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[This story contains spoilers for Succession season four, episode eight: “America Decides.”]
Is Succession a drama? A comedy? Confusion about the HBO Emmy-winning juggernaut’s genre has been a part of the DNA from the beginning. But at least in the case of “America Decides,” the answer feels more clear: This week, Succession is a horror show.
The antepenultimate episode of the series centers on Election Night, in which America decides between two very different candidates: Democrat Daniel Jimenez (Elliot Villar in a decidedly different role from his Mr. Robot villain Fernando Vera) versus Republican Jeryd Mencken (Justin Kirk, who has loomed large over Succession since his season-three debut, but is only now appearing on screen for the first time in the show’s final season). Of course, there’s also Connor Roy (Alan Ruck), whose already far-off chances are fully dismissed less than halfway into the episode. (Connor’s mournful acknowledgement of his defeat — “Alas, Kentucky. Alas, vanity.” — immediately registers as one of the character’s most iconic lines of the whole show.)
The Waystar Royco crew all have differing hopes for the election, with Shiv (Sarah Snook) fearing the rise of Mencken’s far-right worldview, while Roman (Kieran Culkin) mocks her concerns with bad faith takes. For his part, Kendall (Jeremy Strong) stands torn at the center between wanting a better tomorrow for his frightened kids, and wanting a better business partner for his own hopeful tomorrow as the sole CEO of Waystar — even if that means striking a deal with the devilish Mencken.
The Andrij Parekh-directed, Jesse Armstrong-written episode plays out almost entirely at the ATN offices, providing a harrowing view in how a media organization can warp the reality surrounding the American electoral process, if not outright rig the outcome. When a slew of presumably Jimenez-leaning votes literally go up in a hail of smoke, Roman sees an opportunity to call swing state Wisconsin early for Mencken, all but assuring his win as the official ATN narrative, even without the actual votes to back up the result. Roman strong-arms the move, despite protests from his colleagues and siblings, and even Kendall ultimately backs the play after he asks Shiv to reach out to the Jimenez campaign for support against Lukas Matsson (Alexander Skarsgård), only for her to fake the phone call and lie about it in order to crush the Mencken momentum while also preserving her self-interested deal with Matsson. Kendall learns the truth, however, and both he and Roman rise up against their sister, and officially call the election for Mencken.
“We can do business with him,” Kendall quietly reasons, while he and an ecstatic Roman watch Mencken’s chilling acceptance speech, promising a “clean” solution to America’s problems. As Shiv (not to mention Kendall’s wife, children and countless fellow Americans) fear, however, the problems are just getting started.
With an episode so evocative of America’s own recent elections, “America Decides” plays out like an existential horror movie, in which every character is a slasher killer in their own right, with the American public and viewers alike cast in the role of their victims. It’s destined to disturb many Succession viewers — exactly as intended, no doubt, according to the man who plays Mencken himself.
“Succession often feels not necessarily a mirror, but like five minutes from now,” Kirk tells The Hollywood Reporter. “And it definitely feels that way in this case. Jeryd Mencken is a figure who isn’t necessarily [based on] a specific dude, but he feels like he very well might be.”
Below, THR speaks more with the official ATN President (if not yet the actual President in the Succession universe, as legal battles are likely to last months and potentially extend beyond the scope of the series), about how he brings Mencken to life, how he thinks the man is a true believer of his own hype, and Kirk’s own obstacles involved in filming the pivotal “America Decides.”
This is a horror movie of an episode. It will land hard with many who watch it. You were among the first to experience the story through the script. What were your initial reactions?
Well, just because you read the script, doesn’t mean you know what’s going to be on TV. Which can be fun, as long as you let go of any expectations as the actor who was there six months previously. I just watched it as well, because I’ve been talking to folks like you today. It’s very strange. I was one of about 150 people, I’m guessing, who knew Logan Roy (Brian Cox) was going to die, and I remember the day of that episode [airing], feeling, “I know a thing the rest of the world is going to be freaking out about in a few hours!” That was fun.
This one? I’m interested to see what people think. It did seem … stressful. (Laughs) Probably because Tom (Matthew Macfadyen) was gacked out on blow for the whole thing.
Yeah, that did not help.
Not for him, no! But I’m interested in how the rest of the world takes it. Because as I’m watching it, I’m just trying to catch up and see what they used. I’m also looking at it as an actor: “Okay, I look okay there!” But I’m excited for folks to see it. I may even watch it again [when it airs].
