‘Buttock-clenching moments of excruciating joy’: famous Succession fans on their favourite scenes
The Roys are back in town. And this time, it’s war. Although actually, it always was. The fourth series of super-rich family saga Succession is upon us, and it’s a bittersweet moment: creator Jesse Armstrong has announced that it’s the final season.
The HBO hit had the option of trundling on indefinitely, but the showrunner has boldly decided that this will be the Roy dynasty’s swansong, setting us up for an intriguing last lap. The promise implicit in the show’s title will finally be resolved. Someone must come out on top and inherit media conglomerate Waystar Royco. But who will it be?
For the past five years, the next-gen Roys have schemed and backstabbed in their battle to inherit the keys to the multibillion-dollar castle from potty-mouthed patriarch Logan Roy (the mighty Brian Cox). Heir apparent Kendall (Emmy-winning Jeremy Strong) has been betrayed and bullied so many times, he’s a broken man. Wild card Roman (scene-stealer Kieran Culkin) would be the maverick choice. Well, if he could keep his kinks and “intimate” pics to himself. Their sister Shiv (Sarah Snook) often seems the smartest sibling but has just been jaw-droppingly double-crossed by her lickspittle husband, Tom (Matthew Macfadyen). And then there’s spare-part half-brother Connor (Alan Ruck), who fancies himself as a populist candidate for the US presidency.
The debut season in 2018 attracted a devoted but modest following. It was during the pandemic that the Shakespearean super-soap blossomed into a cultural phenomenon. Critical acclaim and awards recognition duly followed. In 2020, Succession received a whopping 18 Emmy nominations and won seven, including outstanding drama series.
The genre-bending show’s blend of deliciously loathsome characters, Rolls-Royce writing, powerhouse performances and high-luxe locations have made it a true 21st-century TV great. While awaiting the last hurrah, we asked 10 famous fans to tell us about their favourite scene so far. Their selections take in sex and superyachts, face-offs and pay-offs, birthday bashes and car crashes.How will we cope without the Roys? Michael Hogan
Succession returns on 26 March on HBO in the US and on 27 March on Sky Atlantic/Now in the UK
Writer and director
Tom celebrates not going to prison (season 2, episode 7): ‘He’s trying to be ultra-male but looks like a little child’
I guffawed at this scene because it was unexpected. When Tom hears he won’t be going to prison, he goes delightfully amok in Greg’s cupboard office. He flips over the desk and hops up on to a filing cabinet, beating his chest. He’s trying to be ultra-male but looks like a little child who happens to be managing director of a media company. Normal people would celebrate by going out for a drink and getting absolutely smashed. Tom would be asleep after three beers, so instead he goes into a tall man’s tiny office and rumbles the furniture.
Matthew Macfadyen is so funny as Tom Wambsgans (a brilliant surname, even though I can never say it). He’s so supine and small with everyone else but with cousin Greg, he turns into this horrible uber-boss with a gimp. He uses poor Greg as a punchbag but also loves him in a strange avuncular way. Succession has achieved the perfect mix of comedy and drama. You enjoy scenes if they’re funny but also if they’re intense and serious. It’s struck a unique tone all of its own.
Screenwriter and novelist
Roman offers a child a million dollars if he can hit a home run (season 1, episode 1): ‘One of the best short stories I know’
The Roys are playing baseball on a field somewhere. It’s an overcast day. It doesn’t look like fun, more like a ritual re-enactment of childhood fun. Kendall takes a phone call and walks off, claiming “it’s the crunch”. It turns out he’s orchestrating a coup against his dad. But we don’t stay with Kendall. We stay on the ball game where Roman blags a little boy, the son of the groundskeeper, to play in Kendall’s place by offering him a million dollars if he hits a home run. Is this a wind-up? Probably. But what if it’s not? The kid runs his heart out. Shiv fumbles a catch. The kid runs faster but at the very last, Tom gets him out. Roman rips up the cheque in the kid’s face in a cascade of reassuring platitudes before telling him “go back to your life”. This is one of the best short stories I know. It’s so tense. The image of a child running round in circles in the hope that the rich will give him something pulses with political fury. But as the series goes on, you’ll see that the Roys too are as trapped and hungry as the kid. They too will be running round in purgatorial circles for season after season. It’s called Succession but no one ever succeeds.
