How HBO’s Succession pulled off its brutal finale

Kendall Roy (Jeremy Strong) reckons with family in <em>Succession</em>’s finale.” src=”https://cdn.vox-cdn.com/thumbor/aLb3LozwO1Vk79H_DnCAoDGrhtg=/160×0:2239×1559/1310×983/cdn.vox-cdn.com/uploads/chorus_image/image/60719995/SUC_110_03142018_CH_2339.0.jpg”></p>
<p>Actors Jeremy Strong and Brian Cox discuss the series finale and grounding the show in reality.</p>
<p id=The only way out is through.

By the time the curtain falls on the first season of HBO’s Succession, that adage has quite literally drawn blood. Though the series, which follows the power struggle within a family-owned media conglomerate, has been called a satire and in some cases a comedy, any laughter during the show’s final hour will likely be out of horror rather than amusement. With each successive episode, the series has shed layer after layer, revealing itself to be something much grimmer than just a wry indictment of the über-rich.

The finale, “Nobody is Ever Missing,” lands like a bomb, fundamentally shifting the dynamics of the show thus far. That it works is largely thanks to the stunning performances of Jeremy Strong as Kendall Roy, the heir to the family company throne, and Brian Cox as Logan, his ruthless father, as their characters emerge as the keystones of the entire show.

Kendall and Logan’s story neatly vaults Succession into the realm of the classical texts that inform it, a point that was driven home when I spoke to Strong and Cox to examine the season’s final episode and its last two parts, which shake the very foundations upon which the series is built. Strong calls it an example of the archetypal monomyth, while Cox describes the show as “ludicrous.”

“It’s the ludicrousness of life,” Cox explains, citing how the classical works that Succession calls to mind — King Lear and Titus Andronicus among them — veer between comedy and tragedy. “You’re not locked into any sense of absolutism about the characters,” he adds, laughing, “You think, ‘Oh, they’re such horrible people,’ but then, if you really strip it down, they’re no more horrible than most people.”

Strong’s verdict is similar: “I hear from a lot of people how unlikeable these characters are, and I find that so interesting, as if a character is either likable or unlikable.”

It’s that refusal to fall into a strictly black-and-white matrix that ultimately makes the Succession finale so affecting, and so difficult to watch. The balance between comedy and tragedy finally tips, crashing into the latter category, and it’s a testament to the series that it all comes together.

Warning: spoilers for “Nobody is Ever Missing” lie ahead.

The finale’s turning point is harrowing to watch, and was harrowing to shoot

 Colin Hutton/HBO
With the crash, the series reaches a point of no return.

At the beginning of “Nobody Is Ever Missing,” Kendall delivers a letter to his father informing him of a hostile takeover of the company. For a moment, it seems like Kendall may finally triumph over Logan after the countless humiliations and setbacks he’s suffered over the course of the season, but there’s no savoring the victory. Kendall can’t get through the confrontation without stammering, and his siblings now hate him for putting their inheritances and social status in jeopardy, and on the day of his sister’s wedding, no less.

The brewing sense of unease only worsens as, at the episode’s halfway point, Kendall goes hunting for drugs to try to take the edge off, coaxing one of the serving staff to take him to get some cocaine. As they drive, they joke about kidnapping; “You should kidnap me,” Kendall says, boasting about his fortune as the boy notes that he knows a house where he could keep him. Though the characters laugh, the scene is very clearly teetering on the edge of an abyss — of some event that it’ll be impossible to come back from.

In an instant, the balance breaks. A deer appears in the middle of the road, and the car goes careening into a nearby lake. Though Kendall manages to swim out of the car, the boy is knocked out cold by the crash. Kendall dives once, twice, to try to get him out of the sinking car, but it’s no use. By the time he manages to swim to shore, the spot where the car sunk isn’t even distinguishable anymore, and the young man is dead.

The next 10 minutes focus on Kendall, and Kendall alone. As the ramifications of what’s just happened sink in, he stumbles back to the wedding festivities. The sequence almost plays like a horror movie: Kendall is soaked through to the bone, and darts behind trees to hide from cars on the road, knowing that he can’t afford to be placed anywhere near the accident. His posture is rigid, as if he doesn’t know how to function anymore, and his expression is slack, going from abject despair to grim determination and back again.

“It was really hard to shoot,” Strong says of the scene. “It was hard emotionally, it was hard physically. But in a way, those are the given circumstances, so you kind of lean into that. You lean into the fact that the water is freezing, you lean into the fact that it’s raining and freezing and it’s 4 in the morning and you’re covered in mud.”

