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'One person in a newsroom is going to decide everything for a country'
[Warning: The following contains spoilers for Season 4, Episode 8 of Succession, "America Decides." Read at your own risk!]
It's rare to see real-world consequences bleed into the world of the Roy family, whose immense wealth and status affords them a level of insularity. For the first time in Succession's four seasons, that shield of protection begins to crack in "America Decides," set over the course of one frantic, fateful Election Night — the first without Logan (Brian Cox) pulling the strings. The episode is a fascinating dance of global and personal conflicts, giving us a look into how Kendall (Jeremy Strong), Roman (Kieran Culkin), and Shiv (Sarah Snook) fare when it's impossible to deny that ballots are being burned in Wisconsin and a neofascist is dangerously close to being elected president.
As Roman throws his whole-bodied support behind the fascist in question, Jeryd Mencken (Justin Kirk), and Kendall struggles with his own moral conflict about backing a man whose supporters have been threatening his daughter on the street, it becomes increasingly clear that this is one of Succession's bleakest episodes yet. Kendall feels betrayed after learning of Shiv's alliance with Lukas Matsson (Alexander Skarsgård), leading to him shifting over to Mencken's camp, which plays a pivotal role in ATN declaring Mencken the apparent winner. A chilling sequence finds several characters watching Mencken's gleefully sinister acceptance speech, a sense of finality hanging over them. "We just made a night of good TV," a victorious Roman tells his siblings. "That's what we've done."
Andrij Parekh has directed some of Succession's most staggering hours, including Season 1's "Which Side Are You On," Season 2's "Hunting," and Season 3's "What It Takes." He was also behind "Kill List" earlier this season, which sent the Roys to Norway to have a handful of tense meetings with Matsson and his associates. In "America Decides," Parekh found them back on their home turf, watching the world (literally) burn on their own network.
Parekh spoke to TV Guide about all the world building that went into crafting Succession's Election Night, and finding that Tom-Shiv scene funny.
You've directed a few episodes of Succession, but I was thinking about "What It Takes" from Season 3 in particular while watching this one, which first introduced Jeryd Mencken. How did you approach seeing that election storyline through?
Andrij Parekh: I think it was really nice that I was able to direct the continuation of "What It Takes." The show sets up, in that episode, the quid pro quo of media and politics in quite a frightening way. What I would say is that I think Roman in both episodes really comes into himself. He is the character that has the most clarity in terms of knowing what that candidate will do for ATN and for the business. I think Kendall is able to sort of tragically compartmentalize what electing Mencken will do for the country versus what Mencken will do for the business. Shiv is obviously anti Mencken, but is also dealing with the double game of Matsson. So those two have their sort of own internal conflicts, whereas Roman just seems to be singly focused on a Mencken victory. You just feel it in the way he carries himself in these episodes. He feels much more forthright, and his shoulders are back, and he feels very confident in his decision making. That for me is a great thrill. And Justin, who plays Mencken, did an amazing job in both episodes. He's so good, and so terrifying, so real. The speech that they wrote for him at the end is so fascistic. At the same time, it doesn't feel that far off from something that can be said about politics today. I would say that the writers have such a finger on the pulse of America. Even though most of them are British, they really seem to understand the American political system, and the playing field that it exists in.
On that note, there are a lot of references to actual American politics in this episode — the 2000 election, the 2016 election, the 2020 election. I'm wondering how much you were able to mine from your own experience watching those events play out in real life, and what you were able to apply here.
Parekh: So, 2016 election, I watched with Adam McKay at his house. He had an Election Night party. Jesse was there, some actors were there. And I remember, over the course of the evening, Adam getting these texts. Adam's, I think, pretty well connected in the news world, and in 20 minutes, that news would be on TV. You had a sense of who's in the know, and then how it comes across, and how the American audience gets it. And I remember that evening, it just becoming quieter and quieter and quieter at this election party, and people were just kind of leaving quietly without saying goodbye. I think the next day was maybe our first shooting day. It was just this crazy experience of that election. I would say, ironically, probably the success of Succession kind of stemmed from that election. Succession was a great foil for what was happening, and a great mirror for what was happening in the country, and maybe showing people how things actually worked in this tragic way.
What I think is great about this episode is Tom is like, "My stomach is basically making the decisions for America." One person in a newsroom is going to decide everything for a country, its shape, how people get their news and respond. I think Succession in ["What It Takes" and "America Decides"] showed the mechanics of that back-scratching of media and politics.
I found it really fascinating that this is one of the first times in the series where the Roys get confronted with the reality of what's happening out in the world. Their money and status often protects them from things like this. How did you think about communicating such a big concept?
Parekh: I think what's interesting about this episode is that we had to kind of shoot a whole episode before shooting the episode. Everything you see on the screens was shot ahead of time. There's a huge amount of world building that happens that hopefully feels seamless, and you don't even notice. [The news footage] was shot a couple of weekends before we actually started the episode. So I think that world building makes it feel real. What was great about the way we did it, as opposed to green screen or blue screen on TVs, is that actors are able to react to what's being broadcast on the news. I think making that possible makes the episode feel much larger than the tools that are given. We shot [at] CNBC in New Jersey, we had weekends and nights to shoot it, so our shooting time was quite limited. We shot over two weekends. That whole episode basically happens in Waystar Royco, and the executive offices. There's a little bit of car driving, but most of it is set inside of ATN. I have to thank Katrina Whalen, who helped put together a lot of the background material. It was creating a world within a world that makes [it] feel real.
