Succession Season 2: Generating an Advanced Series Engine
In this podcast, we’re going to take a look at the Season 2 pilot episode of Succession to learn a little more about engine.
Last year, I did an in-depth podcast on the structure and engine of Succession and how the show is built.
But one thing we haven’t talked about on this podcast is how to build an engine season after season and how the season engines, not just the episode engines, of a really complicated series work.
Looking back on Season 1 of Succession, the engine is quite simple. Engine begins with character and character begins with want.
What do the characters in Succession want more than anything in the world? Every character wants the company, their dad’s love, and a chance to succeed their father.
The father, Logan Roy played by Brian Cox, needs a successor, but he doesn’t want one. Logan thinks he is never going to die and he doesn’t want to let go.
The series is a beautiful mash-up. If King Lear met Rupert Murdoch, that’s Logan Roy. And every character wants to succeed their dad. Some think they can, some think they can’t, but everybody wants this company and Logan Roy doesn’t want to let it go.
That’s the structure of the pilot in Season 1; it’s very simple. You’ve got four children who want the company and none of them deserve it. Kendall Roy is the next in line. He’s the closest thing there is to a golden child and, while he isn’t exactly golden, he’s getting the company.
However, what ends up happening in the pilot is that on the day Kendall is supposed to inherit the company, a very complicated mind game begins between Logan and Kendall. It starts to become clear to both father and son, and all the other children, that a power play is underway and Kendall isn’t getting this company.
This power game drives the whole season. The siblings are played against each other and themselves by their very complicated father as Kendall tries to save the family from Logan, while also trying to solidify his own power. What proceeds from this is a tragedy of Shakespearian proportion.
By the end of Season 1 — and there is a spoiler here — Kendall, who may be the only person who actually loves Logan Roy, has lapsed back into drug addiction because of the pain caused between him and his father which began with that power game.
Kendall tried to take over his father’s company with the help of his father’s worst enemy. He has betrayed everybody in his family and accidentally driven off the road and killed a young man. He finds himself crawling back to his father for protection so he doesn’t get punished for the horrible thing he has done.
So, as Season 2 of Succession begins, we have a problem. How do you restart that engine? How do you get the series moving again when the original story that moved it is gone?
There is absolutely no way, after everything that occurred in Season 1, that Kendall Roy can inherit the company. Because Kendall has already played his hand and tried his best to do everything he can to get the company, because his relationship with his father is so fractured at this point, and because Logan has survived every attempt Kendall used to overthrow him, there’s a feeling of, “Where do you go from here?”
At the top of Season 2, Kendall has basically become a puppet for his dad. In fact, he is physically becoming a puppet. Every single time he’s asked why he changed his mind, because he can’t tell the truth about the young man he killed, he keeps repeating what he was told by his father, “I saw their plan. My dad’s plan is better.”
This is what he says to the competitors, to newspaper interviewers, and to his sister. He cannot tell the truth; he has become a puppet for his father.
The engine of Season 1, the pressure between Kendall and Logan and the question of “Is Kendall going to succeed?”, can no longer drive Season 2. This is a problem for the screenwriters because Kendall is the guy we’ve been watching, the story we’ve been watching. He’s the engine of the series.
When an audience comes to a series like Succession, they’re not coming for a one-time event. They’re coming for a feeling and they want to get the same feeling every time.
With Succession, they’re coming for a complicated feeling. They’re coming for a feeling that makes them both disgusted and sad, that makes them want to laugh and cry, that makes them angry at the 1 percent and also feel bad for the 1 percent, and that makes them wrestle with the political imbalance of power and the control of the media. There are a lot of feelings an audience is coming to Succession to experience.
All that feeling grows out of the simple engine that makes each episode feel the same but also different.
When you exhaust your engine, you’ve got a problem. That’s because once you start Season 2 you’ve got to create that feeling again. You’ve got to create the promise of it so the audience will realize, “Oh, I see how Season 2 can feel like Season 1.” At the same time, it can’t feel exactly like Season 1; it’s got to feel different.
