Cousin Greg was the feckless joke of "Succession." Now he's the idiot who abets democracy's fall

In "America Decides" a consequential election night happens, in part, because Cousin Greg can't keep a secret

By Melanie McFarland

Senior Critic

Published May 15, 2023 12:00PM (EDT)

Nicholas Braun in "Succession" (Macall B. Polay/HBO)
Nicholas Braun in "Succession" (Macall B. Polay/HBO)

The following contains spoilers from "Succession" Season 4, Episode 8, "America Decides"

Before we get to the results of the long-awaited election on "Succession," where we find out what "America Decides" concerning charismatic fascist Jeryd Mencken (Justin Kirk), we need to talk about Cousin Greg (Nicholas Braun).

As a reminder, he is not a Roy. He's a Hirsch. This is a crucial distinction. Forget that his name popped up in a document Logan Roy wrote that expressed his final wishes – a piece of paper that, as Waystar's legal counsel says, means nothing.

A halfway cunning nobody can use their invisibility and perceived lack of value to destroy everything around them.

Previous seasons present Greg as the hapless dolt who acts as the idiot's edition of a Greek chorus. His name got him into the family mansion, then into the company, and on the lowest rung of each social ecosystem. But that's it. Everything else he has he's carved for himself out of the skins of others.

His surname holds no weight at ATN, where he's joined at the hip with head of news Tom Wambsgans (Matthew Macfadyen). It barely gets him in the same room with his cousins Kendall (Jeremy Strong), Roman (Kieran Culkin) and Shiv (Sarah Snook) when they're in a good mood.  There's rarely a time that they don't remind him in some way that he's worthless, a nobody.

But a halfway cunning nobody can use their invisibility and perceived lack of value to destroy everything around them. They pick up things their so-called betters carelessly drop, which is why Tom makes Greg do so much of his dirty work. Tom doesn't earn much respect either, but since he's married to Shiv, the boys recognize that he has a working brain.

Greg, on the other hand, is a tool – frequently a whipping boy, sometimes a human shield, lately a corporate guillotine.

So, for instance, if you have to redirect a loopy, erratic billionaire away from the people you're trying to impress, you send in Greg. That became his assignment in "Tailgate Party," which left him with GoJo chief Lukas Matsson (Alexander Skarsgård) and his right hand Oskar (Jóhannes Haukur Jóhannesson). Oskar loudly insults Greg as a hanger-on, which he is, but Greg soon ingratiates himself to him and Matsson by  joining them in taunting the lone woman in their group, Ebba (Eili Harboe).

Greg knows nothing about Ebba or her strange and painful relationship with Matsson. All he needs to know is that Matsson is a grotesquely wealthy man who has the power to possibly throw some gold his way. So he joins the boys in offering to fire Ebba – who Matsson has harassed by sending bricks of his blood – for them. Right in front of her. And for fun.

Greg is a shallower thinker than most, including Tom, so insults roll off him like water off the back of a lobotomized duck. That's why Logan let the boy into the family circle in the first place; as the simpleton more idiotic than his idiot children, what's the worst damage he could do?

Our mistake in viewing Greg as an adorable dullard eager to play "boar on the floor" is in neglecting to see that he's been grasping for money and power all this time.

SuccessionNicholas Braun in "Succession" (Macall B. Polay/HBO)

"Succession" is many things, but a prime motif is the seesaw of overestimation and underestimation of various parties. Dumb, dopey Greg tends to benefit most from this, in that he overestimates his value while others doubt or dismiss his capabilities. Somehow he squirms his way to the safest harbor while everyone else scrambles.

But our mistake in viewing Greg as an adorable dullard eager to play "boar on the floor" is in neglecting to see that he's been grasping for money and power all this time. It used to be cute, though, to hear him compensate for his lack of polish and couth by using ridiculously florid language when a one-syllable response would do. ("If it is to be said, so it be – so it is," he blurts when a U.S. senator asks him to confirm his name.)

But he was also willing to give up his share of a multimillion-dollar inheritance for a shot at more money and power by sticking with Logan. After he sold his soul to Tom and Logan in the third season finale – "What am I going to do with a soul anyways? Souls are boring. Boo souls!" – he fully morphed into an imp that escaped from the Ninth Circle of Hell.

