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By Kevin Nelson · January 5, 2022
Screenwriters can learn a lot by diving into their favorite screenplays and taking notes. They can recognize patterns, formulas, and conventions that can help improve their own work. The season one finale of Succession, entitled “Nobody is Ever Missing”, is a masterclass in the craft of screenwriting.
It’s not easy to deliver an action-packed hour of television without a single explosion outside of fireworks. The overall series is an ode to the art of gaslighting, where falsehoods are hidden under a veil of faux sincerity so that you never really know where someone stands on an issue until the dominos land. Manipulation, power dynamics, lies. These are the weapons the Roy family uses to hurt each other. In this episode, shots are fired.
Showrunner Jesse Armstrong creates tension and releases it like the setup and delivery of one of his character’s mean-spirited jokes. The episode is centered around Shiv and Tom’s wedding reception in strict adherence to Murphy’s Law. If something can go wrong, it will.
With so many characters in one place and so many different story strings weaving in and out of the narrative — it’s easy for the script to feel chaotic but it’s crafted that way. While his characters might lose agency over their situations, Armstrong remains in complete control.
Let’s take a deeper look at the script to find ways to construct our own Shakespearean masterpieces.
But before we do, make sure to download the script and follow along!Download the script
The episode follows the sequence of events that take place at a typical wedding reception. Certain milestones occur at these events. There’s the group photos, cocktail hour, entrances, speeches, dancing, a grand fireworks display — the typical stuff.
This is the basic template that showrunner Jesse Armstrong is working with. Like all story structure templates, it’s how you fill in the gaps that matter. There’s no new story under the sun, which must be why mining intellectual property is more valuable than Bitcoin.
Wedding episodes have been done dozens of times before. So what makes this wedding reception feel fresh and unlike any that came before it?
Just fill in the blanks with a hostile takeover, rocket explosion, a love triangle involving the bride and groom, a dead caterer — you know… typical stuff.
The main draw of Succession is the conflict in power dynamics between family members. When they come together, they create friction. Put them in tight spaces and the awkwardness intensifies. Put them before a crowd that they can’t react in front of and you’re able to stretch out the moment and really build the tension. A lot of this is centered around the words they use as much as the words they don’t. Empty words are often used only to get what they want. They carry no real weight or meaning.
The space of the season, and thus this episode, is filled with the art of war where the only weapons used are their words.
A great resource on movie weddings is the Script Notes Episode 480 – The Wedding Episode with special guest Aline Brosh McKenna.
Sure, family drama is almost a given at most weddings. Stories about the strenuous ties and lies between family members will always be ripe for audiences to devour. The family drama of Succession pushes those relationships to the extremes.
What we’re presented with in this episode is a Shakespearean tragedy that finds a son starting a war (albeit in business) against his father. They use military strategy in order to try and gain the upper hand against each other. Of course, that’s just the baseline.
Kendall drops the proposal on Logan right before his daughter’s wedding — catching Logan literally with his pants down. Having his father in a vulnerable position and caught unaware, Kendall is able to work up enough courage to confront his father with a hostile takeover. Surprisingly, he’s able to pull the trigger on his own father. This is similar to a guerilla raid in the dead of the night.
Logan’s defense is to withstand the attack, absorb the information, and survive. He places the envelope down and it absorbs water. A minor detail with multiple meanings. After the barrage of information, Logan then returns a defense. The moment Logan speaks, Kendall is reeling back from the force — reduced to stuttering and fumbling his words — a tell-tale sign of his son’s weakness. Kendall retreats and Logan scrambles to assemble his forces.
Showing signs of faintness, Logan may be close to another possible stroke just as guests are arriving for the wedding. That would bookend the season and play into the audience’s expectations. There’s a continual escalation throughout. The tension gets tighter, the stakes get higher, and we know that Logan is vulnerable to strokes.
The second time they meet on the battlefield, Logan has regained his footing. It’s more of a warning shot because they’re meeting in public during the cocktail hour. Instead of the bride or groom making their grand entrances, we only see Logan enter the party. Much like when generals meet under a peace banner and discuss the terms while their warriors watch on.
Logan goes full offensive in front of Kendall’s siblings the third time they face each other in battle. Kendall retreats again without much fight and self sabotages himself by chasing his addiction.
The fourth time they meet is the button to seal the season — the tables have turned and now Logan is the one on the offensive. He gives Kendall the chance to surrender or be annihilated.
He offers his son a literal“bear hug” by opening his arms.
“Kendall has an urge to get that embrace that is so rarely offered…”
It’s a Shakespearean tragedy wrought with satire. The beginning of the episode is nearly the mirror opposite by the end. All told within the timeline of a reception party.
If you’ve ever been to or planned a wedding, the most crucial part is the location. After all, this is the venue where the war will be waged.
