SPOILER ALERT: This review contains spoilers from “With Open Eyes,” the series finale of HBO’s “Succession,” now streaming on Max.
The end of “Succession” was filmed on the coldest day of the year.
“The windchill was minus-something in Fahrenheit, and it was absolute purgatory to shoot,” says Mark Mylod, the director and executive producer who has steered many of “Succession’s” greatest episodes. “Jeremy initially was feeling nothing but cold.”
Mylod, who has now helmed all four season finales of the HBO juggernaut, was worried that the last scene — with Jeremy Strong’s Kendall hopelessly walking through Battery Park, and Logan’s leftover bodyguard Colin trailing behind — didn’t feel “weighty enough.”
Then, they followed what has become a leitmotif for Kendall throughout the series and drifted toward the Hudson River, to feel the “gravitational pull of the water on the character.”
“We hit what was, to me, a golden theme,” Mylod tells Variety. “We ran a 10-minute take with a 1,000 foot roll of film, and just kept shooting.”
At one point, Strong, a famously immersive performer, improvised by darting over the railing and toward the frigid water, causing his scene partner Scott Nicholson to chase after him and bring him back to safety. With both actors still in the scene, they continued filming.
“We hit this beautiful, rich vein down by the water where Jeremy was just in the zone,” Mylod says. “By the end, I just knew we had something that felt worthy of that massive responsibility of being the last scene of the series.”
In an interview with Variety after the series finale of “Succession,” Mylod broke down the show’s tragic yet “inevitable” ending, as written by the show’s creator, Jesse Armstrong — that violent hug between Roman (Kieran Culkin) and Kendall, Shiv’s (Sarah Snook) high-stakes heel turn and Kendall’s revisionist history about killing the waiter. The director also discussed avoiding the trap of being “sentimental” with the camera, and what the characters might be doing after the show fades to black.
When did you know it was going to be Tom?
I resisted knowing that for a long time. I knew the essence of the ending, in that none of the siblings would succeed, but I specifically avoided asking Jesse that question for a really long time. Until we really started Season 4, [I didn’t know] what the ending would actually be, because I didn’t want to have that foreknowledge. I worried about it polluting my directing on some level. So I found out around May of 2022, before we started shooting Season 4.
Did you plant any visual cues in Season 4 that might point to the ending?
No, I specifically avoided that temptation. I didn’t want to be tricksy with it, I suppose. There’s an ego to that kind of directing that just doesn’t feel appropriate for the camera language of our show. I tried to be very clinical and cold-eyed and laser-focused, and honest with the way we shoot and cover the action. It’s very unlike anything else I’ve ever shot in that the camera has to be so cold and cruel, and not be swayed by whimsy or emotion. It just has to cover the truth in a way that hopefully gives a sense of barely keeping up with events without anticipating them. But most important is that it doesn’t try to be playful. I don’t think our camera should ever be playful in any way. So I have to fight back those urges when they do come.
In terms of the last shot, of Kendall gazing out into the Hudson River, how did you find the setting, and why did you choose to parallel it with an earlier scene of Logan walking through Central Park with Colin?
The first reveal of Colin was attempting a throwback to Episode 1 with the duck walk through Central Park with Colin and Logan. Setting up the final shot in Central Park felt too far from the emotional truth of the moment. Kendall would have walked out of Waystar and kept walking. This is maybe only an hour after the boardroom meeting, so therefore I tried to keep it geographically correct, and that meant being in the downtown area. I know the area well — I live in Brooklyn. So I walked the loop from Brooklyn Bridge around toward Chelsea, and it just felt like the very tip of Manhattan, down by Bowling Green, was the right place. It felt emotionally right.
Shooting the scene was hard. It wasn’t because there was anything lacking in the script. The script was very specific in that he walks toward the water and we reveal that Colin is behind him in this Banquo’s Ghost element. (Though I think that’s my allusion, not the script.) The simple bit was the reveal. What was hard was getting the feeling of completion, to get it feeling weighty enough. And whilst we were up in the trees in that part of the park — despite high shots and moon shots and tracking shots, and even imagining Nick Britell’s brilliant score — it didn’t feel weighty enough. The closer we got to the water, the better it felt. And Jeremy was certainly very keen to get down to the water’s edge. So we moved our action down there and then we hit what was, to me, a golden theme. We ran a 10-minute take with a 1,000 foot roll of film and just kept shooting. It was crazy cold — it was literally the coldest day of the year. The windchill was minus-something in Fahrenheit, and it was absolute purgatory to shoot. Jeremy initially was feeling nothing but cold. And then we hit this beautiful, rich vein down by the water where Jeremy was just in the zone. Me and the camera operator were doing our ballet dance around that to make sure we could capture those moments and relate the character to that water, and that gravitational pull of the water on the character. And that just started to come alive. By the end of that 10-minute take, I just knew we had something that felt worthy of that massive responsibility of being the last scene of the series.
Jeremy Strong said on the “Succession” podcast that for one take, he went over the rail and toward the water. I read that the scene where Kendall goes back into the boardroom is also unscripted. How do you balance these tightly scripted moments of the series finale with spontaneous choices by the actors, some of which feel vital to the finished product?
That’s the whole ethos that we’ve set up for the show. We have brilliant writing, so it’s making sure we get that right and try to do it justice, and then we have what I call freebies, where it’s playtime — it’s jazz. That’s where we get to explore around the moment and evolve the moment further, and some of the time it will make the cut, and some of the time it won’t. It’s a way of employing all the brilliant talent that we have at our disposal, and being able to explore the moment beyond what the page can accommodate.
