(This story contains spoilers for Succession season four, episode eight: “America Decides.”)
Is Succession a drama? A comedy? Confusion over the genre of the HBO Emmy-winning juggernaut has been part of its DNA from the very beginning. But in the case of “America Decides,” the answer at least feels clearer: this week Succession is a horror show.
The penultimate episode of the series focuses on election night as America chooses between two very different candidates: Democrat Daniel Jimenez (Elliot Villar in a decidedly different role from his Mr Robot villain Fernando Vera) vs Republican Jeryd Mencken (Justin Kirk, who grew up Succession since debuting in season three, but now making his first on-screen appearance only in the show’s final season). Of course, there’s also Connor Roy (Alan Ruck), whose already distant odds are completely dismissed less than halfway through the episode. (Connor’s mournful admission of his defeat—”Alas, Kentucky. Alas, vanity.”—is immediately recorded as one of the character’s most iconic lines of the entire show.)
The Waystar Royco crew all have different expectations for the election, with Shiv (Sarah Snook) fearing the rise of Mencken’s far-right worldview, while Roman (Kieran Culkin) mocks her concerns with bad faith. For his part, Kendall (Jeremy Strong) is torn between wanting a better future for his frightened children and wanting a better business partner for his own hopeful future as Waystar’s sole CEO – even if it means making a deal with the devilish Mencken.
The Andrij Parekh-directed, Jesse Armstrong-written episode takes place almost entirely in the ATN offices and paints a harrowing picture of how a media organization can distort the reality surrounding the US election process, if not outright manipulate the outcome. When a bunch of presumably Jimenez-leaning votes literally go up in smoke, Roman sees an opportunity to call swing state Wisconsin early for Mencken, all but ensuring his victory as the official ATN story, even without the actual votes to back-up. up to make up the result. Roman supports the move, despite protests from his colleagues and siblings, and even Kendall ends up supporting the piece after asking Shiv to contact the Jimenez campaign for support against Lukas Matsson (Alexander Skarsgård), only for her to fake the phone call and lie about it to crush Mencken’s momentum while preserving her self-interest deal with Matsson. However, Kendall learns the truth, and both he and Roman rebel against their sister, officially calling the election for Mencken.
“We can do business with him,” Kendall reasons softly, as he and an ecstatic Roman watch Mencken’s chilling acceptance speech, in which he promises a “clean” solution to America’s problems. However, as Shiv (not to mention Kendall’s wife, children, and countless fellow Americans) fears, the trouble is just beginning.
With an episode so reminiscent of America’s own recent election, “America Decides” plays out like an existential horror movie, where each character is a slasher killer in his own right, with both the American audience and viewers in the role of their victims. . It is destined to disturb many Succession viewers — no doubt exactly as intended, according to the man who plays Mencken himself.
“Succession often doesn’t necessarily feel like a mirror, but like five minutes from now,” Kirk tells WebMD The Hollywood Reporter. “And it definitely feels that way in this case. Jeryd Mencken is a figure who isn’t necessarily (based on) a specific guy, but he feels like he very well could be.
below, THR speaks more to the official ATN chairman (if not the actual President in the Succession universe, as legal battles will likely go on for months and may extend beyond the scope of the series), about how he brings Mencken to life, how he thinks the man is a true believer in his own hype, and Kirk’s own obstacles in trying to filming the pivotal ‘America Decides’.
This is a one-episode horror movie. It will be hard to land on many who watch it. You were one of the first to experience the story through the script. What were your first reactions?
Well, just because you read the script doesn’t mean you know what’s coming on TV. That can be fun, as long as you let go of all expectations as the actor who was there six months earlier. I just watched it too, because I talked to people like you today. That’s very weird. I was one of about 150 people, I’m guessing, who knew that Logan Roy (Brian Cox) was going to die, and I remember the day of that episode (broadcast), feeling like, ‘I know something about the rest of the world. will panic in a few hours! That was fun.
This? I’m interested in seeing what people think. It seemed… stressful. (laughs) Probably because Tom (Matthew Macfadyen) got scolded for the whole thing.
Yes, that didn’t help.
Not for him, no! But I’m interested in how the rest of the world takes it. Because while I’m looking at it, I’m just trying to catch up and see what they used. I also look at it as an actor, “Okay, I look good there!” But I’m excited for people to see it. I might even watch it again (when it airs).
