Spoiler Alert: Shiv Will Win
Spoiler Alert: This analysis includes information about the show Succession, Season 4, Episode 8. It includes many spoilers, and you should not read it if you aren’t caught up.
I’m as obsessed with HBO’s Succession as much as the next guy. The show is a gigantic series of micro-negotiations where the most important currency is leverage. After the death of media titan Logan Roy, the show’s premise is organized over the ultimate takeover of Waystar Royco and its right-leaning cable news network, ATN. Three of Logan’s four children are in fierce contention for the top job, which comes with the privilege of overseeing the sale of the company and a massive payout for its shareholders (specifically, themselves).
My take, based on my experience helping Dezenhall clients navigate intense persuasion efforts and a general understanding of basic human nature, is that Shiv is going to win this thing. She will partner with her husband Tom, weird cousin Greg, Logan’s estranged but still beloved wife, Marcia, and hopefully one of the greatest characters in television history, brother Connor and his wife, Willa. This coalition, though comprised of seemingly odd bedfellows, embodies a blend of shared personal interests, and in an arena where information is gold, collectively could prove to be an unbeatable force.
Alternatively, Logan’s sons and current Co-CEOs of Waystar, Kendall and Roman, grapple with their impending downfall. Their poor judgment and reckless decision-making (election fraud, botched space launch, drugs, sexual exposure, and spastic behavior), once merely a source of frustration, now accelerates their descent into irrelevance.
All the while lurking behind the chaos is Lukas Matsson. A Swedish genius who, while embodying a tech bro next door persona, is quietly pulling the strings while attempting to acquire Waystar and ATN.
In a world where power is often synonymous with leverage, Shiv stands at the apex, holding the reins of an unconventional alliance with unified interests. She is meticulously crafting a path to victory through strategic partnerships and judicious resource management. I believe Matsson will purchase the company from this group led by Shiv at a severely depressed valuation, thanks to the moronic decisions Shiv’s two co-CEO brothers have made consistently over the course of this show.
When it comes to high-stakes negotiation, incentives and logic trump emotion, by looking past the theatrics of the show, we can see a clear picture of who is destined to come out on top: Those with a strategic approach and coalition-building skills are positioned to succeed.
In this merciless game of succession, Matsson, arguably the most powerful and intelligent player, achieves his goal of amassing wealth; the ultimate triumph lies elsewhere. Shiv, with her united front of underdogs armed with their abundance of information and leverage, Shiv is on course to emerge as the head of Waystar and the ultimate victor. Let me tell you why.
Character flaw disclaimer
Almost every character in this show is awful, to some degree, on a human level. Kendall is a charlatan in business and a terrible father. Roman is a sexual deviant and treats people like garbage. Shiv arguably destroyed her husband in pursuit of raw political power. Connor is completely delusional. Tom and Greg refer to themselves early in this season as the “disgusting brothers.” The only cool people are Marcia, who stood by her husband throughout it all, and suffers no fools, and Willa, who might be the most rational and logical person in the entire show. I do not endorse any of these characters or their behavior, even when I appear to be praising them. This column is about the art and science of persuasion and how to win high-stakes negotiations.
The components of persuasion
Perhaps the greatest thing about this show is that it is a constant negotiation, with countless micro-negotiations taking place throughout every episode. Every character craves leverage to maximize their personal payoff (be it cash, career, social status, political influence or securing their dead father’s unattainable love and respect). Some of these characters are patient and strategic; others are too obsessed with their image or compromised by their own hang-ups to see clearly.
Here, in my view, are the key components of persuasion and leverage upon which the show focuses:
Have partners you can trust unequivocally. If you are constantly covering your own backside instead of trusting your associates not to screw you, you’re wasting time and energy on internal politics. Great negotiations require great teams, often fostered by years of working together in high-streak situations.
Anyone else should be trusted equivocally at best. This may sound cynical, but you should always treat the person on the other side of the table with a healthy dose of suspicion. They are looking out for their own interests above yours. This doesn’t mean they are bad people; it means that your interests aren’t necessarily aligned.
Reliable information is gold. Tom stated this to Greg on Sunday night, and he was right. Good decision-making requires quality information. Greg has been a reliable source of information throughout the show because he is perceived as goofy and thus unthreatening. Be wary of oversharing with the unthreatening guy over cocktails.
Individual incentives are powerful motivators. To understand how someone may behave in a negotiation, you must understand what they want and why they want it. In the PR world, we often call this “meeting people where they are.” What it means is their goals and inclinations are usually genuine, and if you dismiss them, you’re leaving chips on the table.
In general, I think Kendall and Roman get every component wrong, and Shiv and Tom seem to grasp most of them.
How the key players stack up
Two main negotiations are relevant to the outcome of the show: Matsson’s negotiation with Waystar’s board and shareholders over his proposed acquisition of the company and the internal negotiations at Waystar and ATN over who should lead the company through this sale.
Let’s take the main and key supporting characters individually and evaluate them against the persuasion and leverage framework above.
Kendall is not suited to run this (or any) company. Kendall lacks judgement and ruthlessness, has a severe inferiority complex, and has never succeeded at anything approaching this level of importance. Rather than focusing on the biggest deal of his life, Kendall is still plagued with whether he was underlined or crossed out of Logan’s last wishes. While Kendall and Roman have the same shared incentive, it’s not success. It proves to themselves and others that their dad would be proud of them if he were still there.
