“Succession” creator and showrunner Jesse Armstrong has this to say about a given scene in one episode: “Audiences need to feel that this is the inevitable and the only version of it.” He pauses. “But I can tell you from bitter experience that there are a hundred slightly wrong ways.”
Two specific scenes from the Armstrong-penned Season 3 finale, “All the Bells Say” — in which a Tuscan wedding sets the stage for the Roy family’s duplicity — were meant to land just for: a daytime private confab reuniting the brothers and sisters at war, leading to Kendall’s confession of killing someone and the final, devastating showdown the kids have with their cunning father, Logan.
“All season, we had to bring Kendall to a point where it would be possible for her to admit a big secret,” says Armstrong, who finished her rewrites at a trattoria in Florence just before they filmed in Italy. He thought he and the writers laid the groundwork for Kendall [Jeremy Strong]so “it was maybe harder to get his siblings to give him that little bit of human warmth that pushes him to talk.”
The right place for the trio’s eerily tender reunion fell on director Mark Mylod, who while scouting walked down a road from the episode’s planned wedding venue and located the perfect dusty spot behind the buildings. “The architecture cried out for this three key shots of siblings coming together in a tactile version of unity,” says Mylod, who directed the scene to build toward a now famous, foreground image of Kendall seated and of Roman (Kieran Culkin) and Shiv (Sarah Snook) with comforting hands on him.
“Serendipitous” is Mylod’s description of the shoot that day. “My right eye completely shut,” recalls Snook, laughing at the swirling dust and having to shoot “up a 45-degree, gravel-covered slope in high heels and on a 100+ degree day. It was a lot.
But she loves how the production always finds a way to show the gap between wealth and contentment: “Mark and Jesse and the creative team, they love putting these characters in beautiful settings, and they’re never happy! ” Even the unexpected sympathy of this scene isn’t quite that — Shiv checks his phone with his other hand. “She’s there for him as much as she can be,” Snook says, “but it’s also, ‘Bad timing, bro! We’ve got other things going on!’
Like in a deal to be made and a game against their father to be made. Armstrong was very worried about the final 10-minute scene, its many modulations and consequences. “If you built the show with sincerity, there’s emotional truth everywhere,” Armstrong says. “You want to give these artists every moment and the public every reward.”
Armstrong and Mylod originally envisioned a lavish Renaissance-era palace for Patriarch Logan Roy (Brian Cox), to suggest Old World, Machiavellian/Borgia betrayal, until this type of place be deemed too “deliberately shrewd”, says Mylod. They went with a more modern, soulless compound, “much more functional, focused on power more than beauty. It worked well for this being Logan’s space.
Keeping things real instead of melodramatic brought about another shift. Originally, the children’s mother, Caroline, had to be physically nearby so she could appear in person to reveal her side deal. It seemed too forced for Armstrong, so it became a phone call. “Usually it’s fine to do things face to face,” he says, “but if you look at the reality, with the conference calls, the remote controls, there’s power in the weird voice and disembodied, especially with their lack of connection with the mother.”
Mylod let family dynamics dictate the staging. “Logan owns the room, so once I found the right place for Brian, the other three entering that room would be forced to take a position relative to where he was,” the director explains. . “He uses his movements and the position of his body to intimidate and manipulate.”
For Snook, all the “tacky stuff,” with Shiv gutted by Logan’s maneuverings and then betrayed by her husband, Tom (Matthew Macfadyen) — who she says told Logan about the siblings’ plan in advance — was a pleasure to play. “Shiv can be quite good at strategy but narrow-minded,” Snook explains. “As an actor, it’s great, because you keep playing this track and then let yourself get derailed.”
The actors in the “succession” also need to be on continuously, as three cameras are often always rolling, with scenes playing as long as necessary. “It made me a better actor,” Snook says. “It’s being present, engaged, and with the cameramen and crew around you, it becomes a dance.”
In this last scene, Tom only intervenes at the end. Macfadyen says, “It was something to walk into that energy in the room. I’m just pretending everything’s fine, that’s care, Tom! The actor isn’t sure Tom noticed Shiv was all over him, but he loved watching him later and seeing his expression, hidden from the husband she had regularly underestimated. “Looking at [her] the face is glowing, hilarious – truly murderous and shocked.
Mylod credits the series’ ongoing filming style with uncovering the season-ending “Godfather”-esque Tom/Shiv moment. “We tried to pull Sarah away from the siblings to isolate her with Tom, and that allowed for this beautiful moment of blazing eyes, in shock of betrayal, with Tom on her shoulder,” says Mylod. “That’s when editorially, in my head, I said, ‘We’ve got it. The final picture. “”