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The True Power of ‘Succession’ Comes From Writing Inside the Box

The HBO show was known for witty jabs and f-word-laden insults. But perhaps its biggest achievement was ending on its own terms—and its writing through lines along the way.

HBO/Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Earlier this week, following Succession’s series finale, lead actor Jeremy Strong participated in a handful of interviews in which he praised the twisted minds responsible for the show. “This is a moment where there’s a writers strike, right?” Strong asked CNN’s Anderson Cooper after the anchor played a clip of Kendall Roy. “And so it feels important to say that none of this show—this show doesn’t exist—that the writing is everything.” In another conversation, with Deadline, Strong was asked why Succession resonated like it did. “The answer lies in this moment and the writers strike,” he said. “The answer is writers. It’s Jesse Armstrong’s writing. It’s his insight.”

All of this is indisputable stuff. Over the course of its four seasons, Succession has been a reliable bubbler of memorable language, a bracing and refreshing font of quips and barbs and total twists of the heart. Created by British showrunner Armstrong, Succession benefits from a writing and producing corps that includes but is of course not limited to Veep’s Tony Roche and Georgia Pritchett, incisive playwrights like Lucy Prebble and Susan Soon He Stanton, and The Onion alum and The Menu cowriter Will Tracy. All of them have a way with words that ranges from the tellingly profane to the creepingly profound.

From “techno-Gatsby” to “Oedipussy,” from “Little Lord Fuckleroy” to “THE ELDEST BOY!,” from “you’re not serious people” to “a dildo dripped in beard trimmings,” the writing on Succession respects the sharp edges of language while also juggling dick jokes around like hacky sacks. The show is as comfortable coining useful business concepts like the “prekend” (the time period between Thursday lunch and Friday afternoon, a harried Tom Wambsgans explains to Shiv Roy in Season 1) as it is nailing the tense airing of marital catch-22s. (“I wonder if the sad I am with you is worse than the sad I’d be without you,” Tom muses at the series’ halfway point, and oof.)

Succession gleefully distracts the viewer with candy like “let’s go eye-fuck Jupiter while your family implodes” while also patiently paving the groundwork for that total implosion. For every whimsical permutation of “fuck” that comes and goes, there is a grim and sweeping one that sets the table for an entire season, such as “I’ve never seen Logan get fucked.” What hits first about Succession’s writing is all the jokes, but what smarts the longest is the way the show established and emphasized all the things that aren’t so funny, which is what makes them so true. “AI ain’t gonna write Succession, or Chinatown, or The Godfather,” Strong told Deadline. To successfully portray bad people, it takes that human touch.

Strong’s AI quote stood out to me because, when I read it, two annoying and related conversations had been taking place on my Twitter timeline. In the first, the VC shit starter Jason Calacanis, ruing Succession’s end, used artificial intelligence to come up with some extremely rote ideas for a Season 5. “I know the writers are on strike,” he wrote, “so I asked ChatGPT to come up with some plot lines.” (The bot supported Kendall.) The other conversation was similar, though more visual: people using AI to extrapolate beyond the frame of famous works of art, from Mondrian squares to the Mona Lisa. A fun little experiment, sure, but one that kind of just felt haunted, as if the Louvre had taken one too many bong rips and fallen into the Upside Down.

Because, after all: The frame is the thing! Part of being an artist is choosing what does and doesn’t get included within its confines. Armstrong’s decision to end Succession after four seasons was a deliberately limiting choice, which is what makes it such a compelling one. As Armstrong has explained it, the thing Succession is most interested in is right there in the title. Logan built Waystar Royco; who gets it next? With that question now answered, the show has served its purpose. To try to wander outside those parameters is to miss so much that has been painted and scrawled and splashed and penciled in between them.

The lure to do so is, of course, still strong. No one wanted a tangential bottle episode focusing solely on the life and times of our guy Brian more than I did! Also, what do you think Tabitha is doing right now??! But now that Succession has indeed ended, it’s fun to go back and see how relentlessly it trimmed and nurtured itself over the years, slashing things that didn’t work (Roman having his own family early in Season 1) and using more of what did (like Lukas Matsson and Kerry) and weaponizing its own self-imposed limitations as a way to beat itself and its characters against the same glassy walls again and again.

