'Succession' Showrunner Talks Season 2 Finale Twist: "Different Interpretations Are Valid"

Jesse Armstrong also discussed what it was like to shoot the episode on a massive yacht and the origin of the line "Sails out, nails out, bro."
Graeme Hunter/HBO; Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images
'Succession' (Inset: Jesse Armstrong)

[This story contains spoilers for Succession’s season two finale.]

First things first, Jesse Armstrong is not going to clear up the deus ex machina in the season two finale of HBO's Succession.

Though the showrunner and his writers room dropped a bombshell on audiences on Sunday during the season ender — which revealed that once-dutiful son Kendall (Jeremy Strong) is whistleblowing on his father’s role in covering up sexual misconduct at his company — he politely declines to discuss details of Kendall’s plot, or Greg’s (Nicholas Braun) involvement, or Logan’s (Brian Cox) episode-ending smile in an interview the morning after the premiere of the finale. “I kind of feel like it’s nice to be able to have your own take on that stuff,” he says.

Even without digging into the writers room’s intentions for the show’s latest twist, Armstrong has some behind-the-scenes information to convey. That Mediterranean yacht? Director Mark Mylod slept onboard nominally to get some morning and evening shots. From whence came the line that delighted many on Twitter, “Sails out, nails out, bro?” That was a Jesse Armstrong original. Armstrong’s favorite Succession meme? The “kiss me daddy” remix.

During his interview with The Hollywood Reporter following "This Is Not for Tears," Armstrong also discussed improvisation in the finale, the yacht’s connection with real-life media moguls and the extent to which he’s thought about season three, expected in 2020.

First of all, was Kendall planning on taking down his father all season long, or did he just take the opportunity when he had it?

I hope I won’t be too frustrating to you because I’m happy to chat about the show, but I take the kind of “Oh, I’d rather not sort of talk out the details” [approach]. I kind of feel like it’s nice to be able to have your own take on that stuff. I’d rather have people give me their thoughts about what happens. In the [writers] room, we [have our own ideas] and then sometimes even the actors have a different take on that stuff, so different interpretations are valid.

My next question might elicit the same response, but I’ll try it anyway: When did Greg get involved in Kendall’s plot?

Their friendship is a nice element of the show and there’s a warmth there, but again, it feels like the show was a good expression of what we want to put out there on the whole, so I hope that isn’t too frustrating.

When Logan smiled at the end of Kendall’s press conference, was that scripted or was that a Brian Cox flourish?

That’s in the script, but I think Brian performs it even more brilliantly than anything I could have suggested. But that was something he aimed for.

How early did you and the writers room know that you wanted Kendall to try his hand at taking down his father again?

I like to know where we’re going. It’s not the sort of show where we [want to confound] the audience, even though there’s quite a few questions of interpretation left, like we mentioned, so I like to know. I think that although it’s fun to have a twist at the end, I hope it also has that clunk of almost inevitability. So we knew what Kendall’s story was and how to fit it into the rest of the family from pretty early on.

When Tom (Matthew Macfadyen) had a fight with Shiv (Sarah Snook) in the finale, why was it important that he assert his real position on her request in the first season to have an open marriage?

In general, it’s a feature of relationships, isn’t it, that we live in a kind of palimpsest, with layers of relationship going back for years. When we think about doing a show which has a bit of breadth and all this [space] to portray the characters, you get to do more [deep work] in the relationships. It’s interesting to me in other shows when echoes, little bits from the past, shine through again. I think that’s what we feel about that bit.

That one of the most dramatic episodes of the season took place on a yacht seemed significant to me, given how many major moments have happened on yachts with media moguls like Rupert Murdoch and Robert Maxwell. Were you thinking back to real-life media icons when you chose the setting?

I think we all wanted [the finale] on a boat and obviously we knew the [media-mogul connection], especially the British ones, like the history of Maxwell and other famous meetings on mogul yachts, so we weren’t unaware of those resonances. It felt like a perfect place for us to be.

What was the origin of the line, “Sails out, nails out”?

I think that’s my coinage. But I do remember when we were looking at the history and whatever other behavior is going on [on yachts] — although kind of anything goes sometimes — they are quite careful of their decks. So that detail is real.

To what extent was the conversation around the table at the yacht as to who should be sacrificed scripted, and to what extent was it improvised?

That’s all scripted. We improvise, but it’s really to give the show a certain amount of looseness and possibility and sometimes we get an extra line [out of it]. That hewed pretty closely to the script, but not tightly: We do scripted takes, and then we do loose takes and we take fragments from here and there, but with something like that, you wouldn’t get that result from an [improvised] situation.

Were there any particularly fun moments to shoot on the yacht, given the idyllic nature of that setting?

It was filmed in the Croatian Mediterranean and it wasn’t the worst place to be, but me and [writer] Tony Roche, day by day we were usually in the deep hull of the ship where they had a screening room. It was the most stable place and we were looking at lines and that kind of thing, so I didn’t get a suntan myself, but it was a nice spot. I think Mark Mylod, the director, stayed overnight on the cruise: He told us it was so he could get some nice shots in the early morning and at night. I’m not sure if that was the whole story, but he stayed on the boat.

So many dramatic moments happened in last season’s finale — did you feel any pressure this time around?

In the abstract, I did. Me and Mark Mylod felt it. I just felt [about last season’s finale], “I think that’s pretty much as good as I can give,” and I think Mark Mylod was proud a bit, too. We did, from time to time, look at each other with a [glance that said], to me, “Can we do one like that again?” So I did feel a certain amount of pressure. When you’re writing, you’re usually quite tormented by the feeling that what you’re doing is no good anyway, so it’s not an unusual feeling.

Did you pay any attention to all the memes that really began in earnest this season and if so, do you have a favorite? 

It’s lovely. I can sense that the show has hit with some people, but it’s just not that useful going into the writers room and thinking about the show while having a ton of other stuff in your head. However, people have been sending me stuff, and the one with the “Daddy’s Kiss” song was a remarkable piece of production and writing. I did clock that one.

How involved were you in the decision to get Pusha T to remix the show’s theme song?

That was Nick Britell. It was his suggestion — he’s got much more [sophisticated] musical tastes. We chatted about it when he had the idea, but that was really his call.

It’s one thing to read a show’s script and quite another to see how it’s translated to the screen. Do you have a few favorite moments of film from season two?

That’s a good question. It feels invidious to pick among them. There are moments that you write and you hope that the electricity will be there like it feels it is on the page. Off the top of my head, Shiv and Logan talking to each other in the first episode, I remember feeling affected by; we were very pleased by how the end sequence of the episode in Hungary worked out, around the dining room table, which felt like an interesting place for us to go and I remember the shot where we felt like we got it; and then in episode four, the piece where Shiv and Kendall have a moment of closeness at the end of the episode, which comes as rather a surprise. It was very affecting on set to see those two brilliant actors drop some layers in front of your eyes. And then of course a bunch from last night’s episode — there were some bits which were memorable, among a ton of others.

Have you started thinking about season three yet?

No, no, I’ve started thinking about it a lot. The writers room won’t convene for a while, but it will [feel] quite soon. Definitely we have some thoughts and feelings.

Can you tell us anything about what to expect?

Well, no, not that I’m going to say right now. Sorry.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.