Created by Jesse Armstrong (Peep Show), the HBO drama series Succession follows the Roy family – made up of Logan Roy (Brian Cox) and his four children (Alan Ruck, Jeremy Strong, Sarah Snook and Kieran Culkin) – who controls one of the biggest media and entertainment conglomerates in the world. And just when they thought that their aging father would be stepping back from the company, the tough patriarch changes his mind, throwing everything into upheaval and forcing the family to choose sides.
During this 1-on-1 phone interview with Collider, showrunner Jesse Armstrong talked about how he found out about the Season 2 pick-up for the series, the great sense of freedom they have at HBO, being excited by the opportunities for storytelling that the second season will provide, telling a story about family and power, finding the show’s tone, the fun of shooting the big family scenes, whether he’d consider directing an episode himself, and whether the Roy children are loyal to anyone but themselves. Be aware that some spoilers are discussed.
JESSE ARMSTRONG: Yeah, it’s exciting!
When and how did you find out that you’d get to keep telling this family story for a bit longer?
ARMSTRONG: You get vibes when you’re doing a show. The network are nice and I’m friendly with them, so you start having little conversations about, “What if . . .” So, I had positive vibes. And then, we did a screening in New York and Casey Bloys and Richard Plepler were there and they gave me a little bit of a nod, a few days ahead of time. They said, “Look, we think we’ll do it again.” It’s very tiring and time-consuming, so there’s even a little bit of “Fuck, I’m pretty pleased with the series, I wonder if we can do that again. It’s going to take a lot of time.” But obviously, I am very pleased that we get the chance to do more for them ‘cause I think there are more good stories to come.
When you were working on the first season and figuring out the story you wanted to tell, did you also have an idea of what a second season might look like, and did making a season of this show change the story you might want to tell going forward, in any way?
ARMSTRONG: Yeah. The writers I work with are brilliant, so I have a sense of what I think the story will be, but the first thing I’ll say is, “Let’s try and beat that,” or “Maybe I’m wrong.” I think it’s really good to have a sense of freedom, which we’re lucky enough to have at HBO. It’s about, what do we really want to write about?
With the way that you leave things, at the end of the season, it seems like Season 2 could go just about anywhere with all of the characters. Does that feel exciting, or is it nerve-wracking and scary to be able to possibly take them anywhere you want?
ARMSTRONG: As a writer, the blank sheet of paper is terrifying, but this is the good version of the blank piece of paper because there’s a lot of room to maneuver. On the other hand, we know who they all are now, so it honestly feels like a good place. It feels like that point where you’re excited by the opportunities, but not overwhelmed by the range of opportunities.
I know that you had written a screenplay about the Murdoch family that never ended up getting made, and you’ve said that that was the origin of thinking about these types of media families. Do you think this show would have existed eventually, even without that script, or does this series feel like it really only exists because you wrote that other script?
ARMSTRONG: That’s a really good question. I don’t know. Honestly, I think it definitely could have happened. Somebody else suggested the area, as an area to write about, and I am drawn to writing about power. I worked in politics, and I grew up far away from any centers of power or influence. I was always intrigued about how the hell the world came to be like it is. So, I ended up doing comedy and sitcoms, with The Thick of It and Veep, and ended up writing about politics. I think the media and media ownership, the influence of individual consciousnesses and political viewpoints of individuals, and the way that that has shaped the world, is something that anyone who’s thinking about power now and how the world has ended up in the shape it is, in this political climate, I might have come to writing something in this area anyway. There are a million things to write about, but I think this is very much in my area of interest.
It’s interesting how, with all of the power, the politics and the money of this story, that it still feels, at its core, like a family drama. Do you think of this series as a family drama, above all else?
ARMSTRONG: I feel like it’s really true that both parts are important and essential to the show. When I was kidding around, I would sometimes pitch it to people as Celebration, the Danish movie, meets Dallas, with the business element and the family element, and that quite brutal, satirical treatment of a family. I wouldn’t have wanted to just do a boardroom, Margin Call piece about these people, without that family core. I was really interested in the Redstones, the Mercers, the Murdochs, and these families where you have a name branded on your forehead when you enter any room, in the same way that people who are born into monarchies have. You can never get away from it. You could never do anything ‘cause, if you were Shari Redstone, what can you do in life that’s going to surpass your name? So, I loved the family element and I loved the business element. They come together really well for me.