Although every episode of “Succession’s” fourth, final season felt monumental, “America Decides” took the Roy media moguls’ issues to a level of national, even world-changing, consequence.

Set during the night of a presidential election, primarily in the studio of their Fox News-like American Television Network, “America Decides” saw Kendall (Jeremy Strong), Shiv (Sarah Snook) and Roman Roy (Kieran Culkin) filter the decision of whom to declare the winner through their sibling, professional and personal conflicts. The episode was fast-moving and packed with sophisticated information and imagery. Showrunner Jesse Armstrong depended on director Andrij Parekh, picture editor Jane Rizzo and production designer Stephen H. Carter’s team to keep it flowing coherently.

They did, and have all earned Emmy nominations for their pulse-heightening work. It was twice the usual job.

“There’s a whole episode inside of the episode,” Parekh says on a call from London, where he’s directing an episode of another HBO family-and-politics series, “House of the Dragon.” “We ended up shooting a whole night of political material for two or three networks that all play in the background of what’s happening within the drama.

“There’s so much information that we’re delivering,” adds Parekh, who was cinematographer on “Succession’s” first three episodes and won a directing Emmy for its second season entry “Hunting.” “We wanted to give it that exciting newsroom feel. We have a 5 p.m. to 1 a.m. timeline, so things just have to move fast. It’s helped by the camerawork — I would say I have a pretty good grasp of the style, the documentary vérité feeling of it — and knowing that there’s a stopwatch on the night. That gives you the energy and excitement, and kind of the terror when things go the other way.”

Anxiety unfolds over everything from glitches with ATN’s election map touch-screens to a mysterious fire at a Wisconsin ballot-counting center that calls the swing state’s contest-winning tally into question. Much of the tension takes place on or near the network’s vast newsroom. A set that size couldn’t be built on the show’s New York soundstages. Carter, nominated with art director Molly Mikula and set decorator George DeTitta Jr., turned to CNBC’s studio in Englewood Cliffs, N.J., which they repeatedly re-dressed as the fictional news outlet’s headquarters.

Sarah Snook as Shiv Roy sits at a conference table beneath television screens while talking on the phone.

Sarah Snook as Shiv Roy contributes to the anxiety of election night, where much of the tension takes place on or near ATN’s vast newsroom.

(Macall Polay/HBO)

“Before I came to ‘Succession,’ I worked on NBC’s Olympics sets,” says Carter, who’s designed every episode of the HBO series except its pilot. “I realized there’s an enormous amount of technological infrastructure that has to go into a modern television studio environment. The trickiest thing was to find a space that already existed that we could elaborate on and brand with our own ATN graphics, that wasn’t constantly in use for whatever network owned it.”

CNBC was available for dry runs on Saturdays. ATN graphics were fed to all the computer screens on its sprawling newsroom floor. Since the anchor desks had too much complex cabling to be replaced, extension fascia with the fictional channel’s logos were positioned in front of them. Veterans of real networks’ election night coverage were consulted for everything from on-air chyrons to what could go wrong with news breaking so fast.

When reports aren’t the focus of the narrative, they’re usually playing on screens or heard in the background. That made Rizzo’s job extra challenging.

“From a technical perspective, this was the hardest of the episodes I’ve cut,” says the Italian-born editor, who’s done nine “Succession” episodes, including this season’s complex “Living+” entry. “There’s all of the TVs and audio going on in the background, and making sure you kept the momentum and the tension going, making it feel like a real election.”

A man in a suit walks away from a busy office in "Succession."

Jeremy Strong plays a frazzled Kendall Roy on election night. The “Succession” production turned to CNBC’s studio in Englewood Cliffs, N.J., to stand in for the show’s ATN news outlet’s headquarters.

(Macall Polay/HBO)

Rizzo also had to slow the episode’s forward motion at times, most memorably with intimate scenes of Shiv confronting her untrustworthy husband and ATN boss Tom Wambsgans (Matthew Macfadyen) and doofus cousin Greg (Nicholas Braun), or assuring a conflicted Kendall that their ruthless, just-deceased father’s “poison” hasn’t dripped through to his soul.

“The choices I make are dictated by performance, ultimately, not necessarily the camerawork,” Rizzo says of a show famous for both its excellent acting and prowling, zoom-happy lensing. “But because the style of the show is this moving camera, if there’s a great performance and a moving camera, I’m definitely going to go with that take.”

The cast had a lot to work with. Shiv is secretly aiding Swedish tech mogul Lukas Matsson’s (Alexander Skarsgård) effort to buy ATN’s parent company Waystar, while her brothers plot to maintain the family’s ownership following their father Logan’s (Brian Cox) death. Crypto-fascist candidate Jeryd Mencken promises Roman he’ll block the sale if ATN helps him win election night. Liberal Shiv backs Democrat Daniel Jiménez, and both try to convince wavering Kendall that ATN should spin the inconclusive results in their guy’s favor.

Lies, revelations and significant plot pivots occur in and out of glass-walled conference rooms.

”There’s a lot of glass in newsrooms, so people are always able to see but not always able to hear,” Parekh says of “America Decide’s” repeated motif. “That made this episode really interesting. There’s that conference room where Shiv’s watching Kendall make a phone call, then speak to Greg and [her link to Matsson is] completely exposed. At the same time she can’t act like she’s exposed, because she may not be 100% correct on what she’s assuming they know. That really added to the tension of that scene.”

Comedy comes out in an equally charged way when Tom and Roman are pressuring the network’s sole responsible journalist, Darwin Perry (Adam Godley), into calling Wisconsin for Mencken. As Darwin opens his laptop to write some caveats he could mention, his hand brushes a tray of bodega sushi that Greg’s beside him eating. Seconds later, Darwin’s screaming with wasabi in his eyes, which Greg tries to alleviate with a can of La Croix water that contains “just a hint” of lemon.

A man in rolled-up shirt sleeves sits in front of a TV screen showing a newscaster.

In the episode, Tom and Roman pressure ATN’s sole responsible journalist, Darwin Perry (played by Adam Godley), into calling the race for their preferred presidential candidate before all results are in.

(Macall Polay/HBO)

“What ‘Succession’ does so well is ride this tightrope between comedy and tragedy,” Parekh says. “For me, the rule has always been if I was laughing at the monitor, it’s gone too far. It’s always balancing tone, and what made this work was making it feel real and possible. It could happen in the way that it’s subtly planted and then, I hope not too over the top, acting- and camera-wise.”

When it came to the overall tone of “America Decides,” though, things were kept as serious as the fate of democracy.

“We shot the pilot during the 2016 election,” Parekh recalls. “In that and subsequent elections, we’ve seen how not only media influences politics but politics influences media. What ‘Succession’ has done brilliantly is expose that relationship, brought to light this quid pro quo of one helping the other. I was there with [series producer] Adam McKay and Jesse on election night in 2016, so it was really just digging back to the memory and feeling of that. I tried to infuse this episode with all of the emotions that I and probably a lot of other people felt that night.”


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *