'Succession' Creator Jesse Armstrong Explains the Season 1 Finale's Dark Ending
The first season of Succession ends on a moment of familial reconciliation. But this being Succession -- your new, evil-hearted must-watch -- that reconciliation is filled with bile. Kendall Roy (played by Jeremy Strong), on the verge of gaining control of his father's company, drives off in search of cocaine with a young waiter just fired from working his sister Shiv's wedding. They swerve to avoid a deer and crash into a body of water. The young man drowns. Kendall, eerily composed, cleans himself up and mingles at the wedding as if nothing has happened. But Logan (Brian Cox) finds out and offers his son an ultimatum: If Kendall gives up his hostile-takeover plans, he'll sweep it all under the rug. Kendall dissolves into his father's arms, weeping, an infantile version of himself, while Logan coos, "You're my boy. You're my number one boy."
It's a haunting, almost grotesque display of the kind of privilege Succession portrays. It also resets the show for the upcoming second season. Series creator Jesse Armstrong spoke to Thrillist about what's in store for the Roys and why very rich people don't wear coats.
Thrillist: Kendall has seemed like the show's conscience, but you then orchestrated his massive fall in this last episode. How did you plan that out?
Jesse Armstrong: You can plan [it like], We need something big at the end of the season or We know we need an episode here which is kind of explosive. You have that slightly symphonic sense of what the rhythms of a show should be, and usually a season needs a kind of bang at the end. But we didn't decide we need a bang and then think of 20 different bangs and then choose one. I think I always pitched from quite early in the room that this would happen to Kendall -- that he would be involved in an accident and he was culpable in some way. Although, arguable how unusual his reaction is. You might think it's a cowardly but very human reaction, or you might think it's desperately awful what he does. I think you could think about it either way.
It just felt right for the end. I mean, not that I wasn't with a certain anxiety that it might seem kind of soapy or overblown. But it had the ring of you think your life's going one way, and then you just get totally fucking sideswiped by something else. As long as we could keep that vibe to it, it always felt like it had the feeling of real life about it.
Did you see Kendall up until this point as the -- and this is probably not the right word -- hero? How do you see him now going forward into the second season?
Armstrong: It's an ensemble show, I would say, but he's close to being the protagonist of the first season. His dilemma is the one we start the show with. The way his father treats him so brutally is the story we start and end the season with. We're just doing the writers room now for the next season. In an exciting way, I don't have a firm view on his movements within the company. The family will certainly be a part of it. Whether we track his progress as much as we did in the first season, I think we'll leave open for now.
What was it like filming and orchestrating the big wedding between Tom and Shiv?
Armstrong: It really worked as I'd hoped, in that there's a grand setting for some grand events and some really small events. If you have a setting like that, it can work well to offset it with small domestic stuff and also some sort of operatic moments of choice and decision. We shot most of the show in New York and a couple other locations in the U.S., but it was fun to bring the department heads and cast and have them where I come from in the U.K. for an episode or two. There were lots of advantages for me.
What dynamics can you play with when you put the whole family in the same room together?
Armstrong: When I pitched this show, I felt like if we do this family show, every episode in a way should feel like a special episode that could be its own movie, so that we could get this quite disparate but interconnected family group together. In a plot and writing sense, that's really useful. We had a fantastic cast. They're all brilliant, and also they're all natural stand-up improvisers. But they all really know how to follow a scene in an interesting direction. Having them all around a dinner table, and having a couple cameras running, and saying, 'Do the script but then do some bits around it' -- I love that way of shooting. It's a little bit more of a comedic, loose way of shooting, but I think it works really well for a drama like this, as well.
Do you remember a specific line that somebody improvised that you loved?
Armstrong: Does Kieran [Culkin] say, "These hands aren't going to fuck themselves," as he walks off? I forget now whether we left it in the cut. I think we did. When he's having an exchange with the senator and he just walks off saying that, we didn't know what the hell he was going to say. Often tops and tails of scenes can be good opportunities to do extra bits. Kieran was certainly brilliant at coming up with those. I think that was one of them.
Why do you think viewers have responded to Tom so much?
Armstrong: I think one thing about him is it's very easy when you're conceiving of a character, and often people seem this way in life, don't they? To have one overriding mode of being, and you tend to write towards that. But Tom is quite split. He's a kind of a jerk and a bully at work, and aggressive, and he's got the sort of masculine bullshitty way of dealing with his coworkers. That comes out especially towards Greg, with the way we particularly see it. But he also has this insinuating slightly masochistic relationship with power, in particular to the power of the family and to Shiv, where he feels like he's this kind of pathetic worm. Also, there's another level to him, I think, which is he -- most in the last couple of episodes -- is really just a bloke. [He's] a guy who does genuinely love Shiv. Although all the people in the show, as you've mentioned, are pretty tough and ambitious and have grown up with a set of values that doesn't always make them most immediately attractive, Shiv also does have a kind of attractive quality about her. I feel like their relationship is real. I guess maybe he approaches being like people we know in our lives who are like, they're a total jerk, but actually they also really love their wife and they're quite nice when you see them in such and such situation. Then, in another situation, you see them and they seem like the most reprehensible person you can imagine. He has a bunch of conflictions, certainly. Matthew [Macfadyen] is so good because he doesn't make you feel like it's a different person in those scenes. You're like, "Oh, yeah. People are a bit like that, aren't they?"
