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‘Succession’ Creator on the Season 3 Ending, Cliffhangers, and Children’s Books

Jesse Armstrong spoke to IndieWire about Kendall's pool scene, Tom's shocking twist, and how the Berenstain Bears left their mark on Season 3.

Succession Season 3 Finale Matthew Macfadyen

Matthew Macfadyen in “Succession”

Graeme Hunter / HBO

[Editor’s Note: The following interview contains spoilers for “Succession” Season 3, including the ending.]

Much has been made over “Succession’s” love for literary references. From the poem that’s inspired titles for each of the three finales, to the HBO series’ many ties to Greek mythology, showrunner Jesse Armstrong and his incredible team are always eager to pay their respects to the master storytellers who preceded them — including, in Season 3, Stan and Jan Berenstain. Just take a look at the opening lines of their 1986 children’s book “The Berenstain Bears and Too Much Birthday.”

At the first big party
we sometimes forget,
that the birthday bear
may end up upset.

Could there be a simpler, more elegant framework for “Succession” Season 3’s seventh episode? Just look to the entry’s title, “Too Much Birthday,” for your answer. Armstrong & Co. scattered even more telling works intended for children throughout this year’s nine-episode saga, including one to kick off the finale, Episode 9, “All the Bells Say.”

“I’m interested in what people make of it,” Armstrong said in an interview with IndieWire Monday morning. “Some of those books are deceptively simple, but have good psychological, narrative depth to them, and I hope they rebound around the show in an interesting way.”

Armstrong shared what thoughts he could about “Succession” Season 3, including Kendall’s much-discussed pool scene that closed Episode 8, Tom’s stunning betrayal in Episode 9, and Greg’s giddy acceptance of a certain “deal with the devil.” The following conversation has been lightly edited for concision and clarity.

Going back to the end of Episode 8, with Kendall laying face down in the pool, did you intend that scene to be the massive cliffhanger many interpreted it to be?

I love that people have increasingly responded to the show, and I’m a bit aware of it because I’m in the world, but I don’t read all the stuff — it’s like Kendall says in the first episode: “Feed me the meta data, otherwise I’ll get seasick.” Although I kind of like to read everything and engage with it all, I don’t know if it would be good for the show. I’d get cast down by the negative stuff and artificially sugar-highed off the good stuff. That’s a long way ’round of saying: I don’t know everything about how people responded to that bit.

The ending was meant to be ominous. His kids left him alone in the pool. I think the stuff that Mark and the team got — they got a frogman in the pool [for a shot] from underneath [Kendall] — the ominous-ness was very ominous. [laughs] Honestly, it was intended to be ominous, but maybe it was even more ominous than I thought, when people saw it. But that’s OK. As we discover, he stopped taking care of himself at that point. Bad things can happen. How much a person in that situation intends [to self-harm] is kind of a gray area, so we wanted to evoke that feeling.

When you’re in the writers’ room or the editing bay, do you consider viewer reactions to scenes that are somewhat open to interpretation? Do you worry about leading them too far down a speculative path, or do you simply trust the narrative and characters to speak for themselves?

I think the kind of artist in me wants to say all the latter, and I think it is the latter. That stuff is not useful to me, and it’s not useful to us in the room I don’t think at all. Not that critics and interested viewers don’t have cool, valid things to say, but it’s just too much. It would be too much to take on board. The good thing for us is that we’re not as likely to get caught up in that stuff because I don’t intentionally lay any fake trails, I don’t think. I like the show to be a surprise. I don’t want everyone to know what’s going to happen. But I’d much prefer it to feel true than surprising. If it also feels surprising, then surprises happen in life and those are the kind of surprises I want. It might be more difficult if it was a different kind of story we’re telling, but I am always wanting to completely follow character and the reality of what would be happening to a big media company like this in the moment. You can’t completely keep the buzz out of your head, it would be inhuman, but you should [try].

