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29 September 2021

Jesse Armstrong on power, politics and the return of Succession

How the British writer created an era-defining American satire.

By Anna Leszkiewicz

Few people would instinctively describe a 279-foot luxury mega-yacht as a “hell hole”, but Jesse Armstrong is such a person. The second series of his HBO show Succession staged its climactic finale on one of the largest you can charter. After two seasons of vicious, whiplash-inducing bids for power, members of the Roy family, an enormously wealthy and influential media dynasty, have been summoned to the ship by their patriarch: the ferocious billionaire Logan Roy, head of “Waystar Royco” (part Disney, part Fox News). The whole gang – “close family, and inflatables, and mimosas, and the CFO, and the general counsel,” quips one passenger – has been assembled in the Mediterranean in order to help Logan decide who will take the blame for a series of historical sexual assaults that occurred on the company’s cruise ships, about which the press has recently learned. It’s less of a family holiday and more, in Armstrong’s words, “a balloon debate”: if a hot air balloon is sinking under too great a weight, who is thrown off the side to allow the rest to survive?

On screen, the Roys are restless; they have to take off their shoes, the champagne is not their favourite, the phone reception is patchy. One character, failing to feign enthusiasm at the prospect of the on-board threesome his wife has organised, says, “There is kind of… death-sentence vibes?” On set, Armstrong was similarly unimpressed by his surroundings. His abiding memory is of sitting in the space they used as a screening room “in the belly of the beast”, rocking from side to side, the air thick with the stench of diesel.

This may not surprise viewers of the series. As the writer and creator (or, to use an American term, the showrunner) of Succession, Armstrong is hyper-alert to the most nauseating details of great wealth and power. His characters live in unimaginable comfort, but are never at ease. The threat of Logan’s displeasure stalks them at every turn. Every black-tie dinner, every flight on a private jet, every cocaine fuelled sex party, every remote corporate retreat is infused with “death-sentence vibes”. Their lives are claustrophobic, not enviable. They are selfish and cowardly; hostile to each other and utterly disdainful of everyone else. Succession is not moralistic: known for its brutally comic dialogue, it finds a sick pleasure in barbed insults and flippant cruelty. It refuses to incite our pity or outrage.

The show’s central question is who the 80-year-old, Lear-like Logan (Brian Cox) will appoint as successor. The most obvious candidates are his three youngest children. Kendall (Jeremy Strong) is a man who, despite his vast fortune and constant efforts, cannot convincingly project authority. Roman (Kieran Culkin) wouldn’t humiliate himself by trying – provocative and attention-seeking, he instead undermines everyone else. (“What I think [Dad] meant to say was that he wished that Mom gave birth to a can opener, because at least then it would be useful,” he says to Kendall, whom he also refers to as “a pathetic beta-cuck”.) Logan’s only daughter, Shiv (Sarah Snook), is sarcastic and quietly ruthless. She is married to the much-maligned Tom (Matthew Macfadyen), who, in turn, enjoys torturing Greg (Nicholas Braun), Logan’s great-nephew, who begins the series a gawky outsider. In an early scene, Tom takes Greg aside, whispering, “You need any help – seriously, any help, any advice – just, y’know… don’t fucking bother, OK?”

It’s hard to overstate the extent to which Succession has been critically praised. It was labelled “the best show about power in the Trump era” – no small feat for an English writer. Armstrong isn’t exactly famous in the UK, but his name is attached to many of the defining British comedies of the past two decades: Peep Show, which he conceived of and wrote with Sam Bain, The Thick of It, Four Lions, In the Loop. When Peep Show ended in 2015, Armstrong wanted to do something different. An idea about a media dynasty had been brewing in his mind – his most obvious reference point was the Murdochs, but he was also researching Sumner Redstone, Robert Maxwell, the Rothermeres, Disney infighting and the Mercers.

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“I didn’t feel like I was voraciously ambitious to, you know, ‘crack America’ – but I did think it felt like an American show, and scale would be important,” he says. He pitched the idea to HBO, with Adam McKay (The Big Short, Vice) on board to direct. The network commissioned it without hesitation, and even agreed to let Armstrong run his writer’s room from London. The writing team (half Americans, half Brits) gather to write Succession in an office opposite Brixton Tube, near Armstrong’s home.

[See also: Jarvis Cocker interview: At the end of 1996, I had “a nervous breakdown”]

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We meet in early September, in an old-fashioned Victorian pub opposite the rapidly cooling water of Brockwell Lido, where Armstrong often swam, before the pandemic. In a grey button-up and glasses, he is thoughtful, if not totally comfortable with being interviewed and photographed. (“Please be gentle with me if you put any of that in,” he says at one point.) He is still working on the final details of season three, which picks up where the second series left off; reviewing the edits, “watching every cut”. As Succession’s showrunner, Armstrong is involved with the series at every stage, “from casting to doing the music”. “You have a lot of responsibility and a lot of power, and if it doesn’t go well, it’s down to you.” His favourite part is the writing: he speaks affectionately about the writers’ room, which includes British playwright Lucy Prebble (Enron, A Very Expensive Poison), Tony Roche (The Thick of It), the Hawaiian playwright Susan Soon He Stanton, and Will Tracy, the former editor of satirical news site the Onion. “I like it a lot, the atmosphere. Hanging around a lot of really intelligent people for months on end, talking about whatever’s in the news, is fun to me.”

