Siblings United

On location in Montalcino, Succession’s cast and creator process the astonishing season-three finale.

Photo: HBO
Photo: HBO
Photo: HBO

This article was featured in One Great Story, New York’s reading recommendation newsletter. Sign up here to get it nightly.

In a 16th-century Tuscan villa, a New York media family has its Red Wedding. Patriarch Logan Roy (Brian Cox) has just told his children that he’s beat them. Dad sold the family firm, Waystar Royco, and cut them out. But why, the kids moan. “Because it works,” he growls.

We’re on location in Montalcino, and it’s the second-to-last day of Succession’s two-week-long summer shoot. By the time the kids get to Logan’s villa, it’s around midnight, but filming takes place during the day; the afternoon’s sunlight is shooed away by blackout curtains. Shiv (Sarah Snook) has rallied her brothers to go to their dad’s and try to talk him out of the deal. If he resists, they have a scheme of their own: Logan needs their shares for the sale to go through, and they’ll block it when asked. “You need a supermajority,” Shiv says, “and we will kill it.” In a living room turned war room, Logan stamps amid the oversize furniture, roaring his displeasure, before he reveals he’s one-upped them. His deputies — Frank (Peter Friedman), Karl (David Rasche), and Gerri (J. Smith Cameron) — flank him. Their faces are blank in some takes and wickedly satisfied in others. When director Mark Mylod calls “Cut,” it’s as if both sides — wannabe heirs apparent versus their boomer victors — retreat to their corners of the ring. Snook stifles her Shiv sobs. Jeremy Strong paces, occasionally retreating to the next room, a bedroom with a mausoleum feel where video village is cramped next to a queen-size bed. They run the scene again and again, getting every actor’s coverage. “Can you put as much warmth into that as you possibly can?” Mylod asks Cox, directing the pivotal moment when Logan pats Tom (Matthew Macfadyen) proudly on the shoulder for tipping him off to his kids’ plan. “Sure,” Cox says. “Have you got a candle?”

Team Logan. Photo: HBO

The scene reshapes Succession as we’ve known it. The show’s writers wanted an ending that united the kids but kept their sharp elbows intact; the final moments are damning, but at least they’re facing it together. “The other seasons had, at their end, a two-person dynamic, which is Kendall and his father,” executive producer Lucy Prebble tells me. “We talked very early about this idea of, ‘Well, if the kids could only come together in some way, they would actually have a shot at changing things.’ The tragedy was they could never do that. Family dynamics were always pushing people against each other.”

For Kendall (Strong), it’s a weighty character beat: He’s not so much locking horns with Logan in this finale as he is locking arms with his siblings. “Rather than driving the thing, which is what I’ve always done, I am there to be a handmaid to them,” Strong says. Earlier in the episode, he told his siblings about his seasons-long secret: that he’d left the waiter to drown at Shiv’s wedding. “I don’t know if healing is the right word, but it’s certainly a relief to find myself in the car with Shiv and Roman and not have animosity. I’ve been shouldering all the weight myself, and getting to distribute that weight and carry that together feels really good.”

At the season’s start, Shiv and Roman rejected Kendall’s offer to team up. By dusk at their mother’s third wedding, it seems like the only way they can survive: Logan has sidelined Shiv; an ill-timed, mistakenly sent dick pic thwarts all of Roman’s progress. Trying to wrest control from the outside hasn’t worked for Kendall, either. Meanwhile, Logan has been angling to make a major move. His back has been against the wall for two seasons now: He was a bull in the gilded Pierce family’s china shop; he barely survived the shareholder meeting. When the Elon Musk–y Lukas Matsson (Alexander Skarsgård) suggests a sale — Waystar to GoJo with a board that would satisfy Logan — the Roy patriarch doesn’t retreat into his usual defensive crouch. It’s a good deal that lets the firm continue. Logan pitches the sale to his kids both as a payout and as freeing them to play in a bigger sandbox: “This is an opportunity for you kids to get an education in real life,” he suggests. He resents the fact that they’ve never had to work that hard. “They only did a half-hour flight instead of 17 hours on a boat, you know?” Cox tells me. “When you look at the Roy children, you see how damaged they are. But it’s damage by getting too much, by having too much. It’s like a gorge, like overeating and making yourself sick.” The actor suggests that, by the end, Logan is tired of his children not being savvy operators or able sparring partners. He promises Roman that Matsson likes him enough to keep him around, but it’s unclear if that’s a promise or a play. “They don’t get the fact that this is a game and you’ve got to be good at it. You gotta be committed and you gotta play it, but it’s a game.” He sells them out because they’re not up to playing.

