‘Succession’: Jesse Armstrong on the Season Finale’s Stunning Twist

This article contains plot details about the second season of “Succession.”

In the end it was kill or be killed.

Viewers heading into Sunday’s Season 2 finale of the HBO drama “Succession” knew a “blood sacrifice” was coming. But they had to wait until the final scene to learn who got the ax. For a while the choice seemed clear: After days spent pondering who should take the fall for a sexual misconduct scandal that had been rocking shareholders’ confidence, Logan Roy (Brian Cox) finally seemed to decide, coaxing his son Kendall (Jeremy Strong) into being the goat.

But in a startling twist ending, Kendall turned the tables on his father, who in making his decision had only just told him: “You’re not a killer. You have to be a killer.”

It was another high note for the series’s creator, Jesse Armstrong, a veteran British TV writer who has helped shape some of the sharpest social satires of the past decade, including “Peep Show” and “The Thick of It.” Armstrong won an Emmy last month for his writing on “Succession,” which tells a sprawling story about the battle for control at a right-wing media dynasty, patterned largely after the Murdoch family. It’s his most ambitious project to date, but its final scope is still being written: HBO has already renewed the show for a third season.

The morning after the finale, Armstrong spoke with The Times by phone about the finale’s knockout ending, and about how his phenomenal cast has helped steer the series’s direction. He also revealed what he says to people who complain that his characters aren’t “sympathetic.” These are edited excerpts from that conversation.

At what point in planning out the season did you know you that Kendall was going to flip?

Pretty early on. I remember pitching it to the writers’ room before we started outlining the other episodes. I always like to know where we’re going. It helps to maintain the integrity of the show.

When do you think Kendall made his decision to go against Logan? Was it before he kissed his father on the cheek?

That’s one where I’m really intrigued by what people make of it. I don’t think there’s a wrong answer. You might even get different replies from me and Jeremy, although I think we’re probably on the same page. But I don’t want to be sitting up on a cloud making readings on that stuff on behalf of the audience. I like people to make their own decisions.

You put Jeremy Strong through the wringer this season with Kendall’s arc. Did he at least have the relief of knowing where the character was going to land?

You know, me and Jeremy talk a lot, and at a certain point, yeah, he did. Because, you know, his preparation for his performance and his engagement with the character is really extraordinarily deep. It didn’t feel like a dereliction of duty not to lay it all out from the very beginning, but at a certain point it did feel like he should know where he was going. So yeah, we discussed that stuff before the episode was written.

When did he learn he was going to get to rap?

Right before the read-through! [Laughs.] No, I actually can’t remember when. But we clearly discussed how it should work, and I think we both had the same feeling, that it might be that other people found it ludicrous, but that Kendall himself shouldn’t. Therefore the lyrics, the music, the stuff around it should be as good as someone like him should be able to achieve. Which is pretty decent!

Did it surprise you how much the rap took off on social media? Do you pay attention to any of that?

A lot of that really isn’t useful to have in your head. But there’s always a few bits in each season where we think, “Well, tonally, I think we got it right.” I remember having the rocket explode in the first season’s finale. Initially I wanted to do it on big screens at Shiv’s wedding, and then one of our writers, Jon Brown, came into the writers’ room having been away for a few days, and was like: “You’ve all gone completely crazy. It’s going to ruin the show.” [Laughs.] We ended up having it on Roman’s phone, which was rather a better way.

Similarly, I remember suggesting the rap and there being a certain, like, “Yeah, right … This could be the end of the show that we’ve all worked on so hard.” But if you get those things right, they have that kind of queasy sense we know so well from the world right now. That “Am I seeing what I think I’m seeing?” feeling.

What inspired the structure of the show, where you’re in a different location nearly every episode?

Maybe it comes a bit from the fact that most of my career in TV has been in situation comedy. I love the breadth and space you get to explore character in so-called serialized TV, the novelistic element of maybe being able to find out who people are. But I also very much like the sitcom discipline of having a self-contained episode that you could conceivably, I hope, be able to enjoy in and of itself. My desire is to have a completeness to each episode.

Is there much left on the cutting room floor? It would seem like Matthew Macfadyen alone would give you dozens of hilarious outtakes each episode.

Oh yeah. Our writers write long, and we write alternative lines. And then there’s some improvisation. There’s always a lot of warp and weft in the interaction between the writers and the cast. Often I cut the episodes down from an hour and a half or over. We leave some of the comic material out and it’s heartbreaking sometimes. But I think the discipline is good in the end.

One of the criticisms of “Succession” when the show debuted was that it was hard to root for any of the characters. This season there seemed to be more of an effort to dig into the roots of the Roy siblings’ psychological and emotional damage, to make them maybe a little more sympathetic. Was that intentional?

Without sounding defensive, I would say that sometimes TV critics assume that after a few episodes the writers “finally understand the characters,” and as a writer I often feel that what really has happened is that the viewer has gotten to know the characters. It’s a natural process. I would claim that if you went back and watched something from our first season, there were always hints to the inner lives of these characters. Getting into their psychological makeup has always been intrinsic to the show, along with the interest in how the world of media works. We certainly didn’t come back after Season 1, saying, “Oh [expletive], we’ve made these people horrible!” [Laughs.]

We’ve also never said anything like, “Ugh, we’ve made this person so bad, we need to find a redeeming quality.” I think if there is such a balance, that’s only because, I would remind you, there’s also one in life. We have characteristics we’re born with, that are molded by the lives we live. And so to have a psychologically engaged show, our view of human nature is that it doesn’t come from nowhere, it comes from somewhere. So we naturally end up portraying that.

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