Succession’s producer, Jesse Armstrong, speaks at the BFI after the show's finaleRaph_PH/Flickr

When the Succession finale aired this May, we said goodbye to a score so great it will go down in television history. Succession chronicles the attempts of the morally bankrupt Roy siblings – Kendall, Shiv, and Roman – to take over their father’s media conglomerate as his health declines. The show focuses on the cyclical tragedy of the siblings, who fail to escape the need for their father’s approval, but watching these incompetent nepo babies scrabble for power is also deeply funny. Mixing orchestral strings and hip-hop beats, Nicholas Britell plays on this incongruity to create a grandiose, subtly discordant musical world that perfectly encapsulates the dysfunctional Roy family.

“Watching these incompetent nepo babies scrabble for power is deeply funny”

Britell was inspired to incorporate hip-hop into his score by the scene where we first meet Kendall Roy, at this point heir apparent and his father’s golden boy, rapping along to Beastie Boys’ ‘An Open Letter to NYC’. While the track initially pumps Kendall up and gives him an air of cool confidence as he prepares for a business meeting, our perspective then shifts to Kendall’s driver; the music cuts out, and we’re left with Kendall’s painful attempts at rap.

Kendall Roy raps along to Beastie BoysYouTube (Nawn Wn)

‘An Open Letter to NYC’ also seems to have inspired a particularly delightful lyric in ‘L to the OG’, Kendall’s fantastically cringe attempt to pay tribute to his emotionally abusive father through rap: “Don’t get it twisted, I’ve been through hell, but since I stan dad I’m alive and well”. At the heart of Succession’s score is the dissonance between the gravitas with which the Roy family would like to be perceived, along with the global impact of their actions, versus the absurdity and incompetence that often defines these emotionally stunted characters.

The uneasy, off-kilter undertones of Succession’s score are most pronounced in a piece from Season Two called ‘Roman’s Beat – Hearts’, wherein Brittell toys with 808s and discordant piano. The piece serves as a theme for Roman, the youngest Roy sibling. Roman is a proto-fascist pervert, but he is also in some ways the emotional heart of the show, the sibling who seems most earnestly to love his father. Perhaps Roman’s theme is so discordant because he doesn’t feel the need to adopt the same mask of grandeur as the other characters. He’s sincere – but he is also sincerely horrible.

“Roman is a proto-fascist pervert, but he is also in some ways the emotional heart of the show”

‘Roman’s Beat’ also soundtracks the “meal fit for a king” scene in the finale, where the siblings conspire to create a concoction of disgusting food from their mother’s fridge, which they then feed/pour over Kendall. This is the last time the siblings come together and it looks, briefly, as though things might end happily. Maybe they will put aside their individual desires for power, letting their guards down to share a newfound trust. Here, the use of ‘Roman’s Beat’ reflects this possibility of emotional sincerity. But when you strip away their delusions of grandeur, the siblings are, as their father says, “not serious people”. By using jangly beats rather than orchestral strings to soundtrack this moment of childish glee, Britell emphasises the immaturity of the siblings and gives this moment a sinister dimension.

'Roman's Beat' also soundtracks the 'meal fit for a king' scene in the finaleYouTube (Noam Osband)

Thus, this version of ‘Roman’s Beat’ also suggests that their happiness won’t last, hinting at Shiv Roy’s impending betrayal, which will cause her brothers to lose the company. When the tinkling piano of Succession’s theme tune breaks abruptly into the sombre strings of ‘It’s Done’, the piece that concludes the show, we know that this is how the story had to end. The mask is back on; the characters are fundamentally incapable of change, and will continue to strive for power.


Mountain View

Gazing with open eyes at Succession

In a show where nobody says what they are really feeling, demanding critical engagement from the audience, the music, too, encourages a closer examination of the storyline. For instance, Britell composed different pieces for the end credits of different episodes, providing an opportunity to reflect on these episodes and recontextualise them emotionally. With a wordless final scene and haunting choral credits number, amid all the power grabs, it is Britell who has the show’s last word, laying bare the grief and honesty that none of the characters could vocalise. And so, to paraphrase Shiv Roy, it’s goodbye to this dear, dear world of a soundtrack.