So, we come at last to it, the finale of the first season of Feud. I’m still not sure that the series needed all 8 episodes that it got in order to get to this point, but I do think that it told a good story, solidly acted, and beautifully shot. It may not go down in history as one of the greatest TV series, it is nevertheless a solid part of the Murphy oeuvre, a testament to his ability to imprint his vision on Hollywood history.
Whereas earlier episodes showed Lange’s Crawford slipping into moments of high-strung histrionics, this episode sees her bowing out with a measure of pathos-drenched grace. This is the Joan whose body has begun to fail her, first in the rash of dental problems that are the result of her having molars extracted in her youth to give her cheeks a more carved appearance, and then when the cancer that will take her life starts to take its toll. She gradually withdraws into her apartment, determined at the last to maintain a measure of dignity despite everything else (this becomes an especially acute issue after a photo that she deems unflattering sees the light of day).
The episode makes no secret that Joan’s career was definitely the one that fizzled out much more ignominiously than Davis’s. (While you wouldn’t know it from this episode, Davis would actually go on to have several more notable film appearances, even costarring with Lilian Gish in The Whales of August). One cannot but feel sorry for Joan, that one of the giants of the screen should be reduced to playing in a film such as Trog. Even there, though, the series does show that she continued to be a consummate professional, working with all of her considerable skills to bring an element of craftsmanship to this inglorious position. She faces every new humiliation with aplomb, even though she is truly working in less-than-ideal conditions.
The highlight of the episode is, of course, a fever dream in which Joan sees Hedda, Jack, and Bette gathered in her living room. There ensues a conversation in which Bette and Joan at last say the things to each other that they never said in life. As with the rest of this episode, the moment is laden with ambiguity, a potent and pathos-laden incident in which we are treated to a world that might-have-been. It’s a moment when both Bette and Joan are restored to their former glamourous glory, and they can at last be honest with one another.
Of course, the fantasy cannot last, and the scene abruptly shifts to Joan sitting alone in her dark living room, her long hair askew. The fantasy has been punctured, and the revelation that Joan died shortly thereafter makes the scene all the more poignant. When Bette responds to the death with a cruelly offhand remark, we’re left wondering if she does it out of a residual sense of bitterness, a lack of feeling one way or another, or just because by this point it’s what she’s expected to do.
The last scene is one that is also laden with ambiguity, as we are shown a scene in which Bette and Joan, on the first day of shooting for Baby Jane, both think that is the beginning of a beautiful new friendship. But, of course, the past 8 episodes have shown us that that is a hope that remains unfulfilled, that the dark forces of male Hollywood will always come in between them. This sequence ultimately raises more questions than it answers: Is this a flashback to what actually transpired on the first set of the film, a moment of utopian longing for a friendship that could have been? Or is instead just that, a utopian figment, a figment of the imagination, a cautionary tale about the dangers of Hollywood feuding (and, by implication, our complicity in consuming this narrative?)
And of course the last shot is the most heartbreaking of all, as the two actresses, both of them larger than life, both of them outshining many of the stars who would come in their wake, go to their separate dressing rooms. It’s a moment laden with a melancholy significance, as we in the audience are left to mourn a friendship that never was, just as we were left to contemplate the tragedy of Joan’s final delusion, in which she imagines a rapprochement that never took place but which we wish might have, as it would have offered both of them an opportunity to unite against the system that worked so stridently to keep them apart.
In the final analysis, I think Feud is a thoroughly good show. Is it one of the greatest or even great on its own terms? I don’t think so. It tends to rely too much on cleverness and surface, and there are some questionable historical choices (and even more questionable accuracy). As with so many Ryan Murphy projects, it tends to be better in concept than in execution. Still, as a student and amateur historian of classic Hollywood, I’m excited that it was made, and I’m glad that it has brought such increased visibility to a period that has only recently begun to get the respect and attention that it deserves.
If I have one major complaint about the series, it’s that it tends to focus too much on Joan at the expense of Bette. This wasn’t as noticeable early in the series, but as it went on it was very clear that Murphy was more invested in her side of the narrative than Bette’s. She gets to have more of the tender moments–particularly in this last episode, where we see her visibly touched by the love of one of her daughters–whereas Bette is always seen as the tower of strength. That by itself isn’t necessarily a bad thing, though it does tend to skew the series in Joan’s favour.
Overall, I’m glad that Feud was made, and I am very glad that I stuck with it to the very end. While I tend to fall of the wagon with Murphy’s series, for once he made it worth sticking with him.
Long live Bette and Joan.