Getting Medieval on the Woman of “Succession”

Shiv Roy (photo via HBO) & Elizabeth of York (photo via wikimedia)

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.

Men, men, men, men oh and Shiv. Photo from HBO.

Spoiler Synopsis

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.

Let’s take Elizabeth of York. She was the daughter, sister, niece, wife, and mother of kings–never remotely considered as a possible queen in her own right. She was the eldest child of Edward IV, who “won” the War of the Roses. But the teenage brothers were considered the heirs, so uncle Richard the regent shoved them in a tower, never to be seen again. What if Elizabeth had been raised as a possible successor? She was educated, pious, knowledgeable and came from a powerhouse family. Might Civil War have been averted? Instead, her purpose from birth was to make a dynastic marriage and pop out babies, which she did–son Arthur who died young, then Henry VIII.

Calculating? Desperate? Pregnant? What defines Shiv Roy? Photo from HBO.

The first time we see Shiv, in the opening credits of the first episode, we don’t even see her face, just the back of her ribboned head, her shoes, and a blurry profile as she leads a pony. From the outset, Shiv is an ancillary character.

But Shiv was raised in the same shark-infested family as her brothers, and she is as knowledgeable and capable as they are. The character, played so well by Sarah Snook, demands to be taken seriously. Much has been written about her maneuvering and betrayal. She plays the final card, makes the last move, and pulls the rug out from under her brothers. She casts the deciding vote, even as she herself has been betrayed.

Matsson, the Swedish dude, tacitly agrees to Shiv’s request to be made CEO in exchange for a vote, then privately confesses to husband Tom that Shiv could never be in charge because Matsson wants to sleep with her and thinks he probably will. She is told repeatedly by her father and everyone else that she doesn’t have the experience, and so she is never given the opportunity to have the experience. She pledges loyalty to her brother, but he offers nothing in return and never did. He assumes he has the right of primogeniture, which never includes the girls. And everyone knows it.

Doctrine of coverture thrived in America as well. Photo from American History USA.

Feme Covert

What’s feme covert got to do with it? For the men, the show is about them; for Shiv, it’s about her and her husband, start to finish. The doctrine of coverture meant that man and wife were one. Created in France, it was exported to become embedded in the English legal code and flourished in early America under the Puritans. When a woman married, her property would thus belong to her husband, and he was in charge of all critical decisions. In the Middle Ages, he was still supposed to gain his wife’s agreement before selling property (typically her dowry), but it was his decision.

Tom & Shiv’s final scene, photo from HBO.

Though Shiv’s husband Tom has always been vapid and brown-nosing, he was also always a pivotal character. Think of all the spouses: Kendall’s ex-wife’s purpose is to be the mother of his children whom he alternately spoils and ignores. Roman can’t find a girlfriend willing to put up with his toxic bs. Connor marries a prostitute who ends up seeming one of the more even-keeled of the bunch. Logan’s wife Marcia is a power broker, but she disappears quickly. The children’s mother, Carolina, lives in Europe. The wives and mothers of the boys have little power here, yet they have the only power that women can have. The only daughter has her husband orbiting her from the first to the last shot.

When this series was first cast, the Brits were the biggest known names: Brian Cox, Matthew Macfadyen, and Harriet Walter. (Check out Cox as Agamemmnon in Troy, Macfadyen as Mr. Darcy, and Walter in Sense and Sensibility.) Macfadyen’s Tom Wambsgans was always going to be a main character. The bumbling son-in-law is a trope, and Macfadyen was awarded with a BAFTA and an Emmy for his portrayal. Who else could carry off lines like “It’s good to know we don’t have an unbalanced love portfolio” and “What’s good is to eradicate hope. They can’t get you if you got no hope…”?

So, while Tom played the fool from minute one forward, he ends up with one of the biggest prizes. Though writer Jesse Armstrong didn’t seem to plan the ending in advance, it seems foreordained, given the caliber of the character. And while Shiv criticizes Tom for being a “conservative hick” who came from nothing, she knows that her father also fought his way up from nothing, gaining wealth and power by acting without principle. Tom may be a toady rather than a brawler, but he gets there just the same.

Much is made of the coldness between the ending scene of man and wife in the car, where Tom lays out his hand and Shiv barely places hers on top. Some see the scene as barren, but it can’t be because she is pregnant. Though Tom has angrily told her that she is a person who should not have children, they both seem to be thinking that it might be a solution. The moment is a tentative reconciliation, but Tom also puts his hand out as if issuing a command. Shiv engineers Tom into this position, arguably, because being queen consort and mother of the future kings may provide her at least some power. As the sister of the sharks, she could only try for leftover chum.

One study of property disputes in medieval England found that married women ( and widows) had an advantage over unmarried women in legal conflicts. In other words, wives trump daughters or sisters. Same as it ever was.

Avarice, by Jacopo Ligozzi, augmented photo from Pinterest.

Meanwhile, look at the internet photos of Shiv Roy. Gowns and jewels, posing on the red carpet. The photo at the top of Shiv on the escalator is from which compliments her use of moisturizer. Rich women are reduced to what they buy. They are critiqued for their greed and admired for what it got them. Their ambition must be dampened.

Shiv, simultaneously pregnant and an object of desire to those with whom she negotiates, will never be taken seriously as a candidate in her own right. Her only option is to become Lady Macbeth, to maneuver her husband. Lady Macbeth does not have her own name.

A few reviewers mention the implicit misogyny in the show, but without addressing its underlying truths. No matter that women have come a long way, baby, they’re still not in the serious mix when there are plenty of men around. Many more reviewers emphasize that Shiv Roy means “kill the king.” Many see her only as a schemer or betrayer, without addressing the schemes and betrayals that she must persistently endure.

None acknowledge that a shiv is fashioned by a prisoner for protection. It’s not a sword; swords pass down the eldest boy.

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