However ‘Succession’ Ends, We Already Know How It Will Feel

“Succession” series creator Jesse Armstrong writes characters who aren’t equipped for their times – either their inflated egos make them see small slights as momentous personal challenges or their stunted emotional maturity and intellect make them exactly the wrong people to deal with an actual crisis. In the case of “Succession,” it’s often both, and the camera responds accordingly. 

Director Mark Mylod and director of photography Patrick Capone have together helmed over 10 episodes of the series together — including Season 4’s Episode 1, “The Munsters,” Episode 3, “Connor’s Wedding,” and Episode 9, “Church and State” — and like to keep the audience just a couple seconds behind and constantly re-finding the characters and the shifting power dynamics of individual scenes. It makes “Succession” look the way it must feel for the Roy siblings: one giant clusterfuck after another. 

The series’s 90-minute finale is nigh, and the boardroom battle between “the Roy boys” and “Shiv the shiv” could swing any which way. But looking at how Capone breaks down a huge emotional setpiece, seeing when and how the show deviates from its usual visual language, can give us insight into how that finale will feel and which of Logan’s (Brian Cox) abused kids could win the company and lose the series. 

The first thing Capone and “Succession” love to do is to create a sense of outsized pressure and scrutiny on these baby billionaires via the contrast between their luxurious environment and the emotional turmoil of the moment. It’s why it’s so much fun for the show to ruin weddings; the luxury the Roys inhabit does nothing to shield them from slights, real or perceived. 

In Logan’s funeral, the camera isn’t just creating the sense of a performance by cutting back to Gerri (J. Smith-Cameron) and Frank (Peter Friedman) in the pews. There are conscious shots of all three (sorry, Connor) Roy siblings who get up to speak on monitors, flatting out each of their personal griefs into an image that can be perceived as more valuable or less valuable (sorry Roman) by the power brokers in the room. Those monitors are the kind of thing a very fancy house of God, as St. Ignatius Loyola in NYC is, absolutely would have, and Capone and camera operators Gregor Tavenner and Ethan Borsuk found a way to incorporate that realism while simultaneously applying pressure to Roman (Kieran Culkin), Kendall (Jeremy Strong), and Shiv (Sarah Snook). 

“We pretty much used their video system,” Capone told IndieWire. “It was so useful to have it broadcast to the whole congregation, the whole funeral and especially the eulogies, and it really [created] another level of separation beyond just what a normal funeral would have. The name of the episode is ‘Church and State.’ When you realize what was going on during the most — it’s not holy, but the saddest, most personal of times, you know, everyone’s doing business and the thing’s being televised.”  

It’s actually at Logan’s (discount) mausoleum where the tone lightens and jokes about tax breaks and top bunks are cracked. Capone and the “Succession” crew worked around the sun to keep that environment cool and dreary. Luckily, shooting in New York in January will reliably get you pretty overcast environments. “In the beginning of the episode, I tried to keep everybody as silhouette-y and as eerie a day as I could. We didn’t wanna make it too heavy,” Capone said. “Overall, Mark [Mylod] and I had a vision of what we thought this episode should look like. It needed to not hit people over the head with sadness. And I think the humor that comes out at the mausoleum is just enough to break it up.” 

The tonal tug between tragedy, comedy, and a sort of breathless incredulity is both very funny and very sad and is often carried through camera movement and the way the operators find character reactions. All the eulogies were covered by multiple cameras at once, but the energy of the performances impact how shaky or stable the camera feels to the viewer. 

“Succession”Courtesy of Macall Polay / HBO

“Even Ewan’s (James Cromwell) eulogy was handheld, but it’s like a dance. When you feel that it’s emotional, when you feel that Roman’s becoming unhinged, you know we feel a gut instinct [to have] more movement, and move around him more. Ewan was a more stable foundation of a eulogy, so even though we’re still handheld, we didn’t feel necessarily that we had to dance around him as much,” Capone said. 

