*Warning: This article contains Succession season four spoilers*
Successions’s matriarch Lady Caroline Collingwood won’t win the award for ‘best mother’ anytime soon. But Dame Harriet Walter’s portrayal of the acerbic wealthy aristocrat certainly deserves a standing ovation. Viewers of the HBO hit show - which comes to its conclusion after four critically-acclaimed and widely-memed seasons next week - first welcomed Caroline into the fold in season one, ahead of her daughter Shiv Roy (Sarah Snook) and Tom Wambsgans' (Matthew Macfadyen) wedding. While she’s a visiting character (most likely to be seen chain smoking at a villa in Siena, or sipping on Dom Pérignon in a stately home in England), in recent years Caroline has gifted the show's fans with some hilarious and acidic one-liners. Who can forget her description of Logan, Marcia and Kerry as ‘the skunk, the concubine and the porcupine’, or her coining of Cousin Greg’s (Nicholas Braun) nickname ‘Greg The Egg’ in season two? Last night, however, might have been one of Walter’s most poignant and personal performances to date.
On Monday, HBO aired the penultimate episode of Succession, ‘Church and State’, in the UK, which sees the Roy family finally bid adieu to its dictatorial father, Logan Roy, at his long-awaited funeral. For Walter, who made her Broadway debut in the 1983 revival of the William Shakespeare play All's Well That Ends Well, the episode marked her first time filming in America. ‘It's got a mixture of pathos and humour,’ the 72-year-old actor tells ELLE UK of the episode during a lunch break from filming her latest project. Recalling filming, she adds: ‘One of the characters says: “This really is it, he really has gone.” And that’s the sort of the feeling you get at a funeral when you see the actual coffin – it becomes very real. We’ve all been reeling since the very surprising death and shock [of Logan].’
As a visiting character, Walter only learned of Logan’s unexpected death when she turned up for episode nine’s costume fitting. ‘[At] the end of season three, where I left off, I knew I was meant to be in episode nine of season four. But that’s eight episodes worth of stuff I don't know,’ she explains, noting the scriptwriters' intentions to keep some segments of the plot under wraps. ‘It’s on a need-to-know basis. When I came back in, I said: “Can somebody just give me a rough breakdown?” The first thing that happened was I went into a costume fitting, and there were all these railings of black clothes. I hadn't read a script… I just said, “Gotcha, somebody died”. ‘And they said, “Yes, the big one.”'
Earlier in season four, fans were stunned as they watched – masterfully off camera, we might add – Logan’s passing, during an episode titled 'Connor's Wedding'. An omnipotent and omnipresent force in the show, his death has left a cavernous hole in the series’ plot and cast. On Logan’s absence in the show, Walter says a plot twist like his death often results in an overlapping of reality and drama for actors. ‘We've all got very used to the enormous presence of Brian Cox/Logan Roy. People can live forever in dramas so, in a way, you never have to see certain people die. It’s quite shocking when it happens. We all were left asking “what’s going to happen next", and that’s the whole point of the show.'
Keeping Logan’s death a secret was of paramount concern to the show’s writers and crew. Director Mark Mylod recently told The Hollywood Reporter that following episode three the writers replaced the word ‘Logan’ in every script with the name Ewan [Logan’s brother played by James Cromwell]. During filming of the funeral scene at the Church of St. Ignatius Loyola on Manhattan's Upper East Side, Cox was even seen turning up to set to throw paparazzi outside off the scent, and the near 600 extras were given service sheets printed with different faces of characters on the front, as well as being asked to sign non-disclosure agreements. ‘Brian showed up to jolly everyone along a bit. It was all a decoy,’ the Oliver Award-winning actor recalls of the ingenious deceit.
In the hours since episode nine aired, much has been made of Ewan Roy (James Cromwell), Kendall (Jeremy Strong) and Shiv’s heart-wrenching eulogies, as well as Roman's (Kieran Culkin) teary breakdown, with people feeling it aptly displayed the complexities of grief. One of the more touching and heartfelt moments, however, is when viewers see Caroline invite Logan’s former mistresses and wives to sit alongside her on the front pew. ‘I love the fact it gave Caroline the opportunity to show that there are areas where she's quite outward looking, and while not compassionate, not exactly an island of selfishness either, which is what she can appear to be when she's with her children,’ Walter notes. ‘Isn’t it true to life that the history you have with your family makes you one person, and the person you are with other people is another person? I love the fact that there was space to show that she's not just a totally cold fish.’
