How the Visual Style of ‘Succession’ Puts Kendall — and the Audience — Out to Sea

Money makes things weird, and too much of it can make love hard.

“Succession” is far too layered and full of sardonic one-liners to have that neat a thesis, but its visual treatment of the Roys — particularly Kendall (Jeremy Strong) — emphasizes a weird, essential disconnect about the character: It is in or near water that the worst and most consequential moments of Kendall’s life happen. And it is in figuring out how to shoot those sequences that director Mark Mylod really keyed into the character and the series’ essential tragedy. 

Kendall is the character who could most easily escape his father’s orbit and the burden of Waystar Royco, yet time and again he associates water with death and money with life — “the corpuscles of life,” going off of his eulogy in the final season’s penultimate episode. Even if he doesn’t jump the barriers in Battery Park at the end of the series, it’s clear that being close to water is visually tantamount to what he threatens Shiv (Sarah Snook) with during their final boardroom sidebar: This is it for him; he might die. 

Mylod credits most of the resonance of water over the course of “Succession” to the brilliant writing of series creator Jesse Armstrong. But working on key episodes in Season 1 also clarified the No. 1 Roy Boy’s twisted relationship with it. “I was fascinated by a pilot [that could] have characters who were so irredeemably awful and yet still compelling, which I thought, you know, ‘How long can we sustain that? At some point, we have to peel back layers and find vulnerability. We have to find context for their behavior. We have to find something deeper.’ I don’t believe a hate watch can necessarily sustain multiple seasons,” Mylod told IndieWire on the Filmmaker Toolkit podcast. 

Mylod credits Andrij Parekh, who directed the sixth episode of Season 1, with refining the reactive, verité vocabulary of the show’s camerawork into something that is always whipping and panning and reframing and zooming with the specific goal of “cranking up the tension, which had hitherto not been a trademark of the show, necessarily. We really whetted our appetite and blooded the show with that appetite for excruciating tension there, which became such an integral part of the DNA of the show,” Mylod said. 

For the “Succession” EP and director’s own work, though, it was really taking Kendall to the lowest (wettest) place he’s ever been during the series’ first ruined wedding that gave him the sense of how the show would grow in its emotional range. “I found a scope and I found a way that in my own head, I could balance the scope and grandeur, I suppose, of [the Roys’s] world without sacrificing intimacy — in fact, I found a way to balance those important elements together,” Mylod said.

It’s in the sequence of the car crash, where Mylod balances a crushing distance from Kendall in the water with the shake of the camera as the waiter (Tom Morely) sinks to his death. Over the course of Season 1, “Succession” figures out that the right place to put the camera is always the most painful place. The quick, panicked shots of Kendall in the water aren’t nearly as awful, though, as the scene where Logan (Brian Cox) confronts him about the incident — the compositions are stately and static until the most intimate moment between father and son, where Mylod brings the camera close to Kendall’s upset face and keeps Logan’s face away. It’s a stylistic twist of the knife that shows that even when Logan is comforting his children, he’s a brutal force. 

“Succession”screenshot/HBO

With what Mylod calls the “sadism” of the camera in place, Season 2 saw “Succession” continued to up the complexity of the setpieces against which the Roys siblings find new and interesting ways to implode. “With ‘Tern Haven,’ the 22 people around a dinner table, I got the chance to kind of channel my inner Robert Altman,” Mylod said. He did more than juggle a large cast for that episode; “Succession” began its policy of mic’ing everyone in a scene so that the camera operators can react intuitively to the energy of a particular moment. 

This readiness let Mylod block scenes by building environments that simultaneously gave the actors a lot of freedom to explore and exert pressures that funnel them towards confrontation, as in Season 2’s finale, “This Is Not For Tears.” 

Putting the Roy clan in the (ample) confines of a yacht, trapped and insulated all at once, brought out some of the show’s best comedy and visual contrasts. The environment of the summit to decide who goes to jail is so stilted and strange it actually comes back around to heightening the characters’ emotions, in the tradition of “Gosford Park,” a touchstone for Mylod.

Season 3 very much adheres to that model of what the show should be. The visual floundering and juggling and fluidity with which “Succession” moves pairs particularly nicely with shots in and of water, most notably Kendall right before he falls into a pool in Italy at the end of Episode 8, “Chiantishire.” Far more than visually creating a sense of barely keeping up with events, the most fraught moments for Kendall on “Succession” are the ones where the camera all but drowns him. 

“Succession”Graeme Hunter

The camera drowns all the characters in Episode 3 of Season 4, “Connor’s Wedding.” “[Episode 3 offered] a new kind of boldness,” Mylod said. “[We were] just trying to keep pushing it as much as I possibly could for every nuance, for every gram of weight around those characters.” 

In addition to running an extended, 30-minute take while shooting with film stock, the backdrop of New York Harbor plays a key role for Kendall in that sequence: The manic denial dissipates once he’s out in the open air, looking at the water. “On the one hand, you had all the freedom of the water and the harbor and the kind of great adventure of New York City out beyond. But at the same time, the characters are trapped in this little glass cage, in this VIP room, trapped in their grief and in their frustration of not being able to get this knowledge or this comfort that they seek,” Mylod said. When Kendall comes onto the deck, “It’s a big deep breath and that’s the first time you can properly breathe.” 

The tragic windup to Kendall’s fate hits all the harder because of that evolution of water in Season 4 and how the camera covers it. Director of Episode 6, “Living+,” Lorene Scafaria told the HBO Official Podcast that she was adamant about shooting the ending beach scene because “I really wanted to see Kendall face up in the water. And even though there are dark clouds on the horizon, it’s a victory lap and he’s doing it alone.”

That’s ultimately what “Succession” does with water and Kendall: It makes him utterly alone. Even in the series finale, when Kendall gets the word from Shiv and Roman (Kieran Culkin) that they’re willing for him to be “King,” Mylod separates him from his siblings in the dark waters of Barbados. “That whole sequence, I call ‘the cruelty of hope,’” Mylod said. 

“Succession”Courtesy of Sarah Shatz / HBO

“There was something in terms of actually bringing Jeremy’s character to an absolute zenith of happiness. ‘This is Happy Ken.’ To actually give him what he thinks he wants in a place that had always represented death for him was the ultimate catharsis and wish fulfillment for the character on the surface — and in the same way, we absolutely refute that with the finality of their humiliation at the board meeting, how public that is through those glass walls,” Mylod said. “The more happiness we gave them in Barbados, the more absolute abject misery we had to pile onto them. I wanted to imbalance all of that to find the emotional truth of that journey.” 

The emotional truth of Kendall’s journey is evident in the beauty of those final shots at the bottom of Manhattan and the bottom of his ambitions. Mylod and his fellow directors’ work on “Succession” evolved into the work of creating contrast — between billionaire-level luxury and the loneliness of a broken family, between these characters’ power and the short-term desires that drive them, between the expansive possibility of what water could mean for Kendall and the tides that pull him down. 

“Just because we turn our backs on these characters, they continue (or not) by their choices. Therefore when a character leaves frame for the last time, we’re of course so weighed down with the emotion of the moment,” Mylod said. “But in the treatment of it, we have to stay laser-focused with the cold hard truth.” 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *