It probably goes without saying that Succession was and is a hit. People tune in each week to keep up with the Roys, relishing in their highs and lows in equal measure. In an era where audiences are demanding increasingly moralized stories, it feels like a specific victory that a show about the inner lives of an unfathomably wealthy family of snippy sycophants has been so widely embraced. Before Succession comes to its series finale with the last episode of season 4, it’s worth looking past this HBO original to explore exactly how its producers, more notably series creator Jesse Armstrong, refined this approach to exploring the inner thoughts of unpleasant people.
Before Jesse Armstrong was the superstar showrunner of Succession, there was Peep Show. Co-created by Armstrong and writing partner Sam Bain, the British sitcom follows Mark (David Mitchell) and Jeremy who goes by “Jez” (Robert Webb), a pair of London flatmates who each longed for more in life while quietly resenting the other. Whereas Succession follows the Roy siblings; Kendall (Jeremy Strong), Shiv (Sarah Snook), Roman (Kieran Culkin), Connor (Alan Ruck), and a colorful cast of adjacent weirdos as they vie for control of the Waystar Royco media empire in the shadow of titanic CEO Logan (Brian Cox), Peep Show is about a much more vague ambition with its characters feeling a general sense that they deserve to be better off than they are.
Peep Show makes use of a somewhat unconventional filmmaking approach; as the title suggests, every shot in the series is from the point of view of another character, with the audience privy to Mark and Jez’s near-constant internal monologues. Although this is largely used for comedy, it also informs the perspective of the series – these characters, while themselves antisocial and unsuccessful are also phenomenally judgemental. Peep Show is grounded in a snarkiness that would have you believe these characters have achieved any modicum of success themselves. This voice is also present in Succession, the difference being that those characters have the social station that they don’t need to leave these things unsaid. Their ludicrous capacity for cruelty is left out in the open. Still, both of these shows are powered by the same central irony: these characters with limited ability to change are constantly demanding it from others.
“I’m Not Sick, But I’m Not Well”
Within Peep Show, that manifests as a familiar formula: Mark or Jez identify a route to personal or professional success, pursue it while refusing to carry out any introspection, and after a spectacular embarrassment, end up exactly where they started but a bit older and a bit sadder. This might seem like your regular sitcom format, but Peep Show carves out its own identity in the contrast between its ridiculous peaks and the crushing mundanity surrounding them. This is how the series squares scenes of Jeremy eating a romantic interest’s dog with bickering about corner yogurts. At its core, it’s a show that explores the idea that people are who they are forever, and that selfish people will feel no incentive to improve themselves as long as there is at least one person they can believe is below them.
In Peep Show‘s 9th and final season, this overarching theme is made most clear. The last episode features Jez’s 40th birthday party and Mark’s latest attempt to find a partner. After climaxing with the collapse of Jez’s love life, we are left alone with Mark and Jez one last time. As the pair silently reflect on their friendship, our perspective changes again and for the first time in the show’s lifespan, we are presented with a view of these characters that does not belong to anyone else. The final image before the credits roll is the two men sitting in their living room watching rubbish TV as if the past 12 years had not happened save for the age on their faces. It’s a dour ending built on two seemingly contradictory facts – this story could go on forever, and this story has gone nowhere.
From the very beginning, Jesse Armstrong promised an ending with Succession, even in its title. The question of who will lead the company upon Logan Roy’s death has hung over every backstab, every deal, and every failed coup. The show’s conceit is that this will all make sense once we know how the world is changing. The announcement that the HBO original’s fourth season would be its last brought this question back to the forefront as it settled in that the decisions made in these last 10 episodes would decide the story’s final status quo. Where Succession had previously been able to stabilize after its biggest moments, the ground itself was now set to fall away.
“He’s Just Moseying. Terrifyingly Moseying”
However, when looking at the rhythms Succession has settled into, there is a lot to learn from how Peep Show ended. Like Peep Show, Succession is not a story about broken people realizing their flaws and becoming better, it’s about flawed people hoping that things will finally change around them. When episode 3 presents them with the biggest change imaginable in the death of family patriarch Logan Roy, the hope is that they have no choice but to change, and at least for the length of that episode, they do. The siblings are united not by spite, but by real human grief.
Tragically, that lasts all of a day until a barely legible sign from Logan suggests Kendall was his chosen heir, and all of a sudden he’s back in season 1, vying for the favor of a man who is no longer around to provide it. This is the tragedy that Jesse Armstrong has carved in Succession, that the specter of father Logan and a world that insulates its characters from real loss have trapped the Roy siblings in a life of paralyzing aspiration. The shock announcement that the HBO original series was ending was accompanied by a number of responses from the cast who all seemed to think things could go on longer, and while that might seem impossible given recent developments, it does hit on something the show has otherwise stepped around: the game won’t end.
It should be noted that Peep Show is not Jesse Armstrong’s only other television program. As well as his contributions to Armando Iannucci’s series Veep, The Thick of It, and a plethora of other credits including My Parents are Aliens and the sketch show That Mitchell and Webb Look, Armstrong and Sam Bain also created the Channel 4 sitcom Fresh Meat. It’s a more traditional sitcom, following a mismatched group of university flatmates across the course of their undergraduate degree.
Given that natural endpoint and the upheaval it promises, Fresh Meat tells a narrative that feels less like it’s trapped in the stasis of Peep Show and Succession, but it’s worth acknowledging that within that narrative, the highest level of aspiration, embodied largely by wealthy JP (Jack Whitehall), is the freedom to not have to grow up and move forwards. Before JP is cut off from his family’s money, he even buys the house where the show’s main cast lives in a slightly desperate hope to prolong that period of his life forever. Ironically, it’s only accepting the reality of your lot in life that allows these characters to have the self-awareness to change it.
The point of this piece is not to guess how Jesse Armstrong decided to end Succession and I don’t have a lot of interest in planting my flag in one of 5 obvious conclusions. However, the continued debate over how Succession is going to end leads to something important about how Jesse Armstrong and his writers have sold us on these characters. Now that we know the final curtain is only days away there is an expectation that the finality they’ve been denied for so long is just around the corner, but as the final episodes settle into the same status quo as the HBO drama’s second episode ever, it’s hard to imagine what that even looks like.
So, how will it end? Where is this all going? If Jesse Armstrong’s previous work can suggest anything, it’s that these characters are going to play the game for the rest of their lives, burdened with just enough self-awareness to know that they’re trapped, and not enough to ever see a way out.