“As democracy is perfected, the office of president represents, more and more closely, the inner soul of the people. On some great and glorious day the plain folks of the land will reach their heart’s desire at last and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron.”
Great American satirist H.L. Mencken wrote those words in 1920 — and unlike a lot of similar seemingly prophetic statements, he indeed is properly attributed. In the ’00s, it was unearthed to mock George W. Bush. 2016 truly cast the statement before the light as a certain prominent con man and carnival barker shocked the world on election night. In Succession‘s universe, that “downright moron”… is Mencken. Jerryd Mencken. Cute, Succession.
In an episode sure to trigger any progressive (it did me, anyway) by making them relive one of the worst nights of their political existence — and if they are over 35 or so, their two worst nights — Mencken goes into the evening expected to lose. No one would elect someone as right-wing and nakedly racist as Mencken, right? Judging by social media, I’m not alone in being shocked how much I was shook by a fictional election.
What makes it even more infuriating in this alternate, but parallel universe is that you get to see the puppet masters as they pull the strings that anoint the crown on Mencken’s head. And boy are our puppet masters dumb. Most of them clearly know in their heart that Mencken is horrible. Even Cousin Greg hesitates and compares his role to turning the keys of an armageddon-summoning nuclear strike. But they all play their role as, just like in 2000, a partisan news organization makes the call before we know the true outcome.
Upping the ante and adding to the intrigue of the Succession Jiminez-Mencken election, it’s a violent act that arguably installs Mencken. An obvious case of arson in Milwaukee destroyed hundreds of thousands of ballots. Wisconsin’s remaining votes puts the Republican candidate ahead by more than could be overcome by the outstanding absentee ballot vote. However, as Shiv screams into the void, we all know how Milwaukee votes. We all know who won Wisconsin if all the votes were counted. Yes, as Roman bloviates, we’ll never really know… but we know!
In Succssion, the end doesn’t come with a whimper or a bang, but with a rich family’s petty squabble. It’s hard to tell who the worst person is in this debacle. We all know these people are awful. It’s practically the premise of the series. However, it is still somehow devastating as one by one any ounce of salvagable humanity fades away. Mencken has promised Roman that if they use ATN to get him elected, he’ll squash the GoJo-Waystar deal that the brothers so desperately want out of.
On the surface, Roman is the clear villain. For a few weeks, I’ve pondered that Roman Roy might be the one redeemable figure, as well as the only smart player in the room. I was a fool. This week, his true calling as a narcissistic sociopath is in full effect. Roman’s that certain kind of Republican who likely deep down knows his candidate is a cruel fool. But if Mencken will fulfill his personal desires, he’s happy to prop him up at the expense of the world. Roman’s a true believer who doesn’t believe a word of it. He cries “false flag” and “Antifa” with a bully’s gleam in his eye. It’s a snarky smirk that lets you know he knows his bullshit is bullshit, but also that he knows you can’t do a thing to stop him so he’ll gleefully rub your face in it.
However, is that any worse than Kendall who literally has skin in the game: his adopted daughter. Bullies have targeted her. It’s the sort of attacks that will only get worse under an impending Mencken Administration. Furthermore, he’s been hinting for weeks that he knows intrinsically that Mencken is a monster. It’s a testament to Jeremy Strong’s acting that it’s apparent how deeply he’s affected by the struggle to do what’s right, even at the cost of his business goals. This self-awareness makes it all the more galling when he impetuously tells the ATN election desk to call it for Mencken. Even worse, he does it out of spite to lash back at his sister.
Shiv, ya done screwed up. The Roy daughter tries valiantly to save the day at the end. However, by this point, she’s been double- and triple-crossing so much that she smacks into the vortex of that famous meme about fucking around and finding out. Rightfully or not, she’s alienated anyone who might help her at this point. Shiv makes a gambit to fake a promise from Nate that Jiminez will also nix the GoJo-Waystar merger. However, just enough doubt seeps out of her defenses so that Kendall calls Nate himself and finds out she’s lying. Worse, Cousin Greg happens to be passing by at this moment. Tall Boy knows about her alliance with Matsson and from Kendall’s expression, we know he’s spilled the tea on Shiv. Kendall blows up the country — possibly literally — because he’s hurt by his sister’s perceived betrayal.
Meanwhile, the oft-forgotten fourth Roy child, Connor, appeared for one brief shining moment to be an alright guy. Last episode, he stood up for himself and his wife and did not flip his support to Mencken. However, when it looks like Mencken has a chance to win, Connor cravenly begs to trade said support for a slightly better ambassadorship. And Willa watches him do it. Goddammit, Willa!
The fate of the democracy now lies in the hands of the Disgusting Brothers. That goes about as well as could be expected. Tom Wambsganss for now is still the head of ATN, with Cousin Greg his messenger boy. Tom has made it clear he’s hear to serve. He’s just here to follow orders. Does his broken heart via Shiv play into his willingness to go along? You know, Tom is such a spineless jellyfish, it might not even factor into his decision.
