The Sad, Sad Life of Tom Wambsgans

After living to serve, the most pathetic character on Succession finally finds himself on the outs.

Tom Wambsgans from "Succession" sits in a chair, looking upset.
Claudette Barius / HBO

This story contains spoilers through the seventh episode of Succession Season 4.

On Succession, a party is never just a party. Birthdays are for wooing business partners. Weddings are for tactical betrayals. And tonight’s episode was no different: Set at a pre–Election Night fete hosted by Shiv (played by Sarah Snook) and Tom (Matthew Macfadyen), “Tailgate Party” followed an evening of overpromising, undermining, and extreme hobnobbing. In every corner of Shiv and Tom’s New York home was someone—a power broker, a hanger-on—on a mission to schmooze their way to success.

The result was, as always, controlled chaos. Scenes flitted from one doublespeak negotiation to the next: Roman (Kieran Culkin) tried to get Connor (Alan Ruck) to drop out of the presidential race, then attempted to sweet-talk Gerri (J. Smith-Cameron) into forgiving him for firing her in last week’s episode. Kendall (Jeremy Strong) invited Shiv’s ex-lover Nate (Ashley Zukerman) to help spread a rumor about Matsson (Alexander Skarsgård)—the tech mogul hoping to take over the Roys’ company, Waystar Royco—flouting financial regulations. Shiv played double agent, pretending to support Kendall and Roman while leading Matsson to the guests he needed to befriend in order to burnish his reputation against their attacks. Even cousin Greg (Nicholas Braun) got to participate in the war over Waystar Royco, embedding himself in Matsson’s circle at Ken’s request.

The lone idle player at the party: Tom, the man who has always insisted that he is eager to serve, and who was repaid in this episode by being told over and over again that he’ll probably be fired. Shunned at his own shindig, he picked a fight with Shiv on their balcony, and the two finally had the talk—to “clear the air,” as he put it—that they’d avoided all season. As they flung accusations at each other about who did what and why things went wrong, they spit the kind of horrible, heart-wrenching poison that can destroy not just a relationship but a person’s spirit. In an hour filled with glad-handing and deception, Shiv and Tom’s direct and dramatic showdown cemented Tom’s position as perhaps the most pathetic character on Succession.

I’m not trying to be mean; Tom has had enough insults hurled his way for an evening. (Shiv made a particularly nasty jab, calling him a “one-pepper menu item.” Ouch.) But he’s the only character who has exhausted any chance of surviving his association with the family—the one most likely to live the rest of his life in misery and regret for having once been a “third-tier Roy,” as my colleague Sophie Gilbert described him. For three seasons, he ingratiated himself to the family by doing exactly what he was told, but he overplayed his hand by betraying Shiv for her late father. The only weapon he had left was the truth—truth that he delivered to Shiv sincerely, complete with an apology. “I’m sorry,” he said, “but you have hurt me more than you could possibly imagine.”

The admission came at the worst moment: Just before their talk, Shiv discovered that Matsson has been lying to her about how many paying subscribers his company, GoJo, actually has. And, as Tom should have known, the Roys see sincerity as a weakness. He asserted himself more firmly than he ever had, but his words, stripped of sarcasm and vulgarity, failed to connect with Shiv, who prefers a partner with more bite—literally—and who has never had trouble treating Tom with disdain. Here, confronted with his sentimentality, she regarded him only with pity. “I don’t even care about you,” she responded, before stepping back inside and shutting the door behind her.

“Tailgate Party” cleverly juxtaposed Tom’s descent with those of the other Roy men—the first-tier ones—who also suffered setbacks and humiliations, but emerged relatively unscathed. Roman, unable to persuade Gerri to return to Waystar Royco, off-loaded his frustration onto Connor soon after. Connor spent much of the party fretting over being asked to withdraw his presidential campaign but eventually found comfort by leaning on his new wife, Willa (Justine Lupe). And although Kendall failed to rope Nate into his scheme, he got the dirt he needed to potentially sink the deal with Mattson. By contrast, Tom has no one left—not even Greg, who declared himself “Team KenRo.”

Of course, Tom is partly responsible for the position he’s in. He said he resented Shiv’s willingness to let him go to prison, but he had offered himself as a sacrifice in order to gain Logan’s favor. He’s frustrated with Shiv for not loving him as much as he loves her, but as she reminded him, he’d caught her off guard by proposing marriage when she was distraught over her father being in the hospital, way back in Season 1. And the morning of their election party, he gave her a glass-encased scorpion, a joke gift meant to represent her cruel nature. (Teasing Shiv has not been Tom’s strong suit.) That night, he could have kept his head down; instead, he panicked over the gossip that he might lose his power as an ATN executive and made the mistake of failing to contain his despair.

The last time Tom so bluntly confronted Shiv about his feelings, they were by themselves on a beach. “If I think about it, I think, a lot of the time, I’m really pretty unhappy,” he said then. “I don’t know. I love you, I do. I just wonder if the sad I’d be without you would be less than the sad I get from being with you.” Anticipating her ire, he barely looked at her as he spoke.

This time, they sparred in full view of everyone at the party, and Tom had no trouble looking into her eyes. Yet by the end of the night, he did not seem at peace—alone and awake in bed, Tom stared at the ceiling, completely exhausted but incapable of sleeping. Shiv, too, was unable to rest; she perched on her own bed in a separate room, seemingly thinking over their fight. But as Tom pointed out, Shiv is a Roy—she’s well protected, and she’ll be okay no matter what happens. He’s the one the episode showed in its final shot, looking genuinely worried, gripping his covers to his chest like a child afraid of the dark. The sadness he once spoke of still lingers, invisible, clinging to him no matter how much air he clears.