Tag Archives: the nature of reality

My Unhinged Theory About the Succession Soundtrack

The fourth and final season of Succession returns this weekend, and I’m back from a social media hiatus to share an unhinged pet theory:

Composer Nicholas Britell is a character in both our universe and the Succession universe, he has known the Roy children since childhood, and he’s getting revenge on them by satirically scoring their lives.

Nicholas Britell sitting at a piano.

The idea that there are unseen characters in Succession is not new. User Thomas Flight produced a popular Youtube video essay positing that the camerawork implies an observer that is choosing what to film.

Flight suggests that whoever this unseen implied character is, they’re deeply invested in what happens to this family, and are incredibly attuned to what does, because they react to what characters say and do in the moment, as opposed to choreographing and then executing more traditional static shots.

We also know that there are characters and events that exist in both our world and in the Succession world. Governor Kristi Noem, for instance, exists in the Succession universe; she’s seen in background news footage. Bezos and Zuckerberg are mentioned a few times. In the third episode, we see that Logan Roy has framed newspapers on his office wall commemorating his newspapers’ coverage of Chernobyl, the death of bin Laden, and Brexit.

Music-wise, Taylor Swift exists in this universe, too, and yes, this is relevant. She appears in a slideshow at Vaulter headquarters, wearing a dress that she wore to the 2018 American Music Awards, which helps date the events of the show. But in a hint that her fictional career may have unfolded somewhat differently in the Succession timeline, the Long Island location where she filmed her 2014 “Blank Space” music video is, in the Succession universe, a Hungarian hunting lodge where the iconic “Boar on the Floor” scene happens.

Music video…
Succession episode.

Okay. So. Conceivably, then, Succession‘s version of Taylor Swift could be a template: some figures exist in both the Succession universe and our universe, just…in a different way.

And that’s where composer Nicholas Britell comes in.

Britell was born in 1980. I don’t think we’ve been told exactly when Kendall Roy was born, but he turns 40 in a presidential election year, which is probably 2020. (Succession creator Jesse Armstrong has, however, cheerfully admitted that the show’s timeline is fuzzy.) But it seems likely that Kendall and Britell are the same age.

According to Wikipedia, Britell went to Buckley School in New York City. In the third episode of the show, Kendall admonishes his friend Stewy, “We’re not at Buckley anymore” after Stewy steals a donut, implying that the two characters were students there, too.

Britell also went to Harvard. Who else in the Succession universe went to Harvard? Kendall, of course, who, even twenty years later, loooves talking about what he did to the circulation numbers at the Harvard Lampoon. And Kendall’s father Logan refers to Stewy as Kendall’s college drinking buddy.

The fictional Kendall Roy went into the family business, while the real-life Nicholas Britell famously worked as a currency trader at Bear Stearns when he left college. “I wasn’t happy, and I wasn’t doing what I loved. So I quit my old job.”

He talks about this at 3:58.

I’m far from the first person to point out their biographical similarities. In fact, the New York Times wrote in 2021, “It’s hard not to think about Kendall as a failed Britell, a parallel-universe version of what he might have been if he had stayed in finance: a Wall Street bro who hides inside his headphones and disconnects from the world he chose.”

It is the easiest thing in the world, especially given the sarcastic, parodic nature of Britell’s soundtrack, to think of a fictional Nicholas Britell writing music to comment and try to come to terms with the brokenness of an old acquaintance: sometimes empathizing with him, sometimes mocking him through the music he composes.

I hear your protestation now: we can’t know if there’s a person named Nicholas Britell in the Succession universe!

Well, I’d argue that we can…because the characters in-universe hear his music.

In Kendall’s famous season two “L to the OG” rap, Britell samples Bach and then, in a meta-twist, himself…including a segment from the season one soundtrack. The track he quotes is called “Million Dollar Home Run” and it’s from a pilot episode scene in which the Roy family plays a game of baseball that quickly turns sadistic. This connection is discussed in this Youtube video essay by The Premise:

So during the show’s most iconic musical moment to-date, the characters are hearing music in their universe that until now, we’ve only heard in ours.

And beyond that, it’s music referencing a baseball game played in season one, remixed in season two while Kendall is dressed in a baseball uniform. If that’s a coincidence, it’s an awfully big one.

Do you need more proof that there’s a Succession universe Nicholas Britell? Do you think I wouldn’t come with more proof? Do you think I’m not unhinged enough to stop here? Do you? Do you?

Check Spotify.

According to the soundtrack credits, season two’s “L to the OG” recording doesn’t feature actor Jeremy Strong. No, the credit goes to…Kendall Roy himself.

Well, that was just a one-time joke, you say. In fact, it’s meta-commentary on how in-character Jeremy Strong gets! Except!

The real person and the fake person team up again in season three’s soundtrack for a performance of Billy Joel’s “Honesty,” which didn’t even happen in the show.

In season three, episode seven, Kendall Roy decides to throw a “nut-nut” party to celebrate his fortieth birthday, with the planned highlight being a performance of “Honesty” for a room that includes high-rollers like “Elon” and “Jeff.” We viewers see his dress rehearsal and how a satisfied Kendall cuts it short without ever running through the whole thing.

So what is this full performance that appears on the season three soundtrack? Is this meant to be canon? Did fictional Nicholas Britell meet up with Kendall Roy in his universe to record this? Or is this from our universe? Did Kendall visit us via the famously in-character Jeremy Strong? What is going on?

And if this performance is meant to have occurred in the universe of the show, when exactly did it happen? The performance never happened at the party proper, and the rehearsal to the party didn’t have a full run-through, either. So presumably, the Succession universe’s Britell met up with his college acquaintance to run through this song to make the recording that appears on Spotify. But when? Where? Why? There’s a whole story you could come up with filling in the gaps of what we as viewers don’t and can’t know about this unseen implied composer figure, who is constantly slipping in and out of Kendall’s story.

Of course, the alternative is that Kendall Roy really does exist in our world…not that someone named Nicholas Britell popped up in his.

***

Do I think the creators deliberately wove a phantom fictional Nicholas Britell into the show? Lol, no, of course not. This is just a game.

However, that said… My first fandom was the Sherlock Holmes fandom, and one of the most popular activities in said fandom for the past 120+ years has been pretending that Holmes and Watson really lived, an unhinged hobby known as The Great Game. And let me tell you, I grew up eating this entire batshit concept up.

You can’t play The Great Game with many pieces of media. But you…kind of can with Succession, given its satirical spin on the real world. Kind of. In any case, it has been such a fun lens to use when taking in this show. It has made me think about the dividing line between fiction and reality: the ways in which our reality divorces from Succession‘s, and the ways in which it very much does not. And it’s also made me wonder so much about this unseen composer character who would have watched the music-loving Kendall from a distance for so many years, given up a career in the money-driven world that Kendall is drowning in, and what he might have to say about him and the merciless high-power world that gave birth to the Roy children. You have to be a killer.

So on the eve of the season four premiere, it heartens me to think that the strongest link between the unspeakably bleak Succession reality and our own might actually…belong to a musician. Maybe music and art are useful keys to use to unlock meaning in Kendall’s story, and ours. I’m heartened by that. Or, in the words of another Minnesotan:

Perhaps at the end of the day, a composer, via his Greek chorus of a musical commentary, will be the one to finally cast our communal judgment on these terrible characters…or maybe, depending on how their stories end, grant them some kind of absolution.

Or – not. This is Succession, after all.

In conclusion, if you didn’t like this blog entry, fuck off.

Succession returns to HBO for its fourth and final season on Sunday night.

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