Jul 07, 2023

'Succession' creator Jesse Armstrong is ready to talk about the series finale : NPR


This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. The fabulous HBO series "Succession" is over, but we're just about to begin our conversation with its creator, Jesse Armstrong, who wrote a majority of the episodes, including the series finale. Also with us is Frank Rich, an executive producer of this series who was instrumental in getting it made. "Succession" is about three siblings trying to succeed their elderly father, the powerful CEO of the family conglomerate.


BRIAN COX: (As Logan Roy) I have you beat, you morons.

GROSS: Those six words spoken by the patriarch, Logan Roy, sum up his philosophy of business and of life - I have you beat - and his opinion of his children - you morons. He is a brilliant businessman who, through power plays, manipulation and backstabbing, has created a media and entertainment empire including a conservative cable news network. As a father, just about any expression of love toward his children has been transactional. He's been emotionally abusive, made them dependent and weak, and condemns them for being that way.

Like the father, the siblings operate free of ethical and moral concerns. For example, they seem to have succeeded in helping elect a white nationalist as president because they think he'll kill a business deal that would ruin their plans. This series is an unusual mix of drama and satire, tragedy and comedy. This interview will have spoilers. So if you're waiting to catch up on the series finale, why don't you listen later on our podcast or website?

Series creator and showrunner Jesse Armstrong and executive producer Frank Rich were previously linked through the HBO satirical series about politics "Veep." Rich was an executive producer. Armstrong wrote an episode. Armstrong had previously collaborated on British comedies with the creator of "Veep," Armando Iannucci. Before getting into television, Frank Rich was The New York Times chief theater critic and a columnist who wrote about the intersection of politics and pop culture.

Jesse Armstrong, Frank Rich, welcome to FRESH AIR. I'm so excited to talk with you. I love this series so much. I think you probably did the right thing in ending it, but I'm so sorry it's over.

JESSE ARMSTRONG: Thank you, Terry. It's lovely to speak to you.

FRANK RICH: Great to talk to you as always.

GROSS: I just wanted to say it's so clever. The whole series is based on which of the siblings is going to succeed their father. And in the last episode, it's like, none of them (laughter). So, Jesse, why couldn't any of the siblings take over?

ARMSTRONG: It's a good question. I guess they could do. You know, if you were thinking about this as a business situation rather than a piece of drama, they might have slipped through, one of them, for a little while for probably an unsatisfactory interregnum as they tank the share price. It could have happened. They have some quality - I don't think that they are without abilities, but they lack one thing. It's hard to work as hard as you need to work to run something like this, I think, when you come from that kind of privileged background. I just think it's hard to believe that you need to stay as late, read as much and do as much work as probably necessary.

GROSS: At what point did you know Tom would end up being the CEO, but he'd be still a puppet? He'd be the figurehead king, and Matsson from GoJo would really be pulling the strings - 'cause Tom seemed like the most unlikely to succeed Logan Roy.

ARMSTRONG: One of the things I like in the show is for things to feel natural, to feel like you could read them in The Wall Street Journal, the Financial Times, for them to feel like they fit. They're congruent with the way that we see business culture and politics going. So in a way, I didn't want Tom to take over. It became obvious, or it became - yeah, it became obvious to me that he should take over - that, you know, there are few of these - so I was about to say grayer figures. It's - that's rude to them - you know, the figures who come through. But there were - there are few examples in life. There was a guy, Philippe Dauman, who took over from Sumner Redstone when Shari was also trying to take over in the Viacom CBS empire. He rather floated up and made himself very amenable to power.

GROSS: Frank, what was your reaction when Jesse said Tom is going to be the CEO?

RICH: I can't say I was surprised. You know, in Hollywood in the '30s and the media companies at that time, it was the joke that the son-in-law also rises...

GROSS: (Laughter).

RICH: ...And so, in some ways, was completely plausible to me. So, yeah, I thought it was an exciting creative turn.

GROSS: Let's talk about the finale. So after arguing who should succeed their father as CEO and who should they offer the board as, you know, the king - 'cause Kendall says there can only be, like, one king here, and it should be me, and he finally convinces his siblings it should be him. So the board is voting, and Shiv holds out. She's, like, the decisive vote. She's holding out. The three siblings go into another room - a glass office. Shiv explains why she can't vote for Kendall. And this refers to something that happens in the season finale of the first season when Kendall, after a party, is driving one of the caterers to score some drugs 'cause the caterer knows - has connections. Kendall's at the wheel. He's not used to a stick shift. He's not used to driving 'cause he has a chauffeur. And he drives off the road into the river, gets himself out of the car, but the caterer drowns. And his father covers it up, so no one ever knows. So here's Shiv explaining why she can't vote for Kendall to be CEO.


