The Side Pieces of ‘Succession’ Move To The Center

Kerry and Willa were working their final angles before last night’s tragic twist

The fourth and final season of Succession is underway, and before last night’s essential and shocking twist, some unexpected chess pieces moved to the center of the board. Episode two, The Rehearsal, put the focus on Succession’s two side pieces: Willa and Kerri. It looks like Kerry is using her relationship with Logan Roy, the patriarch, to get herself an on air talent gig at ATN. But is that what’s really happening? Willa, on the other hand, is looking for way out of the Roy family. Come to think of it, she never seemed all that thrilled at joining the family in the first place. Or is she just playing a long game?

In most movies and television shows, women who win the affections of billionaires are either classy willowy ladies with hearts of gold like Doris Day (Touch of Mink), Gwyneth Paltrow (A Perfect Murder) and Grace Kelly (The Swan): women who look great on an industrialist’s arm and undoubtedly have great taste in art and home furnishings. Sometimes the pendulum swings in the opposite direction: they might also be horny gum chewing floozies like Jennifer Tilly (Bullets over Broadway), Lesley Ann Warren (Victor/Victoria) or Melanie Griffith (Bonfire of the Vanities), women whose bodies and faces and baby doll voices promise porn level sex on a bearskin rug.

One thing Succession gets right about the very rich in real life is that the women who have caught the eye of the Succession men are neither particularly classy, voluptuous or striking. They’re not stereotypical trophy wives. (And in Roman’s case, judging by his romance with Gerri, they’re not even of childbearing age!) But they have other qualities that historically have made them excellent partners for rich powerful men.

Kerry is so very
Zoe Winters, as Kerry, works the angle on Logan Roy (Brian Cox) in ‘Succession’.

Kerry (friend, assistant, advisor) Castellabate snuck up on us. Like Megan, Don Draper’s second (third?) wife on Mad Men who started out as a secretary with no lines, Kerry toiled in the background unnoticed for many episodes before she emerged to become Logan Roy’s main squeeze and potential baby mama.  During the second and third seasons, she was one of the many of the assistants who patiently and thanklessly indulged every single whim and bizarre need of each member of the Roy family. Then all of a sudden she’s having (or trying to have) Logan’s baby, which suddenly makes her incredibly important to the narrative now or utterly insignificant. She was the last person you’d expect to catch the billionaire’s eye, with her a jack-o-lantern grin and a highly mannered hairstyle. She seemed like one of those contestants that The Bachelor eliminates early on because they hover around the man in a creepy needy way that makes everyone in the house feel unsafe.

And yet maybe that’s precisely what got her the role of Logan’s “favourite”: she wanted it more than the others. Historically there are many examples of wives and mistresses of powerful men (kings, presidents, captains of industry) who weren’t great beauties but had the uncanny ability to make these men – who are often very needy and insecure – feel like the center of the universe. Pamela Harriman, considered the last of the great 20th century courtesans, (also known as a “European Geisha”) was never a great beauty. But the world knew her for her peerless managerial skills and gracious hostessing. They said that if you put a blindfold on her in a crowded room, she could smell out the powerful man.

These men, in turn, loved that Harriman sought them out for their power and came to depend on her for her attentiveness and her organizational skills. Men like Logan Roy become very isolated by their wealth. Their wives and mistresses serve as a liaison and/or buffer between them and the public. In episode one of the fourth season, we see Kerry–in addition to flexing her newfound powers–trying to broker a phone call between Logan and his estranged children all the while stoically dodging insults from Shiv and Roman like “tell her you’ll be able to hear her better if she took dad’s cock out of her mouth.”

This reminds one of Rupert Murdoch’s wives, Wendi Deng, who protected Murdoch from a pie thrown at him by blocking it with her body and smacking down the man throwing it. Make all the jokes you want about these women’s sexual abilities, but these other tenacious qualities are probably the actual skills which made them valuable to these billionaires.

The thing that doesn’t seem to track is that Kerry, judging by the audition tape that’s floating around, wants to be an on-air journalist. But the tape she submits for consideration is full of rookie mistakes. Kerry is many things, but she’s no amateur. If she wants something, she goes for it. Does she want this? Perhaps this is something Logan wants for her…like Charles Foster Kane making his second wife Susan Alexander perform in that opera despite lacking the talent to pull it off.

When there’s a Willa
Justine Lupe, as Willa, in ‘Succession.’

Willa, the love object and fiancé of Connor (first pancake) Roy seems to be more of an appropriate choice in terms of looks but she still isn’t the most beautiful girl in all of Christendom. She reminds one of those popular girls in high school who wasn’t the prettiest. (The prettiest girl was actually sort of nice!) But she was the meanest and most ambitious and if you were a straight boy who wanted to date one of her pretty friends, you had to be on her good side. She’d borrow your chemistry notes and lose them…and not even apologize. But there was something sexy about her thoughtlessness.  She was always busy. Always somewhere else. Always up to something.

Willa is also a sex worker.  And this is not exactly a big secret to the rest of the family and, presumably, the general public.

One would think that a sex worker who managed to attract the undivided attention of an heir worth hundreds of millions of dollars would jump aboard that ship immediately. However, Willa is very reluctant to make their freelance transactional relationship exclusive. She has always been reluctant to marry him and in this episode, she has literally bolted from the rehearsal dinner saying “I can’t do this.” She is then tracked (via Find My iPhone) by Conor making her way through multiple locations within various boroughs of New York City making pitstops presumably to either buy drugs or hook up with other man. Yet Connor was still hoping to go through with the marriage.

Why is that? Is Willa simply a “Rules Girl”? The book “The Rules” which came out in the 1990s, professing that the key to landing a husband was to be elusive and unavailable. Although that book was quite problematic, it was telling a profound truth about men: a lot of them don’t like women who pursue them….or even like them back. Andy Warhol once said that Bianca Jagger got Mick Jagger to marry him by being too busy to date him. When he’d show up in Paris to see her, she’d cancel because of a hair appointment.

Willa might not literally be doing “The Rules” on purpose. She might be sincerely ambivalent and legitimately wary of marrying into such a powerful and toxic family. Women who marry into families like the Roy family don’t fare so well. As feminist Florynce Kennedy says, Prostitutes don’t sell their bodies, they rent their bodies. Housewives sell their bodies when they get married. Willa might suspect–with good reason–that being a Roy wife might be much harder work, and much more demeaning than being a sex worker. She has other interests and ambitions.

And maybe this is what Connor likes about her. He’s used to living without love. “I’m a plant that grows on rocks and lives off insects that die inside of me,” he says. Despite his millions and his willingness to produce her awful plays, he will never really possess Willa. Any woman who would love him back wouldn’t be worthy. And now, as it turns out, she’s heir to a lot more…or a lot less.


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