Ryan Murphy’s ‘Feud’ Finds the Emotional Truth of an Epic Rivalry

The inherent danger of a show like Feud is the the challenge of showing outlandish characters without turning them into clowns or lightning rods for ideology

At the end of the film Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, as Joan Crawford’s Blanche slowly dies on the beach, she makes a shocking confession that completely changes the dynamic of the movie, turning the film from campy horror to slightly less campy tragedy. The car accident that left her unable to walk, and for which her sister, Bette Davis’s Baby Jane, has been blamed, was actually Blanche’s fault. She’d tried to kill her sister but had instead ended up careening into a gate and, consequently a life of paraplegia and vulnerability to the whims of her increasingly unhinged sister.

This seems like an astute metaphor for what Feud, FX’s often wonderful, sometimes disturbing, mini-series, ended up being about. By revealing how the system was fueled and fascinated by the prospect of two women despising each other, and how those women lived up to the roles assigned to them for fear of not getting any others, Feud showed how rivalry almost always becomes a zero-sum game.

The fictitious Blanche’s act of hatred and frustration backfired, and Feud insisted that the same was true for the very real Joan Crawford (Jessica Lange) and Bette Davis (Susan Sarandon). The studio system convinced them that the only way they could be financially or artistically viable was to be vicious to each other, but the show crafts the actresses’ emotional landscapes in heartbreaking detail to argue that the exact opposite was true. There’s a moment in the finalé, “You Mean All This Time We Could Have Been Friends?”, which sums up the show’s thesis incredibly sharply. Bette hears news of Joan’s cancer from her friend, and Whatever Happened To Baby Jane? co-star, Victor Buono (Dominic Burgess).

Bette assures Victor that Joan won’t succumb to cancer because she’s a “cockroach” like herself. At this point, Victor implores Bette to phone Joan because, and here’s the kicker, they may be the only two women who truly understand each other. The parallels are uncanny: they both had difficult relationships with their daughters, both accepted work that was beneath their talent and stature, and both Oscar winners looking for validation from any source, no matter how demeaning. If one of them had thought to extend a hand, they just might have discovered that they shared a few of the same fingerprints. Feud argues fairly convincingly that Joan was Bette and Bette was Joan, a hall of mirrors that was just too hard for either of them to step into; if they saw their similarities, they’d be forced to acknowledge what the Hollywood machine had done to them.

The show sometimes leans into a rickety framing device, a documentary crew interviewing people who knew Bette and Joan, that never truly justified itself, but it was occasionally illuminating. In an off-hand remark, Victor explained that Bette liked him because he told the truth, but the show frequently undercut the idea that these women found honesty a valuable commodity. If they did want the truth, the show sneakily suggested, it was the truth of the narrative they carefully created for themselves. Series creator Ryan Murphy and his team worked hard to portray Joan as a woman whose artifice had become her truth, who’d bought so heavily into the idea of herself as an icon that she fell apart when that construct became subject to human fallibilities. From the very first time they meet in “Pilot”, Bette refers to her co-star as Lucille (her given name); not only puncturing through Joan’s Hollywood image, but also reinforcing her own reputation as a no-nonsense battle axe.

In “Mommie Dearest”, the show’s third episode, Joan and Bette view the dailies of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? The camera watches Sarandon and Lange as they watch themselves pretending to be Davis and Crawford. On paper that sounds too meta and kitschy, but it’s one of the most affecting ways that the show demonstrated how important the moving image was to these women and how horrifying it was to them that the image had morphed into something that they didn’t really recognise as themselves.

Then again, perhaps they were all-too-aware that the artificial image was reflective of real life, and that was the problem. It’s a distinction that the show, wisely, kept playing with until the final hour, where it finally doubled down on its idea of precisely who Joan and Bette were. In a fantasy dinner scene, which some critics have taken issue with, Bette, Joan, Jack Warner (Stanley Tucci), and the gossip columnist Hedda Hopper (Judy Davis) sit drinking and teasing each other. It’s the kind of gathering they all would have dreamed of as little kids before they had become part of, and pushed out of, the entertainment industry.

They discuss what Hollywood has meant to them, what they’ve sacrificed to feel its glow, and what they lost went the glow went elsewhere. In a moment that felt like a wave hitting a rock face, Bette stops the conversation dead and asks Jack and Hedda to apologise to Joan. They don’t, but they do offer some solace, a salve to the wounds of a life spent trying to be an adored icon. Hedda promises that, whatever happens to Joan’s mortal body, her image will be forever captured, beautiful and admirable as the siren of the silver screen. It’s an unexpectedly impassioned moment from Judy Davis, who delivers her lines as if her life depended on reasserting the value of Hollywood.

