Hereditary Venom: On Nicholas Britell’s “Succession: Season 4” Soundtrack
By Ali RoyalsJuly 2, 2023
IN JESSE ARMSTRONG’S revered and recently concluded Succession, love is weighed down with heavy qualifiers. “I love you,” series patriarch Logan Roy tells his children in what will prove to be his final conversation with them, “but you are not … serious people.” “I love you …” Kendall will tell his father one episode later, as he lies dying on the floor of a private plane—but “I don’t know … I can’t, I can’t forgive you.” “I love you. I really … I love you,” Kendall’s sister, Shiv, tells him before obliterating his chances of succeeding their father, in a shocking boardroom betrayal. “But I cannot fucking stomach you.”
In the world of the business elite, love exists, yes—but it comes with a superscripted dagger, poised and waiting to sink itself into the flesh of those loved ones’ backs. This idea of emotional duality is at the heart of the show: corporate action is animated by personal agendas; intimate relationships implode due to shareholder unease. All good dramatic writing has its text, and then its subtext—but Succession’s silver-spoon, sharp-tongued principal characters are distinct in their commitment to using communication as a deliberate smoke screen.
Despite a capacity for vicious insults and hyperarticulation, Armstrong and his actors also force the audience to extrapolate multidimensional meaning from a litany of uhhs, umms, and okays. Characters code-switch between distorted honesty and intentional deceit, circling around truth but never quite arriving at it. It’s fitting, then, that the show’s most reliable narrator is one who never appears on-screen, one who never manipulates, postures, or double-crosses—one who remains wordless, voiceless until the very end: Nicholas Britell’s soundtrack.
Since Succession’s debut in the late spring of 2018, Britell’s score has made this deception and doublespeak navigable, guiding the audience through the Roy children’s gilded cages. Britell deftly captures the emotional dissonance at the heart of the show. His score’s dual capacity for harmony and dissonant chords underlines the nuanced nature of so many interactions, as affection is clouded by trauma, jealousy, and anger. Gorgeous allegrettos pierce ugly conference rooms, power ballads buoy bumbling nepo hires, orchestral rap songs boom (and bomb) in ballrooms. The score rejects the Roy family’s perception of itself, but not the emotional stakes of its infighting. It doesn’t seek to bolster their egos or inflate their senses of power or control, like so many characters close to them scramble to do. Instead, the score speaks the language of the audience, communicates to us the dramatic irony of the singular truth the Roys won’t be able to stomach until the show’s final moments: they’re nothing more than beautiful, beautiful bullshit.
In the fourth and final season, the loss of Logan knocks the Roy siblings out of orbit and scatters them to the edges of their observable universe. Britell’s 25-song original soundtrack covers seismic emotional cues and narrative shifts: A death. An election. A funeral. A barrage of hastily brokered alliances and betrayals. It’s edgier, more experimental than the scores of seasons past, featuring somber synths, barbaric violins, and a choral reimagining of the title track that will leave you staring at your own weepy reflection in the glossy black of your TV screen.
Through all four seasons, the members of the Roy family find themselves trapped in cycles—concentric circles of emotional warfare and self-motivated action. Unremorseful and unchanging, the Roy children are destined to retrace their tragic arcs—in macro and micro—until the story’s end. The score that accompanies their cyclical defeats reinforces the central concept that, in this world, no one—and nothing—ever really changes, with each piece in the soundtrack as a variation of the unskippable title track.
“Succession (Main Title Theme)” is woven into the tapestry of every episode. It’s the background noise to corporate deviance, impending divorce, sudden death—as well as double-crossings, dealmaking, dealbreaking. In “We Gave It a Go,” the theme is made bleak, broken down to a desolate, depressive piano piece as we watch the fabric of Tom and Shiv’s already-worn relationship tear even further. “Action That” stretches out the melody with ominous, swelling violins, suddenly pivoting into a troublesome, triumphant moment of darkness plagued with staccato strings and inquisitive woodwinds. “Arrival at Waystar” plays out the title melody on strings—this time hopefully—only for the last 15 seconds to be filled with foreboding silence.
In the way that each narrative arc receives its own tailored score, each Roy sibling is prescribed his or her own sonic treatment. Scenes focusing on Kendall, our resident king of cringe, are typically underscored with 808s-driven hip-hop beats, percussive and confident, like you can feel the bass buzzing in the backseat of his driver Fikret’s Lincoln, or the grainy static seeping through the billionaire’s comically oversized headphones: devious and delicious. Pulling through the same bass kick that begins the main theme, “Welcome Home” undercuts Kendall’s overconfidence with uncertainty. Over a jaunty beat (something Squiggle would’ve surely cooked up for him), Britell’s left hand plays out a piano accompaniment that seems to say, I got this shit, while his right-handed melody keeps the beat with dissonant self-doubt, as if to ask, Are you sure, bro?