He is also very protective of what happens there. He would never open it up to a documentary crew. “It would totally destroy what’s good about it for me, which is the sealed area of trust.” Inside the room, he loves to analyse his characters and their motivations in detail. Nothing is ever “ambiguous”, even if it ends up being so to the viewer. “I think you’re basically in the bullshit business if you’re like, ‘Let’s do an ambiguous shot.’ There needs to be an answer. The show has a view of how the world works and how people work, and that should be expressed in every single line and frame of the show, but it should never be explicitly stated, otherwise it would be turgid propaganda.”

Outside the room, he is reluctant to pick the programme apart. In fact, he can’t bear to. “I hate it, I hate talking about the show or saying what things mean, because I have a sort of 1980s NME-reader view that I don’t want to impose it on you, man, that you should take what you want from it. In my own experience with films, books, plays, TV, I don’t want somebody telling me what it means, because I think I know, and I want my interpretation to be valid, because it is valid.” He quotes Robert Frost: the show must “ride on its own melting”. He believes in that “mythical thing of trust the tale, not the teller. It’s possible we don’t know what we’re doing!”

Armstrong grew up on anarchic British comedies: The Young Ones, Not the Nine O’Clock News, The Day Today and I’m Alan Partridge. Born in 1970, he spent his childhood in Oswestry in Shropshire, a market town near the Welsh border. His father was a teacher at a local further education college, and became a crime novelist in the 1990s; his mother worked in nursery schools. In his childhood home, there was “a lot of respect for the written word”; around the dinner table, the family would debate the merits of different TV shows.

After finishing school, Armstrong went to Manchester University, where he took a degree in American Studies: he liked the idea of spending a year abroad in the US (he spent his in Massachusetts), and the possibility of studying a combination of literature, politics and history. It was at Manchester that Armstrong met his wife, who works for the NHS, and his writing partner Sam Bain. Armstrong and Bain moved in together in their final year – an experience they would later use in their sitcom about Manchester University students in a houseshare, Fresh Meat – but didn’t start working on scripts together until after university, when they were both living in London.

Armstrong had a handful of jobs in the city – as a washer-upper, and on the checkout in Oddbins. (He remembers an incident when the store was robbed: instead of helping his manager, “I revolved 180 degrees and pretended to be a customer until the incident was over”. (It’s the kind of excruciating experience that would later characterise Peep Show.) “I wasn’t about to put my body on the line for the Oddbins corporation.”

In 1995 he started working in Westminster, initially for free, as a researcher for the Labour MP Doug Henderson. It was an exciting time for Labour, but Armstrong was an outsider. “I always felt out of place,” he says. “I was the guy walking around the edge of the party, sometimes literally, not having anyone to talk to because I didn’t know all the gossip they knew or didn’t know the nasty jokes they were telling each other.” The experience has clearly influenced his writing. “I’m relatively sensitive to the atmosphere of what places are like, what relationships are like, and the feeling of power in rooms,” he says. “Political parties can be pretty internecine, and pretty savage.” One thing he was struck by is how people “become their role: I’m Doug’s guy, and I take on Doug’s views”, he says. “Whose bag you’re carrying becomes who you are.”

While in Westminster, Armstrong was also doing some consultant work for Rory Bremner’s production company, offering the writers insights into the inner workings of government. “They were kind about the fact I seemed to have strikingly similar inside information to the New Statesman diary,” he wrote later. While out canvassing in Newcastle North, Armstrong received a call from Bain to say they’d been invited to meet a TV agent – the first step into paid writing work.

At the tail-end of the 1990s, Armstrong was painting and decorating while writing with Bain. In the early Noughties, they got their first jobs on kids’ TV (My Parents Are Aliens, The Queen’s Nose, The Story of Tracy Beaker). Their big break was the cringe-inducing Peep Show, starring David Mitchell and Robert Webb as odd-couple flatmates in Croydon. The show gets straight into their heads with point-of-view camerawork and by voicing their internal monologues. “We felt like we really better not fuck this up – because not only is this big, but this is basically what makes us laugh, and if it doesn’t make other people laugh, maybe we won’t be able to do this,” Armstrong says of Peep Show now. He winces at the memory of the producer Philip Clarke giving them the note: “Could this be funnier?” “Well, we checked, Phil, and no, it couldn’t – that is the funniest.” Many viewers and critics agreed: in 2007 the Guardian declared it the best comedy of the decade, and it went on to become Channel 4’s longest-running sitcom. There are few similarities between Peep Show and Succession, but the “extra shot of veracity” leant by the camerawork of Peep Show led Armstrong to the documentary-derived handheld camerawork of Succession.

