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‘Succession’: Building the Unbearable Tension of That Memorable Boardroom Sequence

Editor Anne McCabe explains how the path to the climactic vote on the HBO series meant using every kind of tool to keep the momentum going.

Succession HBO Episode 6 Kendall


Peter Kramer/HBO


One of the most stomach-wrenching episodes of TV from the past year came right in the middle of the debut season of the HBO series “Succession.” Episode 6, dubbed “Which Side are You On?” is an hour of meticulously crafted dread, culminating in one of the series’ most consequential showdowns.

Though most of the episode centers on Kendall (Jeremy Strong) and his efforts to unseat his father Logan (Brian Cox) from his position at the head of the family business, there’s a tension simmering underneath every single character interaction. From the sting of the opening credits to the use of the folk song at the end that gives the episode its title, there’s a sense of momentum building up to an uncertain “no confidence” vote at the end. Working with the episode’s director Andrij Parekh, editor Anne McCabe was tasked with making sure that climactic boardroom drama felt earned.

“It’s what’s fun about this show. The camera’s moving all the time. Andrij, he’s a cinematographer as well as a director, so he had this idea to have the camera swirling around in circles. It’s incredibly cool, but it is challenging because you don’t want to feel like you’re getting seasick or that we’re seeing half of someone’s head we don’t really want to see,” episode editor Anne McCabe told IndieWire.

Within the hour, there are many tiny pieces of information needed to track the development of where everyone’s strategies are at any given point. Doing so while keeping the overall flow of the episode intact became one of McCabe’s biggest challenges. “It was carefully mining all the great moments where it was panning from the right little detail to the right person, like panning from [Company COO Frank Vernon, played by Peter Friedman] over to Roman. All that camera work was incredibly cool to work with, but you can’t just constantly move from go from moving shot to moving shot. It’s got to feel like it’s all connected,” McCabe said.

Succession HBO Episode 6 Logan


Peter Kramer/HBO

McCabe also was the editor on the pilot of “The Newsroom,” so she’s no stranger to cutting scenes featuring a snap zoom, one of the common points of visual emphasis throughout “Succession.” “You never want to be cutting in the middle of the snap zoom. You have to be careful of the timing of everything. But it can be very effective if it’s used for unsettling moments,” McCabe said. “The thing with any camera movement is you can’t manipulate it the same way you could a still shot that’s exactly where we want. Obviously all the movement gives it a dynamic and makes things exciting, like any movement can. But certainly you don’t want to overuse it.”

Part of making sure that the episode kept that sense of propulsion was making sure the pivotal character in the episode’s biggest scene literally kept moving forward. When Kendall is held up on his drive back into Manhattan, he tries to keep his grand plan intact as he makes his way through crowded streets.

“With Jeremy Strong running along, every time we cut to him, he’s moving. There was a version early on where he was stopping to make a speech, like he had to catch his breath. But in the final edit we were just like, ‘Let’s just keep him moving. He’s so zoned in on getting there, so let’s never have him stop,'” McCabe said.

Editing this sequence also meant knowing what to leave out. McCabe said that there was originally more Kendall dialogue while he’s stuck inside the tunnel. With the character so tantalizingly close to the Waystar Royco offices, it was more effective to let the bumper-to-bumper traffic heighten Kendall’s anxiety. Sometimes, those kinds of adjustments come from the need to preserve the show’s tricky tone.

“We actually had a moment where he got off of the wrong floor and then runs back into the elevator. But that started to feel almost too comic,” McCabe said. “This show is always riding between humor and tension. I love the humor in the show and it’s great when it pays off. But you’ve got to feel with Kendall like, ‘Oh shit, he’s really almost there!’ And having him get off at the wrong floor felt like, ‘Well, now we’re just to the point of silliness,’ even though he played it really well.”

Succession HBO Episode 6 Tom Greg


Peter Kramer/HBO

One of the things that helps the episode build so smartly to its tense finish is the idea that there’s a fuse waiting to be lit at any moment. So much of “Which Side Are You On?” takes place in restaurants, with characters situated in place at tables. “The structure of this episode — in the beginning there are all these meals. Everybody’s sitting down at a diner. It’s actually quite hard to keep the tension up because there’s two people sitting across from each other at a table. But the dialogue is so fantastic and the actors and Andrij did a wonderful job. Every time you’re in a different location, we put different types of music so you’d feel a shift. It was sort of boiling down each scene to what really mattered,” McCabe said.

That constant even extends to the scenes that, on the surface, might seem like an exception. Tom (Matthew McFadyen) and Greg (Nicholas Braun) are undoubtedly part of the comic relief (Braun playing Greg’s barely-contained horror at the arrival of ortolan to their table is a thing of beauty), but there’s an unpredictability to their interactions that McCabe said helped feed into the overall feel of the episode.

“I think the whole thing between the two of them is that it’s incredibly uncomfortable. You just never know what’s going to happen. You don’t know which Tom is going to turn up,” McCabe said. “If Brian Cox is King Lear, those two are the fools. In editing, you’re always trying to change up the rhythm. You want to go from a serious scene to a comic scene, a fast-paced scene to a slow-paced scene. You want to try to create those beats.”

Even with a late-episode bombshell, McCabe tried to help preserve the feeling that no one except for Logan is 100% sure what just happened. After the better part of an hour of pulse-pounding corporate theatrics, everyone is a little dazed. After cutting between a dozen different perspectives, the ending lingers on father and son, as the folk song that gives the episode its title plays (a needle-drop that came directly from the script).

“I think that at the end, Kendall actually feels a tiny bit of relief as well as dejection. There he is with all the regular people in the world. In terms of editing and places to have a lot of tension, there’s definitely places where it’s great to let it breathe, let the amazing cinematography and the actors do their job,” McCabe said. “I love that shot where Logan is just sitting there, playing with the ball. He’s making the President wait. We don’t need to cut it all up to show the tension there.”

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