TV Review: “The Shannara Chronicles”–“Paranor” and “Crimson” (S2, Eps. 5 & 6)

Full spoilers for the episode follow.

In a special double feature, our intrepid heroes Wil and Mareth continue their quest to bring the Warlock Lord’s skull back from the past, the politics of Leah grow ever more complicated, and Allanon must confront the reality that he is dying.

The Warlock Lord continues to loom as the series’ potential Big Bad, the force that will bring about the fall of the Four Lands and all of our noble (if seriously flawed) heroes. At this point, it’s pretty clear that we are going to see this figure return from the dead, though it’s equally certain that Wil will have to defeat him.

The Queen of Leah continues to be a compelling and deeply flawed character. Despite the fact that she does what she does–the scheming, the manipulating, the backhand dealing–she does for the good of her people, she inadvertently has set in motion the very destruction that she originally set out to prevent. In the end, she not only sees her ambitions come to nothing when Riga slaughters her retainers and Ander himself (which was both brutal and hear-wrenching), but she has also put her daughter at risk. The Crimson is a destructive force that will, it seems, make the Warlock Lord’s mission to bring the world into darkness that much easier. There is clearly a dark poison working its way through the bloodstream of the Four Lands, and one can hope that Wil is able to cleanse it before it does any more damage.

We finally learn the secrets of Eretria’s legacy, as one of those whose ancestors survived the Great Wars; as such she has the potential to be either a being a saviour or a demon. If I’m being completely honest, this feels a bit tacked-on, a means of giving Eretria something to do besides mope around after her sundry love interests. Don’t get me wrong: Ivana Baquero is probably one of the better actors in this show, and it’s that fact that keeps her character so continually interesting to watch.

For his part, Manu Bennett continues to chew scenery with abandon, but that’s part of what makes him one of the best things about the show. One thing The Shannara Chronicles gets right is the fact that Allanon is a ruthless manipulator, one who is willing to sacrifice anyone in his efforts to save the Four Lands. At the same time, we also get to see the toll this has begun to take, both physically and emotionally. I, for one, have no doubts that he’s not going to make it through to the end of the season, and that will actually fit well with the series’ clear intention of breaking apart the myth of the triumphant hero.

I can’t shake the feeling that the show-runners know that this is going to be the final season, and so they are pulling out all the stops (including showing two episodes in one night). It’s really a shame, though, since the series has taken some interesting turns. Still, I rather wish that they had chosen to adapt most of The Wishsong rather than doing a grab-bag of the various other parts of the Shannara mythos. Doing so has really short-circuited some of the season’s narrative threads, though fortunately “Crimson” managed to bring things together in the end. Still, it’s rather irritating to see the characters wandering about doing nothing consequential and then abruptly having a climactic moment that is moving but doesn’t really feel earned.

Overall, these two episodes were…good. However, it’s hard not to shake the feeling that the series is verging on the edge of going completely off the rails. There are just too many sub-plots going on–time travel, sinister wraiths, anti-magic users–and the show hasn’t done a great deal to bring them all together into a cohesive whole. The time travel plot in particular feels both strange and unnecessary, and I for one am glad that that plot is done with.

At this point, I will be satisfied if the series comes to a satisfactory conclusion, with all of the sundry plot threads wrapped up. I really don’t think it would be wise to leave anything hanging (as happened last season). I guess we will just have to wait to see how things pan out.

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TV Review: “The Shannara Chronicles”–“Dweller” (S2, Ep. 4)

Well, kids, shit got really dark on this episode of The Shannara Chronicles.

(My apologies for taking a week to respond to this episode. I was out of town for a conference.)

In the fourth episode of the second season, all of the characters have to contend with a personal crisis. Bandon has to relive the trauma of his childhood when he encounters a group of Elves who are virulently anti-magic; Jax has to relive a moment of terror during his time with the Border Legion; Wil has to see his father’s dead body and relive a traumatic memory from his past; the list goes on. These characters are put through the wringer in this episode, and none of them are left unscarred by their encounters.

