A little under a year after it was originally expected to return, “Succession” is back for its third season. The 2020 Emmy winner for Best Drama wrangled COVID and the fight over the Roy family legacy will finally continue. Jesse Armstrong’s creation was already a breakout hit after its second season, which aired in 2019, but during the pandemic, an even larger audience caught up on the series. And that begs the question, is there more pressure on Armstrong and his writing team to follow up season two’s shocking cliffhanger than before? Speaking at a Television Critics Association press conference this week, Armstrong took it all in stride.
“In the terms of the third season, do we have to amp it up? No, I don’t think there’s a sort of like, ‘Oh my God.’ Like an action movie, ‘We’ve blown up this, can we blow up something bigger?’ It feels – in a good way – because we’re a bit about politics, culture, and media,” Armstrong says. “But we’re also very much about psychology and families. And so the good thing for us, is that the more people are with us, the longer people are with us, in a way there’s just more to do, right?”
That being said, Armstrong admits that invisible fan pressure keeps his team honest.
“I think if you think about other people’s reactions to the show, you could go a bit crazy,” Armstrong admits. “Because you haven’t got any clue, really, what makes people like it? So I think what we would try to do, is keep on doing the same thing. But then you start wondering, ‘Are we doing the same thing?’ Because you can get into a loop of self-reflection, which isn’t useful. But being in the writer’s room, and talking to my supersmart, fellow writers clarifies all that.”
One of the actors always in the “Succession” spotlight is Emmy winner Jeremy Strong. At the end of season two, his character, Kendall Roy, threw the family’s media company into disarray after a very public press conference that accused his father, Logan Roy (Brian Cox), of criminal activities. He’s waited quite a long time to find out if Kendall would face any repercussions from his actions.
“I knew nothing about where season three would begin, when we were at the end of the second season,” Strong says. “And the events leading up to the press conference. I do think there’s a sort of, phase transition, of moving from one state to another. I felt that after the press conference, it was as if I’d sat under the Bodhi Tree and achieved a moment of clarity, and what feels, for Kendall, like enlightenment and liberation. And so I think we see a sort of, airborne Kendall, at the beginning of the season. Someone who feels like he’s finally wrestled himself free from the chains that have been binding him. And there’s an airborne quality to it. Jesse did say to me, ‘It was as if Napoleon is sacking Moscow, and everyone has left the city.’ So, it’s sort of a pyrrhic victory. Which I think is part of what we explore in season three. I’ve done the thing, but if I don’t have support in a coalition, what is the value of it?”
The previous season saw two other Roy siblings, Siobhan “Shiv” Roy (Sarah Snook) and Roman Roy (Kieran Culkin), become serious players to take over their father’s company. Every character is maneuvering to succeed him, it is the show’s title, obviously, but could the third go-around bring other contenders to the mix? Does even the bumbling Cousin Greg (Nicholas Bruan) have a chance? Or could the oldest Roy, Connor (Alan Ruck) be a darkhorse player?
“In terms of, ‘Is it a Greg season? Or…’ I’m on here with all these brilliant colleagues, and every [character] is mouthwatering to write for,” Armstrong says. “Maybe sometimes you look at the wall [where the plot is laid out], towards the end, and you go, ‘Wow, this season’s really come together for Connor. Or for Greg.’ But going in, we try not to have those thoughts of like, ‘O.K., last season was a season for character X. Now we need to do a season for character Y.’ It’s much better, and more organic, and probably more wholesome for us all to feel like, ‘You know what, we’re just following the story of this family.’ And obviously, that’s affected by what’s really working for different actors, and characters. But we don’t take that kind of, ‘An episode for X, and an episode for Y’ approach.”
Braun has his own thoughts on his character’s position in the Roy family machinations.
“Hey. I think Greg would say that every season’s a Greg season. It’s high time for Greg to get up there,” Braun says. “No, I think every one’s got a version of the same ambition. To get up there, to, at least, slot up a bit. And so, I think Greg makes some nice moves himself this year.”
For J. Smith-Cameron, Logan’s confidante and company General Counsel, every character is facing the same challenge.
“And the whole thing is, all of us have a struggle for survival in the company,” Cameron says. “Whether it’s expressed in the plot of a given episode, or not, there’s always this drive for every character to kind of scramble and stay in the pecking order, right?”
Matthew Macfadyen, who plays Tom, Shiv’s power-hunger husband, notes, “It makes you think, is it the money that’s the corrosive thing in the family, or is it not about the money? Is it about lack of love, and affection, or something else? Is it that that’s the driver? Or is it just a dysfunctional family because of…”
“I don’t think it’s any different from any family,” Cox says.
“No, exactly. Yeah,” Mcfayden adds.
“I think the conditions are the conditions, and you have to hold onto the conditions,” Cox says. “Unfortunately, people kind of identify with the conditions, and sometimes they don’t actually see what’s actually, really, going on. And that’s what’s brilliant about the writing, is the writing is all about the conditions, and all about what happens. And the momentum of the show has its own momentum. So you naturally take it to where it goes. Because it’s so beautifully honed from the start, who these characters are, that they can take off in many different directions and be constantly surprising.”
Cox continues, “I don’t know about the others, but the thing that I love about playing the role is, I’m always surprised. It seems to be on one trajectory, but actually, it never is. It’s on several trajectories. And it really is a reflection of how human beings live. It’s very much a reflection of who we are as human beings, of how we shift, and how we dance. It’s like a big dance in a way. And I think, again, that’s the brilliance of the team, what they do and what they have created. And it’s unique. I don’t think there’s anything like it. And I’m privileged to be part of it. And it seems to me, it’s the best kind of drama. It’s the kind of drama I’ve always wanted to do. And finally, one is doing it. And that’s a great gift.”
Leave it to Smith-Cameron, however, to mention an observation about all the characters in “Succession” that probably isn’t discussed enough.
“One thing I think is [notable] about our show is that, whether we’re in Croatia, or Tuscany, or in these fabulous hotels, we are always miserable,” Cameron says. “Whether it’s because we’re inured to the wealth, but I think it’s a funny juxtaposition that is really delicious. That all these people have everything money could buy and they’re just struggling and scrapping, and miserable.”
And, chances are, they will stay miserable.
“I forget if it was on another panel, or in an interview. Maybe it was in this recent piece, in The New Yorker,” Strong says, “But [Jesse] doesn’t really believe in this idea of people changing and progressing. And I thought that was sort of amazing, because it is, sort of, a conceit of drama. And he doesn’t really subscribe to the myth of that. And so, we are always, sort of, taking one step forward and two steps back. That’s what is so surprising, and wonderful, for us as actors, I think.”
“Succession” returns to HBO on October 17.