Season 3, Episode 6: ‘What It Takes’
“Succession” is sometimes described as a political satire, but politics is more the show’s milieu than its subject. The Roys run a right-wing media empire, so they spend a lot of time around politicians; and the family members themselves, at least on a performative level, have fiercely held ideals. (Or fluidly held in the case of Kendall and Shiv, who have lately sort of switched sides.) Rarely has this series engaged in as much sustained commentary on the sorry state of modern politics as occurs in this week’s episode.
The title, “What It Takes,” is likely a reference to Richard Ben-Cramer’s nonfiction account of the 1988 U.S. presidential race, in which he examined in-depth the biographies and the campaigns of two Republicans and four Democrats, considering what drove these men to run. The book explores the gulf that often opens up between the candidates’ impressive credentials and how they sell themselves to voters and the media.
In the “Succession” version, the guys vying for the Republican nomination at a Virginia gathering of conservative thought leaders aren’t exactly the best and the brightest. Up for consideration at an emergency meeting of the Future Freedom Summit are: Vice President Dave Boyer (Reed Birney), the “steady old plow-horse,” who’s like a second-rate copy of his retiring boss; Rick Salgado (Yul Vazquez), a moderate Reaganite elitist trying to convince the base that he’s now a big tent, blue collar populist; and Jeryd Mencken (Justin Kirk), a slick-talking nativist who says of a diversifying America that he supports integrating “new elements” but, “C’mon man, slowly.”
Bringing up the rear is Connor Roy, about whom his own brother Roman says: “Sure, I dunno, yeah. Wait, but like, really?”
This meet-up in Virginia has been called “the ATN primary,” hastily arranged after the cable news network tossed out the Raisin. Next on the ATN agenda: telling their largely Republican viewers which puppet they should be devoted to now. (Cue Greg: “But is that, like, constitutional?”)
Logan shrugs off the hype and drama, saying, “I need to keep my spoon in the soup.” But he clearly has more on his mind than just deciding, as an ordinary American citizen, who would make a great president. He wants someone who will throw some administrative roadblocks in front of the tech companies who are stealing ATN’s audience. More important, he wants someone who’ll squelch the Justice Department’s investigation into Brightstar.
So the Roys gather in their suite, debating their options and seeing which candidate will be the most pliable. Maybe it’s Boyer, who hustles when Logan calls him up and asks him — not entirely jokingly — to “run me over a Coke” and also to “fire the deputy attorney general.” Maybe it’s Salgado, who can go deep into the weeds on policy. Maybe it’s the up-and-coming firebrand Mencken, who calls ATN “dead” and compares it to an afternoon pudding cup in a nursing home. Or maybe it’s Connor, who … OK, who are we kidding? It’s not Connor. (Although Greg does politely say, “I think I could see myself spoiling my ballot in his favor.”)
Logan will make the final call, as Roman (a Mencken man) and Shiv (a Salgado supporter) play the devil and angel on his shoulder, whispering suggestions. Connor is in the room, unwaveringly backing himself. And Tom and Greg are there ostensibly as “family,” though both know that no one will pay attention to what a couple of potential jailbirds say. (Greg stays mostly quiet, “minimizing the Greg window.” But he does stick around because while he’s a registered voter, “I just feel like you maybe get a bigger vote in here.”)
Tom and Greg — especially Tom — are responsible for some much-needed comic relief in what is otherwise a fairly dark and occasionally disturbing episode. Tom at first default to poking fun at Greg, saying the young man will like this summit because, “It’s a nice safe space where you don’t have to pretend to like ‘Hamilton.’” But the truth is that Tom genuinely appreciates being able to talk with someone who understands his prison anxieties — unlike Shiv, who is sick of hearing him obsess about it.
Tom and Greg grab a meal at a local diner because Tom has been trying to get used to the bland, starchy food he has been told he will be served behind bars. Greg spills his fears that, “Because of my physical length, I could be a target for all kinds of misadventure.” He also mentions the rumor he has heard that sometimes prisoners humiliate their cellmates by using their pillowcases as toilet paper. (“I know,” Tom interjects. “I’ve read the prison blogs.”)
