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Jesse Armstrong, creator of 'Succession': "We could have continued eternally with the characters, but the business story had to end"


Highlights: 'Succession' ended its 10-season run with its final episode on Sunday. Showrunner Jesse Armstrong explains why he decided to end the series. He says he wanted to keep the door open for the actors. He also talks about how Donald Trump turned the show into what it is. The full interview will be published in the next issue of EL PAÍS, out on Thursday, February 14. To order your copy, visit or go to

The screenwriter explains the reasons why he decided to end his story in its fourth season and how Brexit and Donald Trump turned the HBO series into what it ended up being

Logan Roy's media empire already has an heir. Succession, one of the most applauded and awarded series of recent years, closed its plots this Sunday with its last episode. Jesse Armstrong (Oswestry, UK, 52 years old) watched the episode live in London surrounded by other writers at the British Film Institute. "It was sad and funny at the same time," he says. He had long known how the story would end. The creator, with a long career in comedy and satire, a genre that he has perfected in the HBO series, now says goodbye to a title that critics have raised to the altars of television. Just 48 hours after the final was broadcast, he attends EL PAÍS in a long video call from his home in London and, something very unusual, without anyone from the chain present during the talk. Of course, this interview contains details of the ending.

Question. Why did you decide that the series had to end in the fourth season? Wasn't there more travel for the Roys?

Answer. We could have gone on to tell interesting stories about the psychology of these characters. The series has two aspects, the personal, psychological and family, and the business, political and cultural. We could have gone on forever telling interesting stories about the psychology of these characters. But the business story had to end. Although I'm more interested in human psychology than business, once that story was finished, the series wouldn't be interesting enough to follow. Once the trajectory is over and the business part is dissolved, once they sell, the series had to end. We could have lengthened the business story with more changes, machinations and tactics, but it would start to sound repetitive and we didn't want that to happen.

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Q. When did you decide that the ending would be what it has finally been?

A. My way of working as showrunner or head of the writers' room is to bring proposals to the room but, because I respect my colleagues and want things to be open, they are never final. I brought this proposal a long time ago, I think in 2021, when we were doing the third season. Then I started to outline this season, that Logan would die soon and then we would finish. I was always open to changing my mind, but little by little this decision became more solid.

Sarah Snook, Jesse Armstrong and Matthew Macfadyen (back), during the filming of 'Succession'. Claudette Barius / HBO

Q. And why did it have to be Tom who emerges victorious?

A. When you look at the business world and what kind of people thrive, you usually find a class of people who are founders of a great company and then you have the people who come a generation or two later who are climbing and filtering through the organization, who are docile to power and useful to the powerful. We weren't looking for a Lenin again, which is what Logan Roy might be. This is very cruel to Tom, but we were looking more for a Stalin, someone who finds his way between rival factions in the wake of the founder's death.

Q. When did the actors know how the series would end?

A. When we started this season, I told everyone that I thought this could be the last season, but we needed room to manoeuvre and it might not be. They knew it was a possibility, but it wasn't final until we got to the end in writing, because I always wanted to keep the door open. I hope it wasn't a big shock for the actors. What was a surprise were the mechanisms by which Mattson would seduce Tom. Some time ago, in the second or third season, I told Matthew Macfadyen [the actor who plays Tom] to remember that, although his character borders on the comic, he should keep in mind that he was likely to be the heir, to remember to keep that part of a person cold as steel. So I think he always knew this could be the end.

We were not looking for a Lenin, but a Stalin, someone who finds his way between rival factions.

Q. Some series record alternate endings to avoid leaks. Did they do something like that?

A. Oh, no. In script we didn't do any alternative endings. When we were shooting the last scene of Jeremy Strong [the actor who plays Kendall] in Battery Park, in New York, with him looking at Ellis Island, he did a very violent piece of improvisation, which was trying to jump the fence as if he was going to jump into the sea. None of us expected him to do that, it was pretty scary. But Scott Nicholson, who plays his bodyguard, jumped up at him and grabbed him. It was quite scary and looked very real. Maybe Jeremy thought it was something the character would do. But the series ends where I think it should.

Q. In the final season he surprised with the early death of Logan Roy [Brian Cox]. Why did you decide to make it happen in the third chapter? Did he ever regret killing him so soon?

A. No, I knew it was a dangerous creative decision because he's brilliant and he was the center of the series, and removing that piece out, there's always a risk that the machine will stop working without its main piece. But I think it was the right decision because seeing how the world worked without him served to honor how important he was. If we had only seen one episode after his departure, we would not have seen how deeply he was missed. It was also difficult to tell Brian Cox, who I admire and who is such a big figure in British theatre and cinema. It was a little intimidating to tell him, but he's a smart guy and he got it.

Sarah Snook, Kieran Culkin and Jeremy Strong, in the last chapter of 'Succession'.

Q. It seems difficult to take affection to characters as hateful as the protagonists of Succession, but, even so, as a screenwriter you have to get the audience to care about them. How did you handle that contradiction?

A. There is actually no trick. Simply, although they sometimes do things that could be qualified as immoral or make decisions that have negative effects on the world, it is the responsibility of the series to show why that could happen, why certain individuals can make those decisions. And then the viewer puts the rest. We begin to understand people when we see enough of them. Then you can say, okay, I understand what you're doing, but I still don't like you. Understanding others is an important part of what makes us human. We just try to show the whole person, and when you see the whole person, you understand him more and judge less coldly.

I started shaping the end of the series in 2021, when we were doing the third season.

