Shiv’s pregnancy is actually integral to her Succession story (2023)

The Succession fandom is small but vocal and fiercely dedicated to the show. On platforms like Twitter and Tumblr, fans of the show analyze trailers frame by frame and discuss their hopes and dreams for the characters. Despite being a show about ruthless capitalists, some of whom supported a fascist presidential candidate, the way that all the characters have been so wounded by their abusive father makes it easy for the audience to empathize with them. In fandom spaces, which are typically majority female, fans of Siobhan Roy, played by Sarah Snook, are especially protective of her. And sometimes, that brand of fandom is expressed in counterintuitive ways, like a general frustration that the character was revealed to be pregnant early in the season.

Opinions run the gamut from the entirely rational fear that pregnancy will sideline the character to the less rational opinion that pregnancy plotlines are inherently misogynistic. I have seen fans call it “shoehorned in” and “lazy,” and generally have characterized it as unnecessary. Further complicating matters is that people who work on the show have said that the pregnancy storyline wasn’t conceived until late in the process of writing this season because of Snook’s own real-life pregnancy. Some have gone as far to say that having a pregnancy plotline for a female character at all is sexist, and that writing one for Shiv makes Jesse Armstrong and the other writers of Succession sexist themselves. But Shiv has always experienced misogyny on the show — in many ways, her experience in the narrative has been about trying to burst through the glass ceiling unsuccessfully.

On some level it’s understandable that some fans have their hackles up about Shiv’s pregnancy, given how pregnant characters and actresses have been treated on television in the past. Prior to I Love Lucy’s Lucille Ball refusing to hide her pregnancy on set, it was basically forbidden to talk about or even allude to pregnancy on television. The idea of even a married couple engaging in sex was seen as too scandalous. On I Love Lucy, Ball and her husband Desi Arnaz, who also played her on-screen husband Ricky Ricardo, wrote her pregnancy into the script rather than have the actress sit behind countertops and tables to hide her body. Since then, pregnancies on television have typically gone either one of two ways: Either the production changes to accommodate an actress suddenly wearing baggy clothing, like Julia Louis-Dreyfus in Seinfeld’s third season, or the pregnancy is written into the plot somehow, like with Nana Visitor in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine becoming the magical surrogate for another character’s baby.

There is a secret, third, horrible option: to shorten the season or cut the actress from the show. In The X-Files, when Gillian Anderson was pregnant during the second season, the character Dana Scully was kidnapped for several episodes. When Sarah Jessica Parker discovered she was pregnant when Sex and the City was shooting its fifth season, the season was shortened from 13 to eight episodes. And even if a pregnancy storyline is written into a show because of an actress’ pregnancy, that doesn’t always mean that the storyline will be one with dignity. Charisma Carpenter got pregnant while shooting Joss Whedon’s Angel, and she has repeatedly said that Whedon was not only angry with her, but blamed her for “sabotaging” the season’s finale. The following season, after she gave birth, Whedon fired her.

Set against this background, the fear that the writers of Succession will sideline their only major female character is warranted because of how badly pregnant women have been burnt on screen before. But Shiv’s pregnancy, and her uncertainty about it, feels like whole new ground for how pregnant women are depicted on television.

Snook’s portrayal of Siobhan Roy, the only daughter of media mogul Logan Roy and supposedly the “smartest one,” is like watching someone swing on a flying trapeze. At any moment, when she passes to the next bar, she could fall flat on her face. Sometimes, she does fall. But when she manages to pull off a scheme, or to actually outsmart her two older brothers, she doesn’t break a sweat. Snook’s work in this season has been remarkable, regardless of when Jesse Armstrong and the other writers decided that Shiv would be pregnant; watching her face in an episode, you always get the sense that she is processing two or three different feelings at once.

Shiv’s pregnancy is actually integral to her Succession story (1) Photo: David M. Russell/HBO
Shiv’s pregnancy is actually integral to her Succession story (2) Photo: Claudette Barius/HBO

Misogyny has always been a major aspect of Shiv’s experience in the world, and one the show hasn’t been shy about highlighting. When Logan tells her privately that he wants her to be the next CEO but won’t announce it publicly, you know the unstated reason has to be his pronounced sexism. When Shiv turns down her brother Kendall’s offer to join him in going against their father, he shouts at her that Logan thinks she “counts double because she’s a girl,” and that “it’s your teats that give you any value.” Her ability to tolerate sexist behavior, from her sexist father and then from Lukas Mattsson, a tech exec who sends frozen bricks of blood to his former paramour, is seen as a value in the highly toxic world where she is trying to grow her power. But it’s also a constant threat to her — to not only be seen as a woman, but to be treated as one.

It’s why her marriage to Tom Wambsgans, played by Matthew Macfadyen, has always been so rocky. She resists any of his attempts to create a more equitable power dynamic in their relationship — she needs to have at least one man she can kick around in her life. When Tom may go to prison because of a corporate scandal, he starts begging her to have his child, and even starts tracking her period so that he can learn when she’s most fertile. For all his overtures of trying to win her over and make a family, she ends up becoming even more cruel to him, eventually telling him that she doesn’t love him.

For a character like that to end up pregnant by a man she loves and hates is not only delicious drama, but an encapsulation of what Siobhan Roy has been trying to navigate throughout the show. She wants to be more than just a woman; she wants to be considered on an equal playing field as her two brothers. But the phrase she uses when she learns that Tom has sabotaged her attempts to find a divorce lawyer says it all: she “got mommed.” For all the work she has done, she is being treated in the same way the men in her life always treat women: expendable, unimportant, unintelligent.

Shiv’s pregnancy is actually integral to her Succession story (3) Photo: David M. Russell/HBO

It’s a bitter pill to swallow, especially when you consider how much of her own integrity Shiv has given up in order to navigate the corporate world. Once she was a staffer for progressive presidential candidates; now she talks women out of coming forward with rape allegations. You can absolutely tell this story without Shiv getting pregnant, but her being pregnant adds extra tension to these scenes, creating additional context for what the show is saying about legacy and parenthood. The show is about the pain that reverberates around a family — why should Shiv be left out of that dynamic?

It’s so far unclear whether or not Shiv even wants to have this baby, but she seems to know in some way that her duty to the family is to create a legacy. Not having experienced motherly love, she doesn’t really know how to express it either — last season her mother told her she should have had dogs instead of kids. When Kendall tells her in an intimate conversation that “maybe the poison drips through,” maybe the way that our father treated us means that we will also abuse our children, having Shiv be pregnant actually makes the show more inclusive of her emotional struggle. She is quietly experiencing a kind of pressure her brother will never have to face — the uniquely sexist pressure to carry a child when you don’t want to. The idea of the poison dripping through their veins is more relevant to her than it is to him.

It’s refreshing, also, that among the many pressures in her life, Shiv’s pregnancy is not depicted as the most important thing in her world. Although not every woman wants to be pregnant and have a child, women get pregnant all the time. It’s a normal enough occurrence that it sometimes feels weird to me how little pregnancy shows up in television shows. Fans of Shiv don’t want her to be defined by her womanhood, and neither does Shiv. Her being pregnant in this season is a demonstration of the foibles of her continued attempts to gain power in a patriarchal system. No matter how competent you are, or how right you are, or how smart you are, you can always “get mommed.”

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