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Anatomy of a Perfect ‘Succession’ Episode: “Connor’s Wedding” in 12 Images

After Sunday’s episode put the series in the upper echelon of prestige dramas, it’s worth breaking down its icy yet full of feeling rhythm and composition

HBO/Ringer illustration

Two days after the fact, “Connor’s Wedding” has already staked its place in both Succession lore and the wider pop-cultural sphere. But while plenty of people have made the requisite connection to Game of Thrones’ Red Wedding (which went slightly worse than the eldest Roy kid’s vows), the real precedent for this kind of precise, suspenseful television direction is the glory days of The Sopranos—or maybe the daredevil formalism of Breaking Bad. So, in the interest of giving credit where it’s due, it’s worth breaking down some of helmer Mark Mylod’s icily precise rhythmic and compositional choices, a series of small, careful brushstrokes that add up to a monochrome masterpiece.

Screenshots via HBO

The last time we see Logan Roy alive, he’s ascending the stairs to his private plane: a familiar trajectory for America’s most vertically integrated media titan, and also a witty bit of foreshadowing for a guy en route to the pearly gates. Kudos to Mylod for taking an extremely familiar piece of Succession’s visual vocabulary—a swift, wide-angle shot of characters in transition—and deploying it as a carefully disguised farewell: the exact opposite of a long goodbye.

One of the great themes of Succession is communication—about the power dynamics of excusing yourself to make a private call, or leaving somebody important on read (or accidentally sending photos of your genitals to your dad). After three seasons and change, we’re so used to shots of cellphones—especially when Tom and Shiv are involved—that this ominous insert completely glides by on a first viewing. In retrospect, though, it’s an image with significant butterfly-effect implications, both in terms of Tom’s emotional priorities (he wanted Shiv to know before anybody else) and Shiv’s own heartbroken reaction to losing a chance at saying goodbye to her father.

Even before the big twist, “Connor’s Wedding” is filled with anxious, screen-filling close-ups; when Roman tries to give Gerri a heads-up about her imminent firing, the camera stays plastered to the side of J. Smith-Cameron’s face, and ditto Willa’s mother when she’s making small talk with her soon-to-be son-in-law. The fine line between intimacy and discomfort is a Succession specialty, and when the Roy kids finally learn of their father’s fate—with Roman taking the call in lieu of Shiv—Mylod crams the widescreen frame to suggest the choking claustrophobia of sudden grief.

“We needed to see the phone held up against [Logan’s] ear, and his face,” Myold told Vulture’s Matt Zoller Seitz on Monday. “But that was the only time where I thought I could ethically or dramatically justify it.” This eerily still postmortem view of Logan eschews shock tactics while retaining the clammy finality necessary to assuage any fears of a narrative bait and switch—the possibility of one last resurrection for a character who’s spent the last several seasons cheating death.

The very poetic idea that the majority of “Connor’s Wedding” takes place without its characters on solid ground invites a tip of the cap toward Jesse Armstrong and his writing team; it’s a conceit that gives the action that extra, lurching sense of weightless disorientation, whether felt hurtling forward at 30,000 feet or wobbling queasily at sea level. Mylod’s direction hammers the point home nicely by emphasizing the instability of the various backdrops.

There are probably a dozen eminently screengrab-able frames from “Connor’s Wedding” that show Mylod and ace cinematographer Patrick Capone playing masterfully with blocking and focus. This one stands out by virtue of its callback to the final shot of Season 3—a rhyming view of Tom looming behind Shiv in a way that suggests the exact opposite of him having her back. Cheers to Sarah Snook, who’s got the best set of fast-twitch facial muscles on the show: nobody on Succession is better at erratic flashes of emotion measured down to the millimeter.

By now, you might’ve read about how Mylod and Capone shot the episode’s centerpiece sequence as a modified stage play, utilizing multiple cameras (and hidden film magazines) to choreograph nearly 30 minutes of narrative action in real time. You also might know that this hug between the Roy kids was improvised by the actors—a tidbit that speaks to Succession’s striking blend of resourcefulness and rigor. Whether the cast members knew intuitively that this gesture would rhyme so beautifully with the blocking in the Season 3 finale, “All the Bells Say”—in which Roman and Shiv laid hands on Kendall in solidarity—is hard to say, but Mylod’s directorial framework left just enough room for magic to happen.

The episode is called “Connor’s Wedding,” and in a sweetly turned twist, the blessed event actually goes off without a hitch: If Willa’s behind-the-scenes avowal that she’s actually pretty happy with Mr. One Percent—for now—isn’t exactly Shakespeare, it’s honest and plausible. There’s something authentically lyrical in this look at the happy couple framed by the most romantic skyline on earth, but it’s also fraught with portent: on Succession, every silver lining has its cloud.

First things first: I’m not so sure we’ll see poor, rictus-grinning Kerry—glimpsed here as a background blur being hurried off-site—ever again. More importantly, though, spare a thought for poor Colin, Succession’s most consistently terrifying peripheral presence, humanized here in a shot that grants him some of the same interiority as the show’s protagonists. A couple of episodes back, Logan shared his thoughts on the afterlife—or the likely lack thereof—with his faithful fixer, and you can sense the memory of that chat in Scott Nicholson’s posture of silent, stoic remorse.

“That is Dad,” deadpans Roman after bringing up Waystar’s stock and seeing the company’s price nosediving; the visual joke that the graph line resembles a plunging EKG monitor is almost too mordant even for this most death-tinged of comedies. The question is whether this perfectly executed sight gag reduces the Roy patriarch to an algorithm or inflates him beyond his already mythic dimensions—the invisible hand of the market, clasped and at rest. The Los Angeles Times may have written Logan a real obituary, but somehow, these numbers say it all.

What comes up must go down: like Waystar Royco’s plunging stock price, Logan ends “Connor’s Wedding” coming back to Earth. The rhyme with the first shot on this list is obvious; the key detail here, though, is point of view. We’re watching with Kendall, over his shoulder, reaffirming perhaps the centrality of his point of view to Succession’s universe—a subjectivity that had been largely absent this season.

While a case can be made that any of the remaining characters are the show’s true protagonist (or at least have the potential to be), Ken’s been the most consistently compelling antihero, and the one-two punch of that image—with its blunt, unsympathetic distance from a fallen father—and this one just above, which closes the proceedings on a note of naked, unalloyed yearning, implies he’s got his glazed, empty eyes on the prize.

Adam Nayman is a film critic, teacher, and author based in Toronto; his book The Coen Brothers: This Book Really Ties the Films Together is available now from Abrams.