Screenwriter and playwright
Kendall rapping (season 2, episode 8): ‘I watched through my hands’
So many brilliant, buttock-clenching moments of excruciating joy in Succession that it was hard to choose one, but I landed on Kendall’s rap in episode eight of season two, most of which I watched through my hands. Standing up to honour Logan, “L to the OG, he’s playing” for his 50 years’ service to Waystar Royco, Kendall delivers a tribute to the “certain flavour” that apparently not even Brian Cox knew was coming. It truly “burns your eyes” but you can’t look away. Right from the moment Kendall, clad in baseball shirt, prances and sways across the stage, like a “gangsta”, letting us know that “My boy Squiggle cooked up this beat”, we know we are in for incomparable pain and pleasure. Shiv’s incredulous laughter, while at the same time holding up her iPhone, ripe and ready to broadcast her brother’s humiliation on social media, sums up the brutal joy and vengeful pain that accompanies the familial takedown for the Roys. Roman’s attempts to intervene, spat like Kaa hanging from the tree in Jungle Book, is the dry interject that only makes the imminent and inevitable fall from grace for Kendall even more sweet. “Check it… King of the East Side. Raking loot. Five-star general, best salute” may be the chorus, but like every line in this masterpiece, it never shies from truth. Kendall’s parting shot is so straight from Shakespeare – “So don’t try and run your mouth at the king, just pucker up bitch, and go kiss the ring” – you can’t help but eschew Roman’s fateful words: “I think this might be the end of the company.”
This Is Not a Pity Memoir by Abi Morgan is published in paperback this month (John Murray, £9.99)
Willa hurls Connor’s iPad overboard (season 2, episode 10): ‘She sort of vomit-barks and throws it into the sea’
For me, Connor and Willa are the show’s unsung heroes. The season two finale, set aboard the Roy family’s yacht, sees everything come to a head – including this play called Sand that Willa’s been working on. It’s a vanity project and very expensive to stage. Connor’s invested his dad’s money in it, so there’s a lot riding on it for him too. The reviews are about to come in and I know that fear only too well. Willa has vowed not to read them but as soon as Connor gets the email, she’s like: “Fuck it, just tell me.” That happens every Edinburgh fringe.
There’s some great facial acting as Connor reads the reviews. His euphemism is “They’re mixed”, which is very relatable. Willa wrestles the iPad off him to read them herself, makes this amazing noise – she sort of vomit-barks – and throws the iPad into the sea. It’s a goofy, clownish moment amid the high-stakes drama. In the new series, I want Willa to come out on top and inherit the whole Waystar Royco empire. Then she can bankroll her own Sand movie. An entire Sand cinematic universe. You heard it here first.
Phil Wang is touring his new standup show, Wang in There, Baby!, at theatres nationwide until November. Tickets at philwang.co.uk
Actor and presenter
Roman and Gerri’s hotel bathroom tryst (season 2, episode 5): ‘I feel so ashamed yet also turned on’
I resisted Succession for ages because I’m contrary and everyone was raving about it. But I’m so glad I wised up because now I love it. My favourite is the scandalous scene where Gerri orders Roman into the hotel bathroom and he masturbates while she scolds him. It’s surprisingly hot. Why is it hot? What does it say about me that I find it hot? Who do I want to be in this scenario? I feel so ashamed yet also turned on. It’s half “yuk!”, half “cor!”. Their whole twisted flirtation has crackling chemistry. The age gap doesn’t matter because J Smith-Cameron is a stone-cold fox and Roman is only human. Well, sort of. The smirking, sneering, slimy, crawling, empty Kieran Culkin is the revelation here. It’s hugely compelling. I’m very excited for the fourth and final series. I respect any show that bows out after a few great series and doesn’t drag it out. (Ahem, like Derry Girls.) I don’t care who inherits the company. I’m just here for the ride, so to speak.
Siobhán McSweeney appears in Dancing at Lughnasa at the National Theatre, 6 April to 27 May
Dramatist and screenwriter
Kendall searches for his children’s birthday present (season 3, episode 7): ‘All the self-delusion is laid bare’
Make them laugh, make them cry, so it goes, but the truly special, like Chekhov or Albee, sound the notes of humour and desperation at the same time. Kendall is throwing “a big fucking nervous breakdown of a party” for his 40th, guests arriving through an inflatable pink replica of his mother’s birth canal for starters. Later, after deciding against performing Billy Joel’s Honesty and momentarily regaining a sense of what’s important, he goes in search of the birthday present from his children. The gifts are piled high and luxuriously wrapped; there’s a guitar and even a motorbike. He’s weird about his girlfriend’s gift of a watch, rejects a blowjob and wades in to the presents like a spoilt toddler after too much sugar. Frankly, after his being such a monumental narcissist, there was a part of me willing on his comeuppance as I cringe-howl-laughed behind my hands. But there’s no sign of the gift his kids made for him in “rabbit wrapping paper”. He breaks down: “This is so pathetic, I wish I was… I wish I was home.” Like Vanya, walking in on Yelena and Astrov, with flowers for her, all the self-delusion is laid bare. And in a beat, I was with Kendall all the way. And tears pricked my eyes. Magnificent.
Journalist and author of Fleishman Is in Trouble
The Hitler scene (season 2, episode 4): ‘It’s everything I’ll miss about this show’
The greatest and most groundbreaking moments in Succession, a show I’ve seen every frame of at least three times, have been when its staggeringly unique combination of privilege, greed, intelligence and the social orientation of its characters intersect.
