Puzzled by Succession’s finale twist? Shiv’s pregnancy holds the answer

Pregnant women often dream of death. I know I did, and friends told me the same, though no one talks about it with the level of commiserating jollity that they do the strange cravings or the weirdly enhanced sense of smell or even this awful thing called, apparently, “lightning crotch”.

While pregnant, I remember reading about how thin the veil between life and death can feel when you’re pregnant, even in a modern western medical system. In our collective unconscious, pregnancy is still something that can kill us, and in certain places and circumstances still does to this day. For many women, it’s the closest they feel to death in their lifetime. Which isn’t something that is really appropriate to put in a baby shower card.

I’ve had pregnancy on my mind recently because of Succession, the conclusion of which hinges on the choices made by a pregnant woman, though strangely the pregnancy has been absent in a lot of analysis of why Shiv, the daughter of the Roy dynasty, chooses to do what she does. This is despite the fact that the physical, emotional, psychological and hormonal storm of pregnancy can dramatically alter the ways in which we see the world, in many cases irrevocably.

Pregnancy is, after all, an odd state: utterly mundane in a global context but wild and uncharted for a first-time mother in a personal one. “It’s the most ordinary thing in the world but it seems so different to me, so uncomfortable and unsettling,” writes Jazmina Barrera in Linea Nigra. At times I found it so completely natural and instinctive it was as though my body was built for only this, At others it felt like science fiction, or, as Barrera has it, a gothic novel.

Nothing I had read or absorbed from popular culture fully prepared me; certainly not the smiling, beatific barefoot and pregnant mothers of art history. The exhaustion was shocking. I remember feeling outraged that pregnant women should be expected to work, that nurses should be doing long shifts in this state. Pregnancy just didn’t seem at all compatible with the modern capitalist system.

Many have read Shiv’s decision as a sudden about-turn that uses her deciding vote to take the company that her father built out of the hands of her brother and into those of a foreign investor, with the father of her child as the puppet CEO. Even those viewers who have puzzled about how inconsistent that decision seems (to them) with her character ignore the context of her pregnancy.

Related: Better than The Sopranos? How Succession ranks among TV’s great endings

Perhaps this lack of insight is because it’s unfashionable to make too much of a meal of pregnancy in an advanced capitalist economy, even though scientifically we know that the brain and body changes wrought by pregnancy and motherhood are profound and long-lasting. Shiv certainly tries not to make too big a deal of it. “She’s one of those hard bitches, right?” she says, of herself. “She’s gonna do 36 hours of maternity leave, emailing through her vanity caesarean. Poor kid’ll never see her.”

This is a knowing, minimising bravado. It is futile to ignore it: in a show about bloodlines, this pregnancy is central. Shiv’s body transforms before us. She becomes softer, her eyes fill frequently with tears. She is visibly upset when accused of using her pregnancy as a power play. She wants the father of her child, a man for whom she has only ever shown contempt, back. Part of this is because he doesn’t want her any more, and that replicates the relationship she has with her father – Succession is so clever on how family dynamics can reverberate through the generations. But the other reason is patently that she is pregnant with his child.

Perhaps the most shocking, brutal insight, late in the show’s final episode, is that Logan Roy never considered his eldest son Kendall’s children – one adopted, one conceived through donor sperm – to be his true grandchildren (“She’s the bloodline,” brother Roman says. “… Dad’s view was that yours weren’t real”). Only Shiv carries a possible heir to the company. This is, I think, the pivotal moment in her decision-making.

What she ultimately chooses is the family she is building, not the one that built her: she chooses to save her baby from the toxicity of that inheritance, and in doing so get its father back. It is, I think, her first maternal act. It is also very dark.

In Linea Nigra, a beautiful book which records, among other things, that strange doubling that happens during pregnancy, where you become a being carrying a being, Barrera quotes Natalia Ginzburg, who wrote: “The subterranean accord with that hidden form is unspoken; and the relationship between the mother and that living, undiscovered, hidden form is truly the most closed, the most binding, the darkest relationship in the world …”

Barrera, alongside writers Maggie Nelson, Louisa Hall and others, is helping to create a new literature of pregnancy that encompasses that darkness, but so, in its way, is Succession. How beautifully ironic, that in an environment saturated with virulent misogyny, a pregnant woman whose state is discussed in the most demeaning of terms by the men around her should hold their fortunes in her hands while they remain oblivious to that “subterranean accord”.

“He couldn’t couldn’t fit a whole woman in his head,” Shiv says of the family’s patriarch. Succession is a rare TV show, in that it forces us to.

What’s working

I may have triumphed in my continual quest to get the bairn to keep his socks on: I have discovered OriOrso jogger socks, a pair of joggers with non-slip socks attached at the feet, designed by mother and small business owner Claire. And in jazzy designs, too. Just try to outsmart me now, baby!

What’s not

On the opposite end of the wealth scale, I was shocked that my local Oxfam was charging £6.99 for a secondhand children’s book. The staff blamed the landlords and electricity costs, and it is, of course, for a good cause, but we are in an area with one of the highest rates of child poverty in the country.

  • Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett is a Guardian columnist and author

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