Jesse Armstrong writes Greg in such a way that he becomes a concept as well as a character, an inanimate noun and a verb. Tom refers to the duties that are beneath him as "gregging." That used to earn Greg sympathy, making one hope he'd see the error of desperately trying to earn the love of hateful people. In this fourth season, his gregging has only made him better at fitting in with them.

While watching Kerry, Logan's last mistress, humiliated by Marcia, he chooses to play her mean girl's back-up singer: "Oh she's coming over. It's so distasteful," Greg whispers. "Don't look, Marcia. It's too unpleasant," later reveling in Kerry's pain with, "Oh God, here come the waterworks."

Hanging with Matsson brings out the next level. While everyone else was sleeping off their tailgate cocktails or, in Tom and Shiv's case, restlessly regretting words they can't take back, Greg was being dragged to what he describes as "pretty unseemly venues." (Matsson later refers to Greg as a "normalist," a polite version of "peon.")

"I danced with an old man. He didn't want to dance, but they made us dance," Greg laments to Tom. "He was so confused. I drank . . . things that . . . aren't normally drinks. And I got the impression  – Do you know about Matsson, Shiv and their sort of . . . their business alliance agreement?"

SuccessionNicholas Braun and Matthew Macfadyen in "Succession" (Macall B. Polay/HBO)

Oh dear. The thing is, yes – Tom knows. Tom is also heartbroken, which means he's not going to sell out Shiv just yet. "Information, Greg, is like a bottle of fine wine," Tom says. "You store it, you hoard it. You save it for a special occasion. Then you smash someone's f**king face in with it."

But with Greg, you really have to be specific about what that special occasion is.

"America Decides" is a replay of the 2020 election from an alternate universe, down to the implications of calling a state for a candidate incorrectly.

This is the first election with Kendall, Rome and Shiv in charge, Tom at the helm and no one in control on the floor. Kendall, reacting to his daughter Sophie's fear of what could be unleashed with a racist autocrat in charge of the country, assures her that exit polls have Mencken's Democratic rival Daniel Jimenez (Elliot Villar) ahead: "I won't let the world push you. OK, sweetie?"

The early exit polls actually place them in a dead heat. Roman is in the tank for Mencken, and Shiv is secretly working for Matsson, who wants Jimenez, because he doesn't seem insane.

Shiv calls Nate Sofrelli (Ashley Zukerman), who is cautiously confident while also hearing news about unrest in Milwaukee. Kendall also makes a sweaty phone call, conveying early congratulations in the hopes of getting on the good side of a man who could regulate ATN into oblivion.

Roman, in an act of gregging, ventures to Mencken's hotel war room, where the fascist candidate demands assurances that ATN will deliver him the presidency – if not that night, then next time.

Rome signals they have a deal: "Even if you're not going to be the president you're going to be our president," sealing the bargain with, "Over the road and into the bar."

Kendall, back at the office, sits on his hands, supposedly following his father's example of letting the chips fall where they may. Until they start leaking from the bag.

First, Greg plies Tom with cocaine. Then the touchscreen map malfunctions. Then news of street harassment from Mencken supporters in different cities escalates into reports that a Milwaukee ballot processing center has been set on fire.

Social media has that update. ATN does not.

Tom is wary of reporting it because Tom is incapable of making major decisions without Logan steering him. "Yes. Mm-hmm. Yes. We just need to respect our viewership," he prevaricates.

SuccessionMatthew Macfadyen and Nicholas Braun in "Succession" (David M. Russell/HBO)

Roman wants the desk to run with it but to blame "antifa" instead of Mencken's extremist thugs, the real culprits. So, under the guise of going to the bathroom, he heads to the newsroom floor and gives the ATN version of Tucker Carlson talking points that launch him on a paranoid rant.

A seething Shiv stalks down afterward and demands Tom stop what's going on, only to be blocked by Greg's gregging. So Shiv pulls Tom aside and apologizes for the terrible things she said the night before. Tom is unmoved, and responds to Shiv's request for a little grace, given her father has died, by telling her she killed him – "Sort of. Sort of."

Then, tears in her eyes, she goes all in, revealing that she's pregnant with his child.  He's thrown off by this for a second then asks, "Is that even true? . . . Or, is that a new position, or a tactic, or what?"

