‘Succession’ Creator Jesse Armstrong on the Explosive Season 3 Finale: Tom’s Betrayal, Kendall’s Confession and More

SPOILER ALERT: Do not read if you have not yet watched the Season 3 finale of HBO’s “Succession.”

Logan Roy is selling Waystar Royco — the prized possession at the center of HBO’s “Succession” — to Lukas Matsson (Alexander Skarsgård), the Elon Musk-shaded tech entrepreneur whom Logan (Brian Cox) was supposed to buy out. It’s a betrayal of Logan’s warring adult children — Roman (Kieran Culkin), Shiv (Sarah Snook) and Kendall (Jeremy Strong) — so profound that it united them against him. But of course, even when they thought they had the upper hand because their parents’ divorce agreement codified that Logan their sign-off to sell the company, they learned in the season’s final confrontation that Logan had once again outsmarted them. By appealing to his ex-wife’s basest instincts and greed — which is how he became a titan in the first place — she sold them out to their father.

And Logan knew they were coming. Shiv’s husband Tom (Matthew Macfadyen) warned him. Tom, who compared himself to the murderous emperor Nero earlier in the season, betrayed Shiv. He had finally realized — because she said it to his face under the guise of dirty talk! — that Shiv doesn’t love him, and maybe never did.

As if that weren’t enough for a finale, Kendall finally confessed to Shiv and Roman that he had been responsible for the death of a caterer at Shiv’s wedding at the end of Season 1. Kendall is utterly broken — disconnected, hollowed out, possibly suicidal — which he tells them over and over. But since Roman and Shiv are also messes, and they’ve learned that Logan (Brian Cox) is selling Waystar Royco, the prize they’re  fighting over, they sidestep Kendall’s crime, and enlist Kendall in their (for now, doomed) fight against Logan. “Can I be with you guys?” Kendall asks as they head off to their battle.

On the morning after the finale, Jesse Armstrong, the “Succession” creator and executive producer, discussed the finale, and what led up to it.

When you went into the writers’ room for the season, did you know from the start that Logan would sell Waystar Royco, and that Kendall would confess what he’d done? 

It’s hard for me to reconstruct the snowstorm of the process. Usually what happens is I go in with some pitches of what I think the shape of the season is like, and some episode ideas. I do the first three or four weeks very loose, as we break the shape of the season. By the time we’d done three or four weeks, we started breaking the season, we started breaking the individual episodes, that stuff is locked down.

We try and follow stuff that happens in the real world of media. And so selling felt like a thing that’s happened to some legacy media companies. Confessing has always been — well, that could happen. There are these plot shapes, which in a ghostly way start to solidify as you talk and talk.

Did you mirror some of the things that happened when Rupert Murdoch sold Fox to Disney, and the “Succession”-like scenario that had been playing out among his children?

That one was present in our minds. Older ones — AOL Time Warner. And Warner, more recently, with AT&T: That was close to home, and far from home.

And obviously, Murdoch and Disney was in our minds. We try and absorb all the business stories we can, and have that thing of not copying reality, but it makes me much more comfortable if I feel like our fictional media company is facing the same dilemmas that real legacy media companies are.

And on the morning that Elon Musk is named Time’s Person of the Year, no less! Can you talk about your approach to writing the scene in the parking lot when Kendall, Shiv and Roman are finally talking about what happened that Shiv’s wedding?

I generally write the last couple of episodes. And it was tight, timewise, and we haven’t done as much on work on them as we have on other stuff because they’re at the end, and also it’s nice to leave things a bit loose.

I knew that scene was going to happen. I knew what was going to happen with Tom and Shiv at the end. But honestly — I found it hard. I’m a pretty kind of workman-like writer. I don’t have writer’s block. I get down to it. I go for it, and then I refine and work on things. But I was very pleased with the finale of last season. And I don’t normally feel this kind of thing, but I felt a certain anxiety about whether this episode would be as good. In plain speaking!

I knew that we had good shape. But then there’s also the part which is execution, and I knew I had to execute that. And I don’t normally get wobbly, but I found I was scared of that. I rewrote it a bit; I rewrote it in the UK, and I rewrote it when we were in Florence.

It’s a difficult thing to get someone to say the one thing they don’t want to say. And I felt like we’d put building blocks in place that made it feel psychologically real. But making the actual trigger be something that Jeremy was then going to be able to achieve the moment, and to get the kids to respond in a way — his siblings — to respond in a way that was actually just true was a challenge. It was tough. But it was exciting, because you know you’re writing for those brilliant people.

Did you have any idea what a meltdown viewers were going to have at the end of Episode 8, when it was suggested that Kendall might drown?

No, not really. I didn’t. And I keep it a little bit of a distance between me and the response, just because it’s gratifying that people got into the show a bit more. But you can have a bit of a complicated reaction to all that stuff, because it’s just a lot. So I don’t know all of what you speak. But I got a sense that it was like, “Whoa!” And I guess I felt like an ominous ending where that possibility was we were being pretty explicit. His kids left him in the pool. He was there floating alone drunk. The beautiful shots that Mark found, and the stuff that Jeremy did, maybe encouraged people to think even more about what was the bad, bad, bad, bad things that were possible.

There was a lot of speculation after the episode that Kendall was going to die. Was that ever a consideration?

When we go into the room, nothing’s off the table. I think having seen the last episode, you will see there’s a logic to where he is. His siblings come over to him, and he’s primed if the right mixture of guilt and tenderness is shown to him for that stuff to come out.

It was part of that story, rather than a story that was ever going to go in a different direction for me.

When did you know that Tom would betray Shiv — and what was the last straw for Tom?

I certainly remember pitching it to HBO when we were like, “I think this is what the season is.” So it was pretty early.

And in terms of when he decided, I don’t want to put a name on it. I’ve got my pitch of when it was. But Matthew’s might be different, and his, I would say, is equally as important as mine. And you sometimes don’t know — things are building up for years, and then that thing happens, and it cracks.

Can you talk about blowing up the Roman/Gerri dynamic?

It’s always loomed over that thing — this dynamic which Gerri and Roman have developed — that it’s dangerous. It’s dangerous to both of them. It’s probably more dangerous, as she’s well aware, to Gerri, because of societal stuff about sexism and being a woman inside that company. And also because of familial stuff — she’s both more vulnerable, and less vulnerable because of that. I didn’t ever see them, like, getting married and going into live in Tahiti. I always felt like Gerri has been really smart, and she’s fucking tried to keep this stuff in a box. But Roman doesn’t keep stuff in a box. So it was always fissile material.

And can you talk about Roman finally standing up to Logan, which was very difficult for him?

Just as you say, it’s very difficult for him. We’ve seen that right across a few seasons now that Roman, maybe more than anyone else, is in thrall to his father’s power, and feels his displeasure. They all feel it quite viscerally, but he feels it almost more viscerally than anyone else. If you have to overcome that, some pretty important building blocks and emotional defenses have to be built. And I hope you feel that the building blocks were in place. He needed a lot of support, and maybe he was finally getting it to be able to stand up to that intense emotional glare.

For my last question, Jesse, you said to me before the season “there’s a promise in the ‘Succession’ title, and it can’t go on forever.” Now that the company has been blown up, how does that change the very idea behind the show? 

It changes it. I’d be bullshitting you if I told you I knew exactly what was going to happen. We’ll follow the truth, and the business of that.

I think succession in of one form or another is very much still on the table.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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