‘Succession’ Finale Director Mark Mylod on “Unbearably Tragic” Ending – The Hollywood Reporter

Written by on May 31, 2023

[This story contains major spoilers from the series finale of Succession, “With Open Eyes.”]

Succession ended in inevitable tragedy. In drawing his conclusion about the series finale, The Hollywood Reporter‘s chief TV critic Daniel Fienberg said of the “relatably unrelatable” and “vicious, funny and haunting ultimate episode” that “the Roys are/were the worst of people and Tom beat them at their own game.”

“With Open Eyes” was written by creator Jesse Armstrong and directed by Succession helmer Mark Mylod, who has directed four episodes each season, typically the beginning and ending installments. The series finale revealed Tom Wambsgans (Matthew Macfadyen) as the successor to the media throne left by the departed Logan Roy (Brian Cox), who died in the third episode of the final season, also directed by Mylod. Tom’s ascension delivers a diverging fate for the three Roy siblings who have sold their souls in hopes of wearing the Waystar Royco CEO crown, as Shiv (Sarah Snook) is reduced to playing the role of CEO’s wife, Roman (Kieran Culkin) returns to his familiar seat at the bar and Kendall (Jeremy Strong) contemplates diving into the frigid water below him after what the actor called an “extinction-level event.”

With so much to digest as the Roy family saga comes to a close after four Emmy-winning seasons, THR spoke with Mylod about the fates for Kendall, Roman and Shiv as he unpacks the final shots for each, as well as the verbal and physical violence between the trio; reveals how long the Tom ending has been in play; and goes behind the scenes of wrapping the entire show on the “Meal Fit for a King” scene, where Strong actually drank that smoothie for every take: “It gave us, the Succession team, the illusion of a happy ending.”

Succession creator Jesse Armstrong said in his HBO after-the-episode interview that the idea of Tom being the eventual successor felt like the right ending for “quite a while now.” After speaking with some of the cast, it sounds like that ending led him to eventually decide that was also the note the series should end on. Why does Tom make sense and why is this the right moment to end the show?

It’s a great, meaty question. First is an indirect answer: I think what made utter sense in terms of the whole dynamic of our storytelling is that none of the siblings should succeed. It felt like that devastating moment that I feel like all four seasons lean towards, where Roman sits on the table with his brother in that glass room, horrifying the rest of the board members, and says, “We are bullshit.” That is the absolute distillation of truth in those characters, and that they should be self-sabotaging or unable to close that deal completely makes dramatic and emotional sense to me.

So by extension, who is it? And then of course, if this were a real universe we’re exploring, it could be some other nameless character from some other organization who was head hunted who jumps in there. In this case, it’s also perfectly viable that it would be this incredibly competent but malleable character. I think Jesse’s talked about this as well, that this person [Tom] is completely plausible because they’re able to be an everyman and they are a puppet in this case for Matsson’s [Alexander Skarsgård] control.

I understand you didn’t know about the Tom decision until shooting the final few episodes.

That is true. I somewhat intentionally didn’t ask and avoided the conversation. I knew where it was going with the siblings, but I didn’t want to know [the successor]. And I tell myself that’s because I didn’t want to unconsciously foreshadow it in a way, or tip a wink to the audience unknowingly. But I think there was also a perverse block in my ears about not wanting to know about the ending. I think it was part of my long stretch of denial about the show actually coming to an end.

Viewers are now pointing out the ways Tom was foreshadowed, but looking back I think there are moments where several characters could be foreshadowed. Do you know how long Tom was decided by Jesse?

I don’t know precisely. A couple of years I would guess, at least. But I don’t know precisely.

The combined GoJo and Waystar Royco team after signing the deal, with U.S. CEO Tom (Matthew Macfadyen, third from right).


Jesse also said of the siblings in the series finale: “They don’t end. They will carry on. But it’s sort of where this show loses interest in them because they’ve lost what they wanted, which was to succeed this prize their father held out.” Interpretations of the ending are that it’s tragic, yet hopeful in places. How do you view the ending for the main three Roy siblings?