Let’s look at how the writers of Succession reset the engine. In Season 1, the engine was set when Kendall Roy was promised the company. In Season 2, the engine is reset when Shiv Roy is promised the company.
You can see the same thing has happened twice. In Season 1, it’s Kendall. In Season 2, Shiv becomes Kendall. Shiv gets the company and, just as it was for Kendall, it’s the most emotional experience of her life. It’s the one moment where she feels, “Maybe Dad loves me.”
It’s one of the most beautiful scenes in the Succession series so far. Shiv has strong defenses against her father. She’s actually the smartest out of all the kids and she’s been waging her own war against her father by representing the campaign of one of his political enemies.
Shiv has built up a wall against her father to the extent that she’s told herself she doesn’t want the company, that any action Logan takes to make it look like she might get it or that he might sell it is actually just a test, another one of her dad’s complicated mind games.
So when Logan offers her the company, she turns it down. She turns it down multiple times because she knows better, because she knows there’s a game coming. She knows she’s going to get screwed just like Kendall. She knows that everything is a test of loyalty with Logan.
It’s only when he almost tweets he is going to sell the company that she stops him and realizes, or at least believes, that he is serious.
They have this beautiful, touching moment where she asks him, “Why did you never ask me before?” You realize this is the first moment in her life that Shiv Roy has felt loved by her father, appreciated by him, seen by him, and you realize that this is exactly what happened with Kendall.
And just like with Kendall, there’s a catch. There’s something happening in the background. It’s handled in a complicated way because the truth is Shiv is much smarter than Kendall.
In Season 2, it’s Shiv who says, “We can’t tell everybody right away,” and her father agrees saying, “Yes, of course, we can’t.” Instead, they end up around the table and she keeps it secret, even from her husband Tom.
Logan Roy plays along by saying, “We need to name a stuffed shirt as my successor. We don’t have to make a decision right now.”
In fact, he names his long-suffering right arm and CEO, Gerri, as his future successor, pointing out in one breath that she’ll be his future successor but, of course, it won’t really be Gerri.
Something very complicated is happening. On the one hand, Shiv feels like she and her father are pulling off a plan; they’re connected. They’re moving forward and all the other characters, just as they were in Season 1, are chess pieces in their game.
On the other hand, we see the same engine starting again because we know Logan Roy too damn well. We know Shiv isn’t getting that company. We know there’s another game afoot, just like Shiv believes there’s another game afoot.
Now, we may be right or we may be wrong about that because at this point all we’ve seen is the pilot.
But, what happens is the engine gets restarted. The feeling of the children being played begins again behind the idea that Season 1 was about Kendall and Season 2 is about Shiv. You’ve got two people who love their dad and are trying to succeed him, but who are caught up in a game that is over their heads.
How does this apply to your writing?
When you’re working on your own pilot, you need to know you’re building more than just an episode. You’re building a franchise.
A TV franchise or a film franchise works just like a franchise in any other industry. If you’re building a burger franchise, every time people come they want the same feeling. You don’t want to go to Burger King in Missouri and get a completely different feeling than you got at the Burger King in New York.
You don’t want to go to Ruth’s Chris Steak House in Missouri and get a completely different steak than the one at Ruth’s Chris Steak House in New York. You want the same feeling.
The best pilots contain more than just an incredible story, they also contain the engine that a trained eye can see and understand how it could run for five seasons.
Together with your pilot, you’ll develop a piece of material called a “bible.” What that bible will do is confirm a great reader’s suspicion of how this story works and even take it to the next level.
A part of your bible will describe the seasons. You’ll describe what happens in Season 1, Season 2, all the way through Season 5.
