Author’s Note: This essay contains spoilers for Succession, including the latest episodes from Season 4.
Oh, Shiv. Out of all of the characters who comprise the sinisterly funny and infuriatingly stressful corporate chaos of Succession, Siobhan Roy (or Shiv) occupies the most perplexing position on the Waystar Royco game board. Out of all of the Roy siblings, she’s been the hardest to root for. So much so that, with each new episode, fans continue to debate whether cheering her on or refusing to is an act of misogyny or support for a ‘bad’ feminist. While all of the Roy siblings have had four seasons of messy character arcs, Shiv’s trajectory has been markedly different from that of her brothers. She’s been bound to different rules of the corporate game and watching her navigate (or, more often, fumble) her way to the top of Waystar has been something of a morbid fascination. Like the proverbial scene of the car crash, I want to look away but I also can’t help but watch everything repeatedly blow up in her face.
Shiv has become a character that many of us love to hate — but this hasn’t always been the case. I, like many, started Succession expecting to root for Shiv. After all, in a sea of men in suits, she stood out. She didn’t seem to care about the family business like her brothers did. She wasn’t afraid to get aggressive, literally wrestling Roman in the second episode of Season 1. She never tried to mask or downplay her own professional ambition. From the onset, she’s presented to us as the quintessential girlboss, the underdog destined to succeed in this male-dominated workplace. But this is Succession, after all, a biting satire of corporate America that has made it clear time and time again that there are no heroes in this family feud. Shiv, perhaps out of all the Roy siblings, is the most striking example of the show’s vicious social commentary. Even as many have struggled to sympathize with her, called her ‘evil,’ and continue to debate over her status as a fan (or least) favorite, I’d argue that Shiv’s destructive character development is one of Succession’s most damning indictments of power and privilege thanks to its added entanglement of scathing gender critique.
At its core, Succession is a show about generational trauma, the cycles of violence passed down from one generation to the next. We see this most clearly with Kendall and Roman. The sins of the father become the sins of the sons. With Shiv, this pattern has always been less apparent.
Of course, there’s the painful exchange between Shiv and her mother, Caroline, at the end of Season 3 where Caroline admits to regretting having children — “I should have had dogs” — and lauds Shiv for her and Tom’s decision to not start a family. Little does she know that earlier in the episode Shiv and Tom began discussing pregnancy as one last Hail Mary to save their marriage (potentially dooming their unborn offspring to yet another life of resentment and guilt between loveless parents). Caroline’s observation that “some people just aren’t made to be mothers” comes back to haunt Shiv when we later learn that she’s pregnant and has been hiding it from everyone.
The comparison to Caroline is obvious, if not a little short-sighted, in the grand scheme of the show. What has been less explored is how Shiv, like her brothers, embodies the worst aspects of Logan’s personality. I would argue that Shiv’s indecisiveness and entitlement (a shadowy mirror to Logan’s drive to win at all costs and his propensity for reckless ambition) have been the self-destructive threads unraveling her into one of the show’s least sympathetic and most powerless character.
When we first meet Shiv, she’s set up to be the most down-to-earth and relatable of the Roy siblings (or about as relatable as one can be when coming from such a powerful family). She’s working as a political consultant, aligned with more liberal candidates compared to Waystar’s conservative stance. She has a more casual sense of style compared to her suited-up brothers. Shiv has no apparent interest in joining the family business, especially since she hasn’t been groomed to take over the way Kendall and Roman have. Her relationship with Logan is different, too. The youngest, she hasn’t been on the receiving end of the same kind of abuse as her brothers have. She’s still a pawn in some respects (like her political connections, her deciding board vote, and her strategic relationship to Tom) but, in her pursuit to make her own way, she’s been shielded from the worst of the toxic family business. Because she’s positioned as kind of an underdog in this male-dominated world, you want to root for her as she becomes more involved in Waystar’s operations. Shiv has the potential to become the fresh, feminist face the company needs to usher it into a new progressive era…
…Except that her inexperience, her disloyalty, and her inability to deftly wield the power end up turning Shiv into her own worst enemy. These obstacles of her own making end up leaving her more powerless in Waystar than ever before.
Throughout Succession, we watch Logan always weigh his options in his business dealings. There’s always a backup plan, a secret deal, a loophole for him to exploit. In Logan’s world, everything is up to negotiation. Personal values and hard stances will always bend (either with the twist of the arm or the right price tag). At the helm of Waystar Royco, one of the country’s largest media conglomerates, Logan has no problem getting in the same room with his business or political rivals if it means reaching a mutually-beneficial agreement. As much as Shiv tries to channel that same approach, she doesn’t actually know how to play both sides. She’s quick to betray, prone to making decisions out of spite, and fumbles any leverage she gains in part due to her over-confidence and in part because of her spoiled attitude. Rhea Jarrell (remember her from Season 2?) puts it best: “Shiv thinks she’s smarter than she is.”
