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‘Succession’ Recap: What Happened in the Election, Mencken’s Speech

SPOILER ALERT: This article contains spoilers for Season 4, Episode 8 of “Succession,” now streaming on HBO Max.

It’s Roman Roy’s world, and we’re all just living in it.

Sunday’s hopefully-not-prescient episode of “Succession” pulls back the curtain on how, democracy be damned, a national election can ultimately be swayed by a few people who hold enormous wealth and power.

Such is the case with Jeryd Mencken, Justin Kirk’s slippery Republican presidential candidate who flirts with fascism and makes a not-so-subtle deal with Roman. (Kendall tried to accomplish the same mutual back-scratching last episode with Democrat Daniel Jimenez’s campaign, but his adviser Nate was uncomfortable with the proposition.) When, on election night, a suspicious fire breaks out at a Milwaukee vote-counting center, calling into question the results of 100,000 ballots, Mencken outright promises Roman (Kieran Culkin) that he’ll kill the GoJo merger in exchange for ATN’s support. (It’s unclear whether the fire was started by left-wing extremists or “Menckenists,” as Shiv calls them, but the political alignment of the missing ballots points to the latter.)

What this entails is Waystar’s news network prematurely calling Wisconsin, and thus the election, for Mencken. In a tight and highly questionable race, Mencken delivers a stirring and sinister victory speech in which he says, “It’s now clear I’ve won sufficient electoral votes to be declared the next president of the United States… The election has been called by an authority of known integrity.”

Elsewhere in this episode of “Succession,” Shiv (Sarah Snook) tells Tom (Matthew Macfadyen) she’s pregnant with his child, news he doesn’t take well. And Shiv’s days as a double agent are over, with Kendall (Jeremy Strong) exposing the fact that she is working with Lukas Matsson (Alexander Skarsgård) to execute the merger. As she exits the ATN headquarters after Mencken’s victory speech, more isolated than ever from Kendall and Roman, she tells Matsson on the phone, “We’re gonna fuck them so hard. We’re gonna fix this.”

Kirk spoke with Variety about Mencken’s victory speech, whether Roman can trust him and “Succession’s” parallels with CNN’s Donald Trump town hall.

When you joined the show in Season 3, did you have an idea of Mencken’s trajectory, and whether you’d return for Season 4?

I certainly hoped so. The email that had the offer said at the bottom: “Possible recur.” The very last shot of [Season 3, Episode 6, my first episode on “Succession”] is me staring at Brian Cox after taking a picture with him, so it felt good as a possibility. But I didn’t know for sure, and nor did I know that I would be elected president.

Well, sort of…

At least for the time being. How dare you, “sort of”! I am the president, and you will respect me.

Fine. For such a scary, fascist-leaning politician, you portray Mencken as a very measured, calm dude. What went behind that performance choice?

A lot of it is on the page. I think he’s a unique figure that we haven’t necessarily seen in real life completely, but close enough that it feels like we will tomorrow. The writers do most of the work for you. Maybe they knew what I would bring to it, and on we went.

Did you shoot different iterations of Mencken’s victory speech?

Not really. Most of what we shot is on the show. I asked them if it was going to go through a bunch of changes, and they said no. We shot it with me and my wife and child in the background — who you can see in the first wide shot — a very sparse camera crew and nobody else, in a room in New Jersey which I believe was the CNBC headquarters. I had to pitch it as though I was in a room full of rabid Mencken true-believers.

It’s an odd speech that isn’t overtly fascist, per se, but certainly has some white supremacist dog whistles like “proud and pure.”

Yeah, and it’s funny how they edited that. Because the camera is on Kendall saying, “He’s a guy we can do business with,” and then you can hear the end of my speech with the “proud and pure” thing. So they just snuck that in.

Justin Kirk and Kieran Culkin in Season 3 of “Succession”
Macall Polay

Have you imagined, for your own sake, what Mencken’s political backstory is?