Peep Show had been on TV for a couple of years, and Armstrong was researching a film at a magicians’ conference in Eastbourne, when he received a call from Armando Iannucci, who was working on a political sitcom. Armstrong joined the writing team on Iannucci’s The Thick of It, which shares Succession’s affinity for creative insults. Iannucci “had an instinctive sense of how much of the real political climate we could include and what was over the edge”, Armstrong says. “I learned a lot from him about how to build semi-permeable walls between the culture and your show.”

Both these programmes are hailed as classic examples of “British humour”, but Armstrong is sceptical about the idea that Americans and Brits have radically different approaches to comedy. “It’s bullshit,” he says. “My favourite dramas, Six Feet Under and The Sopranos, are shot through with what I would call social satire… The Simpsons, Seinfeld – who are we kidding? Have we got some secret sauce? No, I don’t buy that.”

Armstrong follows politics on both sides of the Atlantic closely. In the mid-Noughties, he was a New Statesman contributing editor, and wrote a satirical column on the week in politics. He notes key differences between our media landscapes. “The UK has some institutional factors, the BBC and Channel 4 among them, which gives you a sense of cultural referees and centre-ground. That makes it feel different from the US, which feels more worrying.” He is anxious about government plans to privatise Channel 4. “I think they should worry Tories as well,” he says. “Competition is a healthy force in lots of areas of life, and broadcasting’s one of them. If Channel 4 becomes another Channel 5 with a couple of extra restrictions on how much news they can show, it won’t be good for the BBC, it won’t be good for the landscape of British broadcasting. It’s another violent, aggressive act that I think they will regret even under their own terms.”

[See also: Fran Lebowitz: “A dumb woman is the preferred woman in the USA”]

Armstrong is deeply concerned by the current British government. “The question is, is it quite a bad government or is it terrifying? Boris Johnson seems to have a disregard for things that happen in the real world. Sometimes, that feels like a public school insouciant disregard that we’ve seen before. Sometimes it seems more like a Trumpian disregard for the nature of reality, and a willingness to do violence to historical precedent and the political culture.”

It’s a callousness we see in so many of Succession’s characters. They frequently describe their experiences of being humiliated in business as being “fucked”, “killed”, or “raped”. But the real sexual or violent crimes of senior Waystar Royco employees are justified with a haunting acronym “NRPI” – “No Real Person Involved”. If the victim wasn’t rich or famous, the crime doesn’t really count. “You only have to inhabit the 70th or 80th floors of those buildings to learn that people look small down below,” Armstrong says. “It’s just a thing that happens when you don’t walk on sidewalks and you’re in the private jet. It’s difficult to believe in the lived experiences of other people. That’s a terrible danger – more than danger, a consequence – of great wealth.”

The last series of Succession ended with an act of retaliation so purely thrilling it made me shiver with pleasure. An unexpected betrayal, a raising of stakes, and a mic-drop of a closing speech made for one of television’s most perversely satisfying cliffhangers. So when you write a sequence like that, do you know how good it is? Armstrong squirms. He can’t remember. He’s very bad at remembering anything about his whole life. He seems keen to avoid seeming pretentious, but to me his hesitation confirms the answer. “Sometimes I have very strong emotions when writing,” he admits. “Sometimes you do, yeah. And it’s a nice feeling.” He turns away. “Anyway, it’s a bit disgusting to go on about that.”

The third season of Succession picks up as this rift splits the family, forcing everyone to take a side. The Roy siblings must decide whether to support their father or unite against him. Logan is scared, pacing like a wild animal: in his words, he chooses “full fucking beast”. But Succession inevitably risks outgrowing its premise. When a successor is named, the show will hit a wall; if the decision is forever postponed, it will run out of steam. “There’s going to be a very definite moment when that story is over,” Armstrong says, “and it can’t go on too long. I think there’ll be an end for me in this incarnation of the show in…” he pauses. “In a bit.”

The lives of Armstrong’s characters seem so stressful, you wonder why they don’t just quit the company. But the idea of Kendall, Roman or Shiv finding a normal job is, he says, “as plausible as you thinking, ‘Maybe I’ll retrain and become an astronaut.’ Maybe you could do it. It’s possible. But it’s not going to happen. Once you’re in that proximity to power and wealth… I mean, you can become a drug addict, you can fuck it up, you can try and escape – but they’re all just escapes from the thing, and the thing is so exciting, such a warm place round the fire. It not only gives you a sense of identity, it thrusts an identity on you that’s inescapable. So, if you relax, the knot tightens, and if you struggle, the knot tightens. You’re just bound to it.”

The third series of “Succession” begins in the UK on 18 October on Sky Atlantic and Now

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This article appears in the 29 Sep 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Spirit of the Age