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Logan Roy Couldn’t Quit Gerri, Karl, and Frank—and Neither Can ‘Succession’

The show’s “emperor penguins” have been through it all in the last three and a half seasons. And now, with the trio’s futures up in the air, the actors who play them reflect on the characters’ arcs and how little we truly know about them.

HBO/Ringer illustration

“Oh, here we go,” mutters poor little rich dude Roman Roy, played by Kieran Culkin, in the latest episode of the media-money dramedy Succession. “March of the emperor penguins.” Roman is on a couch in an office, eyeballing the approaching trio of suits. There’s Karl Muller, the Waystar Royco chief financial officer, played by David Rasche, with his bracing eyes and barrel chest and food-based motivations. There’s Gerri Kellman (J. Smith-Cameron), the firm’s general counsel, with her keen survival instinct and unflappable iciness. And there’s Frank Vernon (Peter Friedman), the on-again, off-again, on-again company vice chairman, who is adept at shuffling his weight back and forth and also at diving below the surface for a while. For decades, these three members of the Waystar Royco menagerie have withstood and adapted to the extreme and often hostile conditions of their chosen habitat. But now, in Logan Roy’s enormous wake, the seas are rising around everyone.

Emperor penguins, all of them—though that’s not all they are. Frank, Karl, and Gerri are also, according to various characters throughout Succession’s three and a half seasons, the “old guard,” a “senior group of very respected graybeards,” and the “deep state of this company.” Individually, they are described as “Old Bore Vidal” (Frank, roasted for being too erudite), “mole woman” (Gerri, being complimented by Roman on her ability to be productive in the shadows), and “American Psycho” (Karl—who probably did have killer business cards in the ’90s—per Shiv).

They know where the debts are owed, where the secrets are buried, and what the markets will think. They are fluent in bullshit and legalese, in the cadences of activist investors and passive-voiced fixers. They are godparents to billionaire scions and gatekeepers to a global enterprise. And for decades, they have nevertheless been perceived—or even treated—as animals. “Scurrying like little rats,” remarks Cousin Greg—Cousin Greg!—as he watches Karl and Frank attend to business in the fourth episode of this season. Who can forget Karl playing a “game” years ago called “boar on the floor”? And last season, a full script for the finale contained this scene note, credited to Succession mastermind Jesse Armstrong himself:

“LOGAN in the middle of the room. Behind him, as good doggies, KARL, FRANK and GERRI.”

Penguins, rats, good doggies: Karl, Gerri, and Frank make one hell of a toady trinity, warts and all. And they make viewers laugh. Karl and Frank basking cross-legged in Norwegian bathrobes! Gerri bossing her boss(ish?) Roman around in their glorious pre-dick-pic era! All of them artfully passing the buck at all times! What Jesse has gotten right is that it’s about the family,” says Friedman in a recent Zoom conversation. “Karl and Frank and Gerri understand their position over here on the side. And we get to have our fun.”

For these three, the fun is in the finagling. They are as profane and sharp-witted as any of the Roy children, yet they are also—in marked contrast to the siblings—far closer to the late Logan’s idea of serious people. Gerri, Karl, and Frank are all business. They aren’t here for daddy make-work, just cold, hard deals with golden parachutes. And with Logan’s estate shaking out, a GoJo merger on the brink, and multiple Roy children acting erratically, they are needed more than ever, right at a time when a couple of them may be on their way out the door. They are compromised, sure, but they’re also competent—a trade that’s tempting to return to, again and again.

A few years back, Friedman, who’s been playing the savvy if sometimes sad-sack Frank since Succession began shooting in 2017, received a Season 3 script that caught him by surprise and delight. It involved Frank getting a visit at home from the FBI—but it was what was in Frank’s home that caught his attention.

Honey! It says I have a woman in my bed! Look! Friedman exclaims, doing a goofy impression of his excitement at catching a precious glimpse of Frank’s life outside the Waystar world. Playing a character like Frank, it turns out, is a lot like watching him: Every new scrap of information feels significant because they surface so infrequently.