Among this vast network of riches is the glimmering diamond episode four of the second season, which is called Safe Room and was directed by Robert Pulcini and Shari Springer Berman. It is an all-time great. I am haunted by one scene in particular, the kind that could have been filler on a lazier show but became the single most memorable moment out of many. In the moments leading up to a suspected shooter lockdown, Tom is doing some “due diligence” over allegations that one of ATN’s anchors, Mark Ravenhead, is a neo-Nazi.
The scene starts with Tom just having to “check a few boxes” over the ridiculous question of whether or not Ravenhead is a member of the American Nazi party. “Come on, Tom, are you serious?” asks Ravenhead, played by Zack Robidas, an underrated actor who matches Matthew Macfadyen in affable liability. It devolves from there. Does Ravenhead have a dog with the same name as Hitler’s dog? No, of course not. “Different spelling,” says Ravenhead. Has Ravenhead ever read Mein Kampf? “Um, yeah. Couple of times, I guess,” says Ravenhead. Tom laughs and asks if there were any easter eggs in there that he’d missed the first time. Just as Ravenhead is listing the victims of the second world war – Russians, Poles and Germans – there’s a bang off-screen.
Contained in this scene is everything I’ll miss about this show. How it bends and bends and bends without breaking – how it gives you a theory about how the world went so awry (and how much profit there was if you joined in on getting there) while also being in on the joke. How it came into our lives at a moment (ongoing!) when we were besieged by people who were so unequivocally bad, and showed us that they could be made to entertain as well. Who has ever done that better? Who has ever done that at all?
Screenwriter and playwright
Tom eats Logan’s chicken (season 2, episode 10): ‘It’s petulant, it’s funny and heart-straining’
A scene with five lines of dialogue in it and a pair of sunglasses. And, of course, some chicken. Tom in dark glasses, approaches Logan at dinner and eats his chicken. There are no great speeches, he simply says, “Thank you, Logan” and “Thank you for the chicken”. He is smarting from a broken marriage that has made him feel like a broken man and his response is to gnaw on his father-in-law’s poultry. It’s petulant but it has some power to it, it’s funny and heart-straining. In a show that drips in brilliant dialogue, I love that this scene is all about trusting two actors to do it all with their eyes. When someone does a list of the great TV characters of all time, Tom should be near top of the list, a genius mix of class war, confusion, love, ambition, and sad clown. He is beautifully written (and performed).
Actor and producer
Logan and Marcia’s reconciliation deal (season 3, episode 2): ‘It’s an indication of the immense power she has’
Out of all of Succession’s perfectly realised characters, my favourite is Marcia Roy (Hiam Abbass). The love between Logan and his third wife is sincere. When Marcia is threatened by Rhea Jarrell’s sexual and professional hold over Logan in season two, Marcia tells her: “When I lose a battle, the other person loses an eye, too.” Logan’s indiscretion causes them to separate but in season three, he summons Marcia to his hotel in Sarajevo. He’s in danger of losing everything and wants to agree the terms of a public display of togetherness. Their negotiation scenes are bookended by two brief but intimate moments of physical touch. This shows the couple’s old and new rules of engagement. We rarely see Logan so vulnerable and respectful. It’s an indication of the immense power Marcia has. She states her terms and before Logan’s lawyer can even splutter an answer, Marcia leaves and her own legal team deal with the details. In the background, illuminated by a desk light, Marcia approaches a seated Logan and begins to gently massage his shoulders. This gesture tells him, and us, that she’s staying. It has cost him an eye but it will be worth it.
Tanya Moodie is joining the cast of Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power for season two on Amazon Prime Video
Historian and author
Kendall pushing money through the letterbox of the family of the young man for whose death he was responsible (season 2, episode 7): ‘Full of pathos, beautiful and horrible’
I think season two is probably the best so far. You’re watching Kendall throughout trying to get up again and make something of himself, and he falls humiliatingly at every hurdle. The culmination of this is when his father takes him to the house of the parents of the young man who was killed, and Kendall just kind of stands in the kitchen – he can’t even face the family, his father has to clean up his mess for him. The only agency Kendall has during this entire season really is to fuck things up. Except for this one scene, where he does something that only a rich person can do, and in the most cack-handed way literally reaches into his pocket and shoves money through the letterbox to atone for his sins. And it’s not enough – pushing money through a letterbox will never be enough. The thing Succession does so well is that the Roy children are almost irredeemable – their character flaws are so enormous that you want to hate them. Sometimes you feel you can’t watch, it’s so awful. And then there’ll be one moment of redemption, where you can’t hate them because they show who they are. It’s such an incredible scene: full of pathos, beautiful and horrible at the same time. It’s breathtaking.