We ask the creator of 'Succession' everything you wanted to know about the finale
The following interview includes plenty of spoilers for the series finale of Succession.
The much-anticipated series finale of HBO's Succession answered one big question — who would succeed media mogul patriarch Logan Roy — but we still have more: Did the show creator know the end at the beginning? Why didn't any of the Roy children wind up as CEO of the family conglomerate Waystar Royco? Was Kendall considering jumping into the river at the end? Why was the presidential election left unresolved? And why was Logan in the bathroom in his first and last scenes?
Jesse Armstrong is the show's creator, showrunner and head writer. In the past, he has been reluctant to reveal much about Succession's plotlines or the characters' motivations. But with the finale behind us, Armstrong is ready to talk. He spoke to Terry Gross, along with Frank Rich, an executive producer of the series.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Terry Gross: Why couldn't any of the siblings take over the company?
Jesse Armstrong: If you were thinking about this as a business situation rather than a piece of drama, they might have slipped through, one of them, for a little while, for probably an unsatisfactory interregnum ... as they tanked the share price. It could have happened, but in a drama this felt like the appropriate end.
How do you see Shiv Roy at the end – as a prisoner who has weakened her position, or somebody who's using all of her smarts to still have access to power?
Armstrong: Everyone has their own view and I can tell you mine, which is that for me it was a moment of equality. Chilly, rather terrifying equality, but equality, which has never been the case in that relationship before. Tom has always been subservient. Now he has this status, but his status is contingent. That's kind of what the whole episode has been about. Shiv's status is as all the kids are – secure. It's secure in a financial sense. She has billions of dollars. She has wealth that could never diminish, whatever happened to the world. And she also has a name, which will sort of haunt her and make her interesting, to a certain degree, for the rest of her life, and that can't be taken away from her. Whereas Tom's position could be taken away in the click of her fingers.
So for me, there's a very terrifying equality in that, a remarkable dry hand on hand. It's not really even human contact. It's a sort of two pieces of porcelain or something. So that's what it is for me. That isn't what it would be for everyone. And certainly you could see the situation being a clever stratagem by which Shiv remains in play. Maybe that thought will occur to her tomorrow or the day after. But for me, the show's ended at this point and the story is over and that's where I think they end up.
Frank Rich: I'm fascinated to hear Jesse come clean about it. I guess I experienced it as very transitional and very emotional. I felt that she was, in some ways, in emotional shock. When you look at the rapid fire of truly traumatic confrontations and events and the changing over of the business and all of that in a very compressed period of time, my feeling about her is that she's leaving her options open. She does have this inheritance of a sort in terms of who she is, but also I just can't imagine when she's been through that with Kendall and she's been through that with the company that she wanted to take over and been through everything with her husband, that she has a clear direction. So she's in the moment, sort of. But there's a kind of numbness. Part of this to me comes from Sarah [Snook]'s performance. It's almost like she's been traumatized, not maybe in the clinical sense, but just she's in limbo. And I love the fact that it ends with that ambiguity.
The last shot of Roman Roy is of him drinking a martini alone at a bar after saying "We're all bulls---." Why did you place him at the bar? What does that say to you about Roman in the moment and in the future?
Armstrong: The piece in the bar, there was more to it, a little bit more dialogue, but I think when we were in the edit room, Roman's face, Kieran [Culkin]'s face was so eloquent that we just used a rather extraordinary set of expressions. ... Kieran's character, Roman, he ends up most particularly exactly where he started, which is living the life of a sort of sad playboy, I guess, and sipping a drink, which people might associate with his quasi-love of his life, Gerri, who we've often seen sipping a martini.
In the last shot of the series, we see Kendall Roy sitting on a bench, staring at the Hudson River. Water is such a powerful symbol in the series. (Kendall nearly drowns in a pool in Season 3, and he's haunted by a deadly car wreck in a river in Season 1.) Did you know all along that the theme of water would also play out in the final scene?
Armstrong: Oh, it's such a fascinating, knotty question. I guess water can also mean baptism and cleansing and ablution ... and a fun swim and splashing in the pool, and we've occasionally seen it used that way. It's developed. There was no sort of image structure that was formulaically laid down at the beginning of the show. ... And it was the genius of [director] Mark Mylod and the camera operators and Jeremy that took us right down to the tip of Battery Park, to the tip of Manhattan, and looking at Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty.
