Media dweebs including myself were amused to observe, in the second episode of the new season of HBO’s Succession, plotlines around our cursed profession. A potential shakeup is in the works at ATN, a Fox News-like arm of Waystar Royco, the multibillion-dollar company at stake in the series. Meanwhile, it was the end of the road for Vaulter, a BuzzFeed/Gawker/Vice analogue the Roy clan bought with great fanfare last season.
Kendall, the eldest son of the ruthless family, did his father Logan’s bidding and summarily fired everyone at the website in a shock announcement, prompting an unnamed staffer to block his way out — for the privilege of spitting in his rich-guy face.
But what’s remarkable about this moment (apart from how triggering it was for any survivor of a collapsed media brand) is what happens next: Kendall, already broken by a horrific sequence of events I won’t spoil for anyone trying to catch up on the show, has almost no reaction to the spit. He doesn’t even bother wiping it off. Instead, he impassively asks: “Is that all you got?”
This is our surest glimpse of just how deadened he’s become to the pains and indignities of life. Ordinarily, we’d expect any man who took a hot wad of saliva to the dome to flip the fuck out. It’s the kind of insult you can’t ignore… and that’s exactly what Kendall does, despite the very real option of pressing assault charges.
The video above is more in tune with the universally acknowledged taboo against face-spitting, as the victim rises to a threshold of unstoppable rage one associates with catching a loogie. It also happens to showcase how a spitter tends to lack the upper hand, even if they don’t realize it yet. Where the film and TV trope is concerned — and Succession is no exception here — a character will spit when they have no real recourse to justice, defiance or satisfaction: The villain has them restrained, or enjoys other special leverage, such that the hero’s only available act of rebellion is largely symbolic.
In real life, when the spitter and the target are equal footing, the former still obtains a kind of impotence, performing a grossly intimate and degrading act that falls short of physically injurious violence, thereby inciting the enemy to escalate to that level. The spitting is petty, it’s a taunt, and it may well skirt the consequences of an actual blow.
Perhaps that’s why the world of sports has long been rife with spit scandals. It’s common enough in soccer, for example, that any player caught spitting at someone during a match faces a mandatory suspension of six games. In a sense, the fluid that collects in an athlete’s mouth picks up where trash talk ends; it summarizes their contempt when voice and vocabulary fail. There’s also an invasive quality to add to the insult of expectorate. Spit can transmit diseases as minor as the common cold and as serious as hepatitis B or C, which is the worry that police departments have cited in their increasing and controversial use of “spit hoods” when arresting suspects they believe are likely to launch a wet projectile their way.
And the same assertion of (theoretical) dominance that can make face-spitting a kinky erotic act contributes to uncomfortable overtones of different power dynamics, as when spit hoods enter the discourse on police brutality against African-Americans, or in the infamous 1997 NFL game where a white Denver Bronco linebacker, Bill Romanowski spit at a black San Francisco 49er receiver, J.J. Stokes. Some of Romanowski’s own teammates said this was racially motivated — and insufficiently punished.
Which brings us back to the core truth of spitting as a personal attack: Although it may feel good to concede to the impulse in the moment, and you may “get away with it” (provided Eric Trump doesn’t demand your arrest, that is), it’s hard to claim a winner’s narrative once your phlegm is dangling from the tip of someone else’s nose. Hey, maybe your righteous fury is eminently reasonable. Yet you’ve created the opportunity for an enemy to be the so-called bigger person by declining your bait.
Besides, for such a base and simple gesture, it seems so effortful. Rearing your head back, trying to aim, using your tongue to power the spit as far as it needs to travel — there’s way too much that can go wrong. It may not have the same “ick” factor, but a premeditated milkshaking sends a bigger, brighter message. And have we forgotten the timeless disdain of the middle finger? In my view, better to get the other guy steamed by doing as little as possible.
Spitting will never get you ahead. May as well save it for the urinal.