You’ll be able to describe it in a simple way that everyone will immediately get, just like in Succession: In Season 1, it’s Kendall; in Season 2, it’s Shiv. In Season 1, it’s set up like this; in Season 2, it’s set up like that. In Season 1, the characters are played against each other like this; in Season 2, they’re played against each other like that.
How do you find that engine? Sometimes finding the engine of a series is the hardest part because it isn’t just about writing the pilot. Sometimes it’s about writing the pilot, then writing Episode 2, then going back and rewriting the pilot, then writing Episode 52, then going back and rewriting the pilot, and then finally putting all those ideas together into a bible that basically holds the secrets of how your series can run forever.
If you’d like to learn more about how to do that, there are a few ways you can do so. In my Write Your Screenplay class, beginning September 12th, you’ll learn the foundations of writing a pilot: how to take your character on a journey, how to build the structure of your scenes and acts, how to write great characters, and how to format for the inner eye.
In our upcoming TV Drama Weekend Intensive on October 26th and 27th, you’ll learn to take that foundation to the next level by focusing on how to build a pilot, a bible, and an engine in the TV drama world.
You can also learn how to do all of this through our ProTrack Mentorship Program, where we pair you, one-on-one, with a professional writer who will mentor you through every draft, the creation of your bible, and every phase of your career.
The important thing to remember, whether you’re writing a TV show like Succession, a bible, or a franchise film, is that engine is related to theme and theme is related to you.
We often think of the engine as a very intellectual idea. The truth is, if your engine is simply intellectual it will make a lot of sense, but nobody is going to buy your series.
The engine actually grows from a wound, a genuine pain in you, maybe from a relationship you can’t resolve. Or sometimes the engine grows from a beautiful part of you that you’re trying to hold onto in the face of a challenging world.
Sometimes the engine can grow out of something you aspire to or where you wish we could be in society, and sometimes it can grow out of a fear of how you might be.
But you must understand that the engine is personal. Engine is simply the commercial way of talking about something much more important, which is called theme.
What we’re doing as writers is really very simple. We’re going inside and finding something in ourselves: something beautiful, something broken, a wound, a fear, a question, something we’re wrestling with, something we don’t understand, a character, a relationship. We’re asking a question of ourselves in the world and we’re using the fiction of our characters to ask that question.
The beautiful thing about writing from this deep a place within ourselves, whether you’re writing a comedy or a drama, is both these engines grow from something that you as a writer are wrestling with. When you write from that place, and what’s really beautiful about that kind of writing, is that it will always lead you to an engine because these are the questions that we can’t fully resolve.
In fact, it’s our inability to fully resolve them, the way we keep wrestling with the same patterns in different ways within ourselves, that will ultimately lend itself to the engine of the series.
The idea I want to leave you with is this: even though we think we’re in the fiction business, the hook business, and the pitching business, we’re not.
As screenwriters or as TV writers, we’re in the truth business.
We’re in the business of taking something true, something we believe, something about ourselves, something we’re wrestling with and wrestling with it through fiction on the page.
In a feature, we’re going to take that truth to a logical conclusion, as far as we can go, through the journey of our characters. We’re going to try to look at it from every angle and we’re going to make our character look at it from every angle. We’re going to take our character to a place of completion, where it feels like they’ve changed in relation to that question, that theme, that place that is beautiful and broken in you that you’re writing from.
However, in a television series we’re instead going to dwell in incompletion. We’re going to dwell in the question, in the way these things both resolve and don’t resolve, change and don’t change, and how, just like the Roy family, we can go through the biggest change possible in Season 1 and still come back to and wrestle with the same patterns in Season 2.
And even though we’re not doing the same thing, even though we’re growing and changing, we’re wrestling with different sides of the same question.
This is how a series is built. It starts with something in you, you put it onto the page, you find the character’s journey, and you figure out what the elements are that the characters will wrestle with each time.
Out of that, you find a way of talking about it that makes sense to producers, a way of verbalizing and structuring the internal theme in an external way that allows your series to run forever.