Home Entertainment On ‘Succesion,’ the slow cracking of Greg the Egg

On ‘Succesion,’ the slow cracking of Greg the Egg


There was a time, a haircut or two ago, when Cousin Greg had major reservations about ATN, the fictional right-wing news network and flagship operation of Waystar Royco, the media empire owned by the Roy family of HBO’s “Succession.”

“It’s like — it’s kind of against my principles?” Greg stammers to Tom Wambsgans (Matthew Macfadyen), his boss and cousin-in-law.

“Your principles?” Tom purrs through an amused grin. “You don’t have principles.”

Actually, Greg explains, he’s against racism. Also? “Don’t lie. Like, if you’re the news.”

If you’ve talked to any “Succession” skeptics about why they can’t stomach the show, they might have argued that there’s no character worth rooting for. To which you might reply: What about Cousin Greg?

Callow, hapless Greg Hirsch. Born with a misshapen body (hence his family nickname, “Greg the Egg”) and a normal-shaped conscience, the gawky grandson of Logan Roy’s moralizing brother has been the closest thing viewers have to a proxy inside the Roy family.

It would be a stretch to call him the show’s moral center. When we first met Greg, he was lying to his mom about the circumstances of his getting fired from a gig as a mascot at one of the family-owned theme parks. (He got stoned before work and then vomited through the costume’s eye holes after being beaten up by some children.) His mother asked him why, to avoid losing the job, he didn’t pull rank as a member of the extended Roy family. Greg explained that he “didn’t want to be an a–hole.”

That, at least, distinguished Greg from his cousins and the other Waystar lifers. When Greg comes to New York and joins the family business (his mom’s idea), his attempts to work the angles of the corporate world are endearingly pathetic. Greg might not have been a good person, he wasn’t obviously a bad person. You mostly felt embarrassed for him, which was not quite the same as rooting for him. “Relatable” is not quite the word, but the fact that he appeared so ill at ease in Royworld put him on our side.

Four seasons in, Greg the Egg has hatched into something slimy. Lately we’ve seen him brag about his ability to fire people without feeling remorse. He’s been leaning so hard into a dirtbag persona that even Tom can’t stand it. As for those principles of his — Don’t be racist. Don’t lie if you’re the news — those fell away Sunday, when Greg hand-delivered a directive to ATN’s news producers to prematurely call a presidential race for a nativist creep who refers to Adolf Hitler as “H” and envisions an America that is “clean” and “pure.”

The corruption of Cousin Greg is a sneaky-poignant subplot of “Succession,” a show populated mostly by characters who were broken long before we met them. Greg arrived at the same time we did. His induction to the Roy inner circle was kind of a twisted “Truman Show” experiment: What would happen if a more or less decent guy spent several years ensconced in a world of decadence, surrounded by beguiling scoundrels and high-functioning depressives for whom everything is not nearly enough?

How long would it take for a guy like that to stop caring about whether he was being an a–hole?

Greg is splayed at the stern of the family yacht, sipping from a champagne flute at the angle that requires him to lift his head as little as possible.

“What are you drinking?” Tom asks him.

“Uh, this is — I’m not sure,” Greg says. “It’s a rosé, it’s not my favorite.”

“Oh, you got a favorite Champagne now?”

“Well, you can’t help noticing. It’s fine, I’ll drink it, it’s just not my favorite.”

It’s the Season 2 finale, and Cousin Greg is growing spoiled. When they boarded the yacht, Kendall Roy (Jeremy Strong) had been slightly surprised by his cousin’s blasé reaction — a contrast to earlier in the season, when Greg got the zoomies after Kendall gifted him a gigantic Manhattan apartment.

The yacht trip comes on the heels of Greg’s initiation into a different Roy family tradition: Trying to dodge government oversight. His performance before a congressional panel, where Greg and various Roys faced questions about seedy doings in Waystar’s cruises division, produced this memorable koan: “If it is to be said, so it be, so it is.” Later, Greg — no longer in the hot seat — laments that he did not stymie the watchdogs by answering every question with, “No woman, no cry.”