This episode is fundamentally about the various broken characters that inhabit this world. Bandon, Ander, Wil…all of them struggle with the realities of politics and magic. Bandon comes across in this episode as someone who really is a product of his environment: tortured and imprisoned by his family, shunned by his own people, to some degree it’s no wonder that he has succumbed to the darkness inside him. The fact that he murders a child with the mask that had once been used to oppress him is both horrifying and

If the first season fell rather predictably into the epic hero pattern, this season seems to be about the deconstruction of that mythic pattern. Ander, for all that he might seem to be an epic hero, comes to understand the terrible price that that will exact, as exemplified in his execution of his childhood friend for murder and treason. He knows that it must be done, and in the end he does it without any compunction, but we’re left to wonder just how deep the psychic wounds go and how he will continue to deal with the consequences of what he has been forced to do. What’s more, we’re left to wonder whether, when all is said and done, anyone will emerge from this whole adventure intact. Adventures, like magic, seem to have a heavy price for those cursed to go on them.

This episode really plunges into a dark vision of the Shannara world. Clearly, it is tapping into the anxiety many of us feel about the rise of the alt-right, which bears some striking similarities to the Crimson. However, it’s important to remember that Brooks’s work in many ways predicted the sort of rabid brutality that has infected the American body politic, and so in that sense the series is staying true to the books that gave it birth, showing once again just how socially engaged the Shannara novels have always been. I’m just glad that the series has chosen to tap into that vein of the mythos rather than the more optimistic one.

For all of its darkness, this episode is also about the importance of family, of carving out an identity that is part of something larger than the self. At this point, none of the characters have yet found the elusive thing that they clearly desire: Shea is tormented by the fact that his father was driven mad and had to die alone; Mareth craves mentoring by Allanon, though she insists that she does not need a father; and the royal family of Leah continues to be riven by internal conflicts that may yet lead the kingdom to ruin.

Lastly, and somewhat inconsequentially, the series continues to display a visual splendour that really leaves the first season in the shade. From the sweeping vistas to the magnificent sets associated with Leah, it’s clear that Spike gave the show a lot more money. And if I’m being perfectly candid…well, Bandon makes a very dishy villain indeed. He may be a real bastard–slaying children and all–but he sure does look good with his shirt off.

Needless to say, I am really looking forward to the next episode. Clearly, there are a lot of pieces still in play, and it remains to be seen how it will all play out.

TV Review: “The Shannara Chronicles”–Graymark” (S2, Ep. 3)

So, we’ve come to the third episode of The Shannara Chronicles. The last episode saw all of our characters in states of peril, and this episode moves the pieces in some interesting directions as each of them has to cope with an increasingly hostile and unstable world.

Wil, having been seriously injured by an thoroughly-evil Bandon, is at last reunited with Eretria. There’s no doubt that the two actors have some truly sparking chemistry. It’s not just a romantic connection–though that is undoubtedly there–but also the pressure that each character puts on the other. Each of them has their own personal demons, and neither seems quite able to reach the same level of closeness that they used to possess. Hopefully, they’ll be able to put aside all of the old wounds and scars and find the healing they need with one another. Both of them are also fiercely loyal to each other.

It’s nice to see the incredibly charismatic Garet Jax continue to appear. Seriously, I cannot tell you how much I really love the way that the series has interpreted this character. Like all good rogues of fantasy, he thinks that he will be able to remain distant from the conflicts engulfing all corners of the Four Lands, but there is little doubt that he will eventually be drawn in. In a world like this one, it really isn’t possible to stay unallied unless, of course, you want to end up dead.

I continue to be impressed by the sweeping visuals. The network clearly threw a lot of money at Shannara in the hopes that a larger scale will elevate the drama. And I have to say, I think that the gambit has paid off. This season has a grandness and a power to it that I rather felt was lacking in a lot of the first season, which was very typical of the epic fantasy quest in many ways. There is a greater emphasis on politics and scheming, and this is always refreshing in the fantasy genre.

