The Exquisite Sliminess of Succession‘s Matthew MacfadyenPhoto: Peter Kramer/HBO TV Features Succession
Since Tom Wamsgans speaks out of both sides of his mouth, he’s easier to read if you follow his hands. The “corn-fed basic from Hockeytown,” as his fiancée’s ex describes him during the first season of Succession, is also, alongside his sycophantic, foul-mouthed, profoundly amoral posturing, a flutter of constant motion: He places a palm over his heart as he lays claim to a piece of his intended’s family “shit show”; he slaps his unfortunate “mentee,” Greg (Nicholas Braun), on the back as he enters a meeting promising to “punch-bag” the youngster; he signals surrender to an “unconscionable” pre-nuptial agreement, lifts water to his lips after swallowing his own load, clasps his fingers in fear on the eve of his wedding. He is, in short, the quintessential liar, lackey, bootlicker, shill: He might maintain his shit-eating grin no matter how much he’s force-fed, but the truth remains right there in his hands. Everyone has a tell.
As played, with exquisite sliminess, by Matthew Macfadyen, Tom is at once the foremost surprise of Succession’s increasingly confident freshman run and perhaps the foremost reason for it. Since the infield taunts of the pilot episode, his venomous treatment of Greg has become the splinter lodged in the series’ nail bed (“Buckle up, fucklehead!” in particular is an instant classic of homosocial hazing), but it’s Tom’s humiliations that so far come closest to communicating the moral quotient, such as it is, of Jesse Armstrong’s fiendishly entertaining satire. In fact, Tom—engaged to Siobhan “Shiv” Roy (Sarah Snook), the daughter of Rupert Murdoch-esque media mogul Logan Roy (Brian Cox), and recently installed at the helm of Royco’s distinctly unglamorous cruise line portfolio—uses his hands most memorably after he learns that his predecessor has been sitting on hundreds of claims of sexual abuse aboard the company’s ships. He bangs his head against the glass door of his office, fists clenched against it—and then wipes off the smudge, leaving no trace.
As Karen Han points out at Vox, Tom Wamsgans—Christ, even his surname makes him sound like a rube—is as much an outsider to the Roy family’s rarefied air as is Greg, their cousin from the sticks: He berates his charge, or preens for him, to underscore his higher place in the pecking order. But much more of Macfadyen’s superb performance is unctuous, even self-abnegating; in his boxy blazers and black turtlenecks, tittering nervously through mostly brief, often mortifying exchanges with the future in-laws, Tom’s practically a human grease stain, a smear on the lens you can’t seem to get off. By all appearances, even Shiv finds him stultifying: On the eve of their wedding, in Sunday night’s terrifically mercenary “Pre-Nuptial,” she livens up long enough to press Tom for information on the cruise ship scandal, only to betray the confidence for her own benefit before episode’s end. “Gosh, look at you,” Shiv’s mother, Caroline (the note-perfect Harriet Walter), remarks upon meeting Tom for the first time. “You’re very plausible.” Plausible, as in, “a superficially pleasing or persuasive person,” especially of arguments “intended to deceive,” the sin-eater of the Roy family’s shameless ambition: ”[T]his may not be the best situation,” unfailingly loyal Royco general counsel Gerri Killman (J. Smith-Cameron) explains at a gala near midseason, after learning that Tom plans a press conference on the abuse allegations to clear his conscience. “But there are harder jobs, and you get a fuckload of cake.”
It’s not simply that Succession, to follow on The Ringer’s Jason Concepcion, refuses to glamorize affluence, to the point that it registers as a 21st century Age of Innocence or Bonfire of the Vanities, a dressing-down of the elite to suit Wharton, or Wolfe. It’s that the first season, which begins to find its footing at the moment Tom and Greg become embroiled in the cruise ship cover-up—the moment at which these heretofore marginal figures, the comic relief, emerge as instrumental ones—nonetheless squeezes moral complexities from the situation in part by turning its attention to the water carriers, the minions, the flunkies, the hangers-on. Because, ultimately, the allegory Succession suggests most forcefully is for a family not named Murdoch: Logan, the egocentric patriarch raging against his own decline; Marcia (Hiam Abbass), his quietly cunning, foreign-born wife; Kendall (Jeremy Strong), the slick heir apparent, blundering through his divorce; Roman (Kieran Culkin), the louche ne’er-do-well; Shiv, the grasping coward hiding behind her more “moderate” politics; the near-forgotten Connor (Alan Ruck), lacking any consistent interests, much less acumen, but clearly desperate for fame. In the universe of Succession, then, Tom is the Sean Spicer, the Rudy Giuliani, the useful idiot, the perfect stooge: His bluster, with Greg, is meant to convey power, but his debasement is so total, so immense, that he nearly becomes an object of pity, so feeble that his own bride sees him as a pawn.
Nearly. As in, the appeal of Succession, of Tom’s arc, of Macfadyen’s heroically gutless performance, is that no one escapes the series’ scornful pincers unscathed. In “Prague,” for instance—the episode most emblematic of Succession’s modus operandi—Roman hijacks Tom’s bachelor party, bringing the boys to an underground party called Rhomboid. Tom’s the usual blend of unconvincing braggadocio and whimpering servility, determined to use his “free pass” from Shiv—herself in the midst of a fling with an old flame—to fool around. It’s clear that he’s not entirely comfortable with what transpires (it’s called a snowball, by the way), despite his assurances that it was “so fuckin’ hot,” which is an ideal metaphor for the shit-eating, and sin-eating, he’s been doing all season. In sex, it’s kinky; in ethics, it’s sick: “You get off,” Roman says of the satisfactions of underlings, puppets, toadys, Toms, populating corridors of power both fictional and real. “You eat the shame for dessert.”
Bon appétit, fucklehead.
Matt Brennan is the TV editor of Paste Magazine. He tweets about what he’s watching @thefilmgoer.