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Misery Loves Matrimony: The Beautiful, Bleak Science Behind ‘Succession’ Weddings

Sunday’s nuptials marked the series’ third ceremony set piece—and the third time the specter of Logan Roy loomed over the proceedings. The people behind those scenes talk about the always lavish—and always dysfunctional—events.

HBO/Ringer illustration

Sunday’s episode of Succession was never going to be a traditional celebration of love. There were no castles or villas, just a yacht puttering through New York Harbor. What began with Connor Roy getting down on one knee to ask the woman he pays to be his girlfriend to make him “the happiest man–slash–most bulletproof candidate in the world” was realized as a shameless ploy for media attention. All combined, the scene of a brass band surrounded by patriotic banners and a boat full of journalists headed straight for a wedding altar beneath the Statue of Liberty did not scream romance. And neither did the groom’s father suddenly dying in the bathroom of his private jet.

But when has a Roy wedding ever really been about a couple’s sacred bond? Though the events of “Connor’s Wedding” were especially explosive, they were also a catalyst for many of the same peaks and troughs we’ve come to expect from high-powered holy matrimony. You had the interloper saddling up to start their new life of wealth-with-an-asterisk. Connor off on his own (in this case, literal) island, feeling insecure. Kendall, Shiv, and Roman holed up in a makeshift office, offering glimmers of kindness to one another between corporate strategizing and anxiety attacks. And every single one of them eclipsed by their father’s inescapable shadow. Whether he was absent or present, alive or not.

Succession is about many things: the misery of the rich, our rotting media landscape, delightful uses of the word “fuck.” But strip away all the table dressing, and you get the red meat of a deeply dysfunctional family. Which is why the Roys’ many weddings have become meaningful, if opulent, pillars of the series, used to both anchor its characters and deepen its lore. Whether thrown in a storied castle in England’s West Midlands, at a manicured Tuscan villa, or against the, uh, Jersey City skyline, these ceremonies are the looms on which the show’s makers—the writers, directors, set decorators, and stylists—weave an intricate Roy family tapestry. And just as in real life, they pool an entire clan into one place and shake them up until somebody or something pops. As Succession set decorator Sophie Newman puts it: A wedding encapsulates “all the bad, the good, and ugly” of a family.

From its very start, Succession has always existed in the present tense. Part of its appeal revolves around flinging chaotic events at unconscionable rich people and watching them scurry around in boats, cars, helicopters, and motorbikes to fix them. Schedules rarely overlap enough for the show to linger on family history. “Especially in the first couple of seasons, a lot of times it’s an occasion that brings everyone together,” Susan Soon He Stanton, a writer and supervising producer on the show, said. And even when the Roy family does manage to be in the same room, deep discussions are rare. A wedding is one of the few junctures when a certain sentimentality is baked into the calendar, whether by circumstance or ritual.

For that reason, Shiv’s marriage to Waystar Royco up-and-comer Tom Wambsgans—what Stanton considers the “Roy equivalent of a royal wedding”—was an opportunity to both illustrate the Roys’ dynastic wealth and flesh out her and her siblings’ upbringing. “There’s an exciting chance to kind of take a wider view of the family,” said Stanton, who was in Jesse Armstrong’s writers room for and contributed research to Season 1’s “Pre-nuptial” and “Nobody Is Ever Missing.” “Like, how are these children the way that they are, their relationship to their parents, and even how much love are they allowed or doled out?”

Central to that perspective is wedding guest MVP Caroline Collingwood, played by the excellent Harriet Walter. As Logan’s second ex-wife and the mother of Kendall, Shiv, and Roman, she’s a conduit to their childhood and a one-woman resurrector of ancient rifts and cutting quips. In the first season’s two-part wedding finale, she airs her resentments with alarming ease, telling the wedding party that Logan “couldn’t be bothered” to show up. At a welcome brunch, she hints at the source of her divorce with Logan by referring to Marcia (wife no. 3) as “the head of his Middle Eastern operations.” During her wedding reception speech, she includes an aside about how Logan has “stolen away” her children “across the Atlantic.” And at her own extravagant Tuscan wedding in Season 3, she casually blames Shiv for choosing Logan over her as they share a smoke. As a viewer, you piece these bits together to establish a larger picture of the Roy siblings’ childhood trauma, without ever being forced to wallow in it.

“It’s those tantalizing glimpses of Logan’s history, his various relationships, and then sort of, like, the kids growing up,” Stanton said. “There’s no definitive, true version. You sort of are presented with different bits of information, but there’s a kind of rationed-out effect in terms of what exactly happened through their lives.”

Just as far-flung family members fill in the blanks of the Roy progeny’s upbringing, so does the sprawling property chosen for Shiv’s wedding. “The house, Eastnor house, was, in the story line, a special one of the family’s country estates,” said Newman, who decorated the set for “Pre-nuptial” and “Nobody Is Ever Missing.” As Connor recounts to Willa when they arrive, one of the homes became a “thorn in Caroline’s side” because she was screwed out of inheriting it. Elsewhere, Caroline gestures at portraits of all of her “disreputable slave-owning ancestors.” “In Eastnor Castle there’s wonderful bits of art,” Newman said. “Even wallpapers and the furnishing, carpets and rugs and things like this, nothing is new. Everything has a personality, has a history and a provenance. … That’s the key, is that it’s layered.”