One of Succession’s hallmarks is that, despite the fact that the Roy family lives in a world where the sky is the limit, their lives feel cramped and claustrophobic: the same spaces and same faces, again and again. The writing on the show reflects this too, constantly calling back to old lines and grudges and hang-ups.

In the second-to-last episode of the series, “Church and State,” Shiv gives a eulogy for Logan in which she calls him “my dear, dear world of a father”—a phrase that immediately conjured up one of the most devastating statements in all of Succession, Marcia’s Season 1 line to Shiv that Logan “made you a playground, and you think it’s the world.” Shiv also talks at the funeral about what it felt like to be in her father’s good graces: “He kept everyone outside, but when he let you in and the sun shone, it was warm in the light.” Again, this hearkens back to an earlier wound: when, in Season 2, Logan dangles control of the company in front of her and says, “Remember this, this slant of light …” Shiv may not be consciously thinking about that moment when she speaks at the funeral, but the Succession writers can’t not be.

Recently, to ring in Succession’s series finale, the show’s powers-that-be started to publish all of its full-fledged scripts—stage directions and all—for purchase. These collections, the first two of which I’ve only scratched the surface of, make for a fascinating record not only of Succession’s creative process, but also of the economy and elegance of the show’s writing.

As Armstrong explains in his introduction to the first book, the scripts on the page don’t always match what winds up on the screen, for a number of reasons ranging from the standard—many scenes were cut for time; small tweaks were made in editing—to the more idiosyncratic. Succession is often described as having an improvisational, ad-libby process, but the reality is maybe not quite as freewheeling as one might imagine. Once again, it’s a situation in which an imposed structure helps allow for more, not less, creative freedom.

It starts with what Armstrong calls alts. “For each day’s filming, a day or two ahead, I select a few lines—sometimes none, sometimes 10 to 15—where we might find a spot for something funnier or better or truer,” Armstrong writes. “Usually funnier. These go out to a group of three to five fellow writers” who ultimately yield between five and 10 possible lines, some or all of which are then fed to actors for alternate takes.

While there’s some true improv involved, too (“typically via a ‘freebie’ take” at the end, as Armstrong calls it in the book), he encourages that largely for the vibes. “To my mind, more important than the occasional improvised lines we capture is that this improvisational method infuses all the takes, on-script and off, with a spirit of freedom and collaboration,” he writes. (Still, some of those extemporaneous lines pop off, so to speak!) The result is scripted lines that sound off-the-cuff, with the occasional actual ad-libs blending seamlessly into the show’s tone.

The other blending that Succession manages to pull off is the mix between its characters’ hyper-articulate moments and the frequent moments when they’re at a loss for words. One minute Kendall is name-checking Zadie Smith, the next he’s “just here to say: ‘yo.’” One minute Shiv is smooth-talking strategy about the India numbers, the next she’s having this simple conversation, to devastating effect:

Shiv: Yeah, you are not the most important one.

Kendall: I don’t think I am.

Shiv: Yes, you do. You do. You do. You fucking do. You do.

It’s a kind of verbal version of the way stylish people can pull off high-low fashion mixes, like Kristen Stewart pairing Chanel with Vans, and it’s a duality that the Succession writers can understand: They may love language, but that doesn’t mean they can always command it on cue. “Pitching is a practice that bestows terrible privilege on the articulate,” jokes Prebble in a foreword to the third book of scripts, describing what it’s like to work for such a snappy show and transition from page to screen, from mind to matter.

I could and do spend all day reciting favorite Succession lines, from the ribald to the rueful, from Karl’s mouth to God’s ear, from the staccato beauty of a good “fuck off!” to the multipage gut punch of a Ewan eulogy. I could marvel, and have marveled, at the way so many things recur and recycle over the course of four seasons, at how “the poison drips through” and leaves everything saturated and stained. But it turns out that, as a viewer, I’ve known only the half of it, because the scripts, and the process of making them, contain multitudes more. Alongside all the unforgettable quips that viewers have heard and chuckled at and turned into fancams or memes, there are also lots of lasting turns of phrase—ones written between the lines—that represent conversations not between the show’s characters, but between the show’s writers and its actors. And some of that language might be the most illuminating of all.

Speaking on HBO’s official Succession podcast, Strong repeatedly gave credit to the wordy behind-the-scenes blueprints that had helped him envision both the strength of his load-bearing lines and the nuts and bolts of his craftsmanlike performance. For example, Strong gushed, Armstrong had “set up this incredible dichotomy this season” for his character, Kendall Roy. “He’d written this stage direction …”

The stage direction in question was nestled in the script for Season 4, Episode 3, Strong said, shortly after the larger-than-life Logan dies. In the show, Kendall stands aboard a yacht that had been rented for his brother Connor’s wedding, peering out at the Statue of Liberty and registering the news about their dad. In the script, though, his gaze represents so much more: The writers slipped in an existential question about Kendall’s whole deal.

He doesn’t know if he might be a wraith or a superbeing,” Strong recalled on the podcast, quoting an italicized note in his script that may not have been heard by viewers but that nevertheless informed a great deal of what we saw on-screen. “The wraith and the superbeing are both in there,” Strong explained to Vulture back in April, describing an Episode 6 scene in which Kendall floats in the sea. “The superbeing is what we see coming to the forefront here, but the wraith is waiting in the wings, hiding in plain sight at all times, to pull him down.”

And following Sunday night’s series finale, Strong told Vanity Fair that for much of the season, he was “leaning into the superbeing Kendall … and then in the end, maybe even in the last three minutes of the show, he becomes a wraith, which is really always what’s underneath.” The Superbeing and the Wraith—it could be a Succession episode title, and it’s one that, theoretically, AI could come up with in the same way that infinite monkeys will one day conjure Shakespeare, I guess.

In the end, we’ve been left with just 39 episodes of Succession, but reading through the book of scripts feels like finding a trove of more. Sometimes it’s a scene that didn’t make the cut, like Shiv and Rava passive-aggressively planning a lunch. Sometimes it’s an idea that didn’t make it past infancy in the writers room. (Prebble writes that “for a while there, for a playful couple of hours, we were a show where Tom went to jail.”) Sometimes it’s a proposed song that was excised. (Imagine a version of Succession that contains a “Walking on Sunshine” needledrop, as Armstrong originally proposed to conclude the series’ third episode, rather than Nicholas Britell’s iconic score!)

But often, it’s something tiny, easy to miss, a minor detail that makes so much else make sense; a shred of lore that twists the knife or unscrews the cap on the poison that was already so potent; something that the actors were privy to all along. Like, in the third episode of Season 1, after Logan has survived an early health scare, Kendall looks around his dad’s office: He looks at the chair behind the desk. Sitting in it would be too much, right? Instead he sits on the desk like it’s a park bench. Closing his eyes he breathes in, as much as anything, to calm his own nerves. Contrast that with the show’s finale, in which Kendall has no such compunction about occupying the seat, even putting his feet up—an action that revolts his sister and helps set into motion her change of heart and vote. And speaking of his sister, she, too, has a stage direction that foreshadows the events of the finale.

In the first episode of Season 2, just before Logan calls Shiv into his office to give her the “slant of light” razzle-dazzle, she spots him making a gesture that would, in most families, be insignificant. Kendall is right there, Armstrong’s script explains. Logan gives him a supportive squeeze on the shoulder. But the Roy family isn’t most families, which is the whole frame around Succession. And so the stage directions continue: Their dad doesn’t touch them much—the sight suddenly and inexplicably enrages Shiv. It shoots a hot bolt of resentment through her heart. Nothing shows though as she heads in.

That sibling eagle eye, that scarcity of affection, that lifelong jealousy and its repression: all of it laid bare in a slim handful of sentences, all of it dangling and awaiting the show’s climactic moments, all those seasons later. So it has been written, and so it all shall be.