Armstrong on the roots of Succession: Would
it have landed the same way without the mad bum-rush
of Trumps presidency? - 27th May 2023
has been the TV drama of our time a brutal,
hilarious unpicking of how power works. As the series
comes to an end, its creator looks back at its origin
and the unholy trinity of men who helped inspire Logan
first vivid memory of the project that would develop
into Succession was trying to get out of it. It was
about 2008 and I was on location for the filming of
Peep Show, the UK sitcom my longtime writing partner
Sam Bain and I wrote together. Between that show and
my work on The Thick of It and In the Loop, and a
bunch of other things, I was feeling overcommitted.
That particular day we were pretending a very normal
field in Hertfordshire was a safari park. I sloped
off from set and, hiding from imaginary lions, tried
to elegantly step away from the project.
failed. And in the following months as I wrote, slowly,
I became certain the script was a dud. It was stodgy
and odd. The original idea, a faux-documentary laying
out Rupert Murdochs business secrets, with them
delivered straight to camera, evolved as I worked
into a sort of TV play, set at the media owners
80th birthday party. Channel 4 were supportive, but
it was an odd form, this docudrama/TV-play, and difficult
to make happen. Around 2011, after a read-through
in London where John Hurt played Rupert, the project
US agent was the first person I recall suggesting
a totally different approach. A fictional family,
a multi-series US show. For five years or so, I dismissed
the idea, certain that a portrayal of a fictional
family would never have the power of a real one. Four
works changed my mind: HBOs excellent Robert
Durst documentary, The Jinx; Sumner Redstones
grimly business-focused autobiography, A Passion to
Win; James B Stewarts propulsive DisneyWar;
and Tom Bowers fascinating Robert Maxwell biography
Maxwell: The Final Verdict. These turned the idea
of doing a media-family drama without a singular real-life
model from a terrible betrayal of reality into a tantalising
chance to harvest all the best stories. Here was an
opportunity to explore all the most fascinating family
dynamics within a propitiously balanced fictional
hybrid media conglomerate. I took a long, deep dive
into rich-family and media-business research.
talked about this, as-yet-unwritten, idea in half-ironised
terms as Festen-meets-Dallas
Sam and I decided to bring things to a close on Peep
Show, I flew out to pitch this media show around LA.
I had a clear idea of where I wanted to develop it,
but my agent persuaded me appetites would be whetted
if we had a number of potential homes. So I spent
three days doing a round of pitch meetings where I
talked about this as-yet-unwritten idea in half-ironised
terms as Festen-meets-Dallas. No stars,
Dogme 95 camerawork. Scared of driving on the five-lane
highways, I bumped around town in the back of a Honda
Civic while a nice young man from my US agents
mailroom ferried me between rooms stocked with identical
tiny bottles of water and executives of vastly varying
degrees of interest.
I got to HBO, the place I most wanted the show to
land, home to The Sopranos and Six Feet Under. I knew
they might be receptive. Frank Rich once known
as the Butcher of Broadway for his theatre
criticism, but now an in-house consigliere
had championed my work there to the boss, Richard
Plepler, and Id previously developed a show
with them. So, out the back of a French-style bistro
on a three-cappuccino high, I pitched it to their
head of drama and comedy, Casey Bloys.
a pitch stretches thin and threadbare, the fabric
renting as you go, the other party peeping grimly
through the holes. Other times, the air thickens,
and you can feel the atmosphere in the room turn oxygen-rich
as the enthusiasm you are trying to project transforms
into an enthusiasm you are actually feeling.
the time I left LA, HBO had made an offer and Adam
McKay, fresh from The Big Short, had said he would
be interested in directing. Id written another
Succession forerunner, a script about the US political
strategist Lee Atwater, for Adam and his producing
partner Kevin Messick. It had been one of the few
LA experiences Id had where the excitement expressed
at the start of the project sustained through the
writing and attempts to get it made.
was 2016 and, once back in the UK, I wrote the pilot
through the spring and summer in a one-room flat I
rented on Brixton Hill, south London, walking across
Brockwell Park each morning, listening to podcasts
and reading news about the Brexit referendum. Scotland
had recently voted by a narrow majority to stay inside
the UK and the abiding sense right before the Brexit
vote was, yeah, change looms, it glistens, menacingly,
promisingly, but it doesnt happen. Not really.