Q. He has written that Brexit and Donald Trump are at the heart of Succession. In what sense?

A. As I said before, there is a psychological level of the series and a business, political and cultural one. I love these characters and they're probably what make me want to write. But they are relevant because of the political and media influence. With the rise of nationalist populism, we have seen its most violent effect in Brexit in the United Kingdom and Trump in the United States. How did it happen? What media climate has encouraged or encouraged him, or does not discredit him, or benefit from him?

Q. He has cited a triad of models as inspiration for Logan Roy: the three media moguls Rupert Murdoch [Fox News], Sumner Redstone [ViacomCBS] and Robert Maxwell [Maxwell Communications Corporation and Mirror Group Newspapers]. What did he take from each?

A. Those are the primary sources, but there are others floating in the air. There are Trump, Berlusconi, Vivendi in France, Grupo Planeta in Spain... There are a lot of people you can think of, all these media empires. What did I take from them? Logan is an immigrant, like Maxwell, who was born in the Czech Republic. Redstone is a brilliant lawyer and very intellectually influential. Murdoch is also very intelligent and has that strong political instinct that makes him very docile in the face of power... It's a mix, I couldn't tell you exactly, it's hard to select individual traits.

Jesse Armstrong, with one of the first Emmys to win "Succession," in 2019.Jordan Strauss (AP)

Q. In addition to these original references, they will have continued to pay attention to current events for the Succession scripts. I think, for example, of Elon Musk.

A. Yes, yes. In the series there is a lot about the consolidation of the media going from being old media companies to how they manage and transform with all the money that has come to the media from technology companies. I think we follow very truthfully what has happened with the traditional media. It's always been a story about the end of a media empire. Reading The Wall Street Journal or The Financial Times has been very important to carry the script well, and if you read those newspapers I think you could predict what would happen in the series, at least at the business level.

If you read 'The Wall Street Journal' or 'The Financial Times' you could predict what would happen in the series.

Q. Succession took a leap in popularity and awards when it entered the second season. What gave you that push that made you connect with people? What do you think happened?

A. No idea, maybe it's one more question for you. If I knew, I would have done it in season one as well. I guess time, or the moment in the business plot... I do not know. Or maybe it's just that we got better, but it's hard for me to know.

Q. He has said that for chapter he has been able to make between 30 and 50 script drafts. At what point do you decide what the final version is?

A. When the director says, tomorrow we'll shoot, so he better finish writing [laughs]. We write a lot of drafts, but when we write draft 40 or so, 90% of the script is closed. In those last 10 drafts we only looked at a scene or a sequence. We want everything to be fine and fun and firm, and for every line of script to be meaningful and have a lot of information about the characters.

Brian Cox and Matthew Macfadyen, in the fourth season of 'Succession'.

Q. It has become almost commonplace to describe Succession as a "Shakespearean drama." What do you think when you hear that comparison or description?

A. It makes me blush and I feel honored. When we presented the series we said that Succession was like a cross between Celebration, the Danish film of the Dogma movement, and Dallas, the soap opera that was very popular in the seventies and eighties. We were inspired by a lot of places, and of course, I was aware that writing about the Roys was all that about kings, princes and succession, and there's a lot of that in Shakespeare.

Q. I guess it's like choosing between real children, but maybe now that he's closed the series he can tell me which of the Roys was his favorite.

A. [Laughs] I can't, it's true. If I was writing a scene of Roman, I wanted Roman. If he wrote one of Shiv, he wanted Shiv. Sometimes Roman did despicable things and made terrible decisions, but I loved writing them down and felt like I knew him. I think that's why the series was interesting, because I was interested in each and every one of the characters in the series. That's why I can't choose.

We present 'Succession' as a cross between the Danish film 'Celebration' and the soap opera 'Dallas'

Q. As a writer, is it easy to say goodbye to a series you've spent so much time on?

A. I was going to answer no, but I don't feel that way today. I felt anxious to leave something complete. I don't know if people will think the ending is right, but I do think it's the right ending and I think it completes the series. Although I am very sad to say goodbye to my fellow actors and writers, I no longer have that anxiety that led me to think, "OK, we have done something that is good, but can we finish it and complete it in a correct and satisfactory way?" I don't know if it's been like that for everyone, each person has different visions about who should have won or what should have been the media scenario that we left. But I do feel satisfied and I think we did a job that honors us and we have finished it.

Q. There is speculation about possible continuations or spin off of the series. Is there any chance it will continue?

A. No, no, no. I think I once said that I could imagine a story in the world of politics that was set in the same world that the Roys exist in, but not as a continuation. I like this tone and this fictional world. But I think to these characters, unfortunately, we have said goodbye forever.

Nicholas Braun and Jesse Armstrong, filming the final season of 'Succession'.

Q. Have you imagined what the lives of the Roys and those close to them will be like after the end?

A. I feel great empathy and interest in them, but unfortunately I think, once they are no longer involved in power with their family empire, they are like those people you meet at a party and they seemed very rich and powerful, but I no longer feel fascinated by the details of their lives. I can roughly imagine what life would be like for a cold-hearted playboy, a broken man like Roman. But I'm not interested in the details of his life. Nor in Kendall, for example.

Q. What are your plans now? Do you have more series or movies in mind?

A. I have some ideas, I have things written down. But most of all I want to do nothing and think very slowly. In addition, we are now on strike. But when I think about creative things, I want not to make big decisions fast, I'm going to try to take a big break.

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Source: elparis

All news articles on 2023-05-31

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