‘Succession’ Showrunner Jesse Armstrong on Writing the Show Organically: “It’s Mainly a Game of Trust, Rather Than Exquisite Planning”

Succession is one the biggest shows of the season, leading the Emmy noms with a whopping 25 nods. The HBO juggernaut’s success stems from the mind of creator and showrunner Jesse Armstrong, who artfully blends heady Shakespearean dramatics with irreverent profanities to create a series at once sly, hilarious and devastating.

Armstrong’s career is enigmatic in its scope: He was a writer on the hit British comedy Peep Show, Oscar-nominated for co-writing the 2009 film In the Loop, and a three-time Emmy winner for Succession — twice for writing the series, and for its 2020 win for outstanding drama series. Its latest nods come off of a heart-wrenching season three finale that saw (spoiler) Tom Wambsgans (Matthew Macfadyen) betray Siobhan Roy (Sarah Snook) in a shocking final showdown, as well as Kendall (Jeremy Strong) confessing to his siblings, at last, of the manslaughter he was involved in at the end of season one.

THR sat down with Armstrong to talk about nailing those final crucial scenes, how production is currently going on season four and the best writing advice he’s ever received.

What was your headspace entering season three — which parts of the finale did you know you wanted from the get-go? I understand you knew early on that you wanted the Tom betrayal.

The writers room is long. We probably spend four months chatting it all through. The Tom idea I pitched very early, or it certainly emerged early. Before we start breaking the episodes, I like doing a month’s [long] chat of the whole season, what the ambitions would be for the season and where we might want to end up, so that by the time we’re breaking the episodes, the season’s shape is set. Even if things juggle and you find something more fascinating to do, or there’s some relationship or psychological development you want to get into more — as long as the endpoint is clear, then all that stuff can hopefully become satisfying. You sometimes find ideas and plot shapes and psychological stuff, which [are] latent in the idea of where you’re headed. That’s a bit of a fuzzy way of saying that I remember clearly the Tom thing, and the fact that Kendall has had a secret from everyone, and from his brothers and sister, for a long time. The idea that that might be the kind of icebreaking fact, which allows the kids to reconcile, that was set pretty early as well.

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The tension of the past few seasons has been largely rooted in Kendall’s secret. Are you often thinking in a wider scope than just the season you’re working on?

Yeah, I guess that you start to have a tapestry of material that you’re drawing on. I think that’s just the profit you get from a long-running series, is that sometimes moments crystallize across not just one but several seasons. I think why it’s a satisfying moment [is] because it just feels true about somebody who you’ve seen over and over has struggled with something, over a long period of time. We’ve all seen, in dramas, moments where people make revelations: Sometimes they’re satisfying, sometimes they’re not. We strive to be, in our business stories, and our psychological relationships, as true and honest as we can, and we try not to force things because the beat, the moment, will be cool or interesting. You do want that, but we really try to look for the moments which are true. So it felt like this could be true, that Kendall was in such a degraded emotional state that he would have nothing left to lose, and that would be the spirit in which it came out to his siblings.

On the Succession podcast, you talked about how the Kendall confession is such an emotional fulcrum point for the whole season and show, and how at first it was a struggle to get it right.

I wrote the scene, and I thought that it worked. But that’s an extremely coiled power that we want to bring. There was such a distance between him and his siblings that for it to ignite, that distance needed to suddenly disappear, and some part of their historic, deep emotional relationship needed to come alive. The most awful cleavages can happen in families. There’s just this enormous residual well of possibility for realignment. That’s a great plus in a family story, that there are these ties, which are constantly pulling people back together even if their decisions and feelings are pushing them apart. It was trying to find what would ignite the warmth of sibling relationships. It’s a great coldness that’s grown up. And it was just hard. It was an acting feat by the three of them to find it.

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Does it come down to the actors taking a certain note from the director and just figuring it out and playing around?

Mark [Mylod, the director] is there, obviously giving notes, and me, too. There’s a certain amount of discussion. There were some stage directions which were helpful — it was important to have them physically realigned. Honestly, it felt like at the end, me and Mark didn’t always know how to get there. But I feel like they did get there and sometimes it was just a question of doing it again. The playing around makes it sound — often we do play around on the show, and there’s a lot of fun to be had. We have a cool scene where there are tons of different ways of doing it, and they can have fun. That one did not. It was hot. It was dusty, it was brutal. And the emotional material was tough. It felt much higher stakes, because if that moment didn’t work — without wanting to be too melodramatic, but as you noted, it’s sort of the end of three seasons’ worth of our story: “Oh my God, this all could not crystallize.”

How much were you thinking about season four as you were doing season three, or is it more of a bridge you cross when you get there?

More of a bridge to cross when we get there. Writing Peep Show with Sam [Bain], we were given good advice at some point to not try and hoard your material as a writer. If it’s there, do it. If it feels [like] the right moment, do it. And trust that if you have interesting characters, the next stage will also be interesting. You can get hung up on the idea of conserving material or fuel. And it’s quite a liberation to let go of that, and be like, “You know what, if this is the moment, there may never be as good a moment to have this character conflict, or this debate, this argument, this psychological movement …” I’m not totally oblivious to the possibilities that are raised by what happens, and a little bit of my brain is thinking, “that’s interesting to look forward to,” or “that isn’t.” But it’s mainly a game of trust, rather than exquisite planning. The seasons are very well planned. And I have general ideas about where the show’s going. We didn’t start the room for season four with much of a road map.

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Is there a lot of pressure having won the Emmy for drama series in season two?

Awards are so weird. We all want to know how people are receiving our stuff, so they’re a signal of that. It’s phony to say you’re not aware or not thinking about them. On the other hand, they do feel ancillary — there’s voting, some politics, who has money to be promoted or not and what gets promoted over what else. There’s something a little bit silly or grubby that makes you want to distance yourself from them, is the honest truth, even though they also are lovely, wonderful. It’s a nice night. When you see another production that you admire get rewarded, it feels good. And when you see something that you admire that doesn’t get rewarded, it feels bad. I would pretend I’m not interested at all in them. But in terms of the pressure, there really is no difference. I mean, we would have been disappointed, I guess, if we hadn’t been nominated for any awards, given that we’d been nominated previously. But the level of ambition for the quality of the next season would be utterly the same whether we’ve received more, or fewer or none. If you’re actually doing it for awards, then, again, you have gone round the twist. That really isn’t the idea, right?

Interview edited for length and clarity.

This story first appeared in an August stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.