Of course, he dispatches Cousin Greg to do the dirty work, as he has for the mass layoffs. Greg has already helped seal the fate of the nation when he gets wasabi in the eyes of Darwin, ATN’s neutral election caller, washing the irritant down with lemon LeCroix. It incapacitates Darwin enough that he can’t put up a fight when Tom and Roman call Wisconsin against his will. Did Cousin Greg do this on purpose? Does it really matter? Cousin Greg is a force of… I can’t even finish that sentence. He’s Cousin Greg. And he is Gregging it up in this episode.
En route to possibly sealing America’s fate, Greg stops to chat about the gravity of the situation with his cohort Jess. Horrified, she chats him up, theoretically to delay him. Cousin Greg, to his credit (maybe?) does recognize his role in all this. He even equates it to turning the key on a nuclear launch, although he still plays the “following orders” card. Greg does linger as if to stall the inevitable. Does he have second thoughts? Is he merely trying to save face in front of his cute co-worker? Is it as simple as not wanting to be the final call? Cousin Greg did say just last episode that he “looks like he cares, but [he doesn’t]”. I suppose when a Cousin Greg tells you who he is, believe him.
Other than Shiv, Lukas Matsson is the only one who expresses the honest horror that crept upon us that one night in November 2016. While, yes, he does have a personal stake in Mencken losing, does he even know that? Plus, Matsson appears similarly seriously shook by what he’s watching unfold.
One of the episode’s final shots pans along members of the old guard. Hugo seems a bit unnerved, but Karl and Frank have their poker faces on. Likely, they know they’ll be fine whatever goes down. Noticeably absent is Gerri. While she’s ostensibly out the door at Waystar, she was still at the party last week.
Gerri was in fact missing through this whole episode. Perhaps at next week’s funeral she’ll have something to say about it. After all, her primary concern is the shareholders. Autocracy may be fine for the shareholders, but armageddon would not be. Stock shares would assuredly falter in a nuclear holocaust. Democracy may only be saved by a corporate drone. It’s all kind of fitting.
- While it’s hard to feel bad for Tom Wambsganss, we get to see what his fate will be. He owns the decision to call the race for Mencken. Before we fade to black, we see, almost Night of the Living Dead-style, reports showing that history will not remember Tom Wambsganss in a good light. And that’s before whatever fury a scorned Shiv has to throw at him.
- Speaking of Shiv, she walked out of the Fox… we mean ATN building like the Joker exiting a hospital. She’s got match-and-kerosene plans and it’s not likely to end well for Tom, Kendall, or Roman. While in her own way, she’s just as culpable for the result, I’m here for her Beyonce “Lemonade” moment.
- If all hope seems lost, remember that there are people out there that know Kendall let a waiter die. And Roman, well, he’s a blackmailer’s dream and Gerri has receipts. That said, is this a show that has a comeuppance in it? The whole point of this show is quite likely for the powers-that-be to put a Mencken in place.
- As for Mencken, like with Trump, any thought that he would become more presidential were foolishness. Mencken’s acceptance speech practically boils down to “you will all pay.” It may as well have been written by Lex Luthor or Dr. Octopus.
- We may have been looking at the Cousin Greg dilemma all wrong. The stakes were never the control of the company. It looks like it’s always been the fate of the free world. Cousin Greg is the idiotic spanner in the spokes of democracy. Whether inadvertant or not, three different times he contributed to the Mencken call and potential win. He obliterated Darwin’s vision, causing the call of Wisconsin. He revealed Shiv’s deception, setting Kendall on the path to a kneejerk election call. Finally, he was essentially the person who physically made the call.
- OK, the final one wasn’t really due to any decision of Cousin Greg. For all his hemming and hawing, when Greg told the control room of the Mencken call, they hesitated. Moreover, Tom popped in a second after Greg to make the call. It is a rare moment of spine for Tom. It’s cynical and evil, but it was a moment of spine.
- About that call, it’s probably not coincidental that a character who is usually referred to with “cousin” in his name was in the room of a questionable and too early state call to decide the election. At around 3am on election night in 2000, after a back-and-forth night, Florida was clearly still too close to call. A man named John Preston Ellis ran Fox News’ decision desk. He pushed ahead with the call of Florida. If they had not called Florida, it’s unlikely that the other networks would have felt compelled to make their own calls. If Ellis and Fox News had not called Florida, the optics would have been an uncalled race as opposed to Al Gore appearing to try to overturn an election. Things MIGHT have turned out a bit different. But they didn’t due to Ellis’ actions. John Prescott Ellis is George W. Bush’s cousin. It’s something that actually happened in America. George W. Bush’s “Cousin John” actually called the election for Bush.
- Oh, and about things in Florida in 2000 that no one really seems to remember or care. When they actually counted all the votes. When the Brooks Brothers rioters had cleared out. After the Supreme Court crowned a winner in Bush v. Gore — the only case not appricable as precedent, bee tee dubs. After all that, they actually finished the recount. Gore won Florida. That’s also a thing that happened.
- God, that episode was depressing. And disturbing. And damn fine television. Kudos Jesse Armstrong. All power to the whole cast. Solidarity to the writers as this episode is a reminder they are the backbone of this era of Peak TV and deserve every one of their demands. However, like the Trump election, I doubt I ever want to relive it again. It’s the first episode of Succession I will not watch more than once.