Roman has vision but is a walking liability. Roman might be smart and strategic, but he alienates everyone he should be influencing by way of his bad behavior and has created an unbelievable paper trail through his various indiscreet perversions. Like Kendall, Roman’s daddy issues reign. How many times since Logan’s death has Roman uttered, that’s what dad would do? In a bid to be strategic, Roman has steered Waystar to commit an SEC violation in attempting to tank the deal with Matsson and committed blatant election fraud. In his pursuit to share his belief in successful and strategic maneuvering, Roman (and Kendall) often tout their transgressions to their opponents; talk about leverage.
Shiv is a successful political strategist with extremely relevant experience. Politics is basically one big negotiation in which one tries to convince others that his or her ideas are better than the other guy’s. That’s essentially the plot of Succession, too. Shiv reminds me of Pete Buttigieg’s top political strategist, Lis Smith. Everyone laughed at her when she told us the Mayor of South Bend, Indiana was qualified to be president. Then she got him on the front page of Politico and all the way to the Department of Transportation. He is now a top contender for the presidency in the near future. While some saw the argument between Shiv at Tom at the election tailgate as a parting of ways, I see it as a clearing of the air. These two have never been honest with each other throughout their entire relationship. If the Tom and Shiv shouting match was the most powerful scene in the history of this show (if not prestige television as a whole), the scene in which Shiv informs Tom of her pregnancy is a close second. Kids change everything. There is a path forward where their incentives point in the same direction; more on that below.
Tom is not who we thought he was. Tom was a goofball until the most recent episode. He was told unequivocally by the C-Suite and the Roy brothers that he was screwed after Logan’s death. He provides unending comedic relief alongside Greg, and he’s estranged from Shiv. That changed in Episode 8 when Tom came out of his shell and went for it. He’s behaving like a boss, he relegated Greg to his trusted (and extremely important) right-hand man, and he’s going for it. Tom is pragmatic and transactional and has stated that he wants nice things, and Shiv clearly wants to shape the network in a more progressive image that fits her view of the world. They can easily have both; their relationship has been purely transactional from the start, and now they’ve put their cards on the table. Tom may be the most intelligent and self-aware person in the entire show.
Greg is loyal, and that is invaluable. The other half of the Disgusting Brothers is very adept at acquiring information because he’s viewed as harmless. He has quietly played all sides of this thing, but I think he is ultimately loyal to Tom because of the strength of their relationship. He either tried to screw Shiv’s relationship with her brothers because he thinks that’s what Tom would want him to after their public shouting match in Episode 7, or the three of them are running a covert operation together to give Shiv cover to exit the partnership with Kendall and Roman. It also doesn’t hurt that his grandfather, Logan’s brother, remains a Waystar board member.
Marcia is probably sneaky important. We were told early in this season that Marcia and Logan remained close (“intimate,” even) after he left her to pursue a relationship with his assistant. Isn’t there a world where she inherits Logan’s equity in the company and becomes a key shareholder? Greg cozied up to her at the wake, seemingly because he had no other options when looking for a friend to protect him. Maybe he sees an angle to be a friend and supporter of a major decision-maker.
Mattson is a cold, calculating strategist. Who seriously thinks this guy is not going to get the deal he wants?
The ultimate bottom line: In the intricate chessboard of Succession, power dynamics are meticulously negotiated, illustrating a high-stakes battle where strategy and logic consistently outmaneuver emotion. Amidst this daunting vortex, Shiv emerges as the front runner with her unlikely coalition that accentuates the undeniable truth: those brandishing a strategic approach and adept coalition-building skills are poised for triumph.
While Kendall and Roman spiral into oblivion, propelled by their own misguided decisions and desire for more money, fame and power, Shiv carves her path toward ascendancy. Simultaneously, the shadowy figure of Lukas Matsson orchestrates his silent coup, eyeing Waystar as his next conquest. His deliberate maneuvers, coupled with the Roy brothers’ continual missteps, signal Shiv’s impending rise and set the stage for a potentially seismic acquisition at a strikingly undervalued price. Peeling back the dramatic veneer of the show, a crystal-clear narrative unfolds, spotlighting those destined to rise to the top in this ruthless, high-stakes game of leverage and persuasion.
I think some wrinkles in this theory will be ironed out in the coming episodes. Most notably, Tom formally decided to call Wisconsin for the Republican candidate on Election Night. Any election fraud claims probably include him. If I were him, I would have been surreptitiously recording every interaction within the ATN building that evening. Clearly, the Roy brothers made the actual call; will they be able to blame Tom in the end?
I’m not sure these predictions will come true, but I think they should, and they’re a lesson in playing chess when the most vocal around you are clearly playing checkers. There are other viable outcomes, but this is the most logical conclusion. Who wouldn’t want to see a spinoff with Shiv, Tom, Greg, Con, and Willa taking the next step in their careers and their tragic counterparts with nothing to show for their decades of self-serving, dishonest hackery?
Special thanks to my colleague Mark Emerson for his assistance in writing and editing this column.