Usually, Frank’s scenes take place wherever the Roy family is—in a boardroom, on a baseball diamond, in a private jet, in whatever foreign nation that does not have an extradition treaty with the U.S. And throughout the years, Friedman has learned to process comments about Frank in the script with a grain of salt: There’s always a good chance he’s just being trolled. Typically, Friedman says, “you read the script for what you say about yourself and what you do, and for what other people say about you. But you know, what you say and what other people say may not be true. So when Kieran says, ‘Banana cabana, he was in a Speedo,’ it could be bullshit. They say [Frank’s] got a girlfriend in Italy. I went … maybe? Or are they just fucking with me?”

But in this script, what Friedman learned wasn’t a matter of someone’s opinion. Frank had his own bed—an “opulent” one at that (to be honest, I thought he’d be a futon-on-the-floor kinda guy!)—and in that bed was a woman. “It was great,” says Friedman. “That’s three things I know about [Frank] now, you know?” He shakes his head wistfully. “And then it was gone.”

Like, actually gone. In the next iteration of the script, the whole premise of that Frank-at-home scene—and what Friedman has said were similar ones for Karl and Gerri—was scrapped. And with that, a rare gem of Frank lore effectively vanished and left Friedman with the questions about his character that have long been floating in his head.

“Why do you think Logan keeps us on if we’ve been part of, you know, coups to take [the company] away from him and stuff?” Friedman asks. “Are we there to keep the enemies close? Is that part of the deal? And I ask myself, why do I keep coming back if I’m one of the people that I think has a little bit of a moral center? You know, it looks like we haven’t seen [Frank] do anything nasty, but he keeps hanging out with these people! What’s the deal?” As Frank himself tells Logan in the pilot, “You are what you do.”

Friedman, like many other actors on Succession, has deep roots in the theater world. He grew up loving stages and performances; he has been into puppets and marionettes since he was a child. (Muppet work that he did with Jim Henson is featured in the Museum of the Moving Image.) He has known Rasche, who plays Karl, for years. “We’ve never been in something [together], really,” Friedman says, besides Succession, “but we’ve been in the same—well, maybe not audition room. We’re a little different types. And we were back then, too.”

Rasche grew up the son of a line of preachers and got as far as divinity school before he found another vocation. He wound up at Second City in Chicago in the early ’70s and overlapped with Harold Ramis, John Candy, and Bill Murray. His résumé includes David Mamet plays, the political film In the Loop (from Amstrong and Veep creator Armando Iannucci), and the satirical cop series Sledge Hammer! He was once in a TV movie based on a book about the Nabisco corporate takeover called Barbarians at the Gate. (He played Ted Forstmann, the guy who said the phrase “barbarians at the gate” on a golf course.)

In a Zoom conversation, Rasche tells me that in playing Karl, his guiding ethos comes back to something Armstrong told him early in the series: “‘Well, you’re a shark,’” Rasche recalls. “From the get-go, that gave me a very clear direction.” He also remembers Armstrong being hopeful at the time that, just maybe, the show could eke out a second season—the better to let sharks like Karl feast.

Sometimes this feasting means hoarding pastries or seeking sandwiches, much to Logan’s annoyance. Sometimes it means just a quick flash of teeth. (“I see the lines for David, and then I see what he does with them, and I don’t know how he does it,” Friedman says.) Sometimes it means lurking, waiting, watching, figuring out what’s an inner tube and what’s a dangling meaty thigh. Tom offers himself up as easy prey in Episode 4 of this season, when the big doofus nominates himself to ascend in the company after Logan’s passing. Karl calmly chomps into him—“as a friend,” of course.

“Karl, I would say, doesn’t suffer fools gladly,” Rasche says. “I mean, the very idea that Tom would think that he is anywhere near in line to do anything like that is, you know, needs to be stamped out.” Karl may frequently be the butt of other people’s jokes, but when it comes to the halls of power, there’s an important hierarchy of asses, thank you very much.

I mention Friedman’s anecdote about Frank’s fleeting bed vision and the woman within. Does Rasche remember getting a script with any similarly tantalizing peek into Karl’s world? He laughs: “I never remember!” So he guesses. “I think I had two women,” he declares. “In a more opulent bed.” That would track: Karl, after all, is a self-professed “something of a libertine.” And as CFO of Waystar Royco, he knows something about economies of scale.