Do you think he's contemplating ending his life?
Armstrong: For me, no. ... I think for me, Kendall, at the end, one of the things he lacks is even the freedom to determine his own course through life. The name and the wealth around him – to lots of us, obviously, it seems extraordinarily fortunate, and it is. But I do believe there is a certain kind of tragedy to a royal name, to a huge business name, to being a Disney or a Windsor or any of those kinds of names, and he can never, ever escape that. And one of the ways he can't escape that is to have a bubble of protection around him ... of money and human beings. In this case, he's got his dad's bodyguard right there with him. So even if he is contemplating it, I don't think it could ever happen to him. And yeah, for me, that's not the way the story goes for this kind of person.
In an improvised take of that final scene that was not included in the final edit, Jeremy Strong climbs over the railing from the pedestrian side of the river to the riverside, looking as if he's really maybe about to jump in. Were you there when he improvised that?
Armstrong: Yeah. We were there. It was biting cold. I'm there every day, and certainly for that important scene. I was terrified. I was terrified that he might fall in and be injured. ... He didn't look like he was going to jump in. But once he climbed over that barrier — when you film, there are generally a lot of health and safety assessments made, and that was not our plan that day. And normally I know that if we'd even been thinking of that happening, we would have had boats and frogmen and all kinds of safety measures, which we didn't have. So my first thought was for his physical safety as a human being, not anything about the character. That's what I felt on the day. Good Lord, above.
Rich: It was like breaking a barrier, walking through the fourth wall and it was bitterly cold on top of it. Also, everyone was eager for the cold reasons and also for scheduling reasons involving subsequent production, to be done with it. And I think Scott Nicholson, who played [bodyguard] Colin, was also somewhat alarmed and was functioning as a person as much as a character in that moment.
You haven't allowed Kendall to grow. Every time I think he's getting more mature or more responsible, he's not. Every time I think he's getting a conscience, he doesn't. Why not let him grow?
Armstrong: It's not that I don't think people are capable of change or growth. I guess I would say they happen rarely, slowly and not necessarily all in one direction, in that you're just as likely to devolve as evolve as a person, unfortunately, I think. There's a sort of sense about narrative, especially screenplay, that that's what happens in a script: that people grow, they learn, and that is the shape of the script. And I would gently reject that, I guess. I don't think that has to be the shape of the story. I don't think it's a true shape of all stories. Not that you can't make a great story out of those things — and I'd like to write some of those — but that isn't the story of this show. That doesn't seem to be the truth of these people. And so we had to find story shapes which didn't follow that particular shape.
Rich: I fundamentally believe that people don't change that much in real life. Some people do. Sure. But a lot of people don't, including a lot of people I just know in real life. But look at politics, which I also spent a lot of time looking at as a journalist: There was always a new Nixon. There's always a political move where some major politician is going to change his spots. I'm talking about ideology. I'm talking about personality and the human quotient. And there's an analog there, I think, with the corporate world, and people are who they are. And a lot of people, particularly people who want power, whether it be economic or political power, keep doing the same things. And certainly it's true in the arena where we set our show. It's not like Murdoch has ever changed, or Sumner Redstone ever changed in terms of how they operate as people.
At what point did you know Tom would end up being the CEO of Waystar Royco, but he'd still be a puppet, that he'd be the figurehead, and Lukas Matsson from GoJo would really be pulling the strings?
Armstrong: One of the things I like in the show is for things to feel natural, to feel like you could read them in The Wall Street Journal, The Financial Times, for them to feel like they fit, they're congruent with the way that we see business, culture and politics going. And so in a way ... it became obvious to me that [Tom] should take over. There are a few of these people who come after. ... They have to have certain qualities, the person who can succeed from a founder, and I guess there are few examples in life.
There's a guy, Philippe Dauman, who took over from Sumner Redstone when Shari [Redstone] was also trying to take over in the Viacom CBS empire. He rather floated up and made himself very amenable to power. ... We tried to take from all kinds of historical moments. I guess I also thought a little bit about Stalin coming through the middle after Lenin's death and there being much more glamorous intellectual candidates — Trotsky and Zinoviev — but Stalin arranged things and then slipped through the middle. So there were a bunch of historical and business parallels that started to seem like they were pointing in Tom's direction.
