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

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

The three-time Emmy winner talks about the careful groundwork that led to the emotionally explosive season three finale and how it has set up season four.


Succession is one of the most acclaimed series of the season, leading the Emmy nominations with 25 nods.

The HBO juggernaut’s success stems from creator and showrunner Jesse Armstrong, who blends heady Shakespearean dramatics with irreverent profanities to create 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.

Armstrong talked about nailing those final crucial scenes, how production is going on season four

Headspace entering season three, parts of the finale?

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.

Kendall’s secret and beyond?

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.

Kendall confession as emotional fulcrum point for the whole season?

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.

Actors taking note from the director and figuring it out?

Season four?

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.

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.