In the cases you mention, they were both really interesting. There was a safety element, obviously, with Jeremy going into frigid water. The first thing to do was actually make sure he was safe. Once we got him back over the railing, we were able to safely continue with the moment because both actors were still in it. In the case of walking back into the boardroom, that’s a classic moment that would happen in our way of working. The actor feels compelled to try it one more time. And the way that we set up our stage and our cast is so that the camera could accommodate that. We can go with that ethos of barely keeping up with events. We set ourselves up so that those moments can happen, and we can accommodate them.
How important was it for the waiter to come back up in the final episode, at perhaps the most pivotal moment of Kendall’s life?
It is the catalyst event for Kendall’s disquiet, and the way that the character is haunted. It’s always there; it’s always lurking beneath the surface. That moment in Season 3 in Italy, where Kendall shares that burden with his siblings, and they — within the parameters of their expressions of love — accept it with forgiveness and tolerance and compassion. That was such a meaningful moment in those three characters lives. To then be in denial of that, and everything that trust and sharing represented, is such a fundamental betrayal — particularly to Roman, who is perhaps wavering slightly in that moment. That’s what breaks the dam for him.
What was it like directing Sarah Snook during Shiv’s moment of realization that she can’t have it be Kendall? And why can’t she?
One of the things I love most about “Succession” is that what seems in the moment shocking and surprising is screamingly inevitable if you step back and perhaps watch the show a second time. That’s the case with Logan and Tom’s interaction at the end of Season 3, or Kendall’s press conference at the end of Season 2. As soon as I watch it a second time or consider it more — how the heck could Shiv ever really vote for her brother? You can track all four seasons, of course, but you can also track her through just this episode. Once Shiv learns about Matsson’s betrayal, she pivots incredibly quickly by necessity. It’s a survival mechanism. At that point, “What’s my least worst option?” Bam! There’s my new alliance with my siblings. And there’s an elation that comes with that, walking away from the responsibility of ambition.
But of course, that’s an illusion. Once they get back to New York, and the closer it comes to that moment where she has to raise her hand, Sarah knows instinctively to feel those layers — shedding those defenses, those delusions. When they’re in Logan’s office, she sees how Stewy and Kendall are a couple of cronies together, and she sees how sidelined she could be by that relationship. When Kendall puts his feet up on Logan’s desk, there’s that visceral appalled reaction we see from Sarah. As she walks down the hallway into the boardroom, in the moment we might interpret it as determination and focus. But on a second view, we might see it as doubt. As Kendall struts around the board meeting as if he owns the place, we cut to Shiv to see the erosion of that lie she is telling herself. By the time she actually has to raise her hand, it’s as impossible as it is for Roman in Season 1.
How do you read the violent hug between Kendall and Roman before the board meeting, and what was it like to shoot?
It’s such a brutal love story. The dynamic between the brothers is so complex. We didn’t even talk about what it meant. We specifically avoided it, and we tend to do that a lot with the most complex choices of the characters. We set it up carefully with the blood work and the practical elements. To me — and this is just my subjective opinion — the hug is a relief. It’s a loving gesture. It’s a brutal and self-serving loving gesture, but nonetheless I think it is a gift that Kendall is giving to Roman to give him the out that he unconsciously craves.
The awful sadomasochism of the moment is that what starts as a hug is a trap, once Roman realizes what Kendall is doing — that this hug is actually to tear those stitches apart. The nihilism that we saw from Roman at the end of Episode 9, going into that crowd, is another expression of it. He deserves that pain, but that pain is also a relief from the responsibility of his destiny to be the CEO. So there is a very complex dynamic there, and I love it for that.
Filming the final scenes in Barbados with the three sibilngs, was there a palpable sense that this would be the last time Jeremy, Kieran and Sarah would ever be playing these characters together?
It was very emotional. The whole of the season, and particularly that last episode, we all felt hijacked in certain moments. I was in tears at a very odd moment when we were on the set of Logan’s [apartment] for the last time. But there were all sorts of moments where we had that collective sense of, “This is the last time we’ll do this.” And for me, directorially, I had to be very, very careful of this bear trap of becoming whimsical or sentimental about a moment. Of anything that would distract from that very clear and cold view of the camera lens on the truth of these characters. I couldn’t allow myself to get sucked into that. In those moments when I was hijacked, I had to push away from it. But yes, there was a certain beauty to being able to finish in such an intimate way, where most of those scenes with the three siblings plus Harriet [Walter, who plays Caroline] had a lovingness to them. I made sure that we scheduled the shoot so that the very last scene that we shot on “Succession” was the “meal fit for a king” in the kitchen, which is, by some distance, the closest and most intimate and most fun we’ve ever seen of the siblings.
That must have been nice for Jeremy to end the show on that moment, which is perhaps the happiest we’ve seen Kendall. It’s obviously a reversal of the episode’s trajectory.
It was like a little secret reward. Normally, we shoot every episode completely chronologically, but because of the cost and practicalities of going to Barbados, it just had to be the last scene. And that forced us into a situation that was, as you say, an odd reversal. And it allowed us to have our own version of a happy ending, which was a lovely indulgence.
Do you think about where the characters go from here? Or once the show fades to black, is the story over for you?
I think a lot — probably an unhealthy amount — about what they’re doing right now. What I think they’re doing right now is not necessarily a very happy place, but I do think about them a lot. Like a lost friend.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
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