SARAH SNOOK: (As Siobhan Roy) You can't be CEO. You can't because you killed someone.

JEREMY STRONG: (As Kendall Roy) What do you - which?

SNOOK: (As Siobhan Roy) What?

KIERAN CULKIN: (As Roman Roy) Wait. What do you mean...

STRONG: (As Kendall Roy) Which...

CULKIN: (As Roman Roy) ...Which? What? Like, what? Like, you've killed so many people you forgot which one?

STRONG: (As Kendall Roy) That's not an issue. That didn't happen.

CULKIN: (As Roman Roy) Wait. It didn't - as in what?

STRONG: (As Kendall Roy) It's just a thing I said. It's a thing I said. I made it up.

CULKIN: (As Roman Roy) You made it up.

STRONG: (As Kendall Roy) Yeah, I - it was a difficult time for us. And I think I, you know - whatever. I mussed up something from nothing because I just - I wanted for us all to bond at a difficult moment.

CULKIN: (As Roman Roy) Wait. It was a move?

SNOOK: (As Siobhan Roy) OK.

STRONG: (As Kendall Roy) No, no, not - there was a kid. There was that kid, but...

CULKIN: (As Roman Roy) So there was a kid.

STRONG: (As Kendall Roy) I had, like, a toke and a beer and not - I didn't even get in the car. It's not...

CULKIN: (As Roman Roy) Hold on. What?

SNOOK: (As Siobhan Roy) The...

STRONG: (As Kendall Roy) I felt bad, and I false-memoried (ph) it. Like, I'm totally clean. I can do this.

CULKIN: (As Roman Roy) Wait. Did it happen, or did it not happen?

STRONG: (As Kendall Roy) It did not happen. It did not happen. I wasn't even there. It did not happen.

CULKIN: (As Roman Roy) Dude...

STRONG: (As Kendall Roy) Vote for me. Just please vote for me, Shiv. Vote for me.

SNOOK: (As Siobhan Roy) No.

STRONG: (As Kendall Roy) Yes.

SNOOK: (As Siobhan Roy) No.

STRONG: (As Kendall Roy) Shiv, don't do this.

SNOOK: (As Siobhan Roy) No.

CULKIN: (As Roman Roy) No.

STRONG: (As Kendall Roy) You can't do this, Shiv.

CULKIN: (As Roman Roy) No.

SNOOK: (As Siobhan Roy) No.

STRONG: (As Kendall Roy) Yes.

SNOOK: (As Siobhan Roy) No.

CULKIN: (As Roman Roy) Absolutely not, man.

SNOOK: (As Siobhan Roy) No.

CULKIN: (As Roman Roy) Absolutely not.

SNOOK: (As Siobhan Roy) No.

STRONG: (As Kendall Roy) Why?

SNOOK: (As Siobhan Roy) No - why?

STRONG: (As Kendall Roy) What - just...

SNOOK: (As Siobhan Roy) I love you. I really - I love you, but I cannot [expletive] stomach you.

GROSS: All right. That was Jeremy Strong as Kendall, Kieran Culkin as Roman and Sarah Snook as Shiv. Now, Kendall is thwarted. Every time he tries to outdo his father or create a hostile takeover or create any kind of deal inside Waystar Royco or outside of it, he's always thwarted. It never works out. And every time you think, oh, he's growing a conscience; he's getting smarter, he's not, you know? And, like, this scene that we just heard where he says, the accident never happened; I made it up; it was a false memory; nothing happened - that's crazy. That's absolutely crazy. Why not let him grow? And I'd like you both to respond to that.

ARMSTRONG: It's not that I don't think people are capable of change or growth. I would say they happen rarely, slowly and not necessarily all in one direction and that you're just as likely to devolve as evolve. There's a sort of sense about narrative, especially screenplay, that that's what happens in a script - that people grow, they learn, and that is the shape of a script. But that isn't the story of this show. That doesn't seem to be the truth of these people. And so we had to find story shapes which didn't follow that particular shape.

GROSS: Frank, as Jesse said, it's a typical narrative thing where you watch characters grow and change through a narrative, and I think that's very true in a lot of theater. You used to be a theater critic. So what do you think of this idea that one of the main characters, Kendall, is - he's just incapable of really changing or of learning?

RICH: Take American drama - Willy Loman, "Long Day's Journey" and "Death Of A Salesman." You look at "The Glass Menagerie," Amanda - these characters are tragic. And there's a degree of tragedy to Kendall. And they don't change. You know, Willy Loman in "Death Of A Salesman" still believes in, you know, a shoeshine and a smile and the great American idea that you can sell anything and advance through doing it. I fundamentally believe that people don't change that much in real life. Some people do, sure. But a lot of people don't, including a lot of people I just know in real life. People are who they are, and a lot of people, particularly people who want power, whether it be economic or political power, keep doing the same things. And certainly it's true in the arena where we set our show. It's not like Murdoch has ever changed or Sumner Redstone ever changed in terms of how they operate as people.

GROSS: Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guests are Jesse Armstrong, the creator, showrunner and chief writer of the HBO series "Succession," which recently ended, and Frank Rich, an executive producer of the show. We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Jesse Armstrong, the creator, showrunner and chief writer of the HBO series "Succession," and Frank Rich, an executive producer of the show and former chief theater critic and a former columnist for The New York Times.

OK. Let's talk about the final shots of the series finale of "Succession." I want to start with Shiv. So Shiv is in the limo with her previously estranged husband, Tom, who has become the victor. He's the new CEO. And he's looking as powerful and as regal as he can muster. And he holds out his hand, without even looking at her, as a sign of his power, not of a sign of love. But it's like, I am the king. Here is my hand. And she kind of reluctantly takes it. It's a loveless marriage at this point. In some ways, she's made herself a prisoner because instead of being the daughter of, now she's the wife of. She gets to maintain a connection to the family conglomerate. But she's in a pretty diminished role as the wife. Like, how do you see her at the end - as a prisoner who has weakened her position or as somebody who's using all of her smarts to still have access to power?

ARMSTRONG: It's a great question. I used to feel really reluctant to talk about these things, like I was going to be imposing the answer onto things which I would, you know, delight in finding open for the audience to make their own interpretations on. Now that the whole show is finished, I feel like, well, there it is. And people can take a view, and my view is only one, and everyone has their own view. And I can tell you mine, which is, for me, it was a moment of equality - chilly, rather terrifying equality, but equality, which has never been the case in that relationship before. Tom has always been subservient. Now he has this status, but his status is contingent. That's kind of what the whole episode has been about.

Shiv's status is, as all the kids are, you know, secure. It's secure in a financial sense. She has billions of dollars that - she has wealth that could never diminish, whatever happened to the world. And she also has a name which will sort of haunt her and make her interesting, to a certain degree, for the rest of her life. And that can't be taken away from her, whereas Tom's position could be taken away in the click of a fingers. So, for me, there's a very terrifying equality in that remarkable, dry hand on hand. It's not really even human contact. It's sort of two pieces of porcelain or something. So that's what it is for me. That isn't what it would be for everyone.

GROSS: Frank, how did you feel about that ending for Shiv and your interpretation of it?

RICH: I'm fascinated to hear Jesse come clean about it. I guess I experienced it as very transitional and very emotional. I felt that she was in some ways in emotional shock. When you look at the rapid fire of truly traumatic confrontations and events and the changing over of the business and all of that in a very compressed period of time, my feeling about her is that she's in limbo. And I love the fact that it ends with that ambiguity. We don't know what's going to happen to them.

GROSS: So let's talk about - like, Roman ends drinking what I think is a martini alone at a bar after saying, we're all BS. It's all nothing. Jesse, why did you place him at the bar? What does that say to you about Roman in the moment and in the future?

ARMSTRONG: Yeah. I think the three scenes are very interesting in terms of the way that we work. In the - one of them, the Tom and Shiv, is rather precisely as scripted, I think. The piece in the bar is - was - there was more to it, a little bit more dialogue. But I think when we were in the edit, Roman's face, Kieran's face was so eloquent that we just used the rather extraordinary set of expressions. And Kieran's character, Roman - he ends up, most particularly, exactly where he started, which is living the life of a sort of sad playboy, I guess, and sipping a drink which people might associate with his quasi-love of his life, Gerri, who we've often seen sipping martinis. So yeah.

