The Comic Tragedy of Succession’s Tom Wambsgans

The Succession standout character serves as a cautionary tale of what happens when we don’t teach little boys to express their feelings

Tom Wambsgans standing in a newsroom
Photograph by Macall B. Polay/HBO

It’s been a wild ride for us Succession fans. Throughout the show’s nearly four seasons, we’ve been party to some of the most absurd emotional manipulation ever portrayed on television. That insane family dynamic is what has always kept me coming back. That, as well as the fact that, despite these being the most farcically pretentious people to ever grace my small screen, I can’t help but feel a tinge of sympathy when musing what must have happened to make them the way that they are.

The Roy children’s path to sociopathy is pretty clear. What with their foul-mouthed father being the head of a multi-billion-dollar media conglomerate and their mother, sadly, preferring to stay blissfully unaware of their deviances. Deviances which, time and again, have been brushed under the rug with a pile of cash and zero acknowledgement of the long-term damage being done to these characters’ psyches. 

While we know the Roy clan was born with that proverbial silver spoon in mouth, not every character’s backstory is quite as cut and dry. Enter Tom Wambsgans: the slick, smarmy partner to Shiv, and Chairman of Global Broadcast News at ATN. From Episode 1 it is clear that Tom, portrayed by British actor Matthew Macfadyen, is going to be rife with some delicious and dark comedic offerings. The man is seemingly unaware of the proper etiquette for any given situation. I mean, he proposes to Logan Roy’s sole female heir while the patriarch lies clinging to life in a hospital bed. Granted, he’s not the only male character on the show who struggles to read social cues (Kendall, anyone?), but Tom’s vague midwestern upbringing and apparent willingness to crack skulls and social climb his way into the Roy family makes him slightly more realistic to the average Joe. And a hell of a lot more terrifying.

The Toms that walk among us

As I hurdle helplessly toward my late 30s, I must admit I’ve had more than a handful of jobs. Looking back, I am hard pressed to think of a role I’ve had where there wasn’t a Wambsgans-adjacent dude wreaking havoc. That’s because Tom is, in many ways, a sadly accurate portrayal of what toxic masculinity has done to our boys: turned them into a generation of men who, unable to truly express their feelings, shield themselves behind an impenetrable veil of aloofness and disingenuous charm.

Part of what makes the writing of Tom’s character so heart-achingly brilliant is that if you’re not paying attention, it’s easy to miss the nuance of a character who clearly has trauma beneath his surface. Compare him with, say, Roman—whose coping mechanism of choice is to wear his deranged childhood on his sleeve—and the subtle signs of his emotional stuntedness become clearer. If he needs to dish out a sick burn to Cousin Greg or address a room full of hard-nosed constituents on demand, wordsmith Tom is more than ready to perform. When it comes time to discuss something more poignant, such as the status of his marriage with Shiv, our beloved glottologist is suddenly stricken with the vocabulary of a child: “I wonder if the sad I’d be without you is less than the sad I am when I’m with you,” for example, are words that sound less like a husband confronting his wife about their strained relationship and more like a toddler just learning to speak. Guys like Tom have never been taught that it’s OK to feel bad. That it’s valid to feel betrayed. Or that it’s important and perfectly fine to question whether his devotion to his spouse is reciprocated. Instead, we have a very real-life generation of men masquerading as well-adjusted humans—wearing a thin mask of self-assurance that’s at constant risk of breaking. It’s nearly impossible for many of them to confront an emotionally difficult situation in a way that isn’t outlandishly performative.

Toms don’t hug. They wrestle.

Here’s a story I wish weren’t true… but it is. I vividly remember my college boyfriend telling me that there are two types of male-to-male contact deemed “acceptable” in our heteronormative world: 

  1. the sports pat/butt slap; seen generally performed by NFL athletes after a touchdown.
  2. The “it’s been so long, bud” bro hug. This consists of three swift, consecutives back pats to show you’re glad to see your friend but not in a way that could convey any type of emotional weakness.

Is it any wonder then that Tom, when faced with imprisonment after being crudely appointed the scapegoat for Waystar Royco’s misdeeds, has no idea how to express his longing for comfort over something that would understandably cause a ton of anxiety? In the now infamous “desk flipping” scene, a despondent Tom insists that he and Greg “wrestle”—an odd request in most workplaces, I assume, and Greg responds as such. I think the writers use this as a clever, coded way to insinuate that Tom is craving an embrace from someone he trusts. Tom represents millions of men who were raised—unconsciously or not—to swap out the perfectly human need for physical touch with misplaced rage. It’s genius. It’s humorous. But most of all it is just so, so sad.

Tom Wambsgans on a couch with Logan in Succession
Photograph by Macall B. Polay/HBO

Is it too late for our Toms?

In a world full of Toms, it’s important to note that no one is irredeemable. I’m a big believer in therapy and the idea that it’s never too late to recalibrate yourself into a healthier mindset. I also see huge strides being made to teach young boys the importance of self-expression. I have friends who are “boy moms,” and watching them teach their children to be respectful, thoughtful individuals who are allowed to cry gives me hope that we aren’t crafting a world full of Wambsgans. 

At its core, Succession is a biting satire on corporate greed in America. By no means do I want to take away the comic genius of Tom Wambsgans that’s been so expertly crafted by the show’s writers and Matthew Macfadyen himself. That would be no fun, and to turn him into a one-note portrait of toxic masculinity isn’t my goal. But by acknowledging the intricacies of this very flawed character’s personality, we can both appreciate the stellar job the show writers have done and view this caricature of a businessman for what he is: a fictitious portrayal of a man who is all too real in our society. 

Written by Cassie Hager

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