Really, everything stays the same.
then it did happen. And across the Atlantic, the Trump
campaign was igniting even if initially his
candidacy felt like a slightly amusing, slightly too-vivid
flash in the pan. Into early autumn, in fact, all
serious people were still explaining to one another
that Trump couldnt happen. Although I suppose,
looking back, there was a notable lack of detail in
terms of the mechanism by which he would be stopped.
think a lot of the better films and TV shows Ive
been involved with have at their heart a quite simple
impulse around which the more subtle layers are spun.
In the Loops spark was anger at the Iraq war.
Chris Morriss Four Lions I think was driven
by his gut feeling that something was very wrong with
the way we understood jihadi terrorism in the UK.
Peep Show was about oddball male friendship, perhaps
guess the simple things at the heart of Succession
ended up being Brexit and Trump. The way the UK press
had primed the EU debate for decades. The way the
US medias conservative outriders prepared the
way for Trump, hovered at the brink of support and
then dived in. The British press of Rothermere, Maxwell,
Murdoch and the Barclay brothers, and the US news
environment of Fox and Breitbart.
Sun doesnt run the UK, nor does Fox entirely
set the media agenda in the US, but it was hard not
to feel, at the time the show was coming together,
the particular impact of one man, of one family, on
the lives of so many. Rightwing populism was on the
march across the globe. But in the fine margins of
the Brexit vote and Trumps eventual electoral
college victory, one couldnt help but think
about the influence of the years of anti-EU stories
and comment in the UK press, the years of Fox dancing
with its audience, sometimes leading, sometimes following,
as the wine got stronger, the music madder. It was
politically alarming and creatively appealing: to
imagine the mixture of business imperatives and political
instinct that exist within a media operation; to consider
what happens when something as important as the flow
of information in a democracy hits the reductive brutality
of the profit calculation inside such a company. How
those elements might rebound emotionally and psychologically
inside a family as it considered the question of corporate
Logan Roy, Murdoch, Redstone and Maxwell were my holy
trinity of models. But Conrad Black, Brian L Roberts
of Comcast, Robert Mercer of Breitbart, Julian Sinclair
Smith of Sinclair, Tiny Rowland, Rothermere, Beaverbrook
and Hearst all fed in. The three central models were
wildly different, of course: the self-made refugee
Maxwell and the already-rich Murdoch, a scion of Australian
journalistic royalty, both so different from the tough
Boston lawyer Redstone who started with a couple of
his fathers drive-in cinemas.
they were connected by a strong interest in a few
things: a refusal to think about mortality (Redstone
and Murdoch both used to make the same joke about
their succession plan: not dying); desire for control;
manic deal-making energy; love of gossip and power-connection;
a certain ruthlessness about hirings and firings.
And most of all, an instinct for forward motion, with
a notable lack of introspection.
the best part of Redstones autobiography for
a casual reader is the opening, where he recounts
clinging by one hand to a hotel balcony through a
fire. Despite suffering third-degree burns over half
his body, years of rehabilitation, excruciatingly
painful skin grafts, he says this event, after which
he made all his biggest business plays, had no impact
whatsoever on the trajectory of his life.
due to all this grist, or the aligning of the political
planets (in)auspiciously, the pilot came unnervingly
easily. Getting names in a script to feel real can
be hard for me theyre a tell-tale sign
of whether Im living inside it. Kendall, Shiv,
Roman, Connor. They all felt right straight off the
bat. Their inspirations, I suppose, were the children
of these magnates: three of the Maxwell kids, the
ones closest to the business (the boys, Ian and Kevin)
and to their father (Ghislaine). Brent and Shari Redstone,
with whom Sumner played a tough and complicated game
of bait-and-switch over CBS-Paramount succession.
And the Murdoch children, Prudence, Lachlan, James,
Elisabeth, Chloe and Grace.
getting those names for the Roy children made them
feel like their own individuals to me. It allowed
me to pour in just what I wanted from the real world,
fill each with all the faults they might have inherited,
while giving me room to add some extra, just for them.
and Tom came fast, too. Tom from two roots. One was
thinking about the sort of lunks Ive occasionally
seen powerful women choose as partners. Plausible,
manly men with big watches and a soothing affable
manner. That mixed with the deadly courtier, a more
18th-century figure, minutely attuned to shifts in
power and influence, an invisible deadly gas that
occurs in certain confined places and rises to kill
anyone unwise enough not to take precautions. A hanger-on
sustained by some Fitzgeraldian illusions about the
world, a sense that perhaps the rich really are different
from us and a romantic ambition to make it in New
I guess, was a distant relative of the sort of political
adviser I had myself briefly been. Gormless, clueless,
out of place and gauche. But not without an eye for
a deal. And, I hope, a little more wheedling and insinuating
than I ever was.
