‘Does Logan love his kids? My knee-jerk reaction is yeah’: Succession creator Jesse Armstrong shares the show’s secrets
On the day the finale of the explosive third season of Succession airs, the show’s creator and lead writer Jesse Armstrong explains what’s really going on in Logan’s head, whether the Murdochs might be fans and when to expect season four. Oh and also that dick pic moment…
Succession is the defining drama of our age, which gives you an idea about the questionable state of the times we’re living in.
The Roys take family feuding to a whole new level, going to epic lengths to undermine, sabotage and stab each other in the back – sometimes from the front too as they try to stop their media empire from sinking in the digital age.
As the sublime third series draws to a dramatic climax, Jesse Armstrong talks us through some of the biggest talking points of the most talked about show of the year…
The season finales of Succession are always game changers. Do you plan the ending from the beginning?
Jesse Armstrong: Yeah, we do. We try and spend the first three or four weeks cracking that overall shape. Everyone writes their episodes separately. We don’t write the episodes in the writers’ room, but we construct the plots in the room. And then we do each episode’s construction and shape.
It’s important for me to know where we’re headed because otherwise it could be bullshit. Having the freedom to be creative within a structure, in which I know I’m heading to some climax that is true and satisfying, means that the game of thinking what the scenes are that get us there is an enjoyable game, not a terrifying game.
The previous season ended with a big outward detonation for everyone. In this case, it feels more like an implosion.
That’s a good description. Those kinds of theoretical conceptions, I like thinking about the show like that but they’re secondary. More typically, it will be following a piece of financial business or psychological character logic to its bitter or sweet end. I would always prioritise emotional and character truth rather than trying to fit a shape, however cool or compelling the shape felt.
As the finale proves, the show is at its most powerful with Kendall, Logan, Shiv and Roman together. Do you have to use those moments sparingly and strategically?
Yeah, a bit. Again, I don’t like thinking about the mechanical – like, if we do this pair too much will they wear out or this grouping we should save. Those thoughts are not the kind of thoughts I like to be thinking. If when we went to the writers’ room, it turned out that the whole season should be them all together I would go with that.
It’s true that we get some power from the fact that we don’t do a tonne of that. But I wouldn’t be scared of doing a tonne more of it because it might be great.
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Brian Cox has said when he first spoke to you about his character you said he loves his kids. Three years in – does he still love them?
I would say actors take what’s useful to them. Does Logan simply love his kids or only love his kids? Well, I’d have some notes on that. But does he love them? My knee-jerk instinctive reaction is yeah, he does.
But the way that one expresses love can be pretty complicated, perverse, unusual, and sometimes doesn’t look like love. But I think it was very useful for Brian to know that this wasn’t someone who’d had an excision of his heart.
In the final episode, there’s the possibility of a new Roy heir mooted, with Logan taking a maca root smoothie. Did you have to research what a particularly potent kind of gloopy material would enable him to have stronger sperm?
You know, [it’s a] heavily research show and we looked into all the products which allege that they can help with your sperm count, especially as you move on in years. I can confirm that’s research for the show not from my own life.
Having deployed this possibility that Logan is going to have another child, do you know where you’re going to take that?
It’s a potent detail about someone thinking about mortality and so on, but it’s played for a comic beat in the in the episode. But it’s a good example of what we do with the show. I think I know what happens but if someone makes a really strong argument, and it starts to feel that we could go in another direction, that’s a good creative way to run the room.
A highlight of the third season – if that’s the right word – was when Roman accidentally sent a dick pic to his father, which led to one of the greatest reaction shots in the history of TV from Kieran Culkin.
We talked about a bunch of communication faux pas and what can go wrong with texts, reply all – all the different terrifying ways you can screw up with that stuff. Then there’s a lot of work to get the right thing happening at the right – or wrong – time.
And it is a lot of work to get something which could be a throwaway joke to feel more than that. Then you hand it over to some amazing actors. No one in the world could tell Kieran how to do that. That’s a wonderful part about collaboration, it becomes much more than the sum of its parts.
Have you ever pushed things too far?
I would never say, ‘Roman would really do this but we can’t because that would be too much’. As you’ve seen in the show, they say the most awful, taboo-breaking, heart-breaking things to each other. I would never restrict where the characters went if it felt truthful.
Most – if not all – of the characters are horrible but why do we not really want to see their comeuppance?
There’s a dichotomy. We try and show these characters and what they do in the world. Some stuff you would say is objectively just bad behaviour. And it’s appropriate we make a judgement about that. But then it is complicated by the fact that we see in this show some of the reasons why people have ended up like that.
And then you get into what I think is a good grey area for human beings – how much does your past experiences forgive your actions? And if anyone has a simple answer to that, either you’re a moron or a Nobel Laureate.
I don’t think anyone is born evil. So everyone is shaped to become what they end up. If the show is intriguing to people, maybe that’s one of the reasons.
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You do have an emotional attachment to these people – unreal characters who have to feel very real to us otherwise I couldn’t write them. But you have to be a little bit more chilly in the way that you develop the show.
I have to have two sides to my character. I love these human beings who I work with, the actors. But the part of my brain that I have to honour is the showrunning – what is best for the show? And I think as long as everyone knows that, the other questions fall away. We can’t play favourites on a personal, actor level or indeed a character level. We have to icily, brutally follow the story.
How do you feel about a dynasty like the Murdochs probably loving that this is how they’re viewed?
I can’t control it. Put it into the world, it’s for people to enjoy or not enjoy. That would probably be a rabbit hole to go down. You can never tell what people make of the work in that way. So I would not worry too much about that.
It’s said the original plan was to kill off Logan in the first episode, or at least the first series. How different would the show be now?
I mean, that was a thought. I’ve had many, many thoughts about bad ideas that could have gone in the show. That’s part of my job. Thinking them and then really thinking about them and dismissing them or accepting them.
It’s called Succession and it’s interesting, what could happen if and when Logan completely steps aside? But as soon as I was writing the pilot, I realised I didn’t want him to die in that. And then very early on in the season we were like, well, you don’t remove the sun from the universe.
How long do we have to wait for season four?
We are going to crank up the room. We’ll do it as quick as we can. It’s a dream as writers and as a showrunner to have an audience. We’ve all been involved with things where no one cares when it comes again. If anyone’s waiting we’ll do it as quick as possible, because we’re grateful.
Succession, a Sky exclusive, is available on Sky and NOW on demand. Succession Season 3 is also available to own digitally now