Time and time again, the various members of the Roy family (Logan, as the patriarch, especially) call for loyalty, the closing of ranks, keeping business decisions among themselves. Time and time again, the minute the doors are closed, each are quick to push each other out, set each other up to fail, and stab each other in the back if it means getting a leg up in the leadership ranks. Shiv, perhaps more than any of the siblings, is the greatest repeat offender of these cruel, ironic cycles of promised support and sudden betrayal. I mean, that’s her nickname after all.
When I set out to write this essay, I ended up taking a look back at the show’s earlier seasons with their numerous storylines and subplots. Where Kendall’s personal drama was aired more visibly, Shiv’s attempts (and failures) to gain power were much more subtle, yet still important to establishing her character and her eventual role in the company. There was her attempt to work with Bernie Sanders stand-in and her father’s political enemy Senator Gil Evis in Season 1 and 2. Not only does Logan quickly discover her attempt to collude with the enemy, but she blows up her own opportunity to become Chief of Staff with a distasteful joke. She’s lured deeper into the company and away from her political aspirations when Logan secretly promises her that she will be the one to take over Waystar when he dies. Shiv, either craving her father’s approval or wanting to stick it to her brothers or both, falls for the obvious manipulative trap. She inadvertently throws a wrench in Logan’s real plans by tactlessly blurting out the supposed ‘secret’ when the Roys meet with the Pierces.
Her relationship with Tom, and the affair she has with Nate before they marry, is another example of this perfect storm of selfishness and indecisiveness. With Nate, one has a sense that she’s vetting another romantic option before committing Tom, letting herself pursue a different kind of relationship even at the expense of both men’s feelings. Even after her and Tom are married, Shiv makes it clear that she’s not fully committed, even as she constantly demands his support. Both her call for an open marriage and her quickness to sacrifice Tom when the company is under investigation are such blistering examples of this that it makes you wince.
Even beyond her more personal turmoil, Shiv’s flaws become more deeply entrenched as she tries to navigate the corporate ladder of Waystar Royco. While she can adopt the appearance of a female corporate business leader with a sharp bob and a new assortment of pantsuits, Shiv’s privilege (and her lack of self-awareness about it) end up hindering her rise to power more than helping her. She feels entitled to the company even though she hasn’t put in the hours like Tom or her brothers have. When she finally is given a title — President of Domestic Operations — the job itself is basically nothing. Appointed by her dad just as Waystar gets rocked by a sexual abuse scandal and a federal investigation, it’s clear that Shiv doesn’t have any actual say in the company. What’s supposed to be a ‘win’ for her ends up becoming her trapped under Logan’s thumb and being touted as the new feminist face of Waystar’s boys club.
The idea of the “girlfailure” has emerged in recent years, both a challenge to and an evolution of “the girlboss” and all of its toxic trappings. This cultural turn isn’t surprising at all. All of the pantsuit feminist, ‘you can have it all’ promises of the mid-2000s have completely broken down thanks to the pandemic, the exploitative erosion of work/life balance, corporate greed, worker exploitation, glass ceiling breaks and callouts of misogyny and racism that haven’t spurred any systemic change, the stripping of women’s rights to autonomy across the country, you name it. From the beginning, the biggest critique of the girlboss has been how its bootstrapping, individualistic messaging caters primarily to white affluent women who can afford to outsource childcare and domestic labor and aren’t trapped in cycles of poverty.
Just to be clear, the girlfailure isn’t an anti-hero. She’s not someone you’re supposed to seriously root for, but also not really an evil villain either. She’s a mess — the product of shitty circumstances, deep personality flaws, the stupid decisions she’s made, and just being a downright bad person. In a time when women are expected to be angels or sex symbols or nurturing mothers or any number of other tired feminine archetypes, the girlfailure can be a refreshing rupture from the impossible expectation of perfection.
While Shiv is shown as adopting the strategies and look of the corporate girlboss (for god’s sake, she literally tries to schedule her own grief to maintain a tough appearance in front of her siblings), that she turns out to be girlfailure repeatedly making bad choices and getting caught in her lies is an important part of the show’s stressful satire. I’ve always been perplexed by people who write off Shiv’s uncharismatic portrayal as pouty, impulsive, and self-centered as misogynistic. That interpretation feels to like a reductive take on the complexity of her character. Like, yeah, she sucks. But the ways in which she sucks reflect her privileged upbringing, her traumatic upbringing, and her continued complacency in upholding the exploitative corporate system that she both benefits from and is also eager to shut her out.
While Shiv does have to put up with a lot of bullshit, she’s mostly a victim of her own doing. Shiv might be aware that, as a woman, she’s going to have to play by very different rules than her brothers, but she continues to believe that the Roy name and her position as Logan’s daughter are enough to exempt her. It’s not like Shiv is the only woman in the room, either. She shoots down Logan’s suggestion to do trainings with Gerri and show in different Waystar offices (the fast-tracking isn’t fast enough for her) then later tries to intimidate Gerri as the scandal with Roman breaks, further alienating herself from the one woman in the senior leadership who could actually be a formidable ally against her brothers. Shiv only pushes for women’s empowerment when it directly benefits her. It’s frustrating to watch repeatedly turn on and belittle the other women in the company and in the family (like Marcia and Willa), blowing up opportunity after opportunity to build better relationships and find mentors.