On top of that, to try to sustain a certain “energy field” around the sequence, Strong asked the episode’s director, Mark Mylod, to keep as much of the post-crash shooting together as possible. “As you can imagine, a 10-minute sequence takes much longer to film, and you have to sustain the life and death stakes of that, or I believe you do, for the entirety of it,” he explains, adding that he’d also requested not to rehearse a few specific scenes (including Kendall’s delivering the letter to Logan) to keep a sense of tension to them.

After breaking back into his own suite (having lost his room key somewhere along the way), Kendall cleans himself off and returns to the wedding. Though he does his best to act as though nothing’s happened, dancing with his children as Whitney Houston plays, he can’t quite keep his facade from slipping.

It’s a showcase for Strong, who, despite the presence of more outwardly colorful characters like Tom Wamsgans (Matthew Macfadyen) and Cousin Greg (Nicholas Braun), emerges as the series MVP with how heartbreakingly he pulls off the episode’s final act.

“I remember just being really kind of destroyed by them,” Strong recalls of reading the final scripts, which were written by series creator Jesse Armstrong. “You read something like that, you sort of know you’re going to have to go through this, you can’t avoid it. But I think a part of me certainly wished it on someone else.”

This near-Gothic tragedy is a far cry from most initial impressions of the series, which Strong is quick to acknowledge. “Even though the show starts out with some low-hanging fruit, I think the real kind of bedrock of it, the plate tectonics of the structure that [Armstrong] starts to create, that build to this sort of tragedy, is really — when I read the script, I was blown away, and quite daunted by what I had to go through in order to serve it,” he says.

He tells me he hasn’t revisited those nights since they were over. “They were harrowing to go through. You want it to be real, is the thing. It’s not enjoyable. I think there’s always joy in the creative process, on some level, but actually, what is the character’s experience, and what is the character’s struggle — I don’t think you can really spare yourself from that if you want to embody it.”

Given just how far and how drastically Kendall falls, there’s a certain bittersweetness to knowing that the show’s writers had such a plummet in mind all along. One day, during a break in the writer’s room, Strong sneaked in to take a look around. On the wall were notecards, one of which read, “Kendall wins, but loses.”

Logan and Kendall’s true natures are revealed through the shedding of blood

 Colin Hutton/HBO
“This could be the defining moment of your life, and indeed everything.”

It doesn’t take long for the other shoe to drop. The next morning, Logan calls Kendall to discuss a matter brought to him by the police. The car and the body have been found, along with Kendall’s room key. Calmly, Logan explains to Kendall that it must have been an accident following an attempted robbery, and tells Kendall to report any missing items. Kendall, shellshocked, simply nods along.

As soon as the room empties, Logan instructs Kendall to inform his co-conspirators that the takeover is no more. Kendall begins to cry, trying to protest his innocence, but it’s of no use. “This could be the defining moment of your life, and indeed everything,” Logan says. “A rich kid kills a boy. You’d never be anything else. Or you know what it could be, what it should be? Nothing at all. A sad, little detail at a lovely wedding, where father and son are reconciled.”

There’s something awful about the episode’s final moment, as Kendall, in tears, stumbles into Logan’s arms. It’s the first glimpse of tenderness we’ve seen Logan offer his son — “You’re my number one boy,” he says in consolation — but it’s undercut by the tragedy that’s prompted it, as well as by Logan quickly calling in one of the house staff to take Kendall off his hands.

“I remember talking to Jesse about if [Logan] really loves his children,” Cox recalls, when I ask about Logan’s capacity for genuine warmth. ”Jesse said, ‘Absolutely. He absolutely loves his children.’ And I think that’s the tragedy of the piece, that’s what gives it its stature. It’s not just — it is a morality tale, certainly, but the thing about Logan is his children mean a lot to him. They’re all fuck-ups, and he sees that, and that sort of fills him with great sadness, that they have to have their hands held.”

But that doesn’t preclude a certain ruthlessness. “He really had Kendall,” Cox says of the final scene. “He was able to reconstruct Kendall, in a way. … It goes back right to the first episode, where I say to him, ‘You’re too soft.’”

It’s a sentiment that’s echoed in the finale before the crash, as Logan dresses down Kendall yet again, telling him that he’s not made for the harsher, harder world in which his father runs.