“On the Lot,” the variation that plays as we see Roman Roy chauffeured through Los Angeles’s Waystar Studios lot on the back of a golf cart, is at once self-important and snide, opening with a flurry of arrogant violin strokes before trailing off into a lazing lilt so pretentious you can almost see the violin smirking. It’s so intrinsically Roman, whose lackadaisical cruelty traipses like a listless afterthought as he saunters through boardrooms, newsrooms, and life itself sans consequence. The melody mirrors the exact conversation Roman is about to have with Waystar studio exec Joy: “I could just fire you […] I’m not saying I am. I’m just saying I could … although maybe I should. Oh, no. Oh, no, I said it, and now I feel like I gotta commit.” The piece ends with a virtuosic pomp like a sassily slammed door—but forces the viewer to reflect for 40 seconds of ambient almost-silence. It slaps harder than Logan backhanding Roman just one season prior.
“Succession - Andante Risoluto” tells Shiv’s story. This variation on the title theme is more reserved, accented by mezzo mouse clicks and soft strokes of the timpani. It sounds not unlike Shiv vying for her place in the company, trying to imitate the language and action of the businessmen around her, but speaking merely in hollow industry platitudes. She’s on the outside—devoid of power but yearning for it—until her anger flickers, the beat switches, and a corporate crescendo of violins signifies her change of heart that marks her the melancholy quasi-victor. (The C-minor version of the andante plays after Shiv’s fight with Tom in “Tailgate Party.” It’s only fitting that it plays here, in a higher key, at the icy nonresolution of their story: a detente marked by nominal power and the facade of control.)
Scores from earlier episodes are peppered through the final ones, interpolated into different keys, or slowed to different tempos. “Pirates,” which girded Logan’s final rallying cry at ATN, packs an emotional punch when it returns in the finale, soundtracking Shiv’s scathing reaction to finding out her own husband has been named American CEO in her place—a bit of hereditary venom.
There is beauty, too, in Britell’s restraint. On “Phone Call,” an eerily ambient piece that plays out as Kendall and Roman learn of their father’s rapid demise, a single violin note stretches out, mimicking a ringing in the ears as the layered texture of other violins pile on, a rising panic piqued by plucked strings. It creates an almost unreality: a rush of blood to the head, the sonic texture like a slow-rumbling swell of panic, of disbelief. It’s rough-edged and shaky, disorienting, adrift. It sounds the least of all pieces like the instantly discernible title track.
In the same way that we are left to make the decision as to whether Logan crossed out or underlined Kendall’s name in his cryptic one-pager of a will, the beauty of Britell’s soundtrack lies in its ability to underscore the characters’ emotions without overexplaining them to the audience. Succession’s score has no stake in the game. It makes no play for power—it functions simply as an extension of the emotions of the characters themselves—working in tandem with the intense undercurrents that ripple beneath the stoic faces of the cast, never needing lyrics to prescribe our own understanding.
In the show’s final moments, a wobbly bell tolls as Kendall—now the Icarus of industry—wordlessly stumbles out of the boardroom with nothing and no one left in his life. He enters the elevator with a random employee, pressing 0 to descend to an unfathomable reality—number one boy no more. With each stunned step he takes towards the sunset in Battery Park, his bodyguard trailing him like the ghost of his father, the radiant gist of Kendall’s loss is too powerful for words to name. The score fills us with more emotion than any piece of scriptwriting ever could, conducting our heartstrings with a tragic sense of finality toward what we must heartbreakingly, reluctantly accept: it’s so, so over. Kendall, for whom water symbolizes his proximity to power, looks out upon the Hudson River, physically separated from the waves by metal barricades as a final violin crescendo crashes to an abrupt halt.
We’re sent off to bed, slack-jawed, by the transcendent farewell of “With Open Eyes.” It’s one of the rare times we’ve heard human voices on any season’s soundtrack—and this time, it’s not the feelings of the characters that Britell is scoring but the feelings of the audience itself as we bask in the tragedy of the story’s end. The screen fades to black; the final chapter closes. It’s just us and the final piece playing out like a funeral procession. The voices sing the notes of the main theme, a haunting rendition that allows viewers a moment of contemplation, of catharsis, of finality. The chorus functions as a human reminder that we, the audience, along with this character of corporate chamber music, are the only ones in the show who see the Roy siblings for what they truly are: lonely, broken children scraping for an ounce of pure love—but, ultimately, for whom love is nothing more than a chink in their armor.
Ali Royals loves true stories, hates writing in the third person, and is a poet, nonfiction essayist, and time-capsulist from Baltimore. Her column, The Subway Surf Report, is published monthly on Byline.
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