The castle serves as the venue, chessboard, and battlefield of the night’s events. The various rooms have their own function and set pieces. After the group photos, Kendall scrambles to print a letter and takes off across the grounds of the castle. We get a lay of the land through his point of view.
This scene is written like a one-take scene that requires tracking or a Steadicam. If you want to study how to write a long tracking shot, read from the top of page 9. You get a page and a half of Kendall working his way from his war room to Logan’s room. He passes through the interior and eavesdrops on a couple of conversations before ducking outside. This sets the stage for his fateful encounter with Doddy in this same place later that evening.
Just like the scene in The Shining where Dick Hallorann gives the family a tour of the hotel and he covers all the important places where the action will go down later. The same is true in this sequence. It’s a great example of how to write a long single take scene that establishes and foreshadows events to come.
When you have a bunch of characters occupying the same space, you can use their proximity to transition from one point of view to the next, accessing different conversations happening within earshot. Armstrong accomplishes this by blocking the characters like a play. He uses space within the location to signify shifting power dynamics and hidden agendas.
We always enter a scene from a certain character’s point of view. That character will often interact with one or two other members. Then, the dialogue is passed off to another member, usually through proximity. A mental map of the location allows writers to block the characters like a play. The character who gets the baton last carries the action into the next sequence.
For instance, when Gerri confronts Roman about the rocket explosion on page 19, Roman carries the narrative into the next speech as the first to give his speech as best man.
Another example of this occurring within the scene is when Tom confronts Nate and tells him to leave. This scene starts with Nate, Connor, and Willa talking. The focus of the conversation goes private between Tom and Nate when Tom directly threatens him with violence, then transfers back to Connor and Willa’s conversation.
Succession is loaded with layers of meaning behind every line of dialogue or action. Its premise is built on the insincerity of family members that often mean or do the opposite of what they say. Where veiled threats or serious discussions can only be delivered as jokes. Being stabbed in the back doesn’t hurt so much if it’s delivered with humor, right?
The allegory of the rich and fabulous using glamour to mask their rotting core is the central theme of every scene. There’s a duality throughout, like the wedding itself. It’s a sham used for political and business purposes. As fireworks go off and the crowd is enamored, Kendall returns after a caterer lies dead in a river deep in the shadows of the night.
The dialogue holds the most weight when it comes to deeper meanings. Every line is layered and could hold multiple meanings. A great example to look at is on page 63 after Kendall returns from the accident. Caroline speaks with him about the hostile takeover but she could easily be talking about the accident as well. It stirs the emotions of the audience.
Another heavy scene is when Shiv and Tom are talking after the reception and she tells him that she wants an open marriage. She does so with ruthless nonchalance.
“Love, it’s—it’s bullshit. But — I do love you.”
“I love you too.”
Their words are simply bandaids for issues that require major surgery.
The best use of duality in this episode is the idea of the bear hug. It’s a term used in business that means a hostile takeover of a company.
In the first act, when Kendall presents a bear hug, or hostile takeover, to his dad, it’s almost as though his father has no choice but to surrender. He’s caught unaware and throws up his defenses.
In the final scene, Logan opens his arms for a big bear hug after presenting Kendall with his options. Essentially, the father is performing a hostile takeover of Kendall’s life/free will.
Being super-rich, the only problems the Roys really have are those that they bring on themselves. Each family member’s own ineptitude and incompetency is the root cause of their problems. The rocket explodes because Roman demands they push up the launch date to coincide with Shiv’s wedding. Kendall drops his key card by the scene of the accident.
The allegory of the rich and fabulous masking the rotting core permeates from every scene. Each family member needs to find a way to wiggle their way out of taking responsibility for their own mistakes — often at the detriment of the others.
Armstrong writes in a way that lends itself to the reader’s imagination. Sometimes he uses suggestive language to give readers the illusion of an option when he ultimately directs them where they need to go. Take a look at this passage, right after Kendall gave Logan the envelope with papers on the hostile takeover.
“He puts the letter down. Maybe somewhere slightly damp and the envelope starts to absorb water.”
Other times, he leads the readers with questions like when Logan comes down and confronts Kendall for the first time in front of everybody.
“What’s he going to do, what’s he going to say?”
This writing style makes it fun for the reader. It activates their minds and causes them to engage. Breaking the fourth wall like this livens things up. Don’t worry about rules you’ve read somewhere. If it feels right and looks clean, your reader will thank you for making the read entertaining.
Succession is one of those series that no matter how many times you read or watch it, you’ll come away with something new. There are so many different dynamics and cues to pick up on, you’ll never bore from it. That’s something to strive for with your own work. Create something so layered that readers can always go back and appreciate it a little more each time. Succession is the perfect model to learn that from.