A cynicism that’s frankly awe-inspiring drips through every scene of “America Decides,” the eighth episode of what’s shaping up to be Succession’s best season. But can you really call it cynicism if it’s just honesty? The episode takes an unflinching—if, as befits a show like Succession, juiced-up—look at not only what happens on election night in America but what’s already happened. The echoes of both the 2016 and 2020 presidential elections are so shrill as to be hellish, yet it’s as impossible as ever to press the dial. Roman says as much at the end of the episode, after having helped elect the far-right candidate that could ostensibly crash the GoJo deal: “We just made a night of good TV. That’s what we’ve done.”
I find Succession’s continual ability to shock a profound characteristic of its impact, given that the series follows such obvious narrative patterns. There should’ve been no doubts going into tonight’s episode that Jeryd Mencken would win, and that the Roys would be largely to thank (or, depending on your perspective, blame). That’s the story showrunner Jesse Armstrong has been telling from the beginning, and he’s never tried to pretend otherwise. Still, when Tom word-vomits his anxieties onto Greg in the first scene of episode 8, it’s easy to miss the clip of Mencken playing behind them as the foreshadowing it is.
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From the outset of “America Decides,” everyone has a scheme. Roman is working the Mencken angle, sure that if ATN cinches the election for the Nazi-adjacent conservative that he’ll deliver Lukas Matsson into their grubby mitts. Shiv is pretending to campaign on behalf of Jiménez, the supposedly sensible Democrat opponent, when really she’s aiding Matsson behind the scenes. And Kendall is careening wildly in the middle, plagued with guilt over the world he’d beget his daughter, Sophie, should the racists win, but equally set on eclipsing his father and turning Waystar Royco into a monstrous behemoth with his fingers twisted in the reins.
It doesn’t help that, instead of actually parenting his daughter, Kendall’s sicced a black SUV on his family to track and “protect” their every move. (Naturally, he neglected to mention this to his terrified ex-wife, Rava.) Anyway, he tries, first, to shore up goodwill with the Jiménez team but abandons ship when the numbers start looking messy.
Tom, with his “good arches” that have “been remarked upon,” resorts to snorting cocaine to survive this parade of Roys, amongst whom his job dangles in the balance. He attempts (and fails) to keep his wife and her brothers off the news floor, per their late father’s rules. But it takes mere minutes for the kids to usurp him, turning ATN’s news coverage and the network’s election-desk head, Darwin (Adam Godley), into their personal puppets.
Meanwhile, Greg has returned from his evening out with Matsson and Co. (“I drank things that aren’t normally drinks”) with a surprisingly useful tidbit: Matsson made the bumbling Roy cousin aware of his alliance with Shiv. Tom instructs Greg to save such intel for a “special occasion” and then “smash someone’s fucking face in with it,” and Greg follows suit, waiting until the perfect moment—after Shiv has already threatened him with nothing of consequence—to tell Kendall.
But more on that later. First, Connor hangs on to hope that Kentucky might swing his direction (“It just makes an election so much more interesting when you’re in it!”) while Tom grows increasingly unstable as he’s surrounded with malfunctioning touchscreens, firebombings in Wisconsin, and spaghetti and olive oil (“Tonight, my digestive system is basically part of the Constitution, okay?”). In the midst of this chaos, Shiv pulls him aside to try and regain the ground she lost with her husband during last episode’s earth-splitting fight. She reveals the pregnancy we’ve known about since episode 4, and Tom replies, “Is that even true? Or is that, like, a new position or a tactic?” Shiv, for the first time in a long time, is rendered speechless.
The firebombing in Milwaukee proves pivotal: It means an unknowable number of votes suddenly disappear. Shiv is sure the attack is the work of conservatives; Roman, obstinate, pegs it on “antifa.” According to Darwin, the margin for Mencken in Wisconsin is significant enough that absentee ballots couldn’t make up for it, only the burned ones. And since those are uncountable—even if the team “knows how they would have gone”—Roman uses the opportunity to push ATN into declaring Wisconsin for Mencken, democracy be damned. He even gives the bigoted news anchor Mark Ravenhead personalized talking points. When Mencken credibly wins Arizona, he collects enough electoral votes that ATN (and Darwin, through the residue of wasabi and La Croix in his eyes) is forced into calling the presidency.
Kendall almost pulls his hand away from the big red button, having paused to “big brother it” with Roman. (“So, because we had so much chicken when we were kids, I have to elect a fascist?” Kendall asks his younger sibling.) But Roman, destroyed with grief, has embraced abject nihilism along with the trigger-happy thrill of sitting in Dad’s chair. “Nothing matters, Ken,” he says, even after Kendall lets slip what happened to Sophie. “Nothing fucking matters.”
Kendall goes to Shiv for advice, and he’s actually honest: He wants to rule the Royco kingdom, and Roman might be too cozy with Mencken for comfort. Plus, y’know, there’s the Sophie of it all. Shiv, eager for this opening, plays her big brother’s emotions like knobs on a soundboard. “I think you’re a good guy,” she promises him, bolstering his support for Jiménez (and, therefore, the GoJo deal). But Greg has been waiting behind the scenes, keeping that wine bottle close to his chest, and he uses the moment to smash it. He reveals to Kendall that Shiv has been working the other side, allying herself with Matsson, and the siblings are once again at each other’s throats.
Furious at her betrayal, Kendall agrees that ATN should call the election for Mencken, and it is with this bit of family in-fighting that democracy crumbles. And Roman acknowledges it! “This is about the future of the country,” Shiv tells them. “No,” Roman replies, “I think it’s because you broke up with your boyfriend.”
Greg, uneasy with the weight of history but unwilling to change his place in it, meanders down to the floor to tell the team to call the election. Tom passes off the responsibility entirely, claiming it’s “not his call.” As he claims his victory from the podium, Mencken tells his audience, “The model that I follow isn’t from the scorched marketplace, where cunning men haggle for the best price. That’s not me. The democracy I believe in is where a leader emerged from the people, willed almost into being, brought forth by the great sweetness of the virtue of the combined wisdom of the good people of this republic.” It’s a speech we’ve heard before, if delivered in a far less eloquent manner.
The episode ends with Kendall in the back of his car, telling his driver, Fikret, that “some people just can’t cut a deal.” The phrase is meant to mimic Logan; it’s an ironic victory cry from a guilty conscience. Yet it’s not the line that sticks with me as Kendall’s shuttled away, preparing for his father’s funeral. Instead, an earlier piece of dialogue from “America Decides” seems to better suit the dissonance of his mindset. During his phone call with Rava about the SUV, Kendall speaks to his terrified daughter over speakerphone, assuring Sophie that Mencken won’t win and that she’ll be safe in America. “I won’t let the world push you, okay, sweetie?” he promises. He hangs up before he gets her response. Like Logan, “everything he does” is for his children, yet he can’t even bring himself to listen to them. It is through this delusion that, once again, Kendall will lose.
Lauren Puckett-Pope is a staff culture writer at ELLE, where she primarily covers film, television and books. She was previously an associate editor at ELLE.