Greg, in his idiot way, learned the importance of fealty to family/corporate interests. He started to look the part, too, getting his shaggy hair shaped up in attempt to curb the stress of preserving shady company secrets (“I didn’t really need a haircut, I think I just wanted someone to touch my head — you know, soothing”). He hasn’t broken bad, but he is adjusting to his material and moral circumstances.

There is, to use the show’s vernacular, a lot of static. When Logan Roy (Brian Cox) makes Kendall his fall guy for abuses in the company’s cruises division, Greg suffers an attack of conscience and aligns himself with Kendalls’s rebellion. It doesn’t last. Unable to separate his interests from his anxiety, Greg spends much of the Roy civil war trying to figure out who his lawyer is. In the process he alienates his great-uncle, who disinherits him.

Having burned his final bridge back to life as a shiftless kid with a trust fund, Greg returns to the Waystar fold in time to watch Kendall’s insurgency collapse. The lesson is clear enough: Stay inside the compound.

You can’t really get into the moral dimensions of Greg without getting into Tom. He gets a lot of the blame for corrupting Greg, and deservedly so. As the old proverb says, You can’t make a Tomlette without breaking some Greggs. But while Greg has spent the final season reveling in the person he has been allowed to become by going full Roy, Tom has been retreating toward his inner Wambsgans.

After Logan’s midflight demise, he serves as an ad hoc grief counselor to his estranged in-laws, talking them through the act of saying goodbye to their father while holding his phone to the dead man’s ear. He may not have principles, per se, but he has instincts. There’s a foundation down there, somewhere. Tom owns the rare distinction of being a character on “Succession” who definitely loves someone. That love is poorly directed, but at least we know he’s capable of it. He likes rich-people stuff, yet it’s his affection for Shiv that drives Tom to compromise.

Ah, well — no woman, no cry. Tom may be seeing the Roy family more clearly than ever, but as the head of ATN he’s still carrying their water. And Greg is still carrying his water, and also doing cocaine with him on election night.

Yes, the election! We’ll get to it in a moment. But first, let’s rewind one night earlier: Tom and Shiv’s pre-election party.

Greg is smoking a vape pen with Swedish tech bros, and telling them about the mass firings of ATN employees he has been conducting over videoconference.

“You said a hundred scalps, in three days?” says Lukas Matsson (Alexander Skarsgard), the billionaire who is trying to buy the Roys’ company. He’s impressed, and wonders if Greg feels bad afterward.

“Honestly, not really,” Greg says. He is stoned, like when we met him years ago, only now he’s in a tailored suit instead of a dog costume. And, of course, he’s on the other end of the firing stick. “HR says I’m the right guy for the job because it looks like I care but I don’t.”

“Not a good person,” says the Swede.

“No, I am. It’s just — you gotta do what you gotta do, right?”

Matsson doesn’t let Greg off the hook. “Do you, though?”

Greg has learned how to swing an ax; on election night, he figures out how to wield a knife. His dalliance with the Swedes has yielded a lethal piece of intel about Shiv, which Greg tries to use to extort her. When she refuses, he uses it to cut her throat — swinging the Roy family vote, and therefore America’s, to the right. At the behest of the Roy brothers, Tom dispatches Greg to have ATN get ready to call the election for the neo-fascist.

“I should go,” Greg tells Jess, Kendall’s assistant. “I’ll get in trouble if I don’t go.”

Jess, famously taciturn, speaks up. “Okay dude, I mean …”

“Yeah. I mean it’s not really my choice, right? So.” The rationalizations continue. “I’m not even pressing the button, I’m asking them to prepare to press the button.”

“Right, and, all that does is, just, like, launch a nuclear attack, so …”

“It’s not going to change anything if I don’t go, so …”

Greg did have a choice. The problem was, he made it a few seasons ago. “Succession” is a show about people who have learned to act as if they’re in a knife fight when really they’re just carving up a cake. You gotta do what you gotta do … Do you, though?

Answered: If it is to be said, so it be. So it is.

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