Yesterday, like much of the rest of the world, I watched the finale of the third season of Succession. And, like much of the rest of the world, I found myself buffeted by one astonishing twist after another – and a gasp-inducing climax that outdid even those of series one and two. Unlike my fellow viewers, however, pretty much the first thing I see after the end credits roll is the face of Jesse Armstrong, the show’s creator, popping up over Zoom and politely attempting to dissuade me from discussing the episode.
Unlike other big TV showrunners – who will happily explain, and sometimes over-explain, every single second – Armstrong prefers to remain hands off. He tries not to read the acres of theorising that Succession inspires. Such post-match analyses, he says, can often feel like a tightrope walk. “There’s a bit of me that just wants to find out what the fuck everyone is saying about the show,” he says from his book-lined study in London. “But you can’t. It wouldn’t be good for me psychologically – and it wouldn’t be good for the creative process of doing the show.”
This reluctance to engage is partly down to his desire to preserve the reality of the show, which tells the story of billionaire Logan Roy, his media company WayStar RoyCo and his four children, all of them vying for dominance in the most dysfunctionally abhorrent ways. Once the creator starts explaining the background to all the decisions that go into making the show, he believes, the mystery that propels it starts to diminish.
“I don’t want to say, ‘We had this for lunch on that day’ or ‘Kieran was wearing a hat, but we decided to give him another one because it made him look more military.’” He pulls himself to a halt, already imagining the thousands of “Roman Roy joins the army” theories that could be triggered by such a statement about the repellent, but very funny, character played by Kieran Culkin. “I’ve just made that up,” Armstrong quickly clarifies.
For weeks now, Succession has been stuffed with foreboding symbols of death. There have been crucifixes, health scares and – in a cliffhanger that obsessed the world last week – a dreadful accident. Worse still, the final episode opened with Logan reading the children’s book Goodbye Mog to his grandson. The book, about a cartoon cat, is explicitly about the death of a beloved character. You don’t put Goodbye Mog in a TV programme, I say, unless you’re planning to off someone. “Or do you?” counters Armstrong. “As you know, there are multiple readings of Goodbye Mog. You could probably list them. But this was probably more of a Marxist reading than a Freudian one.”
Kendall, the middle brother, did seem like he might take his life this season. Has he ever considered killing him off? “The writers’ room is an open forum where anything mad or weird that aggressively shakes up the show can be suggested and considered,” he replies. “But we never went down that road. We know Ken got to a low point, then an event happened. I wouldn’t disagree with anyone else’s interpretation of it – but in my mind, it was just a grey area of someone who has stopped looking after themselves.”
To hear Armstrong talk about it, all the real fun of Succession happens inside the writers’ room. That’s where all the plots are hashed out, all the themes debated until something like a roadmap to each season begins to form. It sounds like a world of total possibility and, whenever I even begin to approach something approximating a grand unified theory on Succession, the writers’ room is where he bats it back to.
Maybe, I say, it would be a good idea for Logan to just sell out and cut his kids loose, let the entitled brats stand on their own two feet. If they can make a success of themselves outside of WayStar, then they don’t need it. If they can’t, it’s proof Logan was only keeping them around out of vanity. I check Armstrong’s face for something – anything – that might validate my theory.
“Um,” he eventually replies. “I’m gonna give you a, ‘That’s a good idea.’ I buy the notion, but it’s not good for me to talk about. If I said, ‘Yes, that’s right’, it would be bullshit. I haven’t got a conceptual framework of what happens. I don’t mean to be a dick about it, but I don’t have any good answers, or maybe they’re only appropriate to discuss in the writers’ room.”
I retreat to safer ground. A recent New Yorker interview with Jeremy Strong, who plays Kendall Roy, laid out his sometimes extreme ways of getting into whatever character he is playing. In The Trial of the Chicago 7, while shooting a protest scene, Strong asked a stunt coördinator to rough him up and also requested to be sprayed with real tear gas. “I don’t like saying no to Jeremy,” the film’s writer and director Aaron Sorkin is quoted as saying. “But there were 200 people in that scene and another 70 on the crew, so I declined to spray them with poison gas.”
The profile attracted such fascination (and mockery) that the likes of Sorkin, Jessica Chastain and Anne Hathaway felt compelled to leap to his defence. Has Armstrong spoken to Strong during this firestorm? Is he dealing with it OK? “He’s fine,” says the writer. “He’s fine. I’m in touch with all the actors. He’s good.”
With Strong so willing to go to similar extremes to reach the emotions needed to play someone like Kendall, I wonder if Armstrong ever goes through something similar. Does he, in the process of creating a show with so many peaks and troughs, find himself being chucked about by the emotion of it all? “Oh shit, I do, I do,” he says, suddenly much more animated, recalling a scene between Kendall and his sister Shiv. “I remember doing a rewrite where Shiv gives Kendall a hug. I found it very touching.” This isn’t always the case, he’s keen to point out. “Sometimes I can be a bit more of a scientist in a lab about it. You don’t want to get high on your own supply and start overestimating yourself, but I really am emotionally engaged.”
He goes on to describe the season three finale’s most pivotal scene, which takes place in an Italian car park underneath the beating sun. It is a make-or-break moment for the siblings in their battle with their father – a delicate scene they had to get right. Nevertheless, as Armstrong explains: “I was very present watching that scene being filmed. I was like a fan of Succession watching it.”
After Christmas, Armstrong will reassemble the Succession writers’ room and begin to piece together season four. It may or may not be the show’s last. He won’t say for sure, but he does seem overly concerned with the notion of outstaying his welcome. Speaking of the season two finale, the one that ended with Kendall publicly accusing his father of wrongdoing, he recalls thinking: “I hope I can write another as good as that. And I don’t know if I can. That might be as good as I’ve got.”
It wasn’t. This last season has seen Succession ascend to even greater heights – but Armstrong remains cautious. “You’ve only got so much plot, character and psychological capital,” he says. “One day it will be gone and you don’t know when that day is. The fear is that it’ll sneak up on you when you’re not looking.”
I have time to pitch one last Succession theory. Given all the plot swings with Kendall, and his very specific obsessions, is he Jesus? “This is part of the reason why I do and don’t like talking about the show,” Armstrong replies patiently. “That theory works, but it isn’t the key to the show because it’s not that kind of show. But you’d be very welcome to come into the writers’ room and say that, because we’d have a really good time talking about it.”
You’ve really made me want to visit the writers’ room, I say. He grins. “I find the period when the show’s going out really complicated, because there’s all this stuff I do want to know but I don’t want to know. But the writers’ room is almost pure pleasure. I always look forward to that.”
• Succession is available to watch on demand on Sky and NOW.