Though all of Succession’s characters are interesting (and horrifying) in their own ways, no two have been such meme-machines as the social-climbing Tom Wambsgans (Matthew Macfadyen) and the innocent, thrown-into-the-lion’s-den Cousin Greg (Nicholas Braun). They are two outsiders who, by choice or circumstance, have found themselves in the orbit of this insanely wealthy and powerful family. Neither is very good at navigating those dynamics, but together they create (for viewers, at least) an incredibly hilarious and oddly emotional pair. In “Safe Room,” they reached a watershed moment that has been building for such a long time and is incredibly tangled up in personal feelings, and it was incredible to watch unfold.
So first, the path to this pain: In Succession, everything is about power, rank, and hierarchy; the Roy siblings are constantly jockeying for power against one another and their father, Logan, who (as we saw in the humiliation game “Boar on the Floor”) holds supreme power over everyone. In the Roy Power Rankings, Tom is the lowest. He’s an in-law, a recent one, and doesn’t bring much to the table on his own. Most of his power is gained from his wife, who until recently wasn’t connected to Waystar at all. So when Cousin Greg enters the scene in Season One, Tom immediately sees a way to move himself up the Roy ladder one rung at least by taking Greg under his wing.
There are many underlying factors when it comes to Tom’s interest in Greg, and most of them fall into shallow or nefarious categories (as is the way with the writing of Britain’s New Cynics). For one, Tom sees someone he can mentor and feel above, showing off what he has learned and making him look like a big shot in the eyes of someone who doesn’t yet see (but may start to) what a fraud he really is. There’s also an opportunity here for Tom to ingratiate himself further into the Roy family by getting another ally on his side. With both Shiv and Greg in his corner, he’s better off than most of the siblings when it comes to family squabbles. Further, it’s clear that Tom worships Logan and his Machiavellian style, and thus tries to emulate it to some degree with Greg, the only person he has any shadow of power over. As such, he does a pale imitation of the “bullying / bringing you close” strategy that Logan employs. But because he can’t really offer Greg anything (and is also a total pompous clown about most of it), the cracks in that dynamic are already starting to show.
On the other side of this relationship, though, are real (::long pause by Tom::) feelings. There were hints of it in Season One, but the last two episodes of Season Two (the “Boar on the Floor” scene as well as the panic room confrontation, which I’ll get into more in a moment) have shown that Tom is loyal to Greg and actually might care about him. It’s not pure in any way; Tom is still mostly focused on manipulating Greg and using him for his own gains. And yet, it’s clear that has also morphed into Tom feeling responsible for Greg and forming a bond with him in his own way. To wit, Greg pleads with him while being pelted with water bottles in the panic room, “You’re my best friend!” In some twisted way, that’s probably true.
In “Hunting,” we saw Tom protect Greg’s secret (of having accidentally met with the biographer) by keeping his mouth shut and playing Boar on the Floor. For once, Tom was willing to humiliate himself to protect Greg. Now, you can read that one of two ways: that Tom actually was willing to to protect Greg in a genuine way, or that Tom knows Greg has a much bigger secret on him with the Cruises scandal and the paper shredding. But whether it was selfless or self-serving, regardless, Tom was willing to go there.
Which is, of course, what makes Greg’s reveal in “Safe Room” all the more heartbreaking. It was one thing for him to suggest a change in his working relationship with Tom, where because of the toxic environment at ATN (due mostly, of course, to Tom. As Greg says, “I mean, human furniture??” not to mention the Nazi!) he’s looking to “explore other options” within Waystar. He flatters Tom, saying he’s in the shadow of a giant here (that being Tom, he clarifies), and wants to be able to get a little sunshine himself. And while you can read Greg’s comments as being genuine, or at least partly so, they’re also mostly self-serving. At this point, he has to know that flattery will get you everywhere with Tom.
The key twist of the knife, though, was him saying to Tom that perhaps they could have an “open business relationship.” That stings especially because it’s what Shiv said to Tom about their marriage, with the reveal just before this that she had had slept with someone else recently. Tom didn’t like it then, and he doesn’t like it now, and he’s confronted once more by a person he thought he had some real relationship with, to whom he was being loyal, who has again betrayed him. Matthew Macfadyen was masterful here in his emotional pause before telling Greg that the feelings he’s making him have are bad. Everything that he couldn’t do and say with Shiv he takes out on Greg instead. Tom is forced, in this moment, to confront that he’s having real feelings about this, and all of the reasons why.
It leads, of course, to the meltdown of Tom trying to reestablish some power by pelting Greg with water bottles, screaming (hilariously) that “this is executive business!” It only reinforces Greg’s points, though, and even after Tom apologizes Greg stands his ground on leaving his mentor’s side. Nicholas Braun also did outstanding work here as Greg essentially asks permission to blackmail Tom, which Tom calls out, but it does get him what he wants. Tom sees the writing on the wall here—his little slime puppy is growing up and making moves. Though Greg might have genuinely not expected to be fast-tracked for his blackmail conversation (thinking instead that he could be released to explore other options), Tom will at this point do anything to keep him close.
So did Greg learn this from Tom, or just the Roys in general? Like Brian from the theme park, Greg is an enigma. He seems genuine and earnest enough, running his errands for Tom and wanting to learn from him, but he’s also clearly uncomfortable with a lot of what Tom does (both to him and others), and may have an allegiance that’s up for grabs if Kendall or someone else comes calling for him. The latter part is undoubtedly what Tom fears. Will Greg continue to leverage that? Will his power eclipse Tom’s?
There may be, at the center of all of this, a kernel of something positive in Tom and Greg’s relationship, but it’s wrapped up in so many toxic layers it’s hard to know. The relationship does mean something to each of them, that much is clear, something more than just a manipulative game. And while Greg does seem to get something from Tom in terms of a friendship (of sorts), in knowing Tom’s ultimate loyalty to him, he also used that to get what he wanted. For Tom, it’s definitely something deeper and almost certainly tied to his frustrations with his marriage. But it’s impossible to boil it down to any one thing. Tom (and Macfadyen’s portrayal) is incredibly complex, even though he is such a buffoon. It’s what makes both of them so compelling to watch, augmenting the connection between these two men who have such a unique TV relationship. They both want to be a part of this family so badly, but can’t figure out how to be accepted. The saddest part is that the Roy siblings feel the same way. They’re all striving towards something that doesn’t exist.
Allison Keene is the TV Editor of Paste Magazine. For more television talk, pop culture chat and general japery, you can follow her @keeneTV