Rich: I can't say I was surprised. I mean, I'm sort of delighted, even though, in a line that didn't make it to the final cut [someone says Tom's] face is "sort of like a piece of Wonder Bread with a smile drawn on it." He's an empty suit, as is said. But, in Hollywood, in the '30s, in the media companies at that time, it was the joke that "the son-in-law also rises." And so in some ways it was completely plausible to me. And I also knew that these three kids could not take over for all the reasons we know, the various layers of them as people, as business people, all of it. So yeah, I thought it was an exciting, creative turn.
The presidential election isn't decided yet when the series ends because there was a fire in Milwaukee and ballots were burned. Why did you want to end the series without the election actually being resolved?
Armstrong: I wrestled with this one quite a lot. I always knew that I wanted to have an election during the show because we've seen these characters and we're interested in their psychology, hopefully. I certainly am. And that's one strand of the show. But I don't think we'd be interested in them if they ran a wallpaper factory. It's because of their influence through the media that they were fascinating to me, and so I wanted to show that, at its most important moment. But I also felt that, especially as a British person, that it wasn't appropriate for the show to declare on what even our fictional world we think is going to be the fate of the republic. So it was important to me that we left it where it would be. And we worked with very skilled political operatives to figure out the right configuration of story that would both put ATN, their news organization, in a powerful position to affect things, but also would leave things poised.
Some people find the episode sort of gut-wrenching and traumatic, and I can imagine because it's a very serious time for America. I didn't feel it was appropriate for us to say which way we think things will go. So that was why we left it poised.
Succession is a very hard to describe mix of satire and drama and tragedy. Did you want to bring in the comedy slowly and not kind of announce itself right away?
Armstrong: The tone of the show is kind of how I write. Not that I can't try and write in different tones, but this one was what seemed appropriate to this show. And I can kind of try and back-engineer how it came about. But the truth is, it just came out, the voices of these characters. ... I'm thinking of that George Orwell quote about why I write, which is "there's some lie I want to expose." And I guess one impulse was that we have a certain view of these corporate titans in our culture, and it's sometimes that they are very, very brilliant and can do no wrong. And I don't want to diminish their talents completely. I don't think I could do what they do.
I guess one of the things I was curious about was showing the ludicrous, the comic, the incongruous, the gross parts of these gilded lives.
But I think that they also have good fortune and often have good fortunes behind them. Rupert Murdoch had many millions in newspapers already before he started. So I guess one of the things I was curious about was showing the ludicrous, the comic, the incongruous, the gross parts of these gilded lives. And so maybe that's where the impulse to make sure that there was comedy in there came from, because that's a good register to try and approach some of that stuff.
The series begins and ends for Logan in the bathroom. The first time we see him, he pees on the rug. Then he dies on his jet in the bathroom. So that seems to be a motif, Logan in the bathroom. Why?
Armstrong: One thing is that comedy often works better in small spaces. And so if a scene isn't working, it's sometimes worth trying: putting it in a smaller space and seeing what happens when people have to be in each other's physicality. Apart from that, I guess there is something about, maybe it's something childish about seeing kings and queens on the toilet. In the U.K., it was meant to be a hard thing to imagine: the late queen being on the toilet. I guess there may be something childlike about seeing great figures doing what all of us must do.
You have unique writing styles for each of the siblings and for Logan. Can you talk a little bit about coming up with each of their voices?
Armstrong: It struck me that powerful people often don't say so much. And Logan says probably many fewer words than his less powerful colleagues and people who surround him. Indeed, it's probably true that the people with the least power speak the most. When you think about Tom (before he assumed power) and Greg, they have these great torrents of words because they're trying to fill in the holes and equivocate and countermand what they've just said to precisely express themselves, because they're worried the power is going to take a dim view of them. So there's something about literally the quantity of words that you speak and also the volume. Power can often be very quiet and make you lean in until it explodes and makes you lean out. ...