I find it unbearably tragic, I really do. OK, the charade of their ability to actually succeed Logan, the game’s up on that. And one could argue with some truth that perhaps ultimately when the dust is settled, that that will set them free on some level. I just can’t honestly feel that, having lived with those characters for so long. They’re so stuck in that gravitational field and so unable to escape the orbit of Logan that I just can’t see a way forward where they can actually achieve any kind of happiness or sense of purpose, which is perhaps the key to a happy life. So I feel that the ending is tragic. I don’t feel hope for them, but I’m happy that other people can. And I find myself in the most strange way wondering what they’re doing now, like a friend that I’ve lost contact with. It’s a very strange feeling, like a phantom limb.

I’d love to hear where you’ve landed on what they’re doing now.

(Laughing.) I don’t think it’s very good. I genuinely don’t think it’s good. I don’t want to put my subjective opinions out there; I’ll keep them private. But, they’re not good.

Jeremy Strong spoke to THR about viewing Kendall’s ending as his eventual death. He said he tried a final scene take, which isn’t the one you used, where he jumped over the rail to show that intention. Can you talk about the final shot you went with, and where you wanted to leave us with Kendall? And, do you also feel that his future has an expiration date?

I think the impulse that Jeremy felt when he’s that deep in Kendall in that moment was probably entirely accurate in the take. I think a huge part of the impulse of the character would be to contemplate that choice of frigid, icy cold water to feel a poetic irony of actually completing his destiny if he hadn’t gotten out of that car that night years ago [when he killed the cater waiter]. I completely agree with the impulse of the moment.

And we did wrestle over several rounds in the edit of where the cuts of black should be and whether we should see the character doing that. Both Jesse and I agreed that actually the impulse and the possible intent is implicit in the moment, in the performance. It’s all there. So we don’t necessarily need to go to that kind of literal, physical move toward that railing. By not implicitly doing that, we keep open another and perhaps even more likely but equally tragic future for the character, and that is that he would just have to live out his life in that purposeful emptiness of unfulfilled destiny. A purgatory of unfulfilled ambition for the character.

Kendall (Jeremy Strong) in the final scene of Succession.

Courtesy of HBO

This show has prioritized psychological over physical violence, but there are key beats in the last act that are of assault, between Kendall’s attack on Roman to Greg (Nicholas Braun) slapping back at Tom. Nicholas Braun told me he and Matthew Macfadyen actually slapped each other (check back tomorrow for that interview on THR). What was it like to film that scene between Jeremy Strong and Kieran Culkin and as the director, how do you find the comfort level for the actors to transition from the psychological to the physical violence?

The physical manifestations of violence oddly often don’t feel as bad as when they are being their most verbally cruel to each other. We set parameters in the physical fight when they’re in the boardroom, specifically to protect Sarah [Snook], who was heavily pregnant at that stage of our production. So there was an element of just controlling the environment there for her well-being. But other than that, it comes down to mutual trust, really. They know and accept that it’s going to hurt. And for the scene, they go there. And I’ll try to do it as few times as possible, and when I know I’ve got the brutality that’s necessary I’ll give them permission to pull back. But often they won’t be able to in the moment.

What to me is the most violent and almost stomach-churning moment is the hug between Roman and Kendall, which is such a complex sadomasochistic love brutality. An immensely complex cocktail, that it’s hard to even actually give it … I can’t think of the word. But that moment is so complex to me and has a huge brutality to it. In that moment, you feel that Kendall can perhaps be Logan, because he’ll do whatever it takes in that moment to succeed his father.

Then in the moment of the least intentional touching is what Shiv does with her hand to Tom’s hand. In terms of the wording in the script and your direction, how did you know when you got the gesture right and were there any questions Sarah had while you were filming?