It is gutting. Somehow, though, Tom's reaction isn't as terrible as attempting to wash wasabi out of someone's eyes with carbonated lemon water.

This is how Greg incapacitates the decision desk editor right when they decide Wisconsin is too close to call. That Milwaukee fire turned 100,000 votes in a Democratic stronghold into ash, in a state where the margin of victory is thin enough for them to matter. Based on other states' results, calling Wisconsin for Mencken would effectively make him president.

Roman, who handpicked Mencken for Logan in the first place, wants his guy to win. Shiv is deeply fearful of what he'll do to the country and urges them to hold off on making that call. The deciding vote in the room becomes Kendall, who has become increasingly ineffectual, unable to choose a direction and impressionable. A Greg with no puppetmaster.

On several occasions Braun has spoken about the canine energy he intentionally infuses into Greg. Jesse Armstrong introduces the character by stuffing him inside a Doderick suit, the Waystar answer to Disney's Goofy, and having small children overwhelm him to the point that he vomits out of the costume's eyes.

Dogs may be faithful to a fault, but they're incapable of gaming out the long-term effects of their actions.

So when Shiv comes at Greg, putting him in his place for trying to wrangle her away from the newscast set, he responds with, "Got it. Sorry. I guess my only question would be if anything did come to pass in terms of you and he," – referring to Matsson – "You know, silence is golden. Like, how golden? Is there any offer?"

Shiv offers to refrain from pulling his innards out of his backside. "Go on, you're lumber. Keep your snout out."

But Shiv is kind of a dumb puppy too. Placed opposite Roman in a stand-off and with Kendall between them, she thinks that reminding Ken that giving Mencken the presidency will be disastrous for democracy will be enough to appeal to his morality. You know, that thing that occasionally incapacitates him with guilt.

Roman counters that Mencken has guaranteed to help them stop the GoJo deal. Ken asks Shiv to secure that guarantee from Jimenez, and she pretends to call Nate, returning to Ken with the lie that Nate is open to the idea. She doesn't predict that Ken, who called Jimenez earlier, would follow up.

She watches nervously as Ken walks out of the room on his phone, paces in the hall, glares at her through the glass, then walks over to Greg the Motherf**king Egg. The nobody who hears everything.

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You know that gag in movies where a group talks through an elaborate strategy to get past a trap, only to have some fool accidentally trigger it? An innocent throat-clearing causes a cave-in.  A clumsy hiker kicks a pebble that starts an avalanche. They never mean to do it. Disaster just, you know, happens.

Viewed this way, Greg's inability to let his damning information age like fine wine is the reason "Succession"'s America falls into darkness. An angry Kendall confronts Shiv about her betrayal and sides with Roman out of spite. Tom refuses to stand in their way, and Shiv angrily calls him Pontius Pilate. ATN calls Wisconsin, and eventually the election, for Mencken. Jimenez's folks are livid.

SuccessionKieran Culkin and Jeremy Strong on "Succession" (David Russell/HBO)

ATN runs Mencken's premature victory speech, where he promises a version of democracy that isn't transactional – ha – or unsullied by compromise with "welfare kings and queens." "Something clean and true and refreshing. Something proud and pure," he says.

"He's a guy we can do business with," Kendall mutters through a hollow, dispirited expression.

"We just made a night of good TV," Roman blithely says. "That's what we've done. Nothing happens."

But things do happen, as Shiv points out. Manipulating the outcome has essentially turned Roman and ATN by extension into Mencken's Greg, doing his dirty work. Greg feigns shock at having to "push the button," but then shrugs out, since nothing much will change if he doesn't do that – or for him personally. But is that true? Roman and Kendall won't take the public blowback for the call. Tom does. "DNC Accuses ATN Head Tom Wambsgans Of Undermining Democracy," the PGN banner below Tom's mugshot reads.

Shiv stalks out of the building, gets on the phone with Matsson, and pledges to join him in going to war against her brothers. Greg, predictably, is left holding the phone Tom refuses to answer as it blows up with angry calls. And at the end of the night, after being denied a chance to see his children, a numb Kendall mutters to himself and his driver, "Some people just can't cut a deal, Fikret." 

By Melanie McFarland

Melanie McFarland is Salon's award-winning senior culture critic. Follow her on Twitter: @McTelevision

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