Though she is (I think) one of this season’s villains, Queen Tamlin is still a very compelling character indeed. This is a woman who is ruthless and willing to do whatever it takes to protect her country and gain a little power for herself. She may not be the most sympathetic of characters, but there is definitely something attractive about the fact that she is so kickass.

There’s something especially ominous about Graymark, the fortress of the Crimson, with its double-headed red eagle emblem. There are clear echoes of the sort of neo-fascism that this group seems to espouse, which makes the series feel an especially relevant one for the troubled political times in which we live. Riga, for all that he seems to have a greater good in mind–averting the sort of  catastrophe that nearly saw his people eradicated with the release of the demons–has become something even darker and more ruthless than they were. There is no limit to what he is willing to do, and he is truly willing to inflict a tremendous amount of damage on Allanon in his attempts to gain the codex that will allow him to eradicate magic.

Allanon continues to have to cope with the law of uintended consequences. Though he clearly did not intend for Bandon to become a scion of the Warlock Lord and lead the world to the brink of total ruin, that seems to be exactly what is happening. What’s more, he doesn’t seem terribly capable of getting himself out of the mess that he is created. This is an Allanon who is significantly more vulnerable than his novel counterpart, but that actually works well for the universe that the television series has created. I’m not sure the seemingly-invulnerable Allanon that Brooks originally created would fit in with our current world, where such things seem hopelessly antiquated. Who knows, though. He might just become a hero in his own right. We know that he is willing to sacrifice the lives of other’s for the greater good, which is both his greatest strength and his greatest weakness.

Lastly, it’s worth pointing out that this season is a hell of a lot darker than the last one. The bodies of our heroes are as subject to torture and pain as any other’s, and that allows a distinct sense of unease and disquiet to permeate the episodes so far. Let’s hope they keep it up.

I remain quite enamoured of this series, and I really hope that the network sees that this show is worth the continuing investment. If so, it could well prove to be a truly worthy adaptation of Terry Brooks’s magnificent work.

TV Review: “The Shannara Chronicles”–“Wraith” (S2, Ep. 2)

Having escaped from the dark spirits sent to murder him, Wil attempts to save his uncle Flick from the imminent danger he faces, while Alannon leads King Ander to the kingdom of Leah to seek the aid of its queen. The Crimson continue their quest to destroy those who wield magic, and Mareth wants to find her father (allegedly Allanon). And of course the Mord Wraiths persist in their quest to destroy Wil and resurrect the Warlock Lord.

The series continues to move along at a brisk pace. For those familiar with Brooks’s novels, this is in keeping with the Shannara universe, in which the action is always tightly woven and driven by a powerful momentum, and the episode both poses several enigmatic questions about the past and the future, forcing each of the characters to confront the secrets of their identities and their histories.

Despite its brisk pacing, the series continues to ask a fundamental question: is there price that is too high for heroism? One of the characters states that “history is made by those who survive,” a rather bleak assessment of the future of these characters. Having barely recovered from a near-apocalypse, they still have to keep going, no matter how many lives are lost in the process. (Needless to say, this season is much grimmer than the last, and that is definitely a good thing).

This episode introduces us to two new characters. The first if the weapons master (and bounty hunter) Garet Jax. The other is Queen Tamlin of Leah, a formidable political player determined to make sure that she gets the best out of every bargain. Both of these characters remain enigmas, with their own murky motivations, and one of the episode’s strengths is that it doesn’t tell us too much about them just yet.

One of the things I love the most about this adaptation is its willingness to cast people of colour in roles that don’t render them as simply a fetish or a projection of orientalist fantasies (I’m looking at you, Game of Thrones). Garet Jax truly shines in this episode and, given that he’s always been a favourite of the fan-base, I’m going to assume that people are happy with his portrayal here. I’m going to be quite honest: he’s gorgeous, and if you don’t like him, then I don’t know what’s wrong with you.

