Jesse Armstrong didn’t always know how “Succession” would end. But he knew how that ending would feel. “It was always a bit about human mortality and the mortality of these kinds of media operations,” he said. As early as the pilot, he added, “I knew what the tone of the ending would be.”
“Succession, “which ran for four seasons on HBO, aired its final episode on May 28. The final season earned a staggering 27 Emmy nominations — the most of any show this year — including one for outstanding drama series, which it has won twice before. Throughout, the show centered on Logan Roy (Brian Cox), the self-made overlord of a conservative media and theme park empire, and his children and hangers on.
Sardonic, wintry, profane, the show was a queasy mix of satire and tragedy, corporate intrigue and deeply human drama. Each episode inspired flurries of memes and think pieces. And though none of the characters seemed to enjoy their obscene wealth, the show’s high thread-count style, dubbed “quiet luxury” or “stealth wealth,” birthed countless knockoffs.
On a recent morning, at a Brooklyn hotel slightly too plebeian for the Roys, Armstrong sat at a cafe table in a rumpled navy blue shirt and trousers that almost matched. He was in town to receive a Founders Award from the International Emmys. “I guess it’s one of those honorary awards for people at the end of their careers who are being shuffled off,” he said, with typically English self-deprecation.
The writers’ strike precluded Armstrong from engaging in much discussion about the end of “Succession” when the finale aired six months ago. (He spent the strike in London, recovering.) Yet time has hardly dulled the beige sheen of “Succession.” In January it will likely dominate the Emmy Awards — all of the main cast received nominations and Armstrong earned two, for writing and as an executive producer — and no other show has come to replace it in the cultural consciousness. Fashions come and fashions go, but an interest in the ultrarich and their infighting? Timeless.
Over a flat white, not his first of the day, and with occasional pauses to tend to leg cramps (he had spent the early morning playing soccer in McCarren Park), Armstrong discussed Marxism, extreme wealth and whether any of these characters were remotely likable. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.
The overriding question of the series was who would succeed Logan Roy. Could the show have ended without answering it?
Most viewers are watching for pleasures other than the horse race. But it’s not illegitimate to watch the horse race and wonder who’s going to win. That would be the sort of question I might come into the writers’ room with, like, “What would it be like if we didn’t give a successor? Could that be interesting?” Through a process of discussion with smart people, we were like, “No, that would be annoying. Let’s not do it.” One of the reasons for ending the show is that it starts to become either ridiculous or annoying if you continually defer that decision.
Horses can only go around the track so many times before they start stumbling and you have to shoot them. Was “Succession” a comedy or a drama?
I just know that it was a tone that was amenable to me. Not all of the scenes have a comic twist. There’s some torque applied to the characters and the situations, which reminds me of comedy, but it isn’t always a comedy. I wrote the pilot before I’d met Nick Britell and heard his score. But it’s like I knew what the score was going to be — wonky and ironical and knowing, but it also has these depths to it. I guess that’s maybe the mortality. I was thinking a lot about Robert Maxwell, a British media veteran who either killed himself or died falling off his yacht; [Rupert] Murdoch, who is in the twilight of his years; and Sumner Redstone, who died while we were doing the show. That’s the tough bit of the show, which gives it a slightly different flavor.
I like to think of myself as someone with a decent amount of empathy. I kept wanting to feel for these characters, then I gave up. Was I meant to sympathize with them?
It was never really a consideration. That may be a defect in our working process. Maybe I could try to elicit the audience’s sympathy for someone, but I wouldn’t want to with this show. It would just feel so fake. It’s a show with these particular familial dynamics and with this relationship to power and money. Everything flowed from that. It wasn’t like, Oh, let’s try and push people away or draw them in. It was just, Let’s show these people and then we’ll see what happens. It would not be impossible for us to say, Is that too horrible a thing to do? But if it could happen or would happen, we’d always say, let’s do it.
What is your attitude toward great wealth?
I have a European sense that a more equal society will make everyone happier. That’s a pretty basic formulation. But I feel a little ridiculous saying it. It’s not very healthy, is it, that huge accumulation of wealth?
Is it possible for it not to be deforming?
It’s a question, isn’t it? I think anything is possible for human beings. There are very rich people who have an empathetic relationship to the world. Some people use their power for the greater good. On a psychological level, it doesn’t necessarily need to make you go crazy. It just often does.
The show takes more of a psychological view than a Marxist one. That’s the level at which I do have a lot of sympathy for the characters and I would hope that the audience does too. They are pretty bad. They do bad stuff. But you see where they come from psychologically. That’s one of the tragedies of those kids’ lives. You don’t see a ton of friends. They live these deracinated international lives. They are deeply unmoored. One of the few more things they have is family and it has that incredible magnetism for them. It’s like they’re hooking up constantly to an IV drip and they don’t realize that there’s a percentage of poison in the IV. It’s not making them better. It’s making them sicker.
So it wasn’t just Marxist propaganda, your series?
That’s what we intended, but we were waylaid.
“Succession” didn’t usually show these characters enjoying their wealth. Why not?
We did make a decision that we would try not to glamorize the wealth. A lot of the spaces that these people inhabit, these five-star hotels and private plane interiors, it’s not actually a beautiful world. That came from the research. There’s not a lot of fun going on in those worlds. Everyone is constantly thinking of the press release rather than the pleasure. That didn’t come from a precept that great wealth won’t make you happy. It probably could do. But not for these people.
Did viewers’ passion for the show surprise you?
We put a lot into it. And yeah, there’s a lot to discuss. Now I’ve gone back and looked at interesting things and read stuff about the show. At the time, I kept my nose out of most of the reactions, because it wasn’t useful to know what people were thinking about the show. You can get a bit bent out of shape. I like critics. I believe in criticism as an important part of keeping the cultural world going. But I didn’t look at a ton of stuff before the show ended.
Did you read the piece I wrote saying that the show made me a worse person?
No. Oh dear. Sorry. It’s a very particular world, right? It’s a portrayal of what is possible within the moral universe created by a business and a family. The possibilities are really circumscribed. But they exist. The intention is to show this world truthfully as possible. But, yeah. Sorry.