The most damning moment of Shiv’s faux feminist hypocrisy, the one where we see how quick she is to act against her personal values in order to get ahead, is at the end of Season 2 when she decides to go and intimidate a witness who is going to testify to sexual abuse and violence perpetuated by Waystar’s cruise-line employees. Rhea, who is also sent by Logan and tapped to be the next CEO, backs out because she draws the line at trying to coerce a victim of sexual assault. Yet Shiv has no problem getting her hands dirty. Worse, she promises the victim (after buying her silence with millions of dollars) that she will do everything she can to get rid of the men who harmed her and the other victims. Of course Shiv has no plan to do it, and is later celebrated for her manipulative weaponization of #MeToo rhetoric and sisterly solidarity.
By the time we get to this season, Shiv’s sunken into a deeper rock bottom. Hyperaware of how her mother was treated during her divorce with Logan, Shiv becomes paranoid that Tom is doing the same to her, a belief that completely disregards Tom’s need to be defensive because of how much power she holds and that Logan would happily advise him following the kids’ attempted coup. After Logan’s death, Shiv decides to align herself with Lukas Matsson in order to get a top spot when GoJo acquires Waystar. Even as Shiv sees Matsson’s massive red flags and learns that he fudged numbers, she still tries to push the deal forward while also pretending to oppose Matsson like her brothers. She probably could’ve kept up her double agent act were it not for Cousin Greg discovering her lies. When Greg makes it explicitly clear that he’d happily be bribed to stay quiet, Shiv doesn’t try to work out a deal. Instead, she responds with senseless aggression, trying to bully him into intimidation even though he’s the one with all the leverage and she has nothing to offer.
Then there’s her pregnancy. Each episode since the reveal, fans have agonized over when she’s going to tell Tom or what she’s going to do with the baby. Shiv, who pretends to drink and begins hiding her baby bump, is aware that the pregnancy could mark the beginning of the end at her time at Waystar, another sexist weapon her brothers can use against her. Yet, she also seems to want to keep it, probably to spite her mother and because she thinks it’ll win back Tom. When she does finally tell him on the night of the election as she finds herself losing allies left and right, he doesn’t even believe. “Is that even true?” is this the first thing out of Tom’s mouth, a bitter reveal of how far their toxic relationship has devolved, “Or is that, like, a new position or tactic?” As painful as his words are, I struggled to feel sympathy for her. After everything she’s done to Tom, Shiv had this coming.
Succession’s antepenultimate episode was a sharp reminder that we shouldn’t sympathize with any of these characters, Shiv especially so. Shiv’s house of cards have been ready to fall for four seasons now, but now that the collapse has finally happened, it doesn’t feel satisfying to watch. It’s pathetic, exhausting, feels like a waste of time after people have spent so much time predicting she’ll come out on top.
Having been an inexperienced outsider, Shiv was supposed to be the girlboss-y ‘fuck you’ to the Roy patriarchy. Yet Shiv has proven to be no better than her brothers. She tries to act like a good person (probably thinks she is), but also refuses to learn from her own mistakes or humbly acknowledge on her own shortcomings. Shiv has had numerous opportunities to get out of the family business that’s destroyed so much of her life, but she keeps choosing to stay deep in the misogynistic corporate muck, overly confident that she can still beat the game when she’s never been a true player, just a pawn stuck trying to outmaneuver systemic rules that she alone can’t beat.
Logan’s sudden death marked a turning point for the three Roy children, and it’s been difficult to watch them all regress into Logan’s worst qualities and turn against each other. Watching Shiv’s spectacular, teary-eyed failure in “America Decides,” where she tries to use her pregnancy to lash out at Tom and gets mocked by her brothers when she gets caught, we see how Logan’s deliberate limiting of her power in the company had been shielding her habit of making bad decisions from any serious repercussions. Now that Logan’s gone and the siblings step into actual leadership roles, it’s so obvious just how ill-equipped Shiv is to navigate this cutthroat world. Mind you, this isn’t because of her gender. It’s because she truly thought she had an innate gift for the business and never once tried to gain proper experience. By the time we see Shiv express genuine remorse, trying to once again be the ‘progressive’ voice of reason as her brothers decide to falsely call a presidential election for a right-wing fascist, she’s too late. Her attempts to stop their decision get steamrolled because no one can take her attempts to play both sides seriously anymore. Shiv, like her brothers, has been caught up in the tensions of choosing between individual power and family, the deal and the election, the well-being of the country and her personal security. In the end, her inability to choose any of these sides (and stick to them) leave her with neither.
As I’m writing this, Succession will have just two episodes left in the entire series. Where Shiv Roy will end up by the show’s finale, I can’t say. Yet if girlfailures have taught us anything, it’s that she won’t lose without a fight.