The Shannara Chronicles continues to showcase its obviously-substantial budget, with some gorgeous scenery and a lush colour palette that is truly a feast for the eyes. The palace of Queen Tamlin is truly resplendent, a stunning confection of gold and light. I know the series rather gaudy techno aesthetic isn’t to everyone’s liking, but I for one find it a unique take on Brooks’s imaginary world. It might not have the grandeur or dignity of some other fantasy adaptations, but that doesn’t make it any less pleasurable to watch.

If there is one casualty of this season, it’s Allanon. While Manu Bennett is still as badass as always, he does seem to be a bit out of his depth. When he is struck down by the Crimson and taken away, it’s hard not to see it as a sign of his growing weakness in the face of the threats assaulting the Four Lands. I do wonder if he will make it out of this season alive, and whether he will be able to defeat Bandon (who, for his part, continues to combine beauty and evil in equal measure. One wonders whether he is beyond redemption or if there is some hope for him).

Lastly, I’d like to note that one thing I particularly appreciate about this series is the way in which it plays with sexuality. This is, I think I can say without fear of contradiction, one of the most straightforwardly queer fantasy series I’ve seen on television. It’s not just that the characters entertain same-sex attraction; it’s that there is a free-wheeling play with gender and sexuality that I find truly refreshing. It feels honest rather than merely titillating.

Overall, this was another strong episode. I’m curious to see how it will continue to adapt Brooks’s oeuvre, especially since they seem to be using the vast timeline of the book series (which covers multiple generations and several hundred years) as the basic ingredients for very different stories. As a longtime reader of the books, I find this approach to be a uniquely enjoyable one; though I have an inkling as to how the entire season will end up, I am just as in the dark as non-novel readers. Truly exciting stuff!

 

The Great Golden Girls Marathon: “End of the Curse” (S2, Ep. 1)

As it’s been ages since I wrote anything about The Golden Girls, I thought I’d take a bit of a break from my novel and dissertation stuff to write a brief entry in The Great Golden Girls Marathon. Here, we move at last into the second season, wherein Blanche has to confront the fact that she is moving into the next phase of her life, when she is told that she has begun menopause.

To my eye, this episode marks a definitive turning point in the way that the series works. Whereas Season 1 focused primarily on the familial and the personal–conflicts with grandchildren, nephews, sons, daughters, etc.–the second begins to really break out in an explicit way into the broader political questions that will become one of the series’ hallmarks.

Further, it also marks some significant shifts in tone. As I noted several times in my discussion of the first season, the characters had not quite gelled yet, though they came pretty close by the season finale. Rose is the character that shows the greatest change from the first season. By this episode, she has largely shed the prude persona–so conspicuously on display in the episode in which Dorothy has an affair with a married man–and has slowly morphed into the naive, slightly dim-witted, yet incredibly sincere and lovable Rose that will be her incarnation for the remainder of the series. Her funniest moment in this episode comes from her fundamental understanding of what an aphrodisiac is, leading to an absolutely hilarious interchange with Dorothy about “African what?,” the singular or plural form of Spanish fly (or beetle); and whether minks can be induced to mate.

The real center of the episode, however, is Blanche’s body and her relationship to it.

There’s no question that the subject of women’s bodies and their functioning is one of the most vexed in western (and perhaps global) culture. This is particularly true of Blanche, who sees herself as, first and foremost, both an object of desire for men and, I would argue, as the agent of that desire. The accumulated myths associated with menopause (or “The Change,” as it is menacingly referred to throughout the episode) suggest to her that with this biological shift she is losing an essential part of her femininity that renders her into that desirable and desiring subject/object.

Fortunately, the episode goes out of its way to inform Blanche (and us), that there is nothing unnatural about this shift. As her psychologist tells her, she will still be the same Blanche that she has always been, the same desiring, fun-loving woman with an uninhibited sex drive. Rather than seeing her as deranged–which Rose seems to, quite problematically, believe–he helps de-escalate her psychological state. As a result, she goes from seeing in her face the shade of her mother to hitting on the veterinarian who comes to examine the minks. She has emerged triumphant, back to being the love goddess that we know and love.