Even as Eastnor Castle’s many artifacts emphasize the generational weight of the Collingwood bloodline, its nooks and crannies serve as a reminder that it was also once the Roy siblings’ playground. The night of Shiv’s welcome drinks, she, Kendall, and Roman meet up at an old boat dock they call “the place” in the name of “old times.” They pass around a joint and go in for a group hug, and it’s one of those rare moments when the only motive they have for showing up is because they seem to actually love each other. For any other visitor, it’s an otherwise unremarkable boat dock at a gorgeous, storied landmark. But for the kids who’d spent bored vacations there, it was a special spot, their own secret family hideout.

“Nobody can possibly understand what it’s like to be one of those kids, and that’s what connects them,” Stanton said. “Even though they’re driven apart by their father or pitted against each other at times. It’s a very isolated world.”

When tasked with adding a layer of decor to an already lavishly decorated estate, Newman adopted a role as a kind of Roy family wedding planner. (Though thankfully not one that would be berated by Tom after he had to “carry a case” on his “wedding eve.”) “They’re not really of the mind to put a lot of energy into those things,” Newman said. So she aimed for an impressive yet muted palette that wouldn’t distract from the family’s usual political maneuvering. That meant spray-painted ferns weaved into the chandeliers, white rose arrangements, mirrored tables, and a glass marquee for the reception. “I didn’t have many varieties of color in there,” Newman said. “It had to stay quite clean and sophisticated. It’s mainly golds, whites, bronzes. The environment needed to be just elegantly simple but powerful at the same time.”

Decorator Letizia Santucci applied a similar logic to Caroline’s Tuscany wedding in Season 3’s “Chiantishire” and “All the Bells Say.” Rather than bear the chilly climes she forced her daughter through, Caroline opted for a garden party with a stunning countryside view to commemorate a new carefree phase of her life. So Santucci chose a refined summer color scheme for the event, accenting it with pale yellows, linen whites, and local olive tree leaves in the reception’s garland centerpieces. (And, just as one might in real life, she spent an inordinate amount of her budget on matching umbrellas for the outdoor dining tables.) Between the two episodes, Santucci estimated that they shot in five different Italian villas. “Among the five villas, for sure you find a nice corner,” she said. “There’s no chance you don’t find a good spot.”

But for all the time and effort she put into ensuring Caroline’s wedding met a certain standard of elegance, the most arresting scene of the project turned out to be one of the least glamorous. In Season 3’s finale, “All the Bells Say,” Shiv and Roman drag Kendall away from the merriment and into a dusty back alley parking lot to discuss Logan’s plot to sell the company. But their strategizing is interrupted when Kendall crumbles to the ground in a nervous breakdown. As Kendall goes deeper into his own self-hate, Shiv and Roman form a sibling triptych with him for comfort (all while Shiv keeps a phone to her ear to stay afloat on Logan’s maneuver). Behind them is a tidy line of trash bins. Per Santucci, this detail was a specific request from director Mark Mylod. “He wanted to describe the rubbish situation that they were living in.”

Highlighting these low points while excluding the more classic, intimate moments of a vow exchange or first dance is a deliberate decision, according to Stanton. “Oftentimes we’ll sort of be in a really incredibly beautiful location, and then we’ll have a beautiful mountain or ocean or lake vista, and then we’ll have a scene in the laundry room completely away from the vista. That’s very Succession: being in the most fabulous place, but then somehow being miserable and then hidden away during it.”

Of course, the source of that misery, no matter the location or union at hand, is almost always Logan Roy. In Season 1’s “Pre-nuptial,” his last-minute decision to chopper in drives Caroline to suggest that Shiv will “be the second-most important person” at her own wedding.

“It’s like, will he or will he not show up?” Stanton said. “And when he does, it’s by helicopter. It’s the same way of kind of an old man pouting, but he has more tools in his toolbox and his actions have more of a result. [It’s the way] in which he controls his children and everyone else around him. It’s all meant as the power play.”

Logan’s presence, or lack thereof, looms over all three of Succession’s weddings. In part because the Roy family patriarch is the planet around which they all orbit. Shiv needs him at her wedding so that she can make a deal that protects her then boss from ATN’s wrath. Caroline wants him in Tuscany to please her ladder-climbing beau and to renegotiate the spoils of their divorce. And Connor is hoping he’ll “pop by” because that’s how he can generate press to maintain his measly single percentage point in the presidential race. Every bride and groom is willing to accommodate the enormity of Logan’s persona in exchange for the fringe benefits it brings—no matter if it means pushing other family members to the side.

In a way, Logan dying just moments before his eldest son manages to get his vows off is the ultimate power play. One final cannonball to deflate the wind from his children’s sails. But it’s always been the aftermath of these moments—in this case, the twisted Roy siblings’ mourning as they sail toward Ellis Island—that has made them real Roy family weddings.

“There’s certain things that happen in all weddings,” Stanton said. “Maybe somebody gives a bad speech or somebody gets too drunk. Things are said, big or small, that are somewhat universal, that brings a family together in odd ways.”

Maybe it’s only fitting that, after nearly five episodes’ worth of nuptials on Succession, the only time we ever get to see a kiss at the altar is with a funeral on the horizon.

An earlier version of this piece misstated which episode contains the scene where Kendall crumbles to the ground while strategizing with Shiv and Roman; it was “All the Bells Say,” not “Chiantishire.”