[This story contains spoilers from season four, episode eight of Succession: “America Decides.”]
Jesse Armstrong says he always wanted to do a presidential election on Succession.
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It was more of a question of where in the series he would tackle it, he says, ultimately deciding that it should come in the final season after Logan Roy’s death. “I’ve always felt like they have a bunch of things, this family. But, what is their primary way of acting on the culture in the political world? It’s their news channel. And an election is the best vehicle for seeing that,” the creator said on HBO’s official Succession podcast after the antepenultimate episode of the series, “America Decides.”
The episode brought the drama between the three Roy siblings to a head in the backdrop of Waystar Royco’s news organization, ATN, calling the presidential election for Jeryd Mencken (Justin Kirk) as a quid pro quo: ATN makes an unethical call for the fascist POTUS, despite Shiv’s (Sarah Snook) protestations, all because he promised to help Roman (Kieran Culkin) and Kendall (Jeremy Strong) kill the percolating GoJo deal with Lukas Matsson (Alexander Skarsgård).
The parallels to real-life recent U.S. elections and major news organizations are apparent (see: headlines Monday about 2020 election PTSD). In his after-the-episode interview on HBO, Armstrong cited 1960, 2000 and the recent 2016 close-call presidential elections, and now, speaking to podcast host Kara Swisher, he explains, “We use real-life analogs, and we think about them a lot, but we hopefully don’t slavishly follow the jumping off point for what we want to do in this fictional world. It’s a curiosity [of the American system] that the news organizations have this out-sized role in calling the election. You’re not hearing the election result; you’re hearing news organizations predicting the election result, and that’s an interesting pressure point that they have on the system.”
He also answered the question about Mencken being a Donald Trump comparison: “We want the world to feel complete and not a satire in a kind of cheap way. So, he’s evidently more eloquent and a rather more ideological figure and therefore feels more chilling.”
In the case of Succession’s presidential election, a fire in Milwaukee that ends up burning ballots ignites both a chaotic election night, as well as a volcanic rift among the Roy siblings, effectively desecrating the already rocky alliance between co-CEOs Kendall and Roman with Shiv. With Roman fiercely in Mencken’s camp, and Shiv clandestinely operating as an ally of Lukas’, the Roy daughter tries to appeal to Kendall’s “good person” sensibilities to ask him to not help elect a dictator for the good of the country. But when Kendall realizes Shiv has been lying to him and secretly making moves to benefit Lukas and her own interests, he sides with Roman and ices Shiv out even more than before.
“Maybe Roman has lost a father, and maybe he might be in the market for somebody in that role. And, a bunch of other psychological things which fit him to lead towards an authoritarian,” Armstrong explains of Roman’s “nihilistic” political choice to team with Mencken. He does, however, stop short of answering if Roman is acting how Logan would have, had he been alive. “It’s [a question] I would choose not to answer because a lot of this latter season has been about different people, especially the three who are in contention to take over, wielding what Logan would or wouldn’t have done.”
In her after-the-episode interview, Snook said not so fast to any viewers praising Shiv for standing up for the good of the country. “That’s convenient that it’s an altruistic side for her. Let’s remember, she’s not an altruist. But she does believe in Democracy and, like, dictators not being president,” she said, with a laugh. Armstrong said he also finds it delightful when characters’ motivations to do the right thing are tangled up with what serves their interest best. “It’s a dilemma about what motivates politicians and people through the ages: Why do you do the good thing, because you want to be seen to be good? Because it serves your interests better? And that’s what particularly pisses Kendall off. When he starts to feel that her professed liberalism is merely preening, that’s what blows his gasket.”
Armstrong and Swisher cited the gender dynamics at play when it comes to Shiv operating among the male-dominated rooms she finds herself in. And, with the power games at play, Swisher asked Armstrong why Shiv was the one to first apologize to husband Tom (Matthew Macfadyen) after their blow-up balcony fight in the previous episode, and why she chose election night to tell Tom that she’s pregnant with his baby (a secret she’s been keeping for most of the season; though only a short time has gone by, with each episode representing a consecutive day in the Roys’ life).
“For the self-interested version, [Shiv] would like [Tom] to be open to discussion with her today,” says Armstrong of Tom, who is the head of ATN. “And on the very practical side, she needs to tell this guy pretty soon that she’s pregnant. Whether she knows it or not, part of the problem in doing it tonight may also be an attraction in that, she’s one of the more emotionally literate characters on the show. But, does she really want to talk it all through with Tom? If she does, she’s chosen a pretty inopportune moment to tell him.”
As for Tom’s cold response, where he asked if her telling him this was a “tactic” and if she was lying, Armstrong says, “I guess it’s a mixture of Tom playing for time and also a ‘fuck you’ to somebody who has withheld this rather important news and deployed it on the most busy night of your life.”
Ultimately, the episode ends with Tom being credited for ATN calling battleground states Wisconsin and Arizona for Mencken, with the news media questioning both Tom’s close relationship with the ATN president-elect (as the results are set to be investigated) and Tom’s own ambitions. Armstrong confirms that the election is not over after this episode, as the president will be elected by the electoral college after a legal fight. “He’s scared for his career, he knows he needs these big numbers. And he doesn’t want to come out of it looking like a prick. He wants a night where he says, ‘I did it,'” says Armstrong of Tom, noting that ultimately it was Kendall who made the call. “Owners sometimes seek to put their influence on the table.”
Speaking of Kendall, who was placed both between his siblings and shouldered with making the call for the race, Armstrong says he has a lot going on. “He also has his base material self-interest, which is maybe latent until it’s really fired up by this feeling about his sister’s hypocrisy,” he says, adding of his conversation with Shiv before he learned of her betrayal: “Kendall is being amongst the most frank we’ve ever seen him.”
Why it ends up pushing him over the edge, Armstrong says, is that Kendall gets a “dead certainty” about what call to make, like his father would, from that feeling of betrayal. The final scene shows Kendall driving away in his car and rationalizing his choice to his driver in a scene that evokes one of Logan’s final moments, where the isolated Roy patriarch confides in bodyguard Colin (Scott Nicholson) as one of his closing relationships in his life.
Ultimately, as Armstrong said in his post-show interview, “America Decides” is about the collision of different political instincts with professional and corporate interests. And it shows how something as personal as sibling rivalry among privileged media titans can decide the fate of the country: “I like remembering that they’re a family and that sometimes they can be talking about national politics, and sometimes the emotional rationale behind an argument is something that goes back all those years.”
Succession releases new episodes Sundays at 9 p.m. on HBO and Max. Follow along with THR‘s Succession final season coverage.
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