GROSS: So Kendall ends up broken. He's lost his wife. He lost his children. He's lost the company. He has no idea who he is. He's always wanted to, like, best his father. His father's dead. He sees no other options for himself. So it ends with him sitting on a bench and staring at the Hudson River. Do you think he's contemplating ending his life?

ARMSTRONG: For me, Kendall, at the end, one of the things he lacks is even the freedom to determine his own course through life. The name and the wealth around him - you know, to lots of us, obviously it seems extraordinarily fortunate, and it is. But I do believe there is a certain kind of tragedy to a royal name, to being a Disney or a Windsor or any of those kind of names. And he can never, ever escape that. And one of the ways he can't escape that is to have a bubble of protection around him and a bubble of protection of money and human beings. In this case, he's got his dad's bodyguard right there with him. So even if he is contemplating it, I don't think it could ever happen to him. And yeah, for me, that's not the way the story goes for this kind of person.

GROSS: Yeah. My understanding is that Jeremy Strong improvised a take in which he climbs over the railing from the pedestrian side of the river to the riverside and looking as if he's really maybe about to jump in and his bodyguard, like, runs over to prevent that from happening. And that was improvised. Were you there when Jeremy Strong improvised that?

ARMSTRONG: Sure. Yeah, we were there. It was biting cold, and we - you know, I'm there every day, and certainly for that important scene.

GROSS: What did you think?

ARMSTRONG: I was terrified. I was terrified that he might fall in and be injured. He didn't look like he was going to jump in. But once he climbed over that barrier - you know, when you film, there are generally a lot of health and safety assessments made. And that was not our plan that day. And normally I know that if we'd even been thinking of that happening, we would have had boats and frogmen and all kinds of safety measures which we didn't have. So my first thought was for his physical safety as a human being, not anything about the character. Yeah. So that's what I felt on the day. Good Lord above.

GROSS: "Succession" is this very hard to describe - at least, I find it hard to describe - mix of satire and drama and tragedy. And I confess, the first time I watched it, the season premiere, I tuned out in the middle. I thought, these are hateful people. And then I heard other people talking about "Succession." And I thought, like, gee, it sounds really interesting. So I went back and got immediately hooked. But I had no idea that there were comedic elements. Now maybe that's on me, but I know other people who felt that way, too. And I'm wondering, did you want to kind of sneakily bring in the comedy slowly and not kind of announce itself, you know, right away?

ARMSTRONG: Yeah. Would that I had that much control over my own writing. In a way, the tone of the show is kind of how I write. So I guess one of the things I was curious about was showing the ludicrous, the comic, the incongruous, the gross parts of these gilded lives. And so maybe that's where the impulse to make sure that there was comedy in there came from, because that's a good register to try and approach some of that stuff.

GROSS: Your background was in comedy and satire.

ARMSTRONG: Oh, yeah, I'm a comedy writer. I'd still, I guess, maybe really call myself a comedy writer. I'd written, you know, with my long-term writing partner Sam Bain, nine series of "Peep Show," which is a sitcom in the U.K. I'd barely - I'd done one "Black Mirror" that was also vaguely comic. I think I'd hardly done anything that wasn't comic, wholly comic, before this show.

GROSS: Some of the funniest parts of "Succession" are the insults. I mean, there's web pages with just, like, lists of the best insults from the series. Lots of them have obscenities that we cannot broadcast. But there's one long insult I love that, Jesse, you wrote. It's after Logan dies when Tom shares his hopes of becoming the CEO with Karl, the chief financial officer of Waystar Royco. And Karl explains why that's never going to happen. So I want to play that clip. It starts with Tom.


MATTHEW MACFADYEN: (As Tom Wambsgans) Were the opportunity to arise, all I would say is that if there's a ring, my hat's in, respectfully.

DAVID RASCHE: (As Karl Muller) Well, I would just say, if we were to recommend you to the board, the question they might ask - can I frame the question for you? But as a friend...

MACFADYEN: (As Tom Wambsgans) Sure.

RASCHE: (As Karl Muller) ...Just so you'd be...

MACFADYEN: (As Tom Wambsgans) Sure.

RASCHE: (As Karl Muller) ...Be prepared. The negative case would go, you're a clumsy interloper, and no one trusts you. The only guy pulling for you is dead. And now you're just married to the ex-boss' daughter, and she doesn't even like you. And you are fair and squarely [expletive].

MACFADYEN: (As Tom Wambsgans) Jesus, Karl.