I do have to ask about the sex act involving Tom in the bachelor-party episode. That's my polite way of saying it. How did that even come up in the writers' room?
Armstrong: We knew we wanted to do this party. It felt like fun that Roman would be tasked with pulling together this bachelor party, and that he wouldn't give it that much thought, and that he might be connected to a slightly seedy, kind of groovy, but also slightly fucked-up sex-party world. We didn't want to do a big-room-of-people-fucking-joylessly orgy scene that can be tough to execute and feel really real. We were looking for a moment, a thing that would typify what the party was like for our characters. Jon Brown, the writer of that episode, just came in one morning and said he had a pitch for what Tom should do and his reaction to it. We all bought it right away, and he wrote it very compellingly. I don't think anyone ever Googled whether it was a thing, but it felt like it could be a thing and that Tom might think it was.
The cruise-line scandal that Tom is dealing with, and the reveal that Shiv knows about it now, has been teased as a bomb that's going to drop. But you held off on it. Is that something you're planning to do in season two?
Armstrong: I think we weren't going to be too mechanical about about saving it up or spending it. What we knew was that this company is a company which from the top has some shitty values, and we know, don't we, from real life that sometimes these big corporations have secrets. The scene that really appealed to us was Tom discovering, "You've got your promotion, but with it comes this sucker punch of 'you've eaten from this tree of knowledge that you're never going to be able to really get away from, especially if you stay complicit within the power structure and enjoy the fruits of being inside it.' You can never really get away from it." There's definitely a part of you as a writer and a writing team that's like, yeah, that could come back to haunt us or haunt the characters in a way that provides plot. But it's also perfectly possible that there are some big corporate secrets that just don't come out. That's an equally compelling way to go.
Do you feel that same way about the ending of the season?
Armstrong: I feel like I should be stopped from incriminating myself, because we literally are in the writers' room. I guess there's two impulses. One is to go, "Oh, it's fascinating when power covers things up." And the other is, "It's fascinating when power can't quite cover them up, and they see what they do. I hope it's not too mealy-mouthed to say I'm still open on what we do with that. But as we feel it out, I think we have got some good directions to go with it.
What part of the Roys' political life did you want to explore in this season?
Armstrong: I guess we just knew that if we were doing a family with these media interests it was going to intersect with politics. It needed to reflect the current politics of America without being the current politics, because that's a different kind of show that this one isn't quite. We knew that we needed to populate the landscape a bit. Everything after that is details and casting and vibe. We knew we needed to create our own political universe that was analogous to the real one, to the one in America, but not a copy of it, because that would be a different kind of show.
To a lot of people, the Roys are the bad guys. How do you work to make them compelling and watchable while still understanding that some of your viewers will take that approach to these characters?
Armstrong: Yeah. It's a really good question, and it could send you mad if you were thinking about it purely in theory and trying to write a manifesto. We're interested in power. We're interested in politics. We're interested in this family and these people. We try and make them real. We try not to put our fingers on the scale in a way which would make it feel didactic or like propaganda, because there's enough of that kind of thing around. We don't need to tell people what to think about this kind of person. But I think we do feel like there's lots of drama and comedy in a true reflection of them. It's a really, really difficult balance or line to tread. It's like a billion different decisions rather than one decision. I don't want people to be uncritical about these people, but I don't want the criticism to feel glib or easy or by rote. Our daily work is being fair but not generous to our people, to our characters.
Will there be another power struggle next season, or will you lay off that as you explore the idea of Logan having all this power again without anyone to stop him?
Armstrong: I guess the only thing that's maybe interesting or useful to say is things have got to change. The forced reconciliation that happens at the end of the season... feels very natural. That's sort of what Kendall wants to do. I don't have all the answers for how we go forward from there but we have a bunch of them. One thing I know that's real is that hug, and that desire to give in to power, to accept what feels inevitable. We're not going to turn around and say that was just a joke, there's a knife in his hand [and] he's going to stab his dad in the back right away. We're not going to do that. How we manage the drama, given that that pivot is going to change, we don't have every answer to, but we're committed to this quite exciting new world where maybe Kendall and Logan become something of a unit for a while.
Is there something that you learned about the lifestyles of the exceedingly wealthy in the process of writing and researching this first season that you didn't know before that just gobsmacks you?
Armstrong: I don't think I learned anything massive. I did learn that we put too many coats in the world initially. I remember showing it to somebody who lives closer to this world than I do. They're like, "Hmm. Yeah. You've just got too many coats. They're never really cold, these people." They're either coming out of the apartment or heading into the helicopter. There's just no time really to take a coat on or off.