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Inside those ‘Succession’ finale moments that made you gasp

Matthew Macfadyen and Sarah Snook in the Season 3 finale of "Succession."
(Graeme Hunter)

“Succession” creator and showrunner Jesse Armstrong has this to say about any given scene in an episode: “The audience should feel it’s the inevitable and only version of it.” He pauses. “But I can tell you from bitter experience that there’s a hundred slightly wrong ways.”

Two specific scenes in the Armstrong-written Season 3 finale, “All the Bells Say” — in which a Tuscan wedding sets the stage for Roy family duplicity — needed to land just so: a private daytime confab reuniting the warring siblings, leading to Kendall’s I-killed-someone confession, and the final, devastating showdown the children have with their wily father, Logan.

“The whole season, we had to get Kendall to a point where it would be possible for him to admit a great secret,” says Armstrong, who finished his rewrites at a trattoria in Florence just before their Italy shoots. He believed he and the writers had laid the groundwork for Kendall [Jeremy Strong], so “it was maybe more of a challenge to get his siblings to offer him that little bit of human warmth that triggers him to speak.”

The right location for the trio’s oddly tender reunion fell to director Mark Mylod, who during scouting walked down a road from the episode’s planned wedding locale and located the ideal dusty, behind-buildings spot. “The architecture screamed out for this key three shot of the siblings coming together in a tactile version of unity,” says Mylod, who directed the scene to build toward a now-famous, foregrounded image of Kendall sitting, and Roman (Kieran Culkin) and Shiv (Sarah Snook) with consoling hands on him.

A shot in the Season 3 finale featuring three Roy siblings has stunned viewers, with some even comparing it to Renaissance art. Experts break it down.

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“Serendipitous” is Mylod’s description of that day’s shooting. “My right eye shut completely,” is Snook’s laughing recollection about the swirling dust and having to shoot “on a 45-degree incline, covered in gravel, in high heels, and on a 100-degree-plus day. It was a lot.”

But she loves how the production always finds a way to show the gulf between wealth and contentment: “Mark and Jesse and the creative team, they love putting these characters in beautiful settings, and they’re never happy!” Even that scene’s unexpectedly touchy-feely sympathy isn’t entirely that — Shiv’s checking her phone with her other hand. “She’s there for him as much as she can be,” says Snook, “but it’s also, ‘Bad timing, bro! We’ve got other things going on!’”

As in a deal to be stopped and a play against their father to be made. Armstrong worried a lot about the final 10-minute scene, over its many modulations and consequences. “If you’ve constructed the show truthfully, there’s emotional truth lying everywhere,” says Armstrong. “You want to give those performers every moment and the audience every payoff.”

Armstrong and Mylod initially envisioned a lavish Renaissance-era palazzo for patriarch Logan Roy (Brian Cox), to suggest Old World, Machiavellian/Borgias treachery, until that type of place was deemed too “deliberately artful,” says Mylod. They went with a more soulless, modern-looking compound, “much more functional, about power more than beauty. It played well for it to be Logan’s space.”

The power of “Succession’s” third season finale was a triumph of serialized storytelling; you can’t pull that kind of rabbit out of a binge.

Keeping things real instead of melodramatic engendered another change. Originally, the kids’ mother, Caroline, was to be physically nearby so she could appear in person to reveal her undercutting side deal. That felt too forced to Armstrong, so it became a phone call. “Usually, it’s nice to do things face to face,” he says, “but if you lean into the reality, with conference calls, remotes, there’s power in the weird, disembodied voice, especially with their lack of connection with the mother.”

Mylod let family dynamics dictate the staging. “Logan owns the room, so once I found the right place for Brian, the other three walking into that room would be forced into a position relative to where he was,” the director says. “He uses his movement and body position to intimidate and manipulate.”

For Snook, all the “sticky stuff,” with Shiv gutted by Logan’s maneuvers, then betrayed by her husband, Tom (Matthew Macfadyen) — who she realizes had informed Logan in advance of the siblings’ plan — was a blast to play. “Shiv can be quite good at strategy but narrow-minded,” says Snook. “As an actor, that’s great, because you keep playing that track and then allow yourself to be derailed.”

“Succession” actors must be on continuously, too, since three cameras are often always rolling, scenes playing as long as needed. “It’s made me a better actor,” says Snook. “It’s being present, engaged, and with camera people and crew around you, it becomes a dance.”

Who lived? Who died? And where does that leave the Roys? We dig into every twist and turn of “Succession’s” extraordinary Season 3 finale.

In that last scene, Tom comes in only at the end. Macfadyen says, “It was quite something to walk into that energy in the room. I just sort of pretend everything’s OK, it’s solicitous Tom!” The actor isn’t sure Tom has clocked that Shiv is on to him, but he loved watching it later and seeing her expression, hidden from the husband she’d routinely underestimated. “The look on [her] face is brilliant, hilarious — truly murderous and shocked.”

Mylod credits the show’s keep-going shooting style with finding the “Godfather"-esque Tom/Shiv moment that ends the season. “We tried pulling Sarah away from the siblings to isolate her with Tom, and that allowed for that lovely moment seeing her eyes blazing, reeling from the betrayal, with Tom over her shoulder,” says Mylod. “That’s when editorially, in my head, I said, ‘We’ve got it. The final image.’”


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