But maybe that’s a generous read. “As we’ve seen with other characters in national life in the U.S. and the U.K., one of the powers of pathological people is they believe it when they lie,” says show creator Jesse Armstrong, reflecting on Logan. “If they’re really good at it, they seem to have been able to excise the part of themselves that is questioning, or that feels like you or I would be troubled by, by being untruthful. If you can cut that cord, it’s a slightly terrifying superpower, isn’t it?”

When confronted, Logan presents the sale as an opportunity that benefits them all. Shiv and Kendall see through that proposal as one of their dad’s lies — if it’s as cushy as he makes it sound, why all the secret maneuvering? “We all want to go up against dad because dad’s the one in power,” Snook tells me. “But we also, by the end of that scene, realize more explicitly how corrupt and damaged he is.” Roman, who hemmed and hawed en route to Logan’s villa, almost gives in to his father in the room. “Roman still holds on to a sense of family that the others might’ve let go of,” Culkin says. “He still thinks Dad cares. He still believes we’re all gonna get together, have Thanksgivings — it’s going to be fine, and Dad’s going to pass the company to one of us. And this kind of competitive thing, although it gets really real, is still fun and games.”

And it’s Roman Logan appeals to personally. Shiv, who leads the siblings’ charge, feels a pang of envy that their dad has kept her brother closer all season and moves to sweet-talk him in the room. “The episode is such a dynamic shift: The siblings are united, but there’s a risk that Roman could fold,” Snook says. “Shiv feels a shade of jealousy that he gets the attention of Dad and he gets picked as the person who would have the grit and the determination.”

Meanwhile, their mother, Caroline Collingwood (Harriet Walter), has taken a break from her wedding festivities to redirect her shares to Logan, giving him a supermajority. Dad brings Mom into the room via speakerphone. “We just walked in on Mom and Dad fucking us,” Shiv groans. Later, Snook tells me the scene gave her a new read on Shiv’s moment with her mother from the penultimate episode. “There’s a realization that the reason we went with Dad in the first place in the divorce was not because he loved us more when we were kids,” she says. “It was because he could win by taking his kids away from his ex-wife. We, again, were just a pawn in that circumstance. Seeing how easily he was able to reunite with Caroline to go against us, it’s like, ‘Oh, none of this means anything.’ There’s not a shadow of, ‘Dad must’ve really wanted us if he fought that hard for us.’ It was about winning. It was about Caroline losing.”

Tom and Greg, scheming. Photo: Graeme Hunter/HBO

Succession doesn’t do red herrings or hide the ball. “A good rule of thumb for us is: Why isn’t this story meeting working? Oh, it’s because we’re trying to do a story where we’ve been holding some information from the audience and that’s not a good shape for us,” Armstrong explains. Caroline has sided with Logan before — even already during her wedding weekend. Tom popping up at the last second to receive an appreciative pat from Logan is earned in a season where Tom grew closer to Logan. But it’s also a surprise, and it lands on Shiv just as it lands on the audience. The stakes are higher now: A scene that was, a moment earlier, the kids versus their dad is now the kids versus lovers like Tom and Gerri, too. “As the season progresses, he’s slowly feeling less connected to Siobhan,” says Macfadyen, describing Tom’s season-long arc. “Because they always had a plan as to how they would progress up the pole of Waystar — maybe she would be the boss and he would be head of whatever it was but involved. It was always the two of them. And he feels that’s slightly changing. There’s a lack of trust there. There’s an awful, growing, gnawing feeling that he’s not in control at all, that she’s got a different agenda. Subconsciously, he knows that more than he lets on.” As he’s scheming, Tom brings Greg (Nicholas Braun), his real partner on the show, in on his plan. “It feels like there’s a nice way for Greg to be closer to some version of a leader,” Braun says. “It’s like a chess move that’s bringing Tom and Greg to a higher place. Season four is the siblings versus everyone. Now I’m against my friend Kendall and over with Logan. Maybe that is going to be a very exciting place for Greg.”

When I watched them film the episode’s final scene, they tried the last moment a few different ways: one where Shiv doesn’t catch that Tom-Logan moment and another where only Kendall clocks it. In the one that aired, Shiv sees it. When we talked in the summer, Snook wasn’t sure what the ultimate selection would be, but she had hopes for a cliffhanger. “Part of me, as an actor, is always wondering what is more interesting to the audience to see, not just what we’re going through in the character,” she told me. “At the end of an episode, having something that narratively projects into the next season sets it up quite nicely. If Shiv knows, but her brothers don’t, and Tom doesn’t know that Shiv knows — there’s a lot of potential there.”

The Succession Cast Processes the Season-Three Finale