tv Succession’s Election Night Painfully Shows Us How Cable News Is Made
Whizy Kim is a reporter covering how the world's wealthiest people wield influence, including the policies and cultural norms they help forge. Before joining Vox, she was a senior writer at Refinery29.
Note: This article contains spoilers for several Succession episodes, particularly season four, episode eight, “America Decides.”
The eighth episode of Succession’s final season is called “America Decides.” It’s election night at ATN, and “America Decides” is exactly the kind of hokey slogan one would see on a major news network as the votes are counted. This is democracy at work: a hundred and some million Americans casting their ballots, letting their voice be heard.
That’s quaint, says Succession. It’s the Roys who decide, not voters — the scions of an infamous media mogul are in the ATN newsroom in this episode, shaping the narrative of who and what a nation wants as its leader. Succession is usually a little slyer about its real-life corollaries, but in this episode the references are painted in bold colors. ATN mimics Fox News, stoking distrust in the election while also twisting the results whichever way suits the Roy siblings — never mind whether calling a state for one candidate could come back to haunt them.
The election at hand, between ultra-right Republican candidate Jeryd Mencken (Justin Kirk), Democrat Daniel Jiménez (Elliot Villar), and, yep, Connor Roy (Alan Ruck), is just as fiery and ugly as the most recent US presidential elections. There’s a constant thrum of civil unrest and violence in the backdrop of the episode. Protesters are clashing, and accusations of voter fraud fly left and right. Someone sets fire to a vote counting center in Wisconsin, destroying absentee ballots. Georgia and Arizona are singled out as contentious states where the vote is extremely close. In the end, Kendall (Jeremy Strong) and Roman (Kieran Culkin) — with a big assist from Tom (Matthew Macfadyen) — all but appoint Mencken as president, once he has basically assured them that he’ll help block the sale of Waystar to GoJo, as the two CEOs want. ATN gives Mencken the backing to posture as the winner. Did he actually get more votes than Jimenez? Who knows. And more importantly, who cares?
The idea of a media executive personally picking a winner is no longer all that shocking. The recent defamation lawsuit Fox News settled (for $787 million) revealed that Rupert Murdoch had been directly involved in making calls for the network during the 2020 election. Text messages from the lawsuit revealed that the network repeatedly and knowingly allowed guests to lie about election fraud. What’s appalling on Succession is how stupid the people in charge are. They’re not at all equipped to make calls on how electoral votes should be tallied. Their decisions aren’t undergirded by well-reasoned strategy, even if Machiavellian in motivation. Instead, the Roy siblings squabble pathetically over which president they would prefer based on which outcome would make themselves look better, though they put on a flimsy pretense of caring about truth, democracy, and virtue. Perhaps most pathetically, they wield this great power while denying that they’re in charge whenever it’s convenient to disavow it. It’s the most feckless kind of leadership.
In a slightly different light, “America Decides” would play out like a comedy of errors. Most of the series would. Swap out Nicholas Britell’s elegiac score for a wry narrator and suddenly it’s Arrested Development, another show about a wealthy, terrible family constantly undermining each other. But Succession remains more tragic than comic because its world and characters are so bleakly cynical. There’s nothing these people actually stand for; they’re empty suits of skin animated only by resentment.
True or false
Reality and truth are tenuous in “America Decides.” The race between Jimenez and Mencken is tight. Connor, amazingly enough, is still hanging onto the hope that he might carry a state. He berates Tom, who heads ATN, for not putting on enough coverage of him. The votes are in, and many polls have closed — how would coverage at the 11th hour change the tide for Connor? But still, he deludes himself that it’s not over. He compares the situation to Schrodinger’s cat, a famous thought experiment in quantum theory about a cat that is alive and dead at the same time. It was meant to highlight the absurdity of two contradictory realities existing at once, but Connor uses the metaphor to claim that the truth is still in flux. “Until we open the boxes, I’m just as much president as the other two,” he says. That’s not how it works, of course; sticking your fingers in your ears doesn’t change the fabric of reality.
But ultimately, certainty is irrelevant for the Roy siblings because their money and the fact that they helm ATN, the lone source of news for many Americans, means they have the ability to declare what the truth is. The struggle to be the first to do exactly that heats up after a fire at a Wisconsin vote count center leaves a gaping hole of roughly 100,000 lost absentee ballots. Roman argues that the state is clearly going to Mencken, and the burned ballots don’t matter (it was an “antifa firebombing,” according to him); Shiv (Sarah Snook) insists that by state law the Wisconsin vote can’t be certified until all absentee ballots are counted, so ATN can’t give it to Mencken — and, she notes, the state usually goes blue.
The truth is just so easy to manipulate for everyone in this episode, and it doesn’t even really exist until they decide on its shape. Mencken (who is clearly a stand-in for Donald Trump), fairly early on in the night, sees that he might very well lose and calls in Roman. He wants ATN to prepare a positive narrative for his possible loss. Even if he loses, it should be presented as a “huge victory.” Rome understands what Mencken wants: implications of fraud, that the throne was stolen from the rightful monarch, riling up an already aggrieved fan base. “Even if you’re not going to be the president, you’re going to be our president,” Roman says.
When the Wisconsin fire happens, Mencken’s team asks Roman if he can help with the narrative — a term used throughout the episode to describe the “truth” they’d prefer to present to the world — on ATN. The goal is to sow doubt about the legitimacy of the entire election. Twice in this episode, Roman calls something a “false flag” — the language of QAnon conspiracy theorists. Then ATN anchor Mark Ravenhead (Zack Robidas), who is basically this world’s Tucker Carlson, goes off-script, speculating that Jimenez supporters saw they were falling behind in Wisconsin and decided to stop the count by setting the vote count center ablaze. He adopts an anti-establishment tone, railing about powerful people telling ordinary Americans what to do and think. It’s funny because it quickly becomes clear that Roman, the very powerful co-CEO of Waystar, has likely told Ravenhead to produce this rant.
