In conversation with succession showrunner Jess Armstrong

A few weeks ago, Succession ended its four seasons on television with an impeccably gut-wrenching finale born from the mind of showrunner Jesse Armstrong. The show, loosely based on Rupert Murdoch, his family, and their media empire, was — and to some extent still is — a social media phenomenon.

“Succession Sunday” became a weekly global event where it seemed like the entire internet came together to provide live tweet reactions to the poignant choices the Roy siblings made in that episode. It was prestige TV at its best, with Armstrong at its center.

Armstrong at the Sir Harry Evans Global Summit in Investigative Journalism in London. Andrew Parsons for Truth Tellers

I recently ran into Armstrong at the inauguration Sir Harry Evans Global Summit in Investigative Journalism in London – a day filled with great pioneers in journalism sharing their knowledge. Armstrong was a last minute addition to the program and attendees flocked to his panel on Succession as a reflection of today’s media landscape.

The first thing I noticed about the Succession showrunner was how well he blends into a crowd. If you didn’t know the man was the mastermind behind what is arguably the best TV show of this generation, you’d think he was just another London journalist for the top. And in the sense that he is a keen observer of people, I think he was. Coincidentally, he was also one of the panellists.

I found Armstrong chatting with two of my fellow attendees in the back row of the panel room during a break. I approached him in a quiet moment to express my sincere appreciation for the show and to rack his brains about its creation. To my delight, he was very gracious with his time. Perhaps the best way to describe him is “shy genius” – he came across to me as a humble man who takes everyone’s praise seriously. Also a bit clumsy but extremely knowledgeable about his craft.

After raving about the show, I asked Armstrong – who is currently on strike with the Writers Guild of America – if Shiv Roy (Sarah Snook) and Tom Wambsgans (Matthew Macfadyen) would ever be happy together. He gave me a knowing smile and said he couldn’t answer because that would be a huge spoiler. Keep in mind we were only about seven episodes into the final season when the summit happened. Now that I know where Shiv and Tom end up, his reaction makes perfect sense.

What Armstrong told me was that while he was very nervous about joining the panel, listening to the rest of the speakers had been an enlightening experience. Unsurprisingly, his panel was a huge success by all accounts. However, one might wonder why exactly a showrunner was an invited speaker at an investigative journalism summit.

During his panel, Armstrong explained that investigative journalism played a major role in the creation of Succession. He said reading Tom Bower investigative features and books was a big part of what led him to want to make a show like Succession. The fact that both Murdoch and Sumner Redstone had joked that they wanted to live forever and therefore not name a successor initially intrigued Armstrong. He had written a screenplay about Murdoch way back in 2010 and started reading about the inner workings of The times being bought out by the media mogul helped shape his ideas for the show.

“Seeing what it’s like to sit inside and get bribed and be lied to and have someone who will use untruths right in other people’s faces… it’s like a superpower,” Armstrong said at the panel. “And to read the experience of a very intelligent person who is somewhat seduced, somewhat bullied, somewhat positioned … there is a wealth of material that you can draw from to tell stories.”

Watching succession can be like reliving a traumatic event all over again. The final season’s election episode is reminiscent of the Trump vs. Biden election in 2020, and Elon Musk’s failed SpaceX launch was eerily similar to Roman’s (Kieran Culkin) rocket launch failure in season one. Armstrong said he’s not necessarily trying to predict anything, but he acknowledged that if you throw multiple darts at a board, some of them will eventually hit the target.

During the panel, Armstrong discussed how Succession was written and gave behind-the-scenes tidbits about how certain scenes were conceived. As the conversation progressed, little by little he seemed more comfortable.

He talked about how Logan Roy’s (Brian Cox) now iconic “I love you, but you’re not serious people” came about – the writers knew this was a very important and pivotal moment between Logan and his four children before his death – and the fact that Jeremy Strong was initially going to play Roman. The story goes that Strong was recommended to Armstrong by Adam McKay, who executive produced Succession and Strong directed The big short. However, Culkin’s audition for Roman was so perfect that they had no choice but to cast him, which is how Strong ended up being cast as Kendall Roy.

It was so interesting to watch Armstrong talk about the bogus Rupert Murdoch and Waystar RoyCo, in part because John Poulos, the co-founder and CEO of Dominion Voting Systems was also a panelist at the summit. Poulos spoke about the toll of going against the real Rupert Murdoch and Fox News and winning the biggest defamation case in media history. To see him talk about the financial and mental strain it caused for Dominion and its employees, and how Murdoch and Fox used their news brand to gain influence, juxtaposed with Roman Roy’s actions with ATN (Waystar’s news division) in ‘America Decides’ was really great. thought-provoking.

After the Summit, I visited Armstrong at the reception and congratulated him on a successful panel. At this point he was considerably relaxed – still a very shy genius, but one much more comfortable in his own skin.

I asked him if he had heard of Vanity Fair’s Murdoch function, in which the publication revealed that there was a clause in Murdoch’s divorce settlement with Jerry Hall that stated she could not give the Succession writers any ideas. He said he did and thought it was somewhat of an exaggeration in the sense that Murdoch might not specifically called Succession, but chuckled when he read it anyway. When I asked him who came up with Tom Wambsgans’ “Buckle up, fucklehead,” he said it was most likely his work.

During the reception, Armstrong had crowds come to him to express their love for the show and their admiration. I watched as he graciously accepted every compliment, listened to each person with great attention, and responded with incredible insight and humility. The Succession showrunner even made several video calls to fans who wanted their friends and relatives to have a chance to meet him virtually. In general, he was very generous with his time and his thoughts.

HBO Follow Up Season 3
Successor creator Jesse Armstrong may stay with HBO, after the writers’ strike. ROBYN BECK/AFP via Getty Images

I didn’t know what I thought Jesse Armstrong would be like as a person. After years of watching him give interviews and countless Emmy Awards acceptance speeches, meeting the creator of one of my all-time favorite shows was surreal. But Armstrong, the man—unlike the unknowable celebrity Armstrong—was as nice as anyone could hope. I’ve long admired him and his work, but in the short time I’ve spent with him, my respect for him has only grown.

Towards the end of the evening, someone in our group asked Armstrong what the next step was for him. Instead of talking about projects ahead, he seized that moment to reiterate that he is currently on strike in solidarity with the WGA. While the future of television is uncertain, I can say one thing with absolute certainty: Whatever Armstrong has in store for us, I’ll be sure to watch.

An evening with shy genius Jesse Armstrong

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