In truth, they can’t apologise; they were the dogs that Joan laid down with, but she was the one who found a way to make having fleas feel good. This moment leads Joan to admit that she’d spent her whole life trying to be, and then clinging onto, Joan Crawford, for fear that she’d slide back into being Lucille Fay LeSueur. For the creative minds behind the series, Joan was a woman who’d become so adept at wearing a mask that she felt betrayed when that mask changed with age and shifted her from a piece of art to a flesh and blood woman. Being human, the final two episodes suggest, was such a shock to Joan that she couldn’t quite choreograph her life away from a camera lens. Who she’d been — Lucille — was a ghost; it was who she’d become that was uncharted territory.

The inherent danger of a show like Feud is the same one that faced Whatever Happened To Baby Jane?: the challenge of showing outlandish characters, and all of the iconographies audience associated with Crawford and Davis, without turning them into clowns or lightning rods for ideology. Feud didn’t always toe this line successfully; Lange’s long, vodka-fueled rants, the camera chasing the fabric of her caftan and the smoke from her cigarette, sometimes felt like they belonged in a pantomime. A scene in the hospital, where Joan discovers that she’s been replaced in Hush Hush Sweet Charlotte, the spiritual sequel to Baby Jane, felt particularly cruel and heavy-handed. Bette too sometimes felt as if the writers had read that the actress was staunch and serious and refused to look any further, content to play the same character beats until it felt like a caricature. The fight between them was sometimes so cattily staged that the middle run of episodes felt like the show was cashing in on the same narrative it was criticising.

Perhaps though, Feud had to inflate these characters, and their overblown, career-long grudge, in order to excavate who they really were from the camp baggage and the scandalous exposes that followed after their deaths. Maybe the show had to give the audience what it thought it wanted — shouting matches and thrown cocktails and poolside bitching — in order to tell a sad story about the ways in which people modify their identity without drawing themselves a roadmap to get back home.

This theory is certainly supported by Lange’s incredibly well-modulated performance, which grew quieter and deeper as the episodes marched on. What started as a performance of immense forward momentum, eventually became one of bone-deep loneliness; a transition that was surprisingly smooth. There was never a moment when Lange didn’t feel as if she wasn’t completely in control of the sometimes-unwieldy material, even at her most over-the-top. There were moments of cartoonish-ness, but it’s to Lange’s immense credit that she found a way of making that cartoonish-ness a virtue, because it draws Joan’s pain in such sharp, stunning contrast. During the filming of the notoriously awful Trog, Joan’s final film, Lange is tasked with putting an ape mask over her head in a drunken stupor. It’s the opposite of silly; it’s a portrait of loneliness that’s painful for its accuracy.

Sarandon puts in a smaller performance, which sounds strange considering Bette Davis’s unmistakable voice and reputation as a bone-dry bon vivant. There are times when she looks as if she is stepping back from the actions, observing the fervor around her. If this makes the performance occasionally feel opaque, it also means that Sarandon becomes a much-needed grounding force. In the episode “Hagsploitation”, Bette, during an intimate tryst with Robert Aldrich (Alfred Molina), admits that on her first audition she heard the casting director complaining that Bette was “no Joan Crawford” in reference to Joan’s classically good looks. It’s a moment of sad brittleness in a restrained performance, and it’s hugely revealing; Sarandon allows the audience to see that Bette’s sense of identity is as precarious as Joan’s, but it’s contingent on something more lasting: her unshakable belief in her own talent. Bette would fall apart if her talent was taken away from her; it’s just fortunate for her that it was a hardier commodity than Joan’s beauty.

Many viewers and cultural commentators have spent time fact-checking Feud, discovering inaccuracies and composite characters, questioning the extent to which the show is a valuable insight into these women. While they’re doing important work, their findings don’t take away from the fact that the series worked hard to reveal a deeper truth about a system in which people were encouraged to pick and chose the parts of themselves that’d be most appealing. In the novel Mother Night, Kurt Vonnegut wrote: “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be”; that sentence has never felt truer than in Feud‘s portrayals of Crawford and Davis. Both, in both large and small ways, pretended so much and so desperately that they had little left when reality struck. That the show understood this is perhaps what made it such a compassionate and sympathetic one, without pretending that its protagonists were especially compassionate or sympathetic themselves.

In essence, Feud had a lot of brains and a big heart, eventually offering Joan a reprieve, if not an outright apology, even if it was in a fantasy of her own making. Upon finding out that she’s not responsible for her sister’s accident, Baby Jane cries out: “You mean all this time we could have been friends?” It’s so sad because it’s so true. Had Blanche and Baby Jane managed to bridge the gaps of jealousy and pettiness, they may have been able to live their lives happily.

The first season of Feud ended roughly where it began. On the first day of shooting Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, Joan and Bette were shown sitting next to each other, chatting happily, ready to take a now-legendary photograph. As they leave for their dressing room, Joan expresses her wish to make a dear friend out of her time filming with Bette, who agrees that she’d like that too. Then they part and the show ends, suspended in animation, caught up in the vain hope that everything will be different. It’s a hopeful point that suggests, as corny as it sounds, they may, this time, be friends with each other and, in turn, friends with themselves; because let’s face it: they could’ve been friends the whole time.

RATING 8 / 10