It’s a powerful thing that the camera moves on “Succession” when someone’s emotions are twitching. That sense of being moored or unmoored can tell us exactly whose perspective (or sympathy) the camera is taking and who is left behind. The long sequence in Episode 3 that Mylod and Capone shot as an unbroken, almost 30-minute play does a fantastic job of alternating perspectives between the siblings as they find out Logan died. But the funeral is much less evenhanded because the power dynamics are different. 

When Roman falls apart, the cameras make his disintegration look that much more horrible. Even the reaction shots of Mencken (Justin Kirk) and everyone in the pews are more frazzled than Greg (Nicholas Braun) shaking his head during Ewan’s speech. When Kendall speaks, he’s much more able to hold the room’s attention, and the cameras do a lot more gentle swaying and snap Zooms leaning into his words at key moments. Shiv is that much more fragmented — Logan isn’t the only man who has trouble holding a whole woman in his head — getting shot both much closer, more intimately, and yet her remarks are also much more overwhelmed by reaction shots. And all of these different visual takes on the siblings, Capone said, are intuitive, picked up by the camera operators and by him.

For Shiv’s speech, especially, Capone said that knowing the story and the kinds of reactions they can get from the cast four seasons in led to a remarkable moment that starts on Karolina (Dagmara Dominczyk) and Gerri but moves to Kendall. “We know how certain people will react to certain people talking. And there’s always this Gerri and Shiv thing going on in my mind: the older, more traditional woman and the new woman. There’s always, you know, how do you look at the [Waystar cruise ship scandal] as a young woman and an older woman. There’s always those reactions,” Capone said. 

“Succession”Macall Polay/HBO

The shift to Kendall, who has not had a great day with the women in his life, and the choice to emphasize his non-reaction to that moment, was also the kind of unplanned kismet that comes from leaving the camera operators open to where the emotion of a scene takes them. “Mark Mylod and I are sitting next to monitors all the time and we’ll know something’s coming up or the operators do it instinctively,” Capone said.  

Some of that instinct flows from the way the show adjusts its process to create long, unbroken takes that are not overly rehearsed in advance. “Succession” is great about creating the energy of a one-take-wonder: Even if it’s choosing to cut between camera angles, visually and emotionally, there’s no relief for the Roys. It’s no surprise that Mylod and Capone repeated their process from Episode 3 of this season, extending the life of a take even though they shoot with film that can only run for about 10 minutes before the reel needs to be changed.

“At one point we pretty much did a 20-minute take, similar to the day that Logan died,” Capone said. “The A camera operator and assistant had two cameras, and as soon as one ran out of the film, they would just pick up another [camera body] and another team would reload it for them. We had five cameras at the funeral but six bodies because we would flip the A camera and keep going.” 

“Succession” also sends clear messages in the way that it sometimes chooses to deviate from its usual visual language. Capone brought five cameras to shoot the funeral sequence and positioned two of them for high and wide shots for the coordinated entrance and exit of the coffin, inspired by actual coverage of funerals of heads of state. “We rolled those in the beginning and at the end of the scene, and then three cameras would roam the rest of the ceremony,” Capone said. 

“Succession”Macall Polay/HBO

Those locked-down shots give the viewer an instinctive sense of the funeral as more than a funeral because nothing with Logan can ever be only about family; it’s always also about power. Capone is particularly proud of the dolly shot that follows Kendall out of the funeral. “We wanted to show that he was holding court almost, and he was ready to accept the reins,” Capone said. 

Even though every Roy sibling gets a moment at the funeral and even though the camera articulates their grief (even Connor’s), the weightedness towards Kendall is noticeable. It’s a kind of special treatment that makes it clear he’s “won” the funeral, although the show also makes it clear it’s at perhaps too high a cost: When you’ve lost Jess (Juliana Canfield), you’ve lost everything.  

But what makes the camerawork on “Succession” so satisfying, as opposed to busy or distracting, is that the cameras simply let the Roy family hang themselves. “From the first word to the last word, we followed [them] from room to room,” Capone said. “We never stop rolling. And that’s liberating for the cast. They can just keep moving and go where they feel they need to be.” 

Alas, where the Roys feel they need to be is never where they actually should be. That is the tension that makes “Succession” so compulsively watchable and why it will feel that no matter who sits in Logan’s chair, nothing will ever change. 

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