scenes flowed. I put all research aside and followed
my nose and wrote pretty much exactly what I wanted
charge between these two semi-outsiders struck me
from the start as toxic and comic. Tom, the interloper,
is like an organism that has found a precarious but
rewarding perch above some deep oceanic vent and adapted
itself to conditions perfectly. He is not pleased
at all to see a similar creature scuttling along hoping
to share the same cramped evolutionary niche. That
first half-bullying, half-provocative exchange they
share in the outfield at a softball game in the pilot
landed them right in the middle of a stew theyve
been cooking in ever since.
scenes flowed. I had eaten a very large amount of
research, but once I was writing I put it all aside
and followed my nose and wrote pretty much exactly
what I wanted. It felt funny but odd and broken-ended,
fragmentary, abrupt, oblique and slightly brutal.
When I emailed it off, I had the familiar feeling
that Adam, Frank and HBO might email back to say not
only was it not good, it wasnt even actually,
technically, a script. But their response was frighteningly
positive. Almost as though the script was finished,
after what was, I thought, a quick first draft. I
think every other episode of Succession has gone to
at least 30 drafts usually 50. The pilot barely
had our read-through in New York on US election day
2016. Before we started, I made the sort of joke lots
of people made that day, assuming the polls were right
and Hillary Clinton was going to squeeze it. That
night we gathered in Adam McKays apartment to
watch the results roll in. Much later, I walked a
long walk back from Soho to where I was staying near
the United Nations looking at the electoral college
numbers projected on to the Empire State Building.
started filming the next day.
still wonder whether Succession would have landed
in the same way without the mad bum-rush of news and
sensation Trumps chaotic presidency provided.
Trump wasnt the firebombing of German civilians,
and nor is Succession Slaughterhouse-Five, but I do
sometimes think about Vonnegut saying no one in the
world profited from the firebombing of Dresden, except
is an edited extract from Succession: The Complete
Scripts Seasons One, Two and Three (Faber &
Faber), out now at £20 each. To support the
Guardian and Observer, order your copies for £17.60
each from guardianbookshop.com.
final episode of Succession airs in the UK on Sky
Atlantic/Now on Monday. Jesse Armstrong donated the
fee for this article to the Writers Guild of America
strike assistance fund.
Cox admits he has not watched Succession final episode
Cox has praised the writers of Succession but confessed
he had not watched the final episode of the popular
five years, the dark and satirical programme came
to an end with an 88-minute finale which aired last
week to critical acclaim.
actor Cox, who played foul-mouthed global media tycoon
and family patriarch Logan Roy, was killed off in
episode three of the final season of the hit HBO show.
on Sunday With Laura Kuenssberg, 77-year-old Cox said
none his on-screen children deserved to become the
new boss of the family business, but confessed: I
havent seen the end of the show.
asked why, Cox joked: Im dead, dead people
dont watch things like that.
continued: Ive never liked watching myself
for a start, and somehow or another because of what
happened to Logan Ive been disinclined to watch
knew how it was going to end because I knew that Logan
had already set it up and so I gather that ultimately
in the end Logans won even though hes
in the grave, but its a strange situation.
dont cling onto things, when Im over,
its over and I go on, and I find that with this
show which has been a great show.
has been one of the great shows of all time, especially
for me, so I cant complain.
first aired in 2018 and is the brainchild of British
showrunner Jesse Armstrong, who also created and wrote
TV comedy-dramas Peep Show and Fresh Meat.
praised the writing team on Succession amid a strike
by the Writers Guild of America (WGA) which has seen
more than 11,500 members walk out since May 2, primarily
over royalties from streaming media.
actor said: Theyre the prime forces of
what we do, we cant do anything without the
been particularly lucky to work with a genius like
should get their just rewards for it. Unfortunately
producers are the ones that behave rather badly, all
the ones that are the manipulators and sometimes the
writers get pushed to the tap-end of the bath.
think its time the writers, I mean they have
done before in the past, but its time that they
really asserted their rights because they are the
main focus, thats what you like when you see
a show like Succession or The White Lotus its
on the BBC show, The White Lotus star Tom Hollander
also spoke about the strike, saying he thinks writers
should go for it.