Later, Roman unilaterally orders the network to call the state for Mencken despite the protests of a top ATN producer. The night spirals from there: With Wisconsin’s electoral votes going to Mencken, when Arizona is called for him, too, it gives him all the electoral votes needed to win. He’s the president — at least by ATN’s accounting. They’re the first to call it for Mencken, and it’s unclear if any other networks have done the same. Tom immediately gets blasted by critics for the decision, but it doesn’t really seem to matter to this family. The truth can always be litigated in court.
ATN’s election night coverage nods to the post-truth world where the core mission isn’t to deliver the latest news, but to make up the most entertaining story. Succession is explicit about the complicity of a ratings-obsessed media industry in spreading lies and anointing false idols. Throughout the series, the Roy family is anxious about their aging media empire — even on election night, social media is nimbler about sharing information, photos, and videos. But “America Decides” also affirms that legacy media remains a powerhouse: It’s one thing to read some unsubstantiated rumor on Twitter, possibly spread by a troll. It’s another to see a president announced by the authoritative cadence of a news anchor on broadcast television. There are flashes of worry, and maybe even regret, from the Roy siblings (and Tom) in the aftermath of the election — they’ve just done something monumental by altering the outcome of a presidential election. But they wave these flickers of guilt away.
No one is responsible
This episode, Tom is on the verge of a nervous breakdown. This is the first election he’s running without Logan to act as the commander, and a lot is riding on how smoothly Tom helms the ship. “Really want to see those numbers, Tom,” Kendall tells him. “Market’s watching. First Super Bowl — how’re we going to cope without the king, right?”
Tom is so anxious about staying sharp that he does a bump of cocaine and forces Greg (Nicholas Braun) to partake. He throws multiple tantrums about his own self-importance, raging at Greg for bringing him low-grade bodega sushi. “Tonight my digestive system is basically part of the Constitution!” he bellows. This is the bumbling wreck of a man in charge of determining the outcome of a US presidential election.
Tom wanted this sort of power, as all the other main characters do in Succession. It’s what all his social climbing has led to. Yet he spends most of the episode denying that he’s the one making the final call, passing the buck to his brothers-in-law. He’s just the button pusher. An ATN producer asks Tom how much time the network should spend talking about agitators — including the Mencken supporters. Tom doesn’t make a decision. “I trust you,” he says tepidly. Shiv and Kendall pressure him to cover the Wisconsin fire, which he initially is reluctant to do. “We always have to choose what to focus on, and just because something is on fire doesn’t make it news,” he says. This sort of brilliant editorial judgment is apparently why he gets paid the big bucks.
Shiv picks this ideal backdrop to finally tell Tom that she’s pregnant with his child. She expects him to be shocked, for his anger to soften. Or maybe a part of her wanted to see him finally pushed over the edge into a full-on meltdown. Instead, he scoffs.
“Is that even true?” he asks. “Or is that, like, a new position, or a tactic?”
Shiv is duking it out with everyone, particularly Roman over whether Wisconsin should go to Mencken or Jimenez. Kendall, meanwhile, looks deeply troubled, lost. Shiv looks to Kendall for backup. “I don’t know,” he responds.
“Don’t get cynical,” Shiv warns.
For a brief moment in this episode, Kendall is tempted to do the right thing. It weighs on him that his daughter is being hurt by ATN’s cynical politics. He wonders if they should maybe revisit calling Wisconsin for Mencken. He worries about being a good guy and a good father.
Shiv, still rooting for Jimenez because it benefits her and Matsson (Alexander Skarsgård), tells her brother they can’t let their short-term corporate interests cloud the importance of democracy. Mencken is a nightmare. Kendall wants to diffuse responsibility here, too. “We wouldn’t actually be making him president,” he protests. But how much of a gap is there between announcing someone as president, knowing that it might not be true, and crowning someone president? As viewers in 2023, we also know the dire consequences of perpetuating such confusion and misinformation — shaken faith in democratic institutions, a violent coup on the Capitol, and more.
Kendall’s dash of conscience is snuffed out, though, when he finds out that Shiv has been secretly working with Matsson. He and Roman are furious. Shiv tries to explain herself. “There comes a time when you have to stand up for what you believe,” she attempts to say, but can’t get it out fully because Roman is cruelly mimicking her stammering. It’s wrath that finally moves Kendall — they should give the presidency to Mencken. He had the chance to show some actual moral fortitude, but he fails to grab it in his anger.
Not one person takes responsibility for what they’ve done throughout election night. Roman, Shiv, and Kendall tell themselves that they’re just reporting facts, or just doing business, or even that they’re doing it for the good of the country — Tom is just taking orders. In the effort to come off as worldly and shrewd, they don’t genuinely stand for anything. There are no true believers in the business of truth-peddling.
A part of the deep pessimism in this episode is a manifestation of grief: Their god, Logan, is gone. “Nothing matters, Ken,” Roman says. “Nothing fucking matters. Dad’s dead and the country’s just a big pussy waiting to get fucked.”
Mencken’s victory speech, aired on ATN, is chilling in its artifice. Echoing Trump’s inaugural presidential address, he grimly bemoans that democracy has become a transaction; you scratch my back, I scratch yours. He promises he’s different. He has been willed by the people. The public is none the wiser about the Roys’ messy string-pulling. He asks the nation, “Don’t we long, sometimes, for something clean?”