We hear [Kendall] first listening to rap music and he has a desire to hit a sort of colloquial but buzzword-infused [way of speaking]. I think he likes language. I think he wants to use interesting language. He's not a terrible performer. Some people find his rap utterly risible. I find it comic, but also not bad. I think he has a certain verbal felicity, a certain verbal interest, and sometimes that goes over the edge into being ludicrous. Shiv, her tragedy has been that she has sought to modulate her every performance in the sense of what she's doing in the world to keep her options open. And so there's a sense in which she does that verbally as well. Roman is explosive and the most close to being a truth teller in that kind of jester role where he can say the unsayable and then claim that he didn't say it or didn't mean it. It's a very powerful position once you start to be able to say, "I didn't mean it," after everything, every true thing that you say.
The Roy siblings' cousin Greg has a mixture of cluelessness and formality when he's on the witness stand during the hearings about the Waystar cruise line sexual harassment scandal. At one point, while being questioned by a senator, Greg answers, "If it is to be said, so it be. So it is." Can you talk about Greg's strangely formal way of speaking there?
Armstrong: I think there's a little bit of the kind of 18th century in there, that sort of courtier vibe. But I think there's also a class thing there, which, you know, is the phrase "hyper correction," where people who are outside their normal class or social arena sometimes end up being idiotic because they're trying to be too proper. It happens in our English, class-obsessed society, when people try to change their vocal pitch and nature to try and fit in with posher people and you hypercorrect, and then you become ludicrous by throwing in those extra words or reversing the order and doing things which you think sound like they might have a formality, which is appropriate, but ends up being nonsense. So it's a very nice thing in life to be comfortable with how you speak.
Logan is on his way to Norway to complete the deal with GoJo when he dies after suffering some kind of cardiac episode in the plane bathroom. Tom is on the plane and calls the siblings and they each say their goodbyes on the phone to him, even though it seems he's already dead. Have you ever been in a position like that, of saying your goodbye on the phone?
Armstrong: No, honestly, I haven't. I've known sad things and I've known people who suffered sad things, and people were generous in the writers room sharing thoughts about those areas, things they knew. ... I don't believe you have to have been through something like that precisely to be able to write it. Often, the terrible thing we imagine in the future can be as vivid as the thing we've experienced. ... There is something about the modern era, which is that often sad, bad news comes at us like that from nowhere and hits us from nowhere. ... The modern sadnesses often happen in this rather disembodied way. And then you're left in a nowhere state where you're physically disconnected from the events.
You really capture the not knowing what to say aspect in a situation like that — not knowing how to say goodbye, but also the conflicted love-hate relationship they have with their father. Can you talk a little bit about writing those goodbyes?
Armstrong: The whole show is such multiple collaborations, but I feel, especially in those moments, [the words] could lie on the page inert if it wasn't with those brilliant actors doing the scene. I'm a rewriter. I rewrite a lot. We reworked the scripts a lot through production, and it can sometimes be hard for the actors as we change things. But that episode, and especially that long stretch in the middle, I wrote it relatively quickly. And then I tried to be very careful about what I revised because, I don't often feel this, but it felt like it had a coherence in its incoherence that it felt appropriate, and I wanted to leave it rather raw.
Hopefully our insults and our verbal attacks are believable and characterful, but they're often more carefully wrought and multi-clause and baroque and the simplicity of the language, the mixture of truth and untruth, the feeling towards the edge of language and what it can express all felt good in the early, early drafts and therefore [we] tried not to change it. And I tried not to change the last things that Logan said, once I sort of knew that they were the last things that Logan said, because I didn't want them to have the form of a grandiloquent moment of speech, because that didn't seem appropriate.
Can you say a few words about the ongoing writers' strike?
Armstrong: I think about it through the lens of Succession, which has been basically well supported and a happy show. One of my most favorite parts of the show is the writers' room. Our room is not one of these mini-rooms, it's a big, full room and it runs for a long time. And then writers who have written in the writers' room, many of them come to be on set. Those kinds of things, although they cost money, I think helped to make the show as good as it is, and there's just a variety of writer who is likely to get cut out of the financial action unless the WGA gets at least some of what it's asking for. So I'm supportive of the position.
Rich: The fact is that as the business transitioned from the old network linear model to streaming model, writers are often left out in the cold financially and it's quite unjust. And I hope they win the battle because they really deserve it and they really are underpaid. It's hard for people to understand how anyone could be underpaid in show business in Hollywood, but actually it does happen as in any other industry.
Lauren Krenzel and Susan Nyakundi produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Beth Novey adapted it for the web.
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