After watching the finale of Succession on Sunday, I fell asleep thinking of Shiv Roy and Elizabeth of York.
Spoiler Alert: If you have not watched the finale of the TV show “Succession,” then you may wish to stop before I comment on the ending, at length. Or, it may provide perspective on your watching, who knows? If you’re not a fan of the show, you might still appreciate the commentary. I’ve never seen “The Squid Game” or “This Is Us,” but I have read insightful commentary on these shows.
It just so happens that this very week I finished uploading a video of a presentation I did on Medieval Women and Wealth called “Nevertheless, She Persisted”. Yes, this is a shameless plug, but it is free! If you’ve got a little time and you’re interested in history, take a look here. This talk is about barriers that women in Northern Europe in the Middle Ages encountered in managing their financial affairs as well as the ways they got around those barriers. I was gobsmacked to realize how closely this topic fit what happened on Succession.
Having Primogeniture and Feme Covert on the brain is probably what makes me think about them in the context of the show. Succession is all about primogeniture, certainly about what the inheritance “rule” ought to be. Whoever was going to rise to the top role, one thing was clear from the first episode: the girl gets nothing. There have been many takes on the ending of this show, but I will wager that this may be the only one to explain it in terms of Feme Covert and medieval gendered practices.
For those who don’t know the show or the ending but are still intrigued by my medieval angle, here is a brief recap. An aging owner of a multi-billion dollar media conglomerate dangles the position of his replacement in front of his children, snatching it away whenever anyone close. The company is also in financial trouble, so there are perpetual outside entities trying to merge, buy, or destroy it. His three sons are candidates but each has personal faults too massive to ignore. Connor is a hapless dingbat (naturally, he runs for president), Kendall is an energetic executive whose narcissism tosses him between drug addiction and suicide, and Roman is a misanthropic tech genius who just will not stop sending dick pictures out to people, accidentally hitting “reply all.” Shiv, the daughter, has the problem of being never taken seriously and choosing failed candidates; Exhibit A is her oily toady of a husband, Tom.
For three seasons, it’s a fight among the scorpion and red ants until the founder dies, and the series speeds to the ultimate choice: who will own the company? There is an offer by a Swedish tech giant that the brothers engineer but balk at, not wanting to give their “family business” away. Shiv sides with the Swede because he promises her the top job, then learns that he doesn’t plan to fulfill the promise, so she changes sides and promises to vote with the family. She then finds out that it’s her nonentity, toady husband Tom, who will lead the new company. At the key board meeting, after scrambling for votes, the count is tied with Shiv left. After confronting her brothers, she changes her mind and votes to the sell the company, betray the family, and put her husband in charge.
I once wrote that this villainy was too mesmerizing to ignore, a train wreck, a Richard III experience. But the writing and acting have raised this above mere villainy. This is a tragedy which evokes fear and pity. We can be afraid that there are such people in the world devoid of human decency and compassion, but by the end we pity their upbringing.
So what’s the medieval angle here?
The essence of primogeniture, say in 14th century Northern Europe, is that the eldest son inherits. If he dies in battle, then the next eldest, and the next or the grandson or the brother or the distant cousin–anybody, ANYBODY but the daughter–and if they have to find someone overseas who speaks another language, they’ll do it.Continue reading “Getting Medieval on the Woman of “Succession””