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“Arson Won Out”: The Democratic Political Consultant on Mapping Out the ‘Succession’ Election Night Episode

As a Democrat who works in professional politics, I live in a perpetual state of worry — an occupational hazard that became more acute in 2016. Ever since Jan. 6, 2021, many of us added a new fear to our lists: election interference. Ahead of the 2022 midterms, teams of lawyers, election experts and grassroots organizers in D.C. prepared for increasing threats to the administration of the election. As an adviser to  former President Barack Obama, I attended briefings, strategy sessions and tabletop exercises designed to mitigate and overcome those risks. 

Against that backdrop, in the spring of 2022, executive producer Frank Rich asked me if I would advise the Succession writers on political storylines in the fourth season. I had worked in politics for 20 years, including in Congress and in various campaigns, and later as a senior communications official in the Obama White House, where I worked in the West Wing and spoke on behalf of the president on Air Force One. I had previously consulted on Netflix’s Designated Survivor, and working on one of Hollywood’s biggest shows required little convincing. 

For the next 10 months, I helped the writers embed campaign elements into each script, capture the Washington vibe and marry their storytelling objectives with political realities. This all came to a head, of course, in the election-night episode — the eighth episode of the final season, titled “America Decides.” The writers wanted to sow electoral mayhem, and suddenly my two realities merged: anticipating real-life election nightmares and crafting a fictionalized worst-case scenario. 

We brainstormed various plotlines, including a massive fire at a vote count center. I argued that true sabotage would be more surreptitious; those trying to steal elections are doing so more systematically, inside courtrooms or by manipulating ballot access. But ballot access rules don’t exactly jump off the screen, so the arson won out. 

We set the fire in Democrat-heavy Milwaukee, a site that would house a sufficient number of votes to swing the state. It also needed to happen late enough in the night for the projections of ATN — the TV network owned by the series’ Roy family — to cause maximum electoral chaos after Arizona’s results were clear.

That’s because the fire wasn’t the only nefariousness the writers wanted to explore: What if the Roy kids’ corporate interests interfered with ATN’s real-time election calls? In reality, news outlets have strict firewalls between their editorial teams and business executives that insulate decision desks from any untoward influences. But the episode’s somewhat improbable plotlines ultimately felt credible because the backdrop was grounded in reality. The show felt real — in some cases a little too real — to viewers because the context for the election night mischief was so plausible. The writers’ attention to detail sets the stage for the drama that mesmerizes us. For example, the sequence of states reporting election results, scrupulously researched by writer Justin Geldzahler, was scripted to mirror an actual election-night broadcast.

Onscreen exchanges about how government officials would handle such an emergency were informed by conversations with the local and state election commissions, plus consultations with election law expert Ben Ginsberg — who, as a renowned Republican elections attorney, would normally be my adversary. It was fun to play on the same team with Ben, especially because our opposing experiences in the 2008 Minnesota Senate race served as inspiration to project how campaigns deal with a protracted election.

The writers weren’t the only ones focused on getting the minutiae right. When presidential candidate Jeryd Mencken (Justin Kirk) visits the Roys in episode four to pay his respects after the death of patriarch Logan in the previous episode, I worked with the production to mimic the Secret Service security footprint. When the team asked what type of vests bomb-sniffing dogs might wear, I admitted I would have to get back to them!

Eric Schultz served as principal deputy press secretary in the Obama administration and was a political consultant on Succession.

Eric Schultz served as principal deputy press secretary in the Obama administration and was a political consultant on Succession. Cheriss May/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Thankfully, one area I know well is the relationship between campaigns and reporters, since media relations is my day job. With campaign officials attempting to influence ATN’s coverage and election projections, I discussed with the actors on set how campaign operatives would engage journalists via sensitive and often highly charged conversations.

Of course, getting the details right wasn’t unique to season four’s political plot. Succession is so powerful because we get a glimpse inside the real worlds of the uber-wealthy, corporate boardrooms and media conglomerates. When creator Jesse Armstrong questioned me over the remarks Mencken would give as president-elect, I experienced his meticulousness firsthand. His cross-examinations reminded me of the same precision expected in the Oval Office.

As we shot the election-night episode last December, Congress passed legislation that updated the Electoral Count Act of 1887 and took into account modern-day threats to election administration. After all my concerns that arson wasn’t being contemplated in political circles, the House-passed version of the bill included a provision specifically for a “historically significant destructive fire.” So much for my political expertise.

Many shows have tried to capture Washington. The West Wing inspired me to work in politics, while Veep channeled the ridiculousness of the political world. These shows aren’t intended to be documentaries; TV must take dramatic license to entertain. But shows that crack the D.C. code ground their broader stories in authenticity by fixating on the nitty-gritty. With Succession, I can only hope we didn’t predict the future and that, ultimately, life does not imitate art.  

This story first appeared in the Aug. 23 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.



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