In a tribute to the hurtful love affairs from Logan's past, costume designer Michelle Matland added a subtle yet touching detail to the women’s costumes, to show their shared experiences of love and loss. ‘I did give many of the women green jewellery, as in emeralds, etc., because I thought that throughout Logan's love affairs with women, he would always honour them at, like, a Valentine's Day,' Matland told TODAY.com. Such kinship with the scorned mistresses and ex-wives is something Walter says Caroline would’ve felt while mourning the loss of her ex-husband at the funeral, rather than with her children. ‘She's feeling vulnerable and looking at the other women who must be feeling something akin to how she's feeling… her grief is more aligned to them than her children.’
Another more relatable moment in the funeral episode comes when Caroline recognises Shiv’s pregnancy with a shrewd singular glance and stutters ‘You’re not…’. Up until this point, Shiv has attempted to ignore what’s happening to her body, but in this episode she appears isolated from her estranged husband and brothers, and is clearly developing a growing concern for the future of her baby. The child-to-be finally takes its place as a character in the series. When Caroline notices her growing pregnancy bump, the fear of what motherhood will mean for her becomes acutely apparent to both parties. ‘Mothers and daughters are particular… it's a very different chemistry,’ Walter says of the characters’ silent interaction in the scene, recalling the mother-daughter interaction the pair had in season three when they tell each other: ‘You're my onion’. ‘They’re frightened of one another because they’re protecting themselves from the hurt that the other one can inflict and what’s happened in the past,’ Walter continues.
Motherhood is a topic that has hardly been explored in Succession until season four – so dominant has Logan’s role as a breadwinner and father to his four children been. But when it is raised, the show’s women rarely come out unscathed. There are jokes about Connor Roy’s (Alan Ruck’s) mother having been institutionalised, Kendall threatening to sue his ex-wife Rava for custody of their children and Caroline admitting defeat to Shiv, telling her that ‘some people just aren't made to be mothers’. Reflecting on the harsh realities for mothers in the Roy family climate, Walter says of her character: ‘I never want to whitewash Caroline, she is a very tricky person, but I always resist the simplistic “Oh, she's just a cold b*tch” theory, because that is so uninteresting to me. There's always a reason why people behave like they do. … I think being a mother in that clan and being the outsider who marries into it is an incredibly difficult place to be.’ Referring to the separation between children and mother in the famous Getty and Spencer families, the actor notes that its often women who are seen as ‘terrible’ if they’re turned away from a family. ‘But actually, there is a closing of the ranks when you're talking about dynasties,' she says.
With the final episode of Succession just days away, Walter struggles to decide which child should take over the Waystar Royco company. ‘I think they'd all make a terrible job of it on their own because they come at it from completely the wrong place,’ she says, noting how the script and camerawork manipulates viewers into falling in and out of love with different characters throughout the show. While she doesn’t think Caroline ‘feels any particular favouritism’ for her children, she says her character likely finds Roman ‘the most easily accessible’. 'He's another person who can just chuck the jokes around, play the game and not get too deep,’ she says. ‘Shiv she feels is a chip off the old block in a funny way,’ she adds, before concluding: ‘I think probably Kendall is the person to take over. He’s really the most successful. The others waver more than he does, but he's wonderfully vulnerable as well. They’re all breathtakingly good performers,’ she says of her colleagues. ‘I couldn't choose between them in terms of quality as actors.’
In her five decade-long career Walter – who is the niece of British actor Sir Christopher Lee and an alum of London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art – has become one of Britain’s most famous and acclaimed acting heavyweights. In the last 20 years alone she’s had roles in films such as Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Atonement, and The Young Victoria, and in the last five has become lauded for her part in TV hits like The Crown, Killing Eve, and Ted Lasso. On her increasing notoriety, Walter – who currently stars in Apple TV+’s Silo, a sci-fi series where society has relocated to live in a series of silos deep underground, humbly says: ‘I almost think it's a coincidence, but of course once you're notice in one thing, you've got more of a chance of being chosen for another thing. Everyone gets these moments in their career, if they're lucky, when things seem to be fizzing.’
In light of older women actors in Hollywood, such as Academy Award winner Michelle Yeoh, Emmy winner Jennifer Coolidge, and Golden Globe-awarded Angela Bassett receiving long overdue recognition for their work this year, Walter says there’s 'much more self-determination among female actors now, and actors of different ethnic experiences... This huge machine needs to have more and more and more product to feed it. And when you hit that moment when things are going well, or you win an award, that’s the moment these women are saying, “right, I'm here, feed me something to do and I'm not going to go away”.'
Succession's episode nine 'Church and State' is available to watch now. The Succession finale will air on May 28 on HBO and HBO Max in the US, and on May 29 on Sky Atlantic in the UK.
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