That one just played out perfectly from take one. I set it up so that we could run it in a single shot, from the moment when they get to the car and we reveal that Shiv is in the car waiting for Tom. So she implicity accepted the ride, and we know they’re going home together. From the moment the car takes off, I pre-set the speed with the hope that the car would emerge from the darkness of the underground carpark out into the light, into the bare daylight of real life at the correct moment. And it just played out beautifully, because Sarah and Matthew judged it so perfectly. We set the framework, we could see everything.

And his gesture and the timing of her conditional acceptance from her about that contract was so eloquent, even in the first take, that really subsequent takes were actually about, “Maybe we’ll get a better run down the street.” It was about physical and craft elements and camera movement, rather than about the moment, which they really nailed from the beginning.

Tom (Macfadyen) and Shiv (Sarah Snook) in their final shot.

David Russell/HBO

What does that say to you about the future of their marriage?

For Shiv and Tom, there was a beautiful stage direction that Jesse had written which was something to the effect of, “Two unexploded bombs being transported with great care,” which I thought was beautiful. I do think that their marriage will survive. I think there’s even hope for Shiv to maybe play out some kind of Lady Macbeth manipulation behind the scenes to stay in the game; whether that’s good for any kind of happiness, I’m not sure. But I do think there is a future for them, I’m just not sure how happy it is.

Can you unpack Roman’s final expression with the martini at the bar, and that very final look, where he says something different with his eyes?

For Roman, there’s an odd sense where if we were a different type of show, the two years that we spent with Roman would just be a fever dream. A little kind of drunken fantasy, and we’d find him in that bar in the start of episode one of season one, we’d find him back at that bar in the last scene of the final episode. There was something about the tragedy of him having gone absolutely nowhere and learning absolutely nothing in the last two years. The one thing he does have is a smattering of self-knowledge, and I think that self-knowledge recognizes the pointlessness and it drifts out in that ambiguous, grimace-soaked smile that we see in the character in the end.

Roman (Culkin) in his final scene.

Macall B. Polay/HBO

You wrapped production with the “Meal Fit for a King” scene and that sequence between Kendall, Roman and Shiv felt so different than any other scene in the series. How much was precisely set up there and how much was loose in terms of what you hoped you’d find, why did you want to wrap the show by filming this scene and was there anything you had to cut out?  

It was a joy. It’s emotionally turbulent, because I scheduled it deliberately to be the very last scene that we shot of Succession, specifically because it was the happiest the characters had ever been and the closest we’d ever seen them. And therefore it gave us, the Succession team, the illusion of a happy ending. Normally we shoot chronologically. But to finish with Kendall down at the Bowling Green on a frigid day would have been such a sad way to finish. We had the illusion of a happy ending and it was so lovely to have had that.

Shooting was fun in that I basically set up exactly what the characters needed to know. They know that house, they’ve been there for years. They know where the fridge is, they know where things would be in the parlor. So after going around and saying, “Ok, food is in there and this in there,” the characters knew what they needed to know and I just unleashed them. We played with the tone, which we did as to how chaotic the food fight would get. We did some very big, messy food fight options, which we pulled back on because they were perhaps in danger of feeling a little too slapstick.

So we played with the tone and we played a number of takes, and poor Jeremy was drinking that stuff every single time. Whether it was spat in or hot sauce, an awful combination was in there. Poor guy, I would call “cut” and he would literally be retching into the sink every single time. But he doesn’t know how to do it if it’s not full emotion. So he can’t pretend to drink it, he just has to do it. And we had to do a lot of takes to get the tone just in the right place. But ultimately, it was just brilliant fun. As soon as I called “cut,” there was a huge sadness obviously from all of us. But then we ended up having a big food fight.

Roman (Culkin), Shiv (Snook) and Kendall (Strong) in the final scene shot for the series.

Courtesy of HBO

Interview edited for length and clarity. Daniel Fienberg contributed to this story. Succession is now streaming on Max. Read THR‘s series finale coverage.

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