Recap: Succession (S4, Ep8) — Kendall Is Tested on a Strenuous Election Night
With how watchable, well-written, and entertaining Succession‘s characters are to watch, I find it too easy to forget that, at their core, none of them are good people (except Roman [Kieran Culkin], he makes that remarkably easy to remember). The meaning behind the episode title “America Decides” is a perfect indicator of this. The title is a joke in and of itself—it refers to the idea that honest Americans get to pick their next president, that democracy is more than “mere transaction,” as Republican president-elect Jeryd Mencken (Justin Kirk) describes it. But that, of course, is the joke. Mencken wins because democracy, in the eyes of the Roys, is just that—a transaction.
With all the quiet and horrific power shifts Succession has been force-feeding us the past few weeks, it’s both a relief and even more of a nightmare to have an episode like “America Decides” that thrives off of the chaos that comes with electing an American president. Not since season two’s “Safe Room” has an episode properly divided its time between the remaining main characters while also being so effortlessly funny. And considering that this episode ends one of the longest-running plot threads in the show, that’s no small feat. The election has been a subplot on Succession since relatively inconsequential Roy sibling Connor (Alan Ruck) announced that he was gunning for the top spot, so to see it basically end in a sibling bidding war is both fitting and exciting.
On one side, Roman advocates for Mencken because he’s been promised an unspecified position of power under his regime, as well as the destruction of Waystar’s sale to potential owner Lukas Matsson (Alexander Skarsgård). (Mencken has some openly fascist ideals, but something tells me Roman’s cool with it.) On the other side, Shiv (Sarah Snook) is pushing for Democrat Daniel Jiménez (Elliot Villar) because of her moral disgust at the idea of Mencken winning. In the middle is Kendall (Jeremy Strong), torn between the two sides and what they represent—Jiménez is probably the right person to pick, and the one that will ease the mounting anxieties of his ex-wife and daughter, but Mencken would finally block this deal that’s been hanging over him since his father Logan’s death.
This seemingly simple conflict, combined with Tom (Matthew Macfayden) scampering around and trying to keep the company in line while telling subordinate Greg (Nicholas Braun) to not be “a racist little bitch” about doing cocaine with him, makes for the wildest and best episode of the season so far. Director Andrij Parekh takes full advantage of the show’s shaky cinematography style as characters make tough decisions or hurry through the news network’s halls. The audience really lives in “America Decides,” whether watching Connor declare that his “Conheads” are on the rise despite him giving up the election for Mencken, or observing Greg blabbering about how pouring LaCroix in someone’s injured eyes is fine because the liquid is “natural, like, medical!”
For as hysterical as the episode turns out to be, it doesn’t hold back when it comes to dramatic elements. Shiv pulls sort-of husband Tom aside to apologize for the borderline traumatic things they said to each other the previous night, and it of course devolves into another argument. She finally reveals that she’s pregnant with his child, and his immediate response is “is that, like, a new position or tactic?”
Both actors play the scene perfectly. It’s deeply depressing that Tom is so mistrustful of Shiv that he can’t fathom her not using this information as leverage, and Snook conveys Shiv’s shock and hurt at Tom’s response perfectly. Things don’t get better for her after Greg, forced to stay out all night with Matsson and his cronies, learns of her collusion with him behind her brothers’ backs. When he tries to leverage this information, Shiv predictably threatens to tear him to shreds if it leaks, but even Greg can recognize how screwed she is. When she manipulates Kendall into backing Jiménez by playing with his emotions, he suspects that something is wrong when she tries to persuade him not to call Jiménez’s people and goes to Greg, who happily relays what he’s learned. (The little smirk he gives Shiv through the window as he walks away is brilliant directing and acting.)
As much as “America Decides” is about Shiv tripping and falling down a flight of stairs with no bottom, it’s also about Kendall and another very Logan-like decision he has to make. Logan would have either sided with Mencken or told him to go screw—well, Logan would never get stuck in this price war with Matsson that the siblings are now, but he would never put personal life over business. But this is Kendall, who has always let emotions rule both his weakest and most important moments. If Shiv hadn’t gambled by telling a lie Kendall could easily fact-check, he probably would have gone with Jiménez, But now he’s been hurt just as Tom hurt Shiv—”I think it’s because you broke up with your boyfriend,” Roman snarks while Shiv blusters about why backing Jiménez is the right thing to do. And because Tom was shitty, Mencken becomes the next president of the United States.
On top of being funny, tense, and dramatically satisfying, “America Decides” is a fantastic character episode that continues to remind the audience of just how awful these people really are. The idea that the future of the country is in the hands of these emotionally stunted billionaires is scary to think about, and the weight of that is in the final scene when Kendall pays the price through his children, who his ex-wife refuses to let him see. He made the right decision for the company, maybe, but it’s worth noting that he makes it on Roman’s word and neither of them really know if Mencken is going to give them power or even properly block the deal. He didn’t make the decision for Waystar—he made it because he was mad, and it’s a perfect way to show Kendall stepping into uncharted waters in his new position.
“Some people,” he sighs as he drives away at the episode’s end, “just can’t cut a deal.” Oh, Kendall. If only you knew.
This episode of Succession is now available on HBO Max.