Before ‘Succession,’ Jesse Armstrong Wrote a Feature Film Script Called The Murdochs. Here’s How It Ends.


Kieran Culkin in Succession.

Kieran Culkin in Succession.Courtesy of Macall Polay for HBO.
Armstrong originally envisioned his HBO series as a much more literal feature film about the Murdoch family. Does that script spoil Succession’s ending?

The fourth season of Jesse Armstrong’s acclaimed HBO family drama Succession has consistently subverted audience expectations. The family patriarch died in the third episode, and the pecking order of his potential heirs seems to shift every week. There’s no road map for guessing how the Roy saga will wrap up… or is there?

Succession reportedly originated as a script called The Murdochs–subtext be damned!–which made the vaunted Black List of Hollywood’s best unproduced screenplays back in 2010. Given the Murdoch family’s tremendous power in the entertainment industry, it’s hardly a shocker that the script never became a feature film. Changing the central family to the fictional Roys now seems like a shrewd career move, even for Armstrong, who at the time had already received widespread acclaim for his work on Armando Iannucci’s In the Loop, culminating in a Best Adapted Screenplay nomination at the 82nd Oscars.

The Murdoch script features three children of Keith Rupert Murdoch, 78, the patriarch of the family (whose first line in the script is the very Logan Roy-esque, “Oh fuck. Shit. Fuck it,”)  There’s Lachlan, 37, a close fit for Kendall, and James, 35, who maps onto Roman. The daughter, Liz, 40, fits the Siobhan archetype, and her particularly crisp banter with husband Matthew Freud is deeply reminiscent of Shiv and Tom. (One key difference is that the eldest child, Prudence, is 46, which makes her meaningfully younger than her gender-swapped television counterpart, Connor.)

The drama in the film—which would roughly clock in around two hours—starts when Keith, who appears in the script as “KRM,” announces his intention to give his two younger children, both under 10, board votes when they come of age. Lachlan, James, and Liz are stunned, and the already tenuous family dynamic begins to fracture when the three kids push back.

After attempting to manipulate each kid into voting yes, the end of the script sees the children presenting a united front against their father in a moment reminiscent of Succession’s Season 3 finale. In a tense conversation, Lachlan asks his father why he devoted his life to building this media empire. To which his father responds, “Keeps me alive. A few more deals I reckon I can go to 120.”

With the children refusing to acquiesce to his wishes, Keith tries one final tactic: he tells them he’s dying. After a moment of shock and raw emotion, the Roman-proxy asks, “Are you serious?” and the kids begin to express doubt, demanding proof that Keith refuses to provide.

“Look,  I’m sorry and this is a weird day, and Dad we’re going to beat this, and we’re going to get through this, and we all love you, Dad, but before I sign anything, can you get your Doc on speaker phone?” James asks.

“No. I’m your fucking dad and I’m telling you I’m dying,” Keith says resolutely, a moment you can practically hear in Brian Cox’s booming voice. The final direction in the script leaves the character’s health an open question, a clever move for a film that probably wouldn’t work as well in a television series.

Obviously, Logan Roy’s death this season suggests Armstrong has since blown past his original ending  for The Murdochs, meaning we’re in uncharted territory now.

Given this massive change, it’s tricky to try to glean too much about Succession’s conclusion from The Murdochs. The film script ends with the children united, which is a far cry from the Roys at the conclusion of Season 4’s ninth episode,. Then again, the finale is reported to be an hour-and-a-half–basically movie-length–and as The Murdochs proves, a whole lot can happen in that amount of time. Maybe some other family event will unify the Roy kids, much like they were at the start of the season. Or maybe we’re  headed for a darker ending, in which one of the three potential successors (sorry, Connor) ends up fully transforming into the new Logan, cold heart and all. One thing is for certain: as fun a read as Armstrong’s script for The Murdochs is, his series has been a much richer, more rewarding experience. 

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