Their final conversation drives that point home, as Logan’s willingness to sacrifice a life in order to bring his son back into the fold is contrasted with the way that Kendall breaks, exhibiting a vulnerability that had seemed lost as the season progressed. They’re fundamentally different — Logan is a “man of blood,” as Strong puts it, where Kendall is not. The crash shakes Kendall to his core, but as Cox explains, “Logan will not dwell on that. He wants it sorted, done. He moves on.”

In other words, Logan’s language is the “language of strength,” a description that Strong cites from Michael Wolff’s book The Man Who Owns the News: Inside the Secret World of Rupert Murdoch, and which Cox ascribes to Logan’s childhood brutalization, as suggested by the scars visible on Logan’s back when he goes swimming in “Austerlitz.” Obviously, it’s not a vocabulary that Kendall possesses, and as Strong notes, it’s his attempts to use it that lead him to suffer.

It’s clearest in Kendall’s breakdown, which, incredibly, Strong tells me wasn’t scripted. “That’s honestly just what happened in the room that day; I had no idea how it would come out of me,” he explains. “That was just what I experienced. I think you load yourself up with everything that’s happened to the character until that moment, and then you walk through the door and see what happens. It’s a very important way of working, for me, because if anything is prescribed — to be honest, if it had been in the writing, I’m not sure it would have happened.”

The fallout fundamentally changes the series dynamics — and brings it closer to feeling real

 Colin Hutton/HBO
On the characters of Succession: “These are real people.”

“It’s not Arrested Development,” Cox says, as we discuss the series’ influences, from the Chappaquiddick incident to Greek tragedy. “There’s a classical element to it, with language, and I think that’s its strength, in a way.”

His meaning becomes clearer as he notes the way that plays like King Lear will get laughs despite being regarded as tragedies, just as Succession has excelled at balancing humor with an increasingly tragic narrative.

“I’ve always regarded myself as a comic actor,” Cox says, adding, “I play a lot of heavies, but I think I always play them in a slightly sort of comic— certainly wicked, that kind of comic way. […] I think Logan is also very funny, because he’s got this authentic quality. He doesn’t seem to be quite there. He’s not quite there because he’s damaged in some way, but he’s not quite there, I think, because he doesn’t want to be quite there. He likes to be inscrutable. And you get that very clearly in the first episode, when one son brings the goo, the sourdough, and then Tom brings a Patek Philippe watch. He’s more curious about the sourdough than he is about the Patek Philippe watch.”

Though Kendall certainly isn’t quite as opaque, he’s still unquestionably complex, and draws from the same sorts of archetypal molds. “Chekhov said, ‘Tell me what a character wants, and I’ll tell you who they are,’” Strong tells me. “What [Kendall] wants is so clear, and he goes after it with such a vengeance that that becomes his undoing. And that is such an archetypal story. I’ll be struck down by a bolt of lightning, but if you look at The Godfather, Michael Corleone goes from being this guileless student to being a cold-blooded, ruthless killer. Obviously, Jesse finds his way into that terrain in a kind of sideways way.”

To that end, Succession is an organically growing creature, and its creators clearly have larger ambitions. Cox initially expected his role on the series to be a one-season part, but Armstrong and Adam McKay dispelled that notion as soon as they began negotiating to bring him onto the show.

Cox also points to the growth of Kieran Culkin’s character, Roman, as evidence of the show’s shift toward “a more considered element.” “He’s such a roister-goister, he’s so glib and talky,” Cox says, “but he suddenly emerges. I watched [episode] eight the other day, and I thought Kieran was so good in that because he sort of ends up holding it all together.”

Again, it all comes down to a sense of humanity. “These are real people,” Strong says, stressing the quality of the show’s writing. “I think Mike Nichols said that, in the first act of a play, you invite the audience to the party. So I feel like the show invites everyone to the party, and then hopefully it kicks them in the stomach. Or something forceful.”

That forceful effect is certainly felt in the series finale, which is more than just a brutal reset, as the crash and its resulting fallout wipe out a season’s worth (arguably a lifetime’s worth) of Kendall’s attempts to get out from under Logan’s shadow. It’s wrenching to watch, and all the more remarkable for having been born out of genuine emotion.

“I think that really great work is a product of putting yourself in danger, which is sort of what I mean about not knowing what would happen in that last scene,” Strong explains. “Without risk, you’re just making something safe. Or if you know in advance what you’re making, it’s not art, certainly. I think that’s, at the end of the day, what you’re trying to make, whether you fall short of it or not — not just television.”