GROSS: (Laughter) That's Matthew Macfadyen as Tom and that was David Rasche as Karl. Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. We're talking about HBO's "Succession," which had its series finale Memorial Day weekend. My guests are Jesse Armstrong, the creator, showrunner and chief writer of the series, and Frank Rich, an executive producer of the show. We'll talk more after a break. I'm Terry Gross. And this is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview about the HBO series "Succession." The finale ran on Memorial Day weekend. And we finally found out if any of the siblings were able to succeed their father, Logan Roy, as the CEO of the family, media and entertainment empire. My guests are Jesse Armstrong, the series creator, showrunner and head writer, and Frank Rich, an executive producer of the show. Rich was also an executive producer of the HBO series "Veep." Before Rich got into television, he worked at The New York Times as its chief theater critic and a columnist covering the intersection of politics and culture.

The siblings have committed a lot of offenses. They have no moral center. They'll do anything to win, like their father. And I think, like, their worst offense is calling the election at the family conservative cable news network in favor of the white nationalist candidate. And they're doing this just because they think the white nationalist candidate is going to stop an unfavorable business deal that would end up with their company getting taken over. That is really quite a major event. But the election isn't decided yet when the series ends because there was a fire in Milwaukee and ballots were burned. And these were ballots likely to be democratic. So why did you want to end the series without the election actually being resolved? And there's going to be lawsuits. You know, it's going to be dragged out, probably.

ARMSTRONG: Yeah, I wrestled with this one quite a lot. I always knew that I wanted to have an election during the show because we've seen these characters and we're interested in their psychology, hopefully. I certainly am. And that's one strand of the show. But, you know, I don't think we'd be interested in them if they, you know, ran a wallpaper factory. It's because of their influence through the media that they are fascinating to me. And so I wanted to show that at its, you know, most important moment.

And - but I also felt, especially as a British person, that it wasn't appropriate for the show to declare on what, even in our fictional world, we think is going to be the fate of the republic. So it was important to me that we left it where it would be. And we worked with very skilled political operatives to figure out the right configuration of story that would both put ATN, their news organization, in a powerful position to affect things, but also would leave things poised, because yeah, some people found the episode, I know, sort of gut-wrenching and traumatic. And I can imagine because it's a very serious time for America. And, yeah, I didn't feel it was appropriate for us to say which way we think things will go, so that's why we left it poised.

RICH: One other thing that - which is, what if we had called the election? What if we had said Mencken won or Mencken lost? I think if we - if he lost, it would have been saccharine and sort of made us look like we're resolving this great crisis that's ongoing in American democracy, is going to certainly continue at full force through the '24 election at least. And it would have been - I don't know. It would have been saccharin. And if he won, it would have been melodramatic in another direction, and I think kind of glib and almost a form of political sloganeering or ideological. So I think it was - it would have rung false if we had called it. And I like that we left it where we did.

GROSS: Yeah, that makes sense to me. I just want to mention one line, when Connor, who's running for president as a libertarian only because he has the money to do it - he has, like, no support. He's, you know, a totally insignificant character in the election. But he says, it makes an election so much more interesting to be in it (laughter). He's such a dilettante. I love that line. Did you write that, Jesse?

ARMSTRONG: Yeah. It seemed true to me. It would be more fun, wouldn't the election, if you had a little bit more skin in the game?

GROSS: Yeah, that's absolutely not a reason to run (laughter). Jesse, you worked for a member of parliament before getting into television. What was your job? And what are some of those stories or insights that you got from being in politics or adjacent to politics that you were able to use as insights for "Succession?"

ARMSTRONG: I guess I got a sense of proximity to power, which I'd grown up a long way away from. And so that intangible sense of what power feels like - this was - it was before the 1997 election when Tony Blair won. So it was proximate power, and I was quite far from it, but as a very, very junior adviser to a junior would-be minister.

GROSS: So did you have to suck up to anybody? Did you become somebody's pain sponge (laughter)? Did you have to do bad things?

ARMSTRONG: I think I was an unbelievably unsuccessful - they'd call them a special adviser now. But to think of me, there was nothing much special about me. And my advice would have been very poor. I was an outsider. I was helping write letters, occasionally a speech and think about some policy or write something. But I was far outside the loop. And I was not good at doing what would have been useful to my boss, which would have been burrowing into the networks of friendship and connection that would have allowed him to get an extra margin or an extra piece of information. I wasn't a very good politician or even an aide to a politician. But it was fascinating to see that world.