It is also worth noting that the series other major plotline, the breeding of minks for their fur, also expresses (albeit more subtly) one of the other semi-consistent political issues of the series: the ethical treatment of animals. Fortunately, the minks don’t end up being fur coats.

Next up, we come to one of my favourite episodes, in which the women’s plans to meet Burt Reynolds go terribly awry…

TV Review: “Feud”–“You Mean All This Time We Could Have Been Friends?”

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.

TV Review: “Feud”–“Abandoned!”

I’m running a bit late with the reviews of FX’s Feud, so in the interest of giving the finale the appreciation it deserves, I’ll have to make this one a bit abbreviated.

I thought this episode, as a whole, was a fitting lead-up to the finale, in that we see the toll that this whole set of affairs has begun to take on both women. Joan falls deeper into a form of self-pity that eventually becomes destructive, while Bette has to contend with the fact that her daughter has begun to see her as truly the worst sort of mother.

Lange is one of those truly extraordinary actresses who can combine, in one scene, a mixture of vulnerability and strength. Whether that is how the real Joan Crawford would have acted is for me somewhat beside the point. When she confronts Bette after being left behind during filming, one can sense in Lange’s performance that powerful sense that she has endured so much at the hands of a system that really couldn’t care less about her. However, her great strength is also her greatest weakness, for she is prone to seeing sinister motivations, even where none exist. And as the last scene reveals–in which Joan is left screaming in a hospital room, abandoned by both the film studio and by Mamacita–Joan winds up being the worst victim of her own machinations.

The bitter irony of the entire ugly affair, of course, is that each actress possesses the thing that the other desires most. Bette has all of the acting power, the acknowledgment from all of her peers and from the establishment that she is one of the greatest craftspeople to grace the screen. Joan, however, is already acknowledged as the more powerful star and the greater beauty. Each, in a tense exchange, recognizes a piece of herself in the other, and they also acknowledge, in their gestures and their performance, the enormous weight of Hollywood history that weighs on them and on their present relationship. They are both victims of the system, and the real tragedy is that they don’t really have a meaningful way of communicating that to one another.

On a bit of a random note, I’m still not quite sure what to make of B.D. I can’t tell if I’m annoyed by her because the actress is terrible (which I think might be true), or is it a reflection of the fact that the real B.D. was also pretty awful? Maybe, on reflection, it’s a bit of Column A and a bit of Column B. It might even be the unique combination of the two that makes her such an utterly unappealing and insufferable character. However, it’s also worth pointing out that she has a lot to complain about. True, we’re meant to identify with and align ourselves with Bette, but that doesn’t mitigate the fact that she really is something of a tyrant–even if she is a benevolent one–to her daughter.

I want to close out with a brief discussion of the best line of the episode (and possibly the series): When Olivia is asked by the interviewer whether she felt that she had ended Joan’s career by taking her place on Charlotte, she responds that no, “Time did that. All on its own.” Wow. If ever a line will go down in the annals of bitchy invective infamy, it will be this one. It comes out of the mouth of Olivia, of course, who has her own subtextual feud with her sister Joan Fontaine. Despite its venom, there is a note of truth to it, one that Olivia was also in a position to recognize in the 1970s.

For all of its flaws, Feud does make clear that time, inexorable, destructive, crushing, is truly the enemy of us all.

TV Review: “Feud”–“Hagsploitation” (S1, Ep. 6)

A friend recently remarked to me that, every time he watched an episode of Feud, he felt as if nothing significant had transpired. As I continue to watch, I find myself both agreeing and disagreeing with him. While there is still much to love about this series, it does feel like it’s beginning to drag a bit, weighed down by its own pretensions.