“I think Gerri is one of those constant factors,” Brian Cox told Awards Daily in 2020. Logan “has an enormous regard for her in a sense of her constancy. Constancy is very important to him. He sees that, the fact that people don’t dump him. That’s what he can’t bear about his children; they are totally inconstant.” While Smith-Cameron wasn’t available to speak for this story, I exchanged emails with her about playing Gerri in the summer of 2019, when I wrote about a number of the women on and behind the show. She told me then about being inspired by Helen Mirren’s work on Prime Suspect and about reading for the part of “Gerry” when it was still envisioned for a man—some of the lines she read, she said, were eventually given to Frank. “There wasn’t a sign that it was going to be such a rich, ongoing role,” Smith-Cameron said; it has been both.

Gerri had an electric, doomed relationship-but-not with Roman that was derailed by a missent dick pic. She battled both the DOJ and Shiv Roy. She has been elevated to and demoted from Waystar Royco CEO. She was, for a time, one of Logan’s most trusted foot soldiers; “I think Logan depends on Gerri’s brain and wily skills, and I think Gerri knows this,” Smith-Cameron emailed me in 2019. “I think she’s a competitive and ambitious person who likes to stay in the game and enjoys the heady feeling of being so close to the throne.”

At the time of Logan’s death, however, Gerri was slipping further from the trust tree and its nest of power, a reality that she has mostly sought not to acknowledge. “Logan was souring on you,” Karl asserts during a tense Episode 4 strategy session in a pantry. “Well,” Gerri says, “Logan’s not around anymore.”

As Rasche puts it, “Gerri really is sort of straddling two worlds, right? I mean, since she is legal, she has to worry about the corporate side, but she’s also involved with their personal lives.” In her email to me, Smith-Cameron said that as she developed her character, who is a widow, she imagined some good old days in which Gerri, her late husband, Logan, and Caroline “had been friends, close tight personal friends as well as colleagues.” After all, “some heads of these huge huge mega conglomerates really treat their general counsel as a closely kept ‘right hand man,’” Smith-Cameron wrote.

That’s for sure. Former Fox consigliere Gary Ginsberg was a Rupert Murdoch whisperer for more than a decade and later told CNN that the kingpin had “no separation between senior business leaders and his best friends.” (Logan’s kids said the same thing about their father.) CBS Viacom’s Sumner Redstone had a trusted counsel, Philippe Dauman, who eventually got a board seat, jobs as general counsel and head of Viacom, and a losing battle with Sumner’s children.

In Succession, the tension between the Roy children and the upper echelon of their family company’s super-lackeys has long been compelling to watch. One of the funniest recurring elements of the show is the way the Roys treat all the top-notch professionals who would otherwise be the big swinging dicks in the room—your boutique hotshot investment bankers, your high-octane seen-it-all PR gals. (Woe to all the people who pulled all-nighters running weird Kendall-driven comps for The Hundred!) But there’s a very small universe of people whom the Roys can’t ignore, and they’re the ones who have worked for decades to burnish, burn, or bury the family and their things.

The first time we meet Frank in the Succession pilot, he is deferentially waiting for Kendall between an elevator bank and a meeting room, as if he’s some sort of business butler. Frank may then be the COO of Waystar, but during a failed meeting with Vaulter, he acts as Kendall’s right-hand man and/or his chaperone. By the episode’s end, he has given a laudatory speech in honor of Logan and gotten unceremoniously shitcanned, also by Logan, one of many indignities Frank will suffer over the years. It’s because of those indignities that several seasons later, when Frank tells his godson that yes, the late Logan was an asshole, and yes, he loved his son, you know he knows of what he speaks.

The first time we meet Gerri and Karl, in the show’s second episode, “Shit Show at the Fuck Factory,” it is in a hospital where Logan is in critical condition following a brain hemorrhage. Gerri strolls in, leading with shoulder pads and pearls, initiating an uncomfortable conversation but also speaking in hyper-corporate tongues. “We need to talk,” she announces, even though no one is in the mood to. “If we continue on his trajectory of, uh, of his current consciousness, we’re going to need to announce a plan before markets open, in order to avoid a lot of funky chowder.” She marches on to establish a hospital “war room.” Karl trails behind her, bearing coffees for all. Hey, nice guy!

Later, though, Karl demonstrates an almost menacing knack for saying a lot with a little. When Kendall, who had a falling-out with his father right before the medical emergency, begins to hem and haw about making decisions while his father’s fate is in doubt, Karl is understanding—on the surface. “Of course,” he says kindly, his blue eyes casting a spell. “You are in no fit state.”

