Succession Creator Jesse Armstrong on the ‘Blood Sacrifice,’ Fan Theories, and That Finale Twist

Jeremy Strong as Kendall Roy in
Jeremy Strong as Kendall Roy in Succession. Photo: HBO

In the interest of getting more perspective on what happened in Succession’s superb season-two finale, Vulture turned to the man in charge of it all. No, not Logan Roy. We spoke to Jesse Armstrong, the creator of Succession and the writer of “This Is Not for Tears” to find out what went down between Kendall and his father, how they filmed the episode on an actual yacht, and why Logan has such a cryptic smile on his face at the end of the season. Here’s what Armstrong had to say, with the caveat that he is very committed to letting viewers reach their own conclusions about what they saw. “I’m happy to leave it for people to decide,” he says.

I want to ask you about the John Berryman poem “Dream Song 29.” The title of this season’s finale, “This Is Not for Tears,” comes from that poem. So does the title of last season’s finale, “Nobody Is Ever Missing,” Can you talk about the relationship between that poem and the show?
Yeah, I’ll try. I’m a bit averse to doing too much analysis because I want people to have their own reaction to the show. The show is the best expression of the show. Forgive me if I’m reluctant to over-explicate or make things plain.

Nevertheless, it’s true about that poem. It has a terrifying sense of that feeling Kendall has at the end of the last season, wondering if something could have happened. In Berryman’s poem’s case, in the end, [a death] hasn’t happened. But it has happened to Kendall. When I was looking at possibilities, that line struck me as pertinent to this episode as well.

When you broke the story for the season and decided there was going to be a blood sacrifice, did you consider sacrificing characters other than Kendall? Or was it always going to be Kendall?
The structure was down early on. The ending came even before that [“blood sacrifice”] phrase from Logan. We enjoyed rehearsing the different people Logan might consider, but [Kendall] was set from early on.

Episode nine ends with Logan calling for a sacrifice. I feel like a lot of viewers got so focused on that question that we didn’t wonder, What would happen next? How might the person being sacrificed respond? Were you intentionally directing us that way, so that we wouldn’t think about the ending?
No, that wasn’t a mislead. We tend not to do obfuscation or red herrings. I was happy that the ending might be a surprise and a shock. Not revealing precisely what Greg’s and Kendall’s intentions and thoughts are, that’s really quite brief. On the whole, that wasn’t an idea to mislead.

I was curious about where the episode was filmed. Where did you shoot and how did you find that beautiful yacht?
That was the great work of Scott Ferguson, our producer. [Episode director] Mark Mylod and I were pretty demanding about the kind of opulence that these people have. We said, “If we’re going to do this, we should reflect what it really is like.” Scott had a hell of a job trying to find one of these yachts. As you can imagine, the people who own them are not the sort of people who are interested in doing a film-shoot deal. It was tough to find, but Scott persevered. There were discussions about where it could be if it wasn’t on a yacht. He really came through and managed to find an affordable way to do this. For a number of reasons, we really wanted it to be on a yacht.

I’m guessing one of those reasons is that the Roys are isolated and trapped. They can’t just walk out when they’re on a boat.
Exactly. It has loads of practical advantages that have resonances to stuff that happens in the show, that’s resonant to stuff that’s happening in the real world. It was what we really wanted.

Where was it shot?
In Croatia, nearer to Drašnice.

Were the interiors on the yacht as well, or on a soundstage?
Oh no, that’s all on location. We do almost everything on location. I think it’s good for the show. So all of those interiors are the real interiors.

I’m going to ask you a couple of things that you may or may not want to talk about in too much detail. But I’m going to ask you out of curiosity. 
I’ll try to say something if I can.

At the end of the finale, it’s clear that Greg held on to some of those documents that he and Tom had been burning. He seems to have them in his possession when Kendall is speaking during the press conference. But we don’t actually see Kendall and Greg discuss this. I assume that’s something they worked out on the plane. Is that a fair assumption? And why did you want to leave that out — just for the sense of surprise?
I’m happy to leave it for people to decide. Me and Nic [Braun] and Jeremy [Strong] discuss this kind of stuff and they’re happy with the advantage we have. I think it’s fun for people to make their own decisions about precisely where those agreements and decisions are made. There’s enough in the episode that would lead you to make some assumptions.

There’s a wonderful close-up on Brian Cox’s face in the final moments of the episode, as Logan watches Kendall throw him under the bus. He flashes a little hint of a smile, or at least what I perceived as a smile. Was that in the script?
There’s a script direction for him to give that kind of look. Brian’s so brilliant that you get many layers. He’s such an amazing actor. He’s giving a brilliant performance, and I like that people, as you do in life, are trying to make a decision about what he’s feeling.

My colleagues and I had a debate after the episode: Is it fair to assume that Logan was genuinely surprised by what Kendall did? Earlier in the episode, one of the shareholders suggests that he should step down. Is it possible he sacrificed Kendall knowing that Kendall might retaliate?
Okay, wow. It’s fun to hear that people are coming up with their own interpretations like that. It feels unseemly, given the work we all do to create [the show], to then impose some binary decisions. I’ll just say, the show is the best version of the show. I’m happy for people to engage with it.

Looking ahead, at what point in the process are you with regard to season three? Do you have a general sense of where it might go?
Yeah, I like to open up the writers’ room with a bunch of things to test everyone or give them things to react against. I haven’t started it yet, but I have a bunch of research and a bunch of thoughts about what should happen, but they will be very much open to being fortified, disproved, kicked around, laughed at, and expunged.

When does the writers’ room regroup for season three?
Within a month or so.

You wrote this season quite some time ago. But watching it at this particular moment, as we read about whistle-blowers and people testifying on the Hill as part of Trump’s impeachment inquiry, that really added another layer to the experience. Do you think about that broader political context in terms of how the show will land, or is it something you can’t even contemplate?
What we don’t do, obviously, is try and predict that the ambassador to Ukraine will be fired or something like that. We heavily research. I come with a ton of stuff. We check out everything we do with other people. We’re in the culture just like everyone else is, and it’s a show that has a relationship to the real world. All the writers and myself have feelings and thoughts about what’s happening in the U.S. and the wider world. We’re not ripping stuff straight from the headlines and throwing it into the show. We’re taking what feels like it’s around and fitting it to the characters we have. Then we’re in a good place to accidentally hit on themes in reality. They are lucky hits.

Succession’s Creator on Fan Theories and That Finale Twist