Later, Tom returns to what appears to be the same diner with Kendall, who has stealthily rolled into Virginia in hopes of sowing dissension in the Roy ranks. Kendall thinks he can flip Tom, who is in dire need of an ally. He warns his brother-in-law that while Logan may seem all-powerful and that Shiv may seem loyal, Tom can’t really count on either of them to save him from incarceration. Tom appears too resigned to his fate to fight. (“I have of late decided not to tarry too much with hope.”) But he does listen to Kendall … and maybe he actually hears him.
What Tom doesn’t know, though, is that Kendall right now is flailing. He bombed at the shareholders’ meeting. He is not welcome at the Future Freedom Summit, given that he accuses the attendees of “burning books and measuring skulls down in Nuremberg, Virginia.” And he has just fired Lisa Arthur, “the best lawyer in town” (a designation he puts in quotation marks himself), because she seems more interested in cooperating with the feds than with aggressively countering Waystar. “Turns out she’s a toxic person,” he says to his assistants in explaining his decision to cut Lisa loose.
Kendall had hoped to be the kingmaker whom future presidential candidates would have to court. Instead, it’s Roman who gets to corner Mencken in the bathroom of the Roys’ suite, in an absolutely riveting and more than a little terrifying scene. In a few intense minutes, Roman takes the measure of this man, to see just how committed he is to the whole neo-fascist agenda. Is he really willing to borrow ideas from Franco or Travis Bickle or “a very naughty boy named H?”
Roman would like Mencken to be just obnoxious enough to fire up the base, but with a little bit of a wink so as not to scare off the center. His ideal is “Deep State Conspiracy Hour” but, “y’know, funny.” He also reminds Mencken that while ATN may seem like yesterdays news, they did just topple a President — and then immediately rattled the Justice Department with a rumor that the deputy A.G. is pursuing a personal grudge.
Shiv is appalled that Roman and Logan would even consider Mencken, especially when Salgado is more palatable and less potentially dangerous to the whole American experiment. Roman of course belittles her choice. (“I think you’re so brave for picking the brown man.”) And when she tells her dad that Mencken is widely hated and begs him to “look at the climate,” Logan wryly replies: “The climate said I should step aside. I guess I’m a climate denier.”
The episode ends with an echo of the “Succession” opening credits as the Roys gather for a group photo with their new Chosen One. Shiv tries to refuse, but Logan presses her until she relents and says, “I’ll be in the photo but not right next to him.” He sighs, “You win, Pinky.” But this is not even remotely true. Not wanting to be exiled like Kendall, Shiv has edged closer toward supporting a political philosophy she genuinely thinks is dangerous.
What it takes, indeed.
Is it possible that Roman orchestrates the whole Mencken-anointing maneuver because his mother hurt his feelings? At the convention, a guest congratulates him on some news that catches him by surprise: His mom just got engaged to some British rando. (“A crooked-tooth turnip-man,” Roman speculates.) Shut out by one parent, perhaps he felt all the more compelled to impress the other. In the meantime, he takes comfort in learning that at least neither Shiv nor Kendall knew that “new dad just dropped.”
Roman and Shiv spend some time on the plane down to Virginia engaging in their favorite pastime: Is Dad sleeping with the help? The latest possibility is Logan’s assistant Kerry (Zoë Winters), who is unusually comfortable with sharing her opinions about which candidate ATN should back. She also laughs with Logan about memes he shows her on his phone. (Trying to join in, Roman says: “Oh yeah, yeah. Well-played, the internet.”)
Apparently a convict’s toilet is a stair-machine, a bench, a fridge, a lover, a brother and a priest. It’s also a toilet. (“So that’s a big part of prison?” Greg asks.)
In addition to choking down bad food, Tom endures a shipment of funky-tasting wine in screw-top bottles. (“You kind of have to meet it halfway,” he says, hopefully. “There’s lots to unpack.”)
Ever wondered what kind of movies Waystar’s entertainment division produces? Apparently it’s schlock like “Dr. Honk,” a comedy Roman once greenlighted about a man who can talk to cars. These are the people who are picking the next president.