In this episode, Joan attempts to resuscitate her career by acting in cheesy horror films, while Bette also struggles to find roles that are worthy of her talents. However, Aldrich is determined to cement his legacy and so, even as his marriage falls apart, he proposes another entry in the “Hagsploitation” genre (a term allegedly coined by Jack Warner), and he hopes to reunite Crawford and Davis and continue to exploit their antipathy toward one another.

The relationship between Aldrich and Bette, as always, continues to ring the truest and to have the most emotional depth. There is an undeniable chemistry between Sarandon and Molina, and they carry this over into the fondness that these individuals have for one another. They understand one another, even more so now that Aldrich is faced with a life without his wife (who has told him she wants a divorce due to his inability to truly privilege her in the face of his work).

As always, though, it is Lange who steals the show, and she manages to continue wringing the role of Joan for all of the pathos that it’s worth. While it remains unclear whether the real Joan Crawford–if we can even speak of such a thing–would ever have shown the type of vulnerability that Lange conveys, the fact remains that Lange combines strength with vulnerability. Lange’s Crawford is knowing and understanding about what the world is like, and the world of Hollywood in particular, but this knowledge does not give her any sort of comfort. Knowledge in this context proves to be just as much a burden as it is a blessing.

She does, however, display a true spine of steel when her brother threatens her with an alleged video of her performance in a stag film (the rumour of the existence of such a film ultimately sunders her friendship with Hedda). While she pays off his demands, she does so because she values her career and her accomplishments above everything else, and she is not about to let a money-grubber, even if he happens to be related to her by blood. Thus, when she finds that he has died during an emergency operation on his appendix, her first move is to cancel the payment on her check. For Joan, family is a burden, yet another sacrifice that she must make in order to solidify her career and the reputation that she has taken such an effort to maintain.

However, while I still take a lot of pleasure in this show, it’s clear that it’s starting to run out of steam a bit. I’ve thought for some time now that it would have probably made more narrative sense for this to have either been two episodes shorter or to have been released all at once. For me as a viewer, the appeal of the show continues to lie in the performances and the sumptuousness of the image, rather than in the narrative. I’m not sure that this is entirely as Murphy intends it, but I have long felt that his skills as an image-maker and as a casting agent far excel his skills as a creator of long-form drama. I suppose that we will have to wait until the final episode to see if my theory is proven correct. (Note: while he is not the writer or director of most of the episodes so far, his imprint is indelibly stamped on the series as a whole)

Overall, I found this to be a touching entry, but I’m still a little unclear about what the series in the aggregate will look like. If the series’ purpose was to show the ways in which women are exploited in Hollywood and their interests sublimated in the service of men’s profit, then that mission has already been well-accomplished. However, one can hop that there will be a deeper takeaway by the end, one that merits the expanded frame of the narrative.

TV Review: “Feud”–“And the Winner Is…(The Oscars of 1963)”

In the most recent episode of Feud, the lead-up to the Oscar ceremony gains momentum, and the chasm between Bette and Joan continues to widen until it is irrevocable. When Bette loses the Oscar to Anne Bancroft, largely as a result of Joan’s scheming, the bitterness is fully set, and there will be, can be, no turning back for any of them.

There’s a nice little aside included in the episode, in which the majestic, statuesque, and ever-so-slightly over-mannered Olivia de Havilland, suggests that the feud between her and her sister Joan Fontaine was one fabricated in large part by a media determined to sow dissent.  There is a slight bit of hypocrisy in this episode, however, in that a subsequent scene shows all too clearly that Olivia had no love for her sister, and that the bitterness between them was quite real indeed.

Though de Havilland has been hovering on the edge of the screen since the series began, it’s only now that she has finally come into full focus, as the episode shows us the close relationship between Bette and Olivia. One can sense in Olivia’s somewhat distant performance a hint of jealousy and bitterness about her friend’s success and talent. As she remarks, Bette always saw her as Melanie from Gone with the Wind to her Scarlett, and she acknowledges, with just a trace of sadness, that that is true. Graceful and statuesque as she is, she knows that as far as Hollywood and the broader public is concerned, she will always be one of the system’s lesser lights, a minor star in a galaxy full of supernovas like Davis.