Just for myself, I determined that he represented a red district in a blue state, like an upper Midwest state… maybe a Minnesota or Wisconsin.

HBO sends “Succession” screeners out to press on Wednesdays, so I watched this episode literally right after the CNN Trump town hall.

Dude, I’ve been saying this all day. Me too. It’s been fun to play this horrible guy — because it’s fun to play horrible guys — but I watched it right after the town hall. I didn’t watch the whole thing but I saw enough clips of it that I was like, “Hmm…”

It was a pretty eerie experience.

I don’t think Mencken is the same dude [as Trump]. But that thing on CNN was a reminder of the Ghost of Christmas Future — well, hopefully the Ghost of Christmas Past.

Were there any real-life politicians that you modeled Mencken after?

No, I think what’s fun about him is that he isn’t aligned with a real-life figure. He’s hard-right, but he’s not Tommy Tuberville, let’s put it that way. He’s not Marjorie Taylor Greene. He considers himself a bit of an intellectual, I think. And his ideas come from his real beliefs about what America should be.

Mencken does not seem like an election denier, like we’ve seen with Trump and other figures on the right. He has that scene with Roman where he says, “I am very focused on losing… If I lose, I want it correctly characterized as a huge victory. I want to be the president… if it isn’t tonight, it will be next time.”

You’re right. He’s not saying, “I want ATN to say it was rigged.” He’s saying, “I want you to say, ‘See how close he got!’” He’s definitely a player that will win next time.

How do you see Mencken’s relationship with Kendall? He clearly feels threatened by your closeness to Roman.

Yeah, poor Kendall is just trying to figure out what to do at this stage after his daughter has gotten into a kerfuffle. Well, I know some things, and I don’t know other things, about what happens next.

Are we, the audience, supposed to take Mencken at his word regarding the deal he makes with Roman? Or is there a chance he doesn’t follow through on the promise to kill the GoJo deal?

I saw that Roman says [Mencken will kill the deal], but I don’t know if that necessarily means — we don’t see me say it. I was shocked to see that. I don’t know if you can count on any of it.

Interesting. We know that Shiv is lying to Kendall and Roman in regards to asking the Jimenez campaign to kill the deal, because she’s on Team GoJo. So are you saying that because we don’t hear Mencken’s side of the conversation, Roman could be lying to Kendall too?

I don’t know that he’s lying. I don’t think Roman is making it up. From the way he said it, I would assume that he believes it. But I don’t know how much Mencken articulated it to him. We know that all the characters on “Succession” say some things and don’t say others, like Matsson’s [faulty] subscription numbers in India.

Based on IMDb, you are in the next episode of “Succession” as well. Can you —

By the way, the phrase “based on IMDb…” who puts that there? They don’t know! I don’t think there’s a “Succession” intern sending them an email saying, “This is what characters are in this episode.” I think they’re speculating — I hope I’m in Episode 9!

Let me rephrase. Based on IMDb Pro

No! It’s the same information. But I’m impressed that you have Pro.

In vague terms, what can we expect from the next episode?

It’s not even what I can or can’t say. I don’t know! I know what we shoot, and sometimes they use it and sometimes they don’t. That’s the nature of making a television show — you do all the stuff and they put it together afterward. To be honest, I’m much more “Succession” viewer than participator at this stage. It’s fun to see what ends up where.

Have you imagined what Mencken’s actual legislation would be once he takes office?

No, because that would be very upsetting. We’ll see if I’m president at the end of Episode 10…

Have people started recognizing you in public as Mencken?

I was on a hike after the Season 3 episode aired, and someone yelled, “I hope you get to be president!” And I said, “Thanks! Not for the country — but I appreciate it.” I will say that I got the most texts and emails after that episode than I’ve ever gotten after a gig, from people I haven’t talked to in a while. It’s a lot, and it’s occasionally stressful. But it’s mostly a real gift.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

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