Opinion | On ‘Succession,’ Marriage Reveals Its Sting

Scorpions are dreaded and reviled for good reason. A remarkably aggressive predator, the scorpion has a bad habit of killing and feeding on its young. And when it comes to love, scorpion mating is one of “the nastiest affairs in nature”:

“Males and females engage in lengthy and violent waltzes, moving to and fro, to and fro, front legs gripping front legs, mouthparts locked together and tails whipping forward, as the male repeatedly stings the female and the female thrashes about, seemingly furious at being dragged around,” a Times article once put it. Afterward, the female often kills and devours her partner.

A dead scorpion, one might conclude, is not the best gift to offer your special someone. But in Sunday night’s episode of “Succession,” a glass-encased scorpion wrapped in a crimson box — “a little party prezzie for being such a hot piece of ass” — is precisely what Tom bequeaths Shiv, shortly after they’ve brought their marriage back from the brink of an eviscerating divorce.

“Who’s the scorpion?” she asks.

“You,” he replies. “I love you, but you kill me, and I kill you.”

Marriage is where “Succession” hits viewers the closest. We may never enter a corporate boardroom or fly in a private jet, but most of us enter private mergers of our own. In marriage, we experience the interwoven layers of truth and lies that can hold a union together or wedge a couple apart, however devastating either way.

And marriage is the theme of this week’s episode — one of the best in the four-season series. (Be forewarned, some spoilers ahead.) It shows the marriage of Shiv and Tom plunge from workplace sexting to brooding in separate beds in the same cavernous apartment. The former marriage of Kendall and Rava tumbles from co-parenting détente to shouting match. The unlikely marriage of Connor and Willa endures under the mutual recognition of his submission and her domination. And the impending marriage of creaky Waystar Royco and futuristic Nordic GoJo hangs in the balance. In a show in which people rarely say what they really believe, and don’t believe what they say they believe, this episode hinges on the lies that keep people bound together, and the truths that drive them apart.

Those who don’t watch “Succession” often cite its “unlikable characters,” while those who enjoy it relish it for precisely that reason. But the satisfactions of “Succession” go beyond seeing the ugliness of the .001 percent and reveling in our moral superiority. What raises the emotional stakes of “Succession” beyond schadenfreude is that in its carefully meted-out flashes of human connection and failures of human connection, there is self-recognition. We see at least a sliver of ourselves, and our own frailties.

In this episode two back-to-back confrontations underscore the duality of many marriages — one scene is riddled with dishonesty, to the point where mutual denial is almost celebrated, and the second bearing the truth, with all the requisite tensions.

First is a verbal manfight between Kendall and Lukas Matsson after each discovers the other has been misrepresenting their respective financials ahead of a proposed merger. The two C.E.O.s take swings over how they each actually measure up. “You, man! Your numbers, exploding, right?” Kendall sneers at Matsson. “I hear your numbers are gay,” Lukas retaliates. But rather than come to blows, they choose to continue the lie, entering an aggressive embrace while shouting over the other, “Love the deal!”

And then Shiv and Tom have it out, and it’s a moment of brutal candor. Tom has come to understand that neither Waystar Royco nor GoJo want him around, and that Shiv is the reason. And Shiv realizes she has hitched herself to the wrong business partner, betraying both her husband and her family for Mattson. “He’s erratic, and maybe he isn’t real,” Shiv says of Mattson, but she may be talking about Tom. After a ricochet of searing confessions — with a depth and poignancy often pointedly absent from “Succession’s” usual orchestrations of insult — each realizes the other has been lying to the other for years. Shiv has bet not just on one wrong man, but two, and she’s scared that she may not survive it.

“You will always survive because you do what you need,” Tom says to Shiv.

“Yeah? You’re sure you’re not projecting? Because that is actually you,” she shoots back.

“Should we have a real conversation?” Tom asks, despair visible in the creases in his forehead.

“With a scorpion?” she replies.

There’s no baiting, no play, no faking the other out. It’s in this rare moment when a husband and wife say what they think and mean it, when they get hurt and allow themselves to show it, even as they continue to lie to themselves about how much they care, that “Succession” achieves the resonance and depth of the greatest storytelling. Shiv and Tom are drawn together because they see in the other their own insecurity and rapaciousness and crave that recognition and companionship. They also hate and resent each other for it.

And because both operate with the conviction that life is always about jockeying for position, even here, one of them has to win. Like the scorpion and like we human beings, they destroy the one they love. It’s one of the toughest, most affecting scenes because it’s one in which the ultrawealthy, noxious, often pitiable characters in “Succession” seem the most like us.

Like many a marriage or merger, “Succession” is about attraction and repulsion. What can hold us, both in a story and in life, is seeing the worst in others reflected back at ourselves and hoping we are better than that or at least have the upper hand, if not the higher ground. Perhaps it’s precisely this that keeps people watching, alternately loving and despising its flawed characters. Not a little like marriage.

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