shaping up to be Succession’s strongest season, “America Decides,” drips with a cynicism that is genuinely awe-inspiring. But if it’s simply being straightforward, can you even call that cynicism?
This episode looks unflinchingly at what happens on election night in America as well as what has happened in the past, as befits a show like Succession. It’s as tough as ever to turn down the volume on the harsh echoes of the 2016 and 2020 presidential campaigns.
The episode concludes with Roman saying, “We just made a night of good TV,” after he has helped elect the far-right politician who may ostensibly wreck the GoJo agreement. Yes, that’s exactly what we did. Given the series’ evident narrative patterns, I find its ability to shock repeatedly a significant quality of its impact.
There was little reason to doubt that Jeryd Mencken would prevail tonight and that the Roys would have a lot to do with it (or little, depending on your point of view). This has always been the premise of the show, and creator Jesse Armstrong has never pretended otherwise.
Even yet, it’s easy to overlook the footage of Mencken playing behind them as foreshadowing when Tom word-vomits his fears upon Greg in the opening scene of episode 8.
From the very beginning of “America Decides,” everyone has a plan. Roman is using the Mencken angle, convinced that he can hand over Lukas Matsson to ATN if they help the Nazi-leaning conservative win the election.
Shiv is helping Matsson behind the scenes while claiming to advocate for Jiménez, the purportedly reasonable Democrat opponent. And Kendall is spinning out of control in the middle of it all, tormented by guilt over the world he’d leave his daughter Sophie in if the racists prevail but also determined to surpass his father and transform Waystar Royco into a terrible behemoth.
To make matters worse, Kendall has chosen to “protect” his family by following them about in a black SUV rather than really raising his daughter. (He obviously didn’t tell his horrified ex-wife, Rava, this.) So, he makes an initial effort to mend fences with the Jiménez crew before giving up when the numbers become murky.
Tom, whose “good arches” have “been remarked upon,” snorts cocaine in order to keep his cool among the procession of Roys over whom he presides and which hold the key to keeping his job. As per their late father’s wishes, he tries to (and fails to) keep his wife and her brothers off the news floor.
In a matter of minutes, however, the kids had taken control of ATN’s news coverage and turned Darwin (Adam Godley), the network’s election-desk chief, into their own personal puppet.
Meanwhile, Greg has returned from his night out with Matsson and company (“I drank things that aren’t normally drinks”) with an unexpectedly helpful nugget: Matsson informed the clumsy Roy relative of his partnership with Shiv.
Tom advises Greg to hoard such information until a “special occasion” and then “smash someone’s fucking face in with it,” so Greg does just that, waiting until the appropriate time (after Shiv has threatened him with nothing of consequence) to tell Kendall.
But about it, more shortly. “It just makes an election so much more interesting when you’re in it!” Connor says, clinging to the notion that Kentucky will vote for him. while Tom’s mental state deteriorates due to his constant exposure to broken touchscreens, firebombings in Wisconsin, and a dinner of spaghetti with olive oil (“Tonight, my digestive system is basically part of the Constitution, okay?”).
Despite the mayhem, Shiv manages to draw him aside and try to make up for the ground she and her husband lost in the past episode’s earth-shattering argument. Tom asks, “Is that even true?,” as she confirms the pregnancy rumors that had been circulating since Season 4.
Is that a different stance or strategy?” For the first time in quite some time, Shiv is at a loss for words. The firebombing in Milwaukee proves decisive since it causes an unknown number of votes to vanish all at once. Shiv is certain that conservatives are behind the attack, while Roman, in his stubbornness, attributes it to “Antifa.”
Darwin claims that Mencken has such a large lead in Wisconsin that even if absentee ballots were counted, they wouldn’t be able to make up the difference. Since there’s no way to keep track of them (even if the team “knows how they would have gone”), Roman takes advantage of the situation to force ATN to declare Wisconsin for Mencken, regardless of the will of the voters.
He even tailors his advice to the racist newscaster Mark Ravenhead. ATN (and Darwin, through the residue of wasabi and La Croix in his eyes) is compelled to call the president for Mencken after he convincingly wins Arizona and accumulates enough electoral votes.
With a little pause to “big brother it” with Roman, Kendall nearly withdraws his hand from the large red button. “So, because we had so much chicken when we were kids, I have to elect a fascist?” Kendall asks his younger brother.
But devastated by his loss, Roman has embraced a life of nihilism and the joy of taking his father’s place behind the gun. He says, “Nothing matters, Ken,” even after Kendall reveals Sophie’s fate. As the saying goes, “Nothing fucking matters.”
Kendall seeks Shiv’s counsel, and when asked, he is forthright: he wants to dominate the Royco kingdom, and Roman may be too friendly with Mencken. There’s also the Sophie factor to consider. Shiv seizes this chance to manipulate her older brother’s feelings by turning them up and down like a volume control.
She assures him, “I think you’re a good guy,” which increases his confidence in Jiménez (and hence the GoJo contract). But Greg has been hiding out, clutching that bottle of wine, and he uses this opportunity to break it. He tells Kendall that Shiv has been collaborating with the enemy, helping Matsson, and the siblings are at each other’s throats once more.
In a fit of rage over her sister’s betrayal, Kendall concedes that ATN should call the election for Mencken, and with that, democracy itself falls apart. And Roman recognizes the fact. Shiv warns them, “This is about the future of the country.” Roman says, “No,” and then adds, “I think it’s because you broke up with your boyfriend.“
Greg, uncomfortable with the gravity of his position but unable to alter it, amble down to the floor to order the call of the election. Tom evades all accountability by saying it’s “not his call.” From the platform, Mencken boasts, “The model that I follow isn’t from the scorched marketplace, where cunning men haggle for the best price.“
No, I’m not like that at all. In the kind of democratic system, I support, a leader is willed into being by the collective intelligence of the populace and rises to power through the democratic process. It’s an old speech, given in a far less eloquent fashion.
The show finishes with Kendall informing Fikret, his driver, in the rear of his car that “some people just can’t cut a deal.” The statement is an ironic triumph cry from a guilty conscience and is designed to sound like Logan.
But as Kendall is whisked away to make arrangements for his father’s burial, it’s not the line that stays with me. An earlier line from “America Decides” instead seems to better fit the conflict in his thinking. Kendall reassures his worried daughter Sophie that Mencken won’t prevail and that she’ll be safe in America while on the phone with Rava about the SUV.
The man assures you, “I won’t let the world push you, okay, sweetie ” Before she can respond, he abruptly ends the call. “Everything he does” is for his kids, just like Logan’s, yet he can’t even bring himself to listen to them. Because of this mistaken belief, Kendall will be defeated once more.