said: Writers are the most important people,
they are the primary creators and without them theres
need to fight for their corner, and if AI is about
to replace everyone script writing
need to hold their ground.
is fascinating about it to me is the way the unions
have real power in America which we consider to be
land of the free market, and the Thatcherite aspiration
was partly the American aspiration, but actually the
irony is in America the unions have real block power
which we no longer have here.
unprecedented twist will transform how we think about
TV - 10th April 2023
an audacious turn that will shake the Richter scale
of pop culture and go down in television history as
a stunning plot twist, Logan Roy, the fictional media
magnate at the centre of Succession, was killed off
without warning in Mondays episode.
best show on television, the scathing black comedy
about privilege that had revealed itself as a wrenching
drama about familial trauma, exited the character
that everyone else orbited around. It is an unbelievable
gambit, a profound decision for a series that rightly
draws obsessive coverage.
saw it coming on screen or off. This is the
fourth and final season of Succession, which in its
very title set up the question of who would succeed
Brian Coxs tyrannical corporate titan. The obvious
expectation was that the 10th and final episode of
this season, scheduled for the end of May, would be
where we would see something as definitive as this.
Mondays episode was just the third, with the
pieces seemingly being put in place. The table was
supposedly being set, now its been completely
possibilities were both enticing and dramatic. Would
the forever dubious alliance of his children
Kendall (Jeremy Strong), Siobhan, a.k.a. Shiv
(Sarah Snook), and Roman (Kieran Culkin), actually
find a way to defeat the patriarch who divided and
conquered them for decades? Would one of his courtiers
stab him in the back? Would one of Logans plans,
based on his gut instinct, finally blow up in his
face? Turns out we were looking at it wrongly.
episode, titled Connors Wedding, was written
by Successions creator, Jesse Armstrong, and
if nothing else it proves that Logan Roy was not indestructible.
The creator of boar on the floor, the
dispatcher of US presidents, and the possessor of
the most ferocious banter on Wall Street, got on a
corporate jet to go to Sweden, strong-armed by his
own blood and major shareholders to extract a slightly
better price from the Swedish tech mogul buying the
entertainment assets of the Roy familys company,
billionaire was ageing, and in the shows very
first episode hed suffered a stroke that left
him hospitalised, but his recovery fuelled
by a punishing unwillingness to cede power or take
a backwards step had been purposeful and near
complete. In the previous episode Logan had delivered
a fighting speech to the staff of ATN, the Fox News-like
cable news network that he was keeping hold of, but
early in the flight he reportedly collapsed and his
heart stopped beating.
decisions throughout the episode were crucial. Viewers
learnt what had happened as Logans children
did. Assembled for the wedding of the oldest Roy son,
Connor (Alan Ruck), they received a terrified phone
call from the flight. You never saw Logans fall,
you never saw his face again, even as Shivs
soon to be ex-husband, Tom (Matthew Macfadyen) held
his phone to Logans ears so his offspring could
speak to him as CPR was administered.
first response was disbelief. Another near-death experience
for Logan? Season three had also featured a cliffhanger
that suggested a distraught Kendall drowned in a swimming
pool. That time Succession stepped back from the brink.
Not this time. It was a minute-by-minute experience,
defined by panic and shock. The words spoken had a
tragic honesty: Youre going to be OK,
Roman pleaded, because youre a monster.
think theres anything after all this?
a maudlin Logan had wondered in the seasons
first episode, and the answer was clearly no. His
body was an out-of-focus form in the background. Logan
Roy was no more. No final words, no deathbed derision.
Death is a mainstay of scripted television, the break-the-glass
storytelling option, but no major show has ever so
coolly and completely removed an essential character.
It feels unprecedented.
focus for the shows remaining episodes is now
the children. It makes sense. Logan Roy had shown
us who he was time and time again. He believed money
wins and couldnt change. The character
was a constant a terrifying, compelling constant
and he provided the gravity which held everyone
else in painful place. Without him, and Coxs
towering performance, the programs boundaries
are for better or worse broken.
love you, but you are not serious people, were
Logans final words to his children-slash-adversaries,
incongruously delivered in a private karaoke room
after a failed attempt at rapprochement in the previous
find out if he was right over the next seven episodes.
And whatever eventuates from this staggering development,
its clear that Successions conclusion
is not about who wins. Thats always been a facile
reading. Succession is about who survives. And Logan
Sydney Morning Herald)