GROSS: Frank, your father was a lawyer who also worked as a lobbyist. Are there things that you were able to draw on? This was your stepfather, actually.

RICH: Right. Exactly.

GROSS: Yeah.

RICH: Yeah, my stepfather was a lawyer with a small firm, would later be called, like, a K Street lawyer. In fact, it literally was on K Street. And he was a fixer. He did somewhat dubious - surely dubious favors, manipulating things in federal agencies, regulatory agencies and so on for corporations - in his case, particularly international airlines. And I grew up around - I grew up in the city of D.C. And I saw the sleaze at work. And, you know - and he dealt with - he was a tertiary figure at best. But he did deal with everyone from Lyndon Johnson when he was vice president and Justice Douglas on the Supreme Court, and Abe Fortas on the Supreme Court and Drew Pearson, the supposedly muckraking political columnist.

And so I really saw as a kid - and really, as a kid, not being very sophisticated - how the sausage was made. And I feel we captured that - we captured some of it in "Veep," too. We captured it in a more brutal way in the political story in "Succession." And it never changes, you know? It was true in the 19th century, too. But - so that had an enormous impact on how I view these things and the lens - I guess, which is somewhat cynical - which I view politics in general.

GROSS: I regret to say that, Frank, we have to let you go because you're in a New York studio, and our studio time is up. Frank Rich is an executive producer of "Succession." What a wonderful series. Thank you for it, and thank you for coming on our show and talking.

RICH: Great to talk to you as always. Thanks.

ARMSTRONG: So, Jesse, you can continue to stay with us because you're speaking to us from home, and I'm so grateful to you for doing that. Why don't we take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more? So my guest is Jesse Armstrong, and we'll talk more about creating and writing "Succession" after we take a short break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Jesse Armstrong, the creator, showrunner, and chief writer of the HBO series "Succession," which ended Memorial Day weekend.

Jesse, when we first see Logan on the first episode of the series, it's his 80th birthday, and he's very weak. The first time we see him, he gets out of bed in the morning. He's breathing heavily. He's walking with difficulty. He goes to the bathroom to pee. And because he's so disoriented, he pees on the bathroom rug. And not long after this, he has, like, a bleed in the brain, a stroke, an embolism. I'm a little unclear exactly what it is, but, you know, he becomes exceptionally weakened. It's unlike - it seems unlikely he'll even pull through, but he does. Why did you want to introduce this very powerful, domineering, manipulative man in such a vulnerable state the first time we see him?

ARMSTRONG: Yeah, I guess that's - well, I think the show, hopefully, is about a bunch of different things, but it's definitely very concerned with mortality. And people will know that Rupert Murdoch and Sumner Redstone have often made the same quip about their succession, saying that they wanted to not die. That was their succession plan. And it always struck me that none of us really want to die, do we? And the feeling of having a very full diary, of having another deal ready to go, of having another pressing meeting with your lawyers, is a very powerful way to stop feeling that the reaper is at the door. So mortality was sort of coded in from the very beginning in the way that these endeavors might be a way of keeping oneself from thinking about it.

GROSS: The series begins and ends for Logan Roy in the bathroom. And, you know, he goes to the bathroom the first time we see him and pees on the rug. He misses the toilet. And then he dies on his jet in the bathroom. So that seems to be a motif, Logan in the bathroom. Why?

ARMSTRONG: Yeah, and I know - I now remember that in the end of the first season, he gets the news - he gets a bear hug letter from his son also in a bathroom, and he throws it into the toilet bowl. So, yeah, I guess one thing is that comedy often works better in small spaces. And so if a scene isn't working, it's not - it's sometimes worth trying putting it in a smaller space and seeing what happens when people have to be in each other's physicality. Apart from that, I guess there is something about - you know, maybe it's something childish about seeing kings and queens on the toilet. That's what you're - you know, in the U.K., it was meant to be a hard thing to imagine - the queen - late queen being on the toilet. And there - I guess there's maybe something childlike about seeing great figures doing what all of us must do.

GROSS: You have, like, unique writing styles for each of the siblings and for Logan Roy. Can you talk a little bit about coming up with each of their voices?

