In Succession, Did Tom Have the Most Important Style All Along?
He's always been a little too easy to overlook. And perhaps that was the point.
Warning: Spoilers for the Succession finale ahead.
Throughout the four turbulent seasons of Succession, viewers are trained not to think much of Tom Wambsgans. Played by Matthew Macfadyen, the weakling husband to Shiv Roy and puppet leader of ATN is a textbook hanger-on; always aligning with whoever is at the helm of Waystar Royco and seemingly void of any morals of his own. He’s not a force, he’s a follower. This is why, when he is named U.S. CEO of Waystar in the series finale, it comes as quite a shock. But this ending may have been under our noses all along. Look no further than his style.
From the onset, one thing is clear about Tom: he likes nice things. And in a show that is intentionally lowkey about fashion, he talks about clothes a lot. As someone who wasn’t born into one-per-center wealth like the Roys, he broadcasts his expensive taste in an effort to assert his status. When he mocks the “ludicrously capacious” bag worn by cousin Greg’s date in episode 1 of season 4, he remarks on how it’s an indicator of not having money. (“What’s even in there? Flat shoes for the subway? Her lunch pail?”) Similarly, he’s always coming after Greg’s outfit choices for looking out of place. But in the same way that Greg is Tom’s personal punchline, Tom’s clothes have long been the butt of the joke to Shiv and the other Roy kids.
Tom’s style is built on posturing, costume designer Michelle Matland told The Ringer. And the Roys can tell. “No one else in the family will look at the price tag. They will buy something because they can afford it, and they love it, they like it, whatever,” she said. “Tom doesn’t know what quality is, it’s not part of his history. Money equals quality to him.” Along with shelling out as much cash as possible, he sweats the small details, wearing pocket squares, suspenders and impeccably polished shoes. This approval-seeking style is heightened by an over-enthusiastic assurance that he’s always “here to serve.” To the Roys, though, it’s a symbol of his ineptitude. In the early seasons, Roman criticizes his boxy suits and overly puffed vests for being giveaways of desperation. More recently, in season 4, Shiv ridicules his pristinely white sneakers, telling him they’re “why people don’t take you seriously.” But with this overly-agreeable persona, he’s able to effectively masks his ambitions.
succession clip shiv roy tells tom wambsgans “that’s why people don’t take you seriously, because your shoes are so fucking white.” and attempts to fix that, tom responds by flicking her ear “your earlobes are thick and chewy. they’re like barnacle meat.” pic.twitter.com/jIXGaW9LIp
— succession clips and reaction videos (@successionreact) April 29, 2023
The other Succession characters’ motives are easily gleaned through their clothes. Kendall is dressed to emulate, then defy, then usurp his dad. Shiv’s corporate wardrobe rehaul mirrors her intention to become CEO. Roman’s unchanging uniform shows how he doesn’t care to impress anyone, since he was born with all the status he’ll ever need. Conversely, in Tom’s painstaking precision, he has positioned himself as a faceless suit that can bend any which way the powers that be demand. He’s dressed to take orders, and this is no coincidence.
In season 1, Matland describes Tom as “a bit of a robot.” He’s loyal to the Roy family and their unethical antics — specifically when it comes to Shiv, who holds all the power in their relationship. But his efforts to be accepted through carefully coordinated co-ords — like pocket squares and ties — further establish his outsider status, which is reinforced by Shiv’s mistreatment of him. In season 3, after being repeatedly thrown under the bus by his wife, Tom betrays her by jumping ship to Logan’s camp despite the siblings working against their dad. His uniform when doing so? A relaxed cream Ralph Lauren linen suit, a crisp white button-up and a statement purple pocket square. He emits luxury, excess and distinct proximity to power. It’s in this unforeseen coup that he looks the most Tom he’s ever looked.
In season 4, with Logan out of the picture, his marriage to Shiv in peril, and the siblings grasping for the top company spot, Tom’s appeasing strategy kicks into high gear. In the eighth episode, he washes his hands of ATN’s decision to unfairly announce fascist candidate Jeryd Mencken as president — despite being the “boss” of the network — because it’s what Kendall and Roman want. He looks particularly boisterous for an all-nighter at work, wearing a yellow tie against a striped shirt. His dress shoes are even remarked upon for being a little too fancy (and uncomfortable) for the gruelling occasion. But for Tom, this finery is armour.
Similarly, in the final episode, he listens attentively as Lukas Matsson divulges his attraction to (and possible intention to sleep with) Shiv, as if she’s not Tom’s wife. Matsson sits relaxed, his fuzzy multicoloured sweater providing ample coziness. Tom, by contrast, embodies an eager employee, leaning forward in a sterile suit and barely flinching at Matsson’s disrespect. In this scene, Matsson sees that Tom would never push back on him, making him the perfect CEO to control.
Time and time again, Tom’s perpetual “poser” identity has made him an easy-to-mock target. But because of it, he has stayed shrouded in mystery. Who is he? What does he want? Where does he come from? What is he capable of? We never really know, and in the end, that’s his biggest selling point.
After being appointed the new Waystar CEO, Tom looks more comfortable than ever in his corporate costume. Wearing a tailored suit and a tie so tight it could cut circulation, he’s the antithesis of the ever-eccentric Matsson in a burnt orange turtle neck. It’s clear what this relationship is: Matsson pulling the strings with Tom as the manicured frontman. Tom doesn’t have real power, he has the illusion of power. And he’s been dressing for that the whole time.