An Evening with Shy Genius Jesse Armstrong

Rupert Murdoch and Sumner Redstone both joking that they wanted to live forever is what initially inspired the Succession showrunner.

A few weeks ago, Succession ended its four-season run on television with an impeccably gut-wrenching finale born of the mind of showrunner Jesse Armstrong. The show, loosely based on Rupert Murdoch, his family and their media empire, was—and to an extent, still is—a social media phenomenon.

‘Succession Sunday’ became a weekly global event during which it seemed like the entire internet would congregate to live tweet reactions to whatever harrowing choices the Roy siblings made in that episode. It was prestige TV at its finest, with Armstrong at its heart.

A man in a blazer
Armstrong at the Sir Harry Evans Global Summit in Investigative Journalism in London. Andrew Parsons for Truth Tellers

I recently ran into Armstrong at the inaugural Sir Harry Evans Global Summit in Investigative Journalism in London—a day stacked with major pioneers in journalism imparting their knowledge. Armstrong was a last-minute addition to the program, and attendees flocked to his panel about Succession as a reflection of the current media landscape.

The first thing I noticed about the Succession showrunner was just how well he blends into a crowd. If you didn’t know the man was the brains behind what is arguably the greatest TV show of this generation, you might think he was just another journalist in London for the summit. And in the sense that he is a keen observer of people, I guess he was. It just so happened that he was also one of the panelists.

I found Armstrong chatting with two of my fellow attendees in the back row of the panel room during a break. I approached him in a quiet moment to express my sincere appreciation for the show and to pick his brain about its creation. To my delight, he was very gracious with his time. The best way to describe him might be ‘shy genius’—he struck me as a humble man who takes everyone’s praise in a stride. Also a little awkward but extremely knowledgeable about his craft.

After I gushed about the show, I asked Armstrong—who is currently striking with the Writers Guild of America—whether Shiv Roy (Sarah Snook) and Tom Wambsgans (Matthew Macfadyen) would ever be happy together. He gave me a knowing smile and said he couldn’t answer because that would be a huge spoiler. Keep in mind, we were only about seven episodes into the final season when the summit took place. Now that I know where Shiv and Tom end up, his response makes perfect sense.

What Armstrong would tell me was that while he was very nervous about participating in the panel, listening to the rest of the speakers had been an enlightening experience. Unsurprisingly, his panel was, by all accounts, a massive success. However, one might be forgiven for wondering why exactly a showrunner was an invited speaker at a summit about investigative journalism.

During his panel, Armstrong explained that investigative journalism played a big role in the creation of Succession. He said that reading investigative features and books by Tom Bower was a big part of what led him to want to make a show like Succession. The fact that both Murdoch and Sumner Redstone had joked that they wanted to live forever and therefore not appoint a successor is what initially intrigued Armstrong. He’d already written a screenplay about Murdoch way back in 2010, and getting to read about the inner workings of The Times being bought out by the media mogul helped shape his ideas for the show.

“Seeing what it’s like to be inside getting bought and to be lied to and to have someone who will use untruths straight to other people’s faces… it’s like a superpower,” Armstrong said during the panel. “And to read a very intelligent person’s experience of being somewhat seduced, somewhat bullied, somewhat positioned… there’s a wealth of material you can draw on to tell stories.”

Watching Succession can be like reliving a traumatic event all over again. The election episode from the final season is reminiscent of the Trump vs. Biden election in 2020, and Elon Musk’s failed SpaceX launch was eerily similar to Roman’s (Kieran Culkin) botching of the rocket launch in season one. Armstrong said he doesn’t necessarily try to predict anything, yet he acknowledged that if you throw multiple darts at a board, some of them will eventually hit the mark.

Throughout the panel, Armstrong discussed how Succession was written and offered up behind-the-scenes tidbits about how certain scenes were devised. As the discussion progressed, he seemed to feel, little by little, more at ease.

He spoke about how Logan Roy’s (Brian Cox) now iconic “I love you, but you’re not serious people” came to be—the writers knew this was a very important and pivotal moment between Logan and his four children before his death—and the fact that Jeremy Strong was initially supposed to play Roman. The story goes that Strong was recommended to Armstrong by Adam McKay, who was an executive producer on Succession and directed Strong in The Big Short. However, Culkin’s audition for Roman was so perfect that they had no choice but to cast him, which is how Strong eventually was cast as Kendall Roy.

Watching Armstrong talk about the fake Rupert Murdoch and Waystar RoyCo was so interesting in part because John Poulos, the co-founder and CEO of Dominion Voting Systems was also a panelist at the summit. Poulos spoke about the toll of going against the real Rupert Murdoch and Fox News and winning the biggest defamation suit in media history. To see him discuss the financial and mental strain it caused Dominion and its employees, as well as how Murdoch and Fox used their news brand to wield influence, juxtaposed with Roman Roy’s actions with ATN (Waystar’s news division) in ‘America Decides’ was truly thought-provoking.

After the Summit, I sought out Armstrong at the reception and congratulated him on a successful panel. By this point he had relaxed considerably—still very much the shy genius, but one much more comfortable in his own skin.

I asked him if he’d heard about Vanity Fair’s Murdoch feature, in which the publication revealed there was a clause in Murdoch’s divorce settlement with Jerry Hall that stated she couldn’t give the writers of Succession any ideas. He said he had and thought it was slightly exaggerated in the sense that maybe Murdoch didn’t specifically single out Succession, but chuckled when he read it nonetheless. When I asked him who came up with Tom Wambsgans’ “Buckle up, fucklehead,” he said it was most likely his doing.

Throughout the reception, Armstrong had throngs of people approach him to express their love for the show and their admiration. I watched as he graciously accepted each compliment, listened with rapt attention to each person and responded with incredible insight and humbleness. The Succession showrunner even entertained several video calls with fans who wanted their friends and relatives to have a chance to virtually meet him. Overall, he was very generous with his time and his thoughts.

HBO Succession Season 3
Succession creator Jesse Armstrong may be sticking around HBO, post-writers’ strike. ROBYN BECK/AFP via Getty Images

I didn’t know what I thought Jesse Armstrong would be like as a person. After years of seeing him give interviews and countless Emmy Awards acceptance speeches, actually meeting the creator of one of my favorite shows of all time was surreal. But Armstrong the man—as opposed to the unknowable celebrity Armstrong—was as kind as anyone could hope he would be. I have long admired both him and his work, but in the short time I managed to spend with him, my respect for him has only increased.

Toward the end of the evening, someone in our little group asked Armstrong what was next for him. Instead of talking about projects on the horizon, he took that moment to reiterate that he is currently striking in solidarity with the WGA. While the future of television is uncertain, one thing I can say with absolute certainty is that whatever Armstrong has in store for us, I will definitely be watching.

An Evening with Shy Genius Jesse Armstrong