ARMSTRONG: I guess a couple of overall things are that it struck me that powerful people often don't say so much. And Logan is - says probably many fewer words than his less powerful colleagues and people who surround him. Indeed, it's probably true that the people with the least power speak the most when you think about Tom before he assumed power and Greg. They have these great torrents of words because they're trying to fill in the holes and equivocate and countermand what they've just said to precisely express themselves 'cause they're worried the power is going to take a dim view of them. So there's something about literally the quantity of words that you speak and also the volume. You know, power can often be very quiet and make you lean in until it explodes and makes you lean out.

I guess Kendall has - we hear him first listening to rap music, and he has a desire to hit a sort of colloquial but buzzword-infused - he - I think he likes language. I think he wants to use interesting language. He's not a terrible performer. You know, even - some people find his rap utterly risible. I find it comic but also not bad. And so, he - I think he has a certain verbal felicity, a certain verbal interest, and sometimes that goes over the edge into being ludicrous.

Shiv - her tragedy has been that she has sought to modulate her every performance - performance in the sense of what she's doing in the world - to keep her options open. And so there's a sense in which she does that verbally as well. Roman is explosive and the most close to being a truth-teller in that kind of jester role where he can say the unsayable and then claim that he didn't say it or didn't mean it. And he - and people - it's a very powerful position once you start to be able to say, I didn't mean it after everything - every true thing that you say.

GROSS: And Greg has this, like, cluelessness informality. When he's on the witness stand during the hearings about the Waystar cruises - cruise line sexual harassment scandal, he's questioned by a senator, and he says - Greg's answer is, if it is so be said, so be it.

ARMSTRONG: If it is to be said, so it is, I think, or something. Yeah.

GROSS: Yeah. If it is to be said, so be it. And the senator said, what is that? You can speak normal, and Greg says, I shall. So you created this kind of, like, really strange formality for him.

ARMSTRONG: Yeah. I think there's a little bit of the kind of 18th century in there, that sort of courtier vibe in the, yeah, hyperverbosity.

GROSS: Why? Why?

ARMSTRONG: But - well, I think there's also a class thing there, which is, you know, the phrase hypercorrection, where people who are outside their normal class or social arena sometimes end up being idiotic because they're trying to be too proper. You know, it happens when - in our English class-obsessed society, when people try to change their vocal pitch and nature to try and fit in with posher people. And you hypercorrect, and then you become ludicrous by throwing in those extra words or reversing the order and doing things which you think sound like they might have a formality which is appropriate but ends up being nonsense. So it's a very nice thing in life to be comfortable with how you speak. And there's some - the show talks a little bit about how comfortable Logan is at a certain point in this season.

GROSS: Logan basically has a catchphrase, which is, F off.


ARMSTRONG: Yeah. That's succinct. Papa is succinct.

GROSS: Yes. Why don't we take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more? So my guest is Jesse Armstrong, and we'll talk more about creating and writing "Succession" after we take a short break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Jesse Armstrong, the creator, showrunner and chief writer of HBO's "Succession," which ended on Memorial Day weekend.

So let's listen to the goodbye scene when Logan Roy is on his jet, and he's either dying or dead. People on the jet are trying to revive him, but it doesn't seem to be working. The kids are on a cruise ship, celebrating Connor's wedding. And so they get this call like, your father's dying. Tom's on the phone telling them, and they don't know what's going on. So Tom gives the phone - puts the phone to Logan's ear so that they could say their goodbyes. And they don't know if he's dead or if he's alive. They don't know if he can hear them. So I want to play the goodbyes. And the order we'll hear is first Kieran Culkin as Roman and Jeremy Strong as Kendall and Sarah Snook as Shiv. So let's start with Roman.


CULKIN: (As Roman Roy) Hi, Dad. I hope you're OK. You're OK. You're going to be OK because you're a monster, and you're going to win 'cause you just win. And you're a good man. You're a good dad. You're a very good dad. You did a good job. No. I don't - I'm sorry. I don't know how to do that. You can - I can't - your turn.

STRONG: (As Kendall Roy) Am I by his ear?

MACFADYEN: (As Tom Wambsgans) Yeah. You're by his ear. If he can hear, he can hear you. Go ahead.

STRONG: (As Kendall Roy) OK. Hang in there. Yeah.

CULKIN: (As Roman Roy) It'll be OK.

STRONG: (As Kendall Roy) It'll be OK. I know. We love you, Dad. OK? We love you. I love you, Dad. I do. I love you. OK? I can't forgive you. But, yeah, but I - it's OK. And I love you.

GROSS: So that was Kieran Culkin as Roman and Jeremy Strong as Kendall. And here's Sarah Snook saying her goodbye as Shiv.