You also directed "Kill List" earlier this season, which put the Roy kids in a very unfamiliar location. Here, they're back in the most familiar place to them. What kinds of conversations were you having with the actors about how those arcs would play out?
Parekh: I don't really talk to them too much about character arcs, I feel like that's really in the writing. It's interesting doing episodic television, because you're there as the directing guest, hopefully you don't sink the ship. You're there to shoot the pages, and hopefully make it interesting and find what interests you in the scenes. I tend to talk to the actors before we start an episode, I spend a half an hour with each of them and ask them what they want to do in the episode and what the episode means to them, and keep those notes and just remind them about that conversation. Because when you're shooting, you suddenly get tired. It's a lot.
When we shot "Kill List," everyone showed up quite jet lagged, so you kind of carry that, the weight of jet lag, into the performance. You're just like, nodding off in the middle of the day, and and it's just great to have that reality and that method affect the performances. I think what's very nice about "Kill List" is that they're all sort of on their back foot, right? They're in foreign land, they're not sure what's going on. We wanted to give it a sense that everyone around them was listening and watching all the time. I would just do things like have background extras interrupt their conversations. I was always telling them, "You don't know who's watching, you don't know who's listening, you guys need to keep your information and your planning very tight." As opposed to the last episode, "America Decides," where it feels like they are sort of masters of the kingdom. At the same time, they're relegated to that conference room. Tom wants to get them off the floor. I love the moment where they all go onto the floor, and they're absolutely not supposed to be doing that and everyone notices it. It was probably a very different energy than when Logan Roy was there, right? That was one of my favorite moments in that episode, them breaking established protocols and not caring. It's their domain. It's also great in this wasabi moment.
Yes, I wanted to ask about that.
Parekh: That was so much fun to shoot. The trick with Succession is that it walks this tightrope of comedy and tragedy, you just don't want to spill too much into one camp or the other. Just having Roman watching it, looking at them like, "You guys are such idiots." This decision is being made with the election advisor having wasabi in his eye. It's just in the writing, and it's fantastic.
To get into some character-specific things, Kendall and Shiv have a complex push and pull this whole episode. I kept noticing details — them looking at each other through the glass walls, and the way you would frame her over his shoulder. I'm curious about the stylistic choices you made for those two in particular.
Parekh: There's a very intense conversation between Shiv and Kendall where they both seem to be talking past each other. I love that scene for its subtlety, where they're just making speeches to each other, not really listening to one another. I wanted Shiv to feel quite squeezed by Kendall. I love the moment where Kendall discovers that she's been lying to him, and she's trapped in that conference room, and she can't do anything. She can't tip her hat one way or the other because she doesn't know what he knows. If she spills the beans, she might do it and not have had to do it. Just keeping that physical distance between them, I think, makes it really interesting. It allows him to just — when Kendall comes back — call her out on it in a really interesting way, in this giant room. It's something that just the two of them [know], and you feel the tension between them. It sort of feels like the way that they probably always behave between the three of them as siblings, that same argument they've probably had a million times. You can imagine that sibling rivalry fight happening at any age.
With Roman, you mentioned him coming into himself in "What It Takes" and again in this episode, but I found his position so interesting because up until now he's had the hardest time accepting that Logan is gone. In "Kill List," he has that big breakdown in Matsson's face, and here, it's sort of the opposite of that. He almost shuts down emotionally. With the election, it's only about his bottom line. Was that parallel on your mind during shooting?
Parekh: I would say in the Norway episode, I wanted Roman to feel like he's just come off the death of his father, and it's very raw, and we're not really sure what he's going to do. There's that great moment where he gets the photo of his father from Connor, and it really just upsets him, and that launches him into this Matsson attack. Even the staging of that, I wanted it to feel very dangerous, like Roman could hit him, you just don't know what's gonna happen. And I think at this point, in "America Decides," Roman has maybe gotten past mourning, or he's not really thinking about Dad, he's only thinking about just carrying the torch for Dad and making the same decision that Dad would make. I think that's what gives him the confidence and that spring in his step to make that decision.
I want to mention Tom too, and the moment where Shiv tells him she's pregnant. As the director coming in after that fight at the end of Episode 7 and dealing with the dust that has now settled, what goes into setting the tone of a moment like that?
Parekh: What's interesting about Tom in this episode is that this is his night, but it's his night until the siblings arrive and they take all the wind out of his sail. Now he's just sort of resigned to doing their bidding. Even in the blocking, he comes in like, "OK, guys, I need to know what we're going to do." He's just the messenger, right? The beginning of the episode, this is his game. And then that sequence with Shiv telling him she's pregnant, I just think about his reaction and I think his reaction is so good. There are so many things happening. "Is she lying? Is it the truth? This is amazing, this is terrible. Is she trying to screw me over? Is this just another game she's playing?" There's like, 40 things that are going through his mind at the same time. Every time I watch her deliver that and him respond, it just makes me laugh because it's so funny. I love the brutality of the way that the information is delivered. It's like, "Oh, and by the way, your jeans came in the mail last night." She's going to throw it away, whatever, see you later. And she just walks away. It's a total soap opera moment, but it's just handled so deftly and so seriously.
Succession Season 4 airs Sundays at 9/8c on HBO.