Do it! You’ll be one of the millions of people getting actively traumatized by your charachter.
It’s such a crazy phenomenon, what the show has become in that way. It’s so exciting to be a small part of it.
When you joined the cast in season three, how much did you know about Mencken’s role in season four?
Only a suggestion. When they offered the part, it said “possible recurring” at the bottom of the email. But I thought that since the last frame of that episode was me staring at Logan and taking a picture with him, I had a good feeling [about coming back]. But, you just never know. So I spent the whole offseason trying to be cool, occasionally checking in with my agents. But they don’t tell you much, nor do they need to, because they have more important things going on [while making the show]. The first call goes, “Here’s the episode they want you for, they’ll need you these days,” and then that changes a little bit, and you just … this is the kind of gig where you stay ready for them whenever they call on you to serve.
What does it look like to stay ready as Jeryd Mencken, the political boogeyman of Succession?
Well, I don’t stay in character! But it’s funny, because you’re not the first person to use that word, and I think it’s the best [way to describe him]. They keep talking about me, even when I’m not there. It builds a certain audience anticipation. But the writing is so good that you’re always ready. You come, you put on the clothes, you memorize the words they gave you, get with all those great actors… it’s pretty simple.
Jeryd Mencken is anything but simple. He seems like he’s one person behind closed doors with Roman, then he’s someone else when the cameras are rolling.
Did you find him different? His speech versus his time with Roman? I hope so. It’s funny because, it’s a question I only recently thought about, while watching it, how different they are. The one thing I felt was different between him and real-life super right-wing congresspeople is that he’s kind of pointy-headed. At least when we see him asking Shiv if she’s read Plato, or talking with Roman in the bathroom, I think he comes at this and considers himself a bit of an intellectual. He doesn’t think of it like, “Well, I’ll say the dumb things for the unwashed masses.” Though maybe he does, because we don’t see him a lot on Succession, in terms of being out in public.
But I will say, I do think he’s a true believer. You hear these things about, “Oh, I saw Congressman X Y and Z [in public], and it’s all bullshit. They said, ‘Let’s have lunch on Wednesday with Chuck Schumer.'” I’m not saying Mencken wouldn’t have lunch with Chuck Schumer, but I do think he legitimately believes, “This is the way America should be.”
Something simple. “Clean,” he says.
“Proud and pure.”
Walk me through filming that acceptance speech. Did anything surprise you about what ended up in the final cut?
A lot of it ended up on screen, which is not always the case. I had just recovered from my very first bout of COVID. I had avoided it for three years. I had decided to go to New York and hang out [before the shoot]. I didn’t know what days they would need me for, but I wanted to go so I’m not just flying in the night before for a 5 a.m. call. I’ll go, I’ll see some plays, I’ll hang out with friends, and I’ll be ready for when the job starts. But I’m keeping it cool and eating [outdoors], being very cautious, but somehow, [COVID] found me, two days before the speech. It was so upsetting. Mostly I felt like I let them down. They were so nice about it. They switched things around. I was positive for nine days, and I lost my voice, as well. I have this big speech, and I’ve literally lost my voice in a way I never have, and wasn’t even aware of it because I’d been staying alone and wasn’t speaking with anyone. And then I called [production], and they answered, and I tried to speak, and nothing came out. I borrowed a friend’s humidifier, and ate a lot of Ricolas for the day we did the speech. I had a buttload of Ricolas. I believe we were at the CNBC headquarters in New Jersey, alone in a room with a sparse camera crew, pretending to be in front of hundreds of Mencken true believers, saying some crazy shit.
Did you research real-life figures who were Mencken approximates?
I feel like I’m fairly current. I keep up on the American world a bit. When the role came up, I felt like it was going to be fun, because I know about this [kind of character]. And it was. For me, if you’re a smart actor, the best [parts] are the horrible people. They let you say horrible things and you can jump right in and chew on a good scene. I will say, I watched this episode the day after the CNN Town Hall [with Donald Trump], and it was a little dispiriting.
Eerie timing. This episode not only feels so reminiscent of recent Election Nights, but it also feels, in many ways, like a warning.
That’s exactly right. Succession often feels not necessarily a mirror, but like five minutes from now. And it definitely feels that way in this case. Jeryd Mencken is a figure who isn’t necessarily [based on] a specific dude, but he feels like he very well might be.
It’s very effective.
It is, it is. And there’s more to come.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
Succession releases new episodes Sundays at 9 p.m. on HBO and Max. Follow along with THR‘s Succession final season coverage.
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