How Jesse Armstrong Crafted

the Best Show on Television

By Julia Chruszcz | Magazine | January 21, 2023

Cover Illustration: Logan Roy (Brian Cox). Macall B. Polay / HBO

Magazine writer Julia Chruszcz discusses the popular HBO television series Succession by exploring its cinematic techniques through a close examination of its camerawork, characterization and language which spotlights its appeal and reveals implicit meanings behind the show. 

Succession is by far one of the most popular shows on TV right now. With 10 Emmys under its belt, they deserve all of the recognition and praise they are getting. An elevator pitch for a show like this would never do it justice. However, if you’ve never seen the show, it portrays extremely toxic and abusive family dynamics, the pitfalls of capitalism and how the wealthy and powerful stay wealthy and powerful (with a menacing soundtrack to go with it). Despite the bleak and cynical plotlines, Jesse Armstrong and the show’s writers are able to spin the content in a satirical way which is one of the reasons why this show is so exceptional. 

The first thing I noticed about Succession was the unique camerawork. It reminded me of The Office, with its shaky pans and constant zoom-ins. The camera is often unstable, coming in and out of focus and filming from the sidelines. Shots like these would never be tolerated in high-budget productions, which at first makes it difficult to believe you are watching an HBO show. The camera is never mounted to stable surfaces with a tripod but is constantly moving, trying to capture the next unexpected shot. It flows with the chain of events and doesn’t position itself before a character speaks, unlike most shows and movies. This observational way of filming serves a very important purpose that greatly adds to the experience of watching the show. It aims to make the audience feel like they are witnessing these very important board meetings and intimate moments. Additionally, the uneasiness of the instability of the camera makes the audience feel like they are seeing things they aren’t supposed to be seeing. 

Matthew Macfadyen, Nicholas Braun. Graeme Hunter / HBO

A separate piece could be written about the characters of the show as they hold so much depth and intrigue. From the beginning, we are introduced to the problem that the patriarch of the Roy family and Waystar RoyCo (the media conglomerate he runs) faces. The case of who will succeed him when he retires (hence the name of the show). Logan Roy (Brian Cox) is a malignant father from humble beginnings who mentally abuses his children and the people who work for him. His children, Kendall (Jeremy Strong), Roman (Kieran Culkin) and Siobhan (Sarah Snook), are all products of emotional neglect who constantly attempt to one-up each other, trying to prove themselves to their father. Cousin Greg (Nicholas Braun) and Tom (Matthew Macfadyen) are a Nero and Sporus duo who are constantly trying to catch up with the Roys’ affairs, desperately trying to keep themselves in the loop. Each character is engrossing and so unlikeable, yet is nevertheless immensely compelling.

Season 3 Poster (HBO & HBO Max | TCA | Summer 2021 Succession)

Language and dialogue are other distinct features of the show. One thing everyone notices, and for some might even prove to be bothersome, is the over-the-top swearing. However, that, and the witty insults, add up to hilarious scenes. Some of my favorites are; Great title for your memoir: a Benign Fungus, Love is the last fridge magnet left, and Waystar Royco: We do hate speech and roller coasters. The Roy family uses language to persuade, but they know that “words don’t mean anything”. The protagonist describes words as “complicated airflow”, pointing at the fact that people in their positions will say anything to get what they want. When in congress at a hearing for corporate misconduct, one of the general councils encouraged Tom to “eat, eat, eat the dangerous minutes”, acknowledging the fact that language for them can be a tool to divert attention. They want to prevent the floor from being handed over to one of the senators for cross-examination, as they could have the opportunity to veer the narrative a certain way. 

As interesting as it is to analyze the camera work and language of the show, it is important to understand what the show is truly depicting. Succession presents the poison that lies at the hands of the uber-wealthy and powerful and how it bleeds into our culture. It is a show about greed and hostile grips on dominance and influence. In an interview with Jeremy Strong, Stephen Colbert said that what makes a show so great is its ability to “match the moment”. Jeremy Strong, after a moment of reflection, stated that Succession is an inditement of familial trauma and damage that is pumped into the groundwaters that we are all drinking from. As season four comes out in the springtime of this year, it is very exciting to see how Jesse Armstrong will further delve into these storylines, blowing up and exposing the malevolence that lies at the core of the media industrial complex. 

“Succession presents the poison that lies at the hands of the uber-wealthy and powerful and how it bleeds into our culture. It is a show about greed and hostile grips on dominance and influence.”

Kieran Culkin, Sarah Snook, Matthew Macfadyen. Macall B. Polay / HBO

Julia Chruszcz is a university student in Amsterdam. The views expressed here are not necessarily those of The Amsterdammer. 

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