Succession Season 3 Jeremy Strong HBO

Jeremy Strong in “Succession”

Graeme Hunter / HBO

With Tom, was there a specific tipping point? Siding with Logan over Shiv has to be a cumulative reaction, but there also had to be a moment when he made that choice. Was there a moment for you when he shifted?

I guess it’s the, “How do you lose your money slowly and then very fast?” kind of thing, isn’t it? I think… what do I really think about that? [pause] Honestly, the different writers might have different feelings. Matthew [Macfadyen] might have a different feeling. It’s a collaboration. It wouldn’t be impossible for me and Matthew to have different answers to that, and both are valid — [just like] it wouldn’t be impossible for different viewers to have different opinions. I’m more of a gradualist in life, so I’d say there’s accumulation and then there’s a moment when the tide of affairs is at its flood and you make your decision. So, yeah, that’s a boring answer. But I think it’s the truth.

Could you talk about Greg’s development this season? Suing Greenpeace, trading dates mid-wedding, selling his soul — was this kind of behavior always a part of Greg, or an inevitable consequence of spending this much time in the Roys’ inner circle?

If you look at the Greg you meet in the pilot, he’s going to see his grandpa, he’s making a big reach, he’s making a big pitch. Sometimes people may feel he’s not the most effective player, but he’s in the game. As soon as he gets a little bit of capital this season, maybe he doesn’t handle it brilliantly, but he’s not grown up as close to the ways in which people wield power. I think we’ve seen that Greg is not uninterested in wielding power and gaining capital. It’s just that he’s had quite small amounts of it in the past.

I wanted to give you the option: The Nero and Sporus analogy is so brilliant and plays such a large role in the ending. Was there a specific writer who deserves credit?

That’s kind of nice to do, what you call in the U.K. “cabinet responsibility.” [But] long story short, I don’t normally — it feels a bit eggy to start portioning the [writing credits], but as it happens, because it was Jamie Carragher, our staff writer who keeps the notes but also makes contributions, he’s such a wide reader. I believe — and it’s such a nice space where people are always contributing ideas, it’s possible I’ve got it slightly wrong — but I think Jamie mentioned that story that he’d been reading, and we all hooked onto it as something that could make a nice scene, and then it became more than a scene, more of a thematic thing.

Succession Season 3 Brian Cox Episode 9 finale

Brian Cox in “Succession”

Graeme Hunter / HBO

One aspect of Season 3 I loved was how you incorporated children’s books into the stories, including in the finale with Logan reading Judith Kerr’s “Goodbye Mog.” How did that become a theme, and how did you land on the books you did?

We think hard about all aspects of the show. Some things are planned, and some things are sort of fortunate echoes and resonances that come if you’re thinking hard [about the story]. So, “Too Much Birthday” was [from] production designer Stephen Carter. Late when we were working on the episode, [he] mentioned it, and I’ve read Berenstain Bears books, even though they’re American, to my kids, but he mentioned that one and immediately said it felt like that’s what this [episode] is — almost too much. The episode itself is an unusual episode in some regards because the trajectory is pretty straight for Kendall: It’s just straight down. So that was late on, but “The Lion in the Meadow” […] I’ve always admired that children’s book. It’s not that famous, but it’s a wonderful children’s book. […] I’m blanking on if that’s the name of the episode.

It is.

And then “Mog” is famous in the U.K., I’m not sure if she’s as famous in the U.S., but she’s a great children’s author. So a little theme emerged across the season, sometimes early, sometimes late, and I’m interested in what people make of it. These are kids. Some of those books are deceptively simple, but have good psychological, narrative depth to them, and I hope they rebound around the show in an interesting way.

Referencing these books seems like a reminder that Kendall, Roman, Shiv, and Connor were once children, and their lives haven’t changed that much between then and now, in terms of their mentality and relationship with their parents.

I don’t want to direct anyone, but I feel you’re definitely on to something there about what feels resonant about them.

“Succession” Season 3 is available to watch on HBO and stream via HBO Max.

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