SNOOK: (As Siobhan Roy, crying) Dad? Hey, Dad. Daddy, I love you. Don't go, please, not now. No. I love you, you f***. God, I don't - there's no excuses for being - but I - and it's OK. It's OK, Daddy. It's OK. I love you.

GROSS: Those are really amazing performances and incredible writing, too. And, I think, Jesse, you wrote that scene - you really captured the not knowing what to say aspect in a situation like that, you know, not knowing how to say goodbye but especially in a conflicted relationship like the siblings had with their father, where they loved him and they hated him. And sometimes the hate would really overpower the love. And Kendall even says, I can't forgive you. I love you. So can you talk a little bit about writing those goodbyes, like, what you wanted to capture and the language and the stammering that you created?

ARMSTRONG: Yeah. And it's - obviously, the whole show is such a - multiple collaborations. But I feel especially in those moments, they could be - they could lie on the page inert if it wasn't with those brilliant actors doing them, doing the scene. I'm a rewriter. I rewrite a lot. We rework the scripts a lot through production. And it can be - sometimes be hard for the actors as we change things. But that episode, and especially that long stretch in the middle, I didn't - I wrote it relatively quickly. And then I tried to be very careful about what I revised because - I don't often feel this, but it felt like it had a, in its - had a coherence in its incoherence that felt appropriate. And I wanted to leave it rather raw, you know? Hopefully our insults and our verbal attacks are believable and characterful. But they're often more carefully wrought and multi-clause and baroque.

And the simplicity of the language, the mixture of truth and untruth, the, you know, feeling towards the edge of language and what it can express all felt good in the early, early drafts. And I therefore tried not to change it. And I tried not to change the last things that Logan said once I sort of knew that they were the last things that Logan said because I didn't want them to have the form of, you know, a grandiloquent kind of moment of speech, because that didn't seem appropriate. The show isn't constructed in that way. It tries to, you know - in its artificial way, it tries to recreate reality. And it seemed to be appropriate not to retouch those moments because, you know...

GROSS: He didn't know he was going to die.

ARMSTRONG: He didn't know he was going to die, so it felt appropriate for me not - to try to remember to forget that as well.

GROSS: Do you remember what those last lines were?

ARMSTRONG: I think he's saying something about let's refocus. Let's get a bit more aggressive, probably with a couple of curse words in there. But they're typical of his - of him. But they are not the summation that you might have put in his mouth if you were doing a more classical ending or death speech.

GROSS: So I want to ask you about obscenities, particularly when it applies to insults. This series is so laced with obscenities. And they're very colorful. And the insults are hilarious. They add color. But can you talk about the advantage of using that many obscenities from a writer's point of view?

ARMSTRONG: (Laughter) Yeah. Obscenities - I guess there's obscenities, and then there's the invective and the insults. Certain worlds - construction sites and high-pressure environments, newsrooms - certain places have quite a lot of swearing, in my experience. And that's just trying to be reflective of how some people speak to each other, especially brutalized people and people who don't mind brutalizing each other. Large organizations often take on the character of the people at the top. And it permeates all the way through the organizations. And this is a horrible world. As I said somewhere in this season, the poison does drip down through this organization and into the world.

GROSS: I really regret to say that we are out of time. It has been such a pleasure to talk with you. Thank you so much for talking about "Succession." And thank you for creating it. It's given me and so many other people so much pleasure.

ARMSTRONG: Thank you, Terry. It's lovely to speak to you. Great questions - I feel like I've managed to say things that I knew I thought but had never really expressed before. So it's - thanks for the opportunity to chat to you.

GROSS: Jesse Armstrong is the creator, showrunner and head writer of HBO's "Succession." If you're a "Succession" fan and just can't get enough of it, the podcast version of our interview is longer, with a lot that we didn't have time for in the broadcast, so check it out. Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, we'll talk about the impact of the Supreme Court's conservative supermajority on American life and the court's decisions on abortion rights, gun safety and environmental regulation. Our guest will be Michael Waldman, president of the Brennan Center for Justice and author of the new book "The Supermajority: How The Supreme Court Divided America." I hope you'll join us.


GROSS: To keep up with what's happening on the show and get highlights of our interviews, follow us on Instagram at @nprfreshair. FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our senior producer today is Roberta Shorrock. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Seth Kelley and Susan Nyakundi. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Thea Chaloner directed today's show. I'm Terry Gross.


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