Kendall, to his credit, clocks Karl’s implications—that if Kendall won’t make decisions, the Waystar brass will be happy to push him right aside (with their sincere condolences, of course). Just like that, Kendall himself starts sounding like one of his corporate forebears, talking about “no paper” this and “words are just complicated airflow” that.

By Succession’s second season, Logan is testing the loyalty and the limits of his squad. “Loyal defiance” is how Rasche describes Karl’s performance at boar on the floor. “Watch this, jerk. You know, there was a conciliation with ferocity.” After having fired Frank, Logan invites him back in “Hunting,” giving him an apology watch (always with the watches) engraved with lines from the poem “Ulysses.” But he also insults and mocks Frank that night, lashing out with “you’re mashed potatoes” because he knows he needs the guy—to help connect the family to Frank’s old pals Nan and Naomi Pierce. “Saint Francis of Assisi!” exclaims Nan Pierce when Frank does just that in “Tern Haven.” “You brought me animals.”

When it comes to two-person scenes, Karl and Frank spend lots of time together over the course of Succession. “I’m sure that at one point Frank and Karl’s families had a barbecue,” says Rasche, “but I don’t know that we, you know, are going on vacation together and stuff.” That doesn’t mean they haven’t traveled the world. In perhaps their most tender moment (well, other than the compression sock sesh from the most recent episode), which comes during the Season 3 premiere, they sit on a plane shortly after Kendall has publicly accused Logan of crimes and wonder whether this is the most fucked they’ve ever been. “Well,” Frank says, in the tone of a parent reminiscing about family trip fiascoes, “there were the tabloid suicides. When we nearly went kablooey because of Argentina. The Tiananmen accommodations. The black cloud after Sally Ann.” Logan survived it all, Frank says then, looking a little bit proud. He was a true comeback kid until he wasn’t.

Of all the put-downs lobbed at the high-and-mighty triumvirate, perhaps my favorite comes from Kendall: “I don’t even care what happens,” he tells his siblings in frustration in Episode 4 of this season, “but let’s not just give [the company] to the fucking Keystone Fucks because we didn’t talk.” This is presumably a nice, niche little nod to the Keystone Kops—a slapstick 1910s silent film troupe who played a bunch of wacky, inept police. But it also speaks to the position the ol’ emperor penguin brigade is in as we hit the halfway mark of the show’s final season.

In masonry, a keystone is a final, crucial piece at the top of an arch. It is shaped like a wedge, but it pulls a whole structure together. Which also makes it a point of precarity: Mess with it, and everything shifts. Logan acted as that piece for the company for decades, and now Logan’s three stooges hope they can serve as human scaffolding just long enough to give the keys to GoJo. It is a potentially thankless Hodor-style mission, if the circulated “Kill List” is to be believed; to succeed is to be stoned.

Karl, he of the oft-discussed golden parachute, doesn’t seem to mind the notion of a post-Waystar future; he has gone halfsies with his brother-in-law on that Greek island, after all. (And after Roman once threatened that “I have like four pieces of ratfuck that kill Karl,” perhaps it would be prudent to exit stage left when the opportunity strikes.) Frank? Well, Frank has lived life as a free agent before, but he might be the type that doesn’t like being out of the game.

“He must like the action,” Friedman says of Frank. “And being in it. He must want to be in with these people. It’s a full dose every day. So he must enjoy it. Otherwise, he certainly doesn’t need it, it sounds like. Someone told me he had an opulent bedroom once, and then made it disappear. So maybe he’s still opulent, you know?”

As for Gerri, “I think she gets a high from all the maneuvering and ‘knows where all the bodies are buried’ etc.,” Smith-Cameron told me during Season 2, “and is maybe that figure on the chess board that always skips onto the safe square at the last second where she can’t get hit, and that frankly she enjoys that in some slightly sick way?”

With this season of Succession only halfway over, it goes without saying that we ain’t seen nothing yet. But Rasche says it anyway. “You ain’t seen nothing. I’m not kidding you,” he says. “No good can come from this. … Something’s going well, and then because of, you know, the venality of the people involved, it isn’t. And that which they think will make them happy doesn’t. And those urges which they know they should turn away from, they don’t. … So it’s sort of a cautionary tale.”

Who better than a libertine chief financial emperor penguin to understand that even for the rulingest of classes, life is cyclical and risky, just like the global capital markets.