Do it! You will be one of millions of people who are actively traumatized by your character.
It’s such a crazy phenomenon, what the show has become in that way. It’s so exciting to be a small part of it.
When you joined the cast in season three, how much did you know about Mencken’s role in season four?
Just a suggestion. When they offered the part, it said “may recur” at the bottom of the email. But I thought since the last frame of that episode I was staring at Logan and taking a picture with him, I had a good feeling (to come back). But you never know. So I spent all of the off-season trying to be cool and check in with my agents from time to time. But they don’t tell you much, and they don’t have to, because there are more important things going on (during the making of the show). The first call goes, “Here’s the episode they need you for, they’re going to need you these days,” and then that kind of changes, and you… this is the kind of gig where you’re there for them when they call on you to serve.
What does it look like to stay ready as Jeryd Mencken, the political bogeyman of Succession?
Well, I’m not staying in character! But it’s funny because you’re not the first to use that word, and I think it’s the best (way to describe him). They keep talking about me even when I’m not there. It builds a certain expectation from the audience. But the writing is so good that you are always finished. You come, you put on the clothes, you remember the words they gave you, get to all those great actors… it’s pretty simple.
Jeryd Mencken is anything but simple. It seems like he’s one person behind closed doors with Roman, and then he’s someone else when the cameras roll.
Did you find him different? His speech versus his time with Roman? I hope so. It’s funny because it’s a question I’ve only thought about recently, looking at it, how different they are. The only thing that I think differed between him and actual super-right congressmen is that he’s kind of pointy. At least when we see him asking Shiv if she’s read Plato, or talking to Roman in the bathroom, I think he’ll get to this and consider himself a bit of an intellectual. He doesn’t think of it as, “Well, I’ll say the stupid things for the unwashed masses.” Maybe, because we don’t see him often Successionin terms of being in public.
But I will say, I think he is a true believer. You hear these things about, “Oh, I saw Congressman XY and Z (in public), and it’s all bullshit. They said, ‘Let’s have lunch with Chuck Schumer on Wednesday.’” I’m not saying Mencken wouldn’t have lunch with Chuck Schumer, but I do think he honestly believes, “This is how America should be.”
Something simple. “Clean,” he says.
“Proud and pure.”
Walk me through filming that acceptance speech. Did anything surprise you about what ended up in the final version?
A lot of it ended up on screen, which isn’t always the case. I had just recovered from my very first bout of COVID. I had avoided it for three years. I had decided to go to New York and hang out (before the shoot). I didn’t know what days they would need me but I wanted to go so I don’t just fly the night before at 5am. I’ll go, I’ll see some plays, I’ll hang out with friends, and I’ll be ready for when the job starts. But I keep it cool and eat (outside), I’m very careful, but somehow (COVID) found me, two days before the speech. It was so disturbing. Most of all, I felt like I was letting them down. They were so nice about it. They turned things around. I was positive for nine days and also lost my voice. I’m having a big speech, and I’ve literally lost my voice in a way I’ve never had, and I wasn’t even aware of it because I was left alone and didn’t speak to anyone. And then I called (production), and they answered, and I tried to talk, but nothing came out. I borrowed a friend’s humidifier and ate a lot of Ricolas the day we gave the talk. I had a load of Ricola’s. I believe we were at CNBC headquarters in New Jersey, alone in a room with a scant camera crew, pretending to stand in front of hundreds of Mencken true believers and say crazy things.
Have you researched real figures that Mencken approaches?
I feel like I’m pretty current. I keep following the American world a bit. When the role came up I had a feeling it was going to be fun because I know about it (kind of character). And it was. To me, if you’re a smart actor, the best (parts) are the horrible people. They make you say terrible things and you can jump right in and chew on a good scene. I will say, I watched this episode the day after CNN’s town hall (with Donald Trump) and it was a little disheartening.
Terrifying timing. Not only is this episode so reminiscent of recent election nights, but it also feels like a warning in many ways.
That’s exactly right. Succession often doesn’t feel like a mirror per se, but like five minutes from now. And it certainly feels that way in this case. Jeryd Mencken is a figure who isn’t necessarily (based on) a specific guy, but he feels like he very well could be.
It’s very effective.
It is, it is. And there’s more to come.
Interview edited for length and clarity.