‘Succession’ Ratchets Up the Tension, Italian Style, in Season Finale
Director and executive producer Mark Mylod shares more with his “Succession” creator/showrunner Jesse Armstrong than British roots — notably, a determination to push their critically lauded HBO drama’s bar ever higher.
Like the show’s first two season finales, helmed by Mylod in the U.K. and Croatia respectively, its latest — “All the Bells Say” — brims with conflict in a foreign land. This time, the characters navigate Italy, as the futures of the Roys’ media conglomerate, Waystar Royco, and some of its key players become unmoored, ahead of a shocking denouement.
“I have remained the production flag-waver for scope and cinematic scale,” observes Mylod, who directs each season’s finale episodes and pushed for international locales to reveal “the global nature of our billionaires’ existence.”
While he had likely planned for the palpable oppression blown in by hot, dusty Tuscany, he did not expect a windstorm to help make an already-difficult pivotal scene one of the “hardest” he has yet overseen on the show.
As Logan (Brian Cox) struggles to settle on his empire’s future and determine which of his ruthless children — Kendall (Jeremy Strong), Shiv (Sarah Snook), Roman (Kieran Culkin) and Connor (Alan Ruck) — will remain involved, the three youngest scions meet to plot strategy, but instead stumble on their best approximation of sibling intimacy. Still floundering after his own failed takeover bid for the family business, Kendall prompts the breakthrough by finally confessing his grotesque role in the death of a waiter at Shiv’s English wedding that concluded Season 1.
“By the end of the scene, with dust blowing, we literally would be washing [Snook’s eyes] out between takes so she could just open them,” Mylod explains, clearly in awe of his cast’s professionalism. He also highlights the deftest of touches they bring, which take scenes like the trio’s heart-to-heart to the next level — the moment when Culkin spontaneously placed a hand on Strong’s back, for example.
Courtesy of HBO
“Jeremy broke when Kieran touched him,” Mylod recalls. “At that moment, you think, ‘This scene’s OK. We’ve got it.’ Because the first few takes, we just couldn’t quite make it land. This moment felt like a lightning bolt.” The Directors Guild of America agreed, conferring on him its 2022 Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Dramatic Series award for the finale.
Snook fired up another electrical charge elsewhere in the episode when Shiv punches Roman upon realizing he hasn’t been forthcoming about Logan’s interactions with a tech mogul (Alexander Skarsgärd’s Matsson) seeking to invest in or buy Waystar Royco. Yet he never instructs his actors on their physical movements, focusing instead on “the emotional arc of a scene” and on helping them reach their “peak of intensity.”
That assistance is sometimes generated by a scene’s location. “The last showdown with Logan in that episode was an 11- or 12-page scene, and it had to be the perfect space,” he says. “We’d talked about it being Gothic, and looked at old Renaissance palaces and villas, but then I walked in and this place was the opposite of that.”
The starker look excited the show’s production designer, Stephen H. Carter. “One of the things I’ve tried to do for the Roy family throughout the seasons is strip away a little bit of the personality of the places they own,” Carter says. “I want people to feel they’ve got a team hired to pick out artwork. I don’t think the Roys themselves have the patience or maybe aesthetic sensitivity to personally choose what goes on their wall.”
Courtesy of HBO
The building in question is the lair Logan has posted up in while the family attends the wedding of his three younger children’s English mother, Lady Caroline (Harriet Walter). Mylod notes Cox’s physical position was also key as he devastates his kids with a killer business blow: “Wherever Logan would be, the rest of the room would fall unconsciously in that orbit. Logan is a master of manipulating and owning space.” Carter concurs: “We very much wanted to subtly set it up so it felt like the kids were walking into a trap, and Logan was there and ready to spring it.”
“Succession” costumer designer Michelle Matland is, in Carter’s book, perpetually “cool as a cucumber,” no matter the outfitting challenge. Indeed, Matland notes she couldn’t wait for the change of scenery “after a full COVID season shot in New York City — offices, interior apartments and corporate settings. The idea of nuptials planned outdoors in the Tuscan sun was a relief to the entire cast and crew.”
Ties may have been loosened, and mostly discarded altogether, but tension remained high — scripted anyway. Matland, meanwhile, adds she put the British wedding tradition of “large, decorated hats for men and women” to practical use as protection from the sun’s punishing rays.
Carter jokes that the pair must share a form of ESP. “It’s rare that we have a lot of time to sit and discuss color swatches, but we do somehow really manage to sync up our palettes. Maybe it’s just that after this much time together, we pick up each other’s clues very quickly.”
Two top-notch local hires also made his job considerably easier. “We were very lucky we landed with a fantastic art director and set decorator — these wonderful ladies [Cristina Onori and Letizia Santucci] who came to us directly after finishing ‘House of Gucci.’ They were able to roll right in, which made for an incredibly smooth transition for me.”
Indeed, Mylod suggests “Succession” owes thanks to everyone on the call sheet. “We all understand exactly the point we’re trying to get to, but we all have to come to the same place in our own way,” he explains, proudest perhaps of the “most perfect connection” yet made between Kendall, Shiv and Roman.
“It’s as tender a moment as we could ever really have I think,” he continues. “There’s no way in any incarnation of the whole history of those siblings they could ever be closer than that.”
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