The other bit player in this episode who also begins to emerge into a fuller light is Judy Davis’s magnificently waspish and poisonous Hedda Hopper. For all of her vitriol and bitterness, Hopper is convinced of the rightness of her poison pen, which she has honed to a fatal point. The episode also reveals that she is as riddled with contradiction as any other woman in Hollywood. She criticizes Davis for being vulgar, and yet she makes a spurious claim that Bette Davis uses one of her Oscars as a doorstop in her bathroom. Yet she sees all of this as justified, her self-understanding as the moral compass of Hollywood rendering her inviolable from any trace of true self-reflexion or criticism.

Once again, Lange’s Crawford continues to wring the pathos from the script. When she says that something in her broke at the word of the Oscar nominations, for the very first time I felt like I was looking at the actual Joan Crawford on screen before me. Her visage showing all of its alcohol-produced flaws in the glaring light of the California sun, she has clearly begun a descent into desperation that ends, embarrassingly, in a phone call to Geraldine Page in which she convinces the younger actress to step out of the Oscar ceremony and an equally uncomfortable and pathetic visit to Anne Bancroft (who eventually wins, allowing Crawford to step out onto the stage). Yet even these moments are full of pathos, as Sarah Paulson’s Geraldine Page proudly announces that Hollywood should be made to look at what they have done to Crawford, and Bancroft graciously concedes to Crawford’s request.

Lange’s Crawford emerges in these scenes as a peculiar mixture of pathetic and malignant, someone driven by her own chronic sense of fragile self-worth.  As she tells George Cukor in one of the episode’s most affecting lines, she is not bigger than this pettiness, a stunning confession that reveals the extent to which she has come to understand her zenith as inevitably and irrevocably past.

(On a random note, I also appreciated the episode’s use of mirrors, in which constantly forces the characters to look at themselves and to face the unflattering light in which they so frequently paint themselves).

All in all, I found this the best episode yet of Feud, and yet also the most tragic. The final scene, in which Joan comes home from her pyrrhic victory was one of the most affecting the show has yet produced. As Crawford sits alone in her bedroom, gazing at the statue, one can’t help but reflect about all that has been lost as the feud between the two women grows ever more venomous. It is truly one of Hollywood’s greatest tragedies.

TV Review: “Feud”–“More, Or Less” (S1, Ep. 4)

Having finally watched last week’s episode of Feud, I am at last ready to share my thoughts. In all, I found this to be the best episode so far, in that it really does a great deal to flesh out the stakes of Baby Jane for everyone concerned, not just the principals, but also those who surround the production.

The opening sequence highlights the extent to which both Joan and Bette have found themselves on the losing end of an industry controlled and manipulated by ruthless (and not terribly likable) men. Both of them have, by this point, become aware that their fortunes may be irrevocably in decline, the possibility of a comeback tainted by the “B” movie status that has already begun to stick to Baby Jane and to taint its artistic pretensions.

The responses of the two women reflect a great deal about their respective personalities. While Bette handles the demotion to the junior leagues with biting sarcasm by taking out a classified ad, Joan spews out f-bombs to her utterly uncaring agent and his cronies. Throughout the episode, Crawford emerges as the one more attached to her rapidly-fading stardom and Davis to the fact that she can’t get roles that challenge her craft (this dichotomy has now become so much part of Hollywood history that it’s become fact).

Lange continues to bring Joan to life in a particularly compelling way. There is an almost frantic energy to Lange’s portrayal, as she teeters on the edge of utter collapse. She sees the writing on the wall of her career, and she is determined to do everything in her power to stop the downward spiral, including distancing herself from Bette and from any other woman who might taint her aspirations, even when that means distancing herself from the very people who would be happy to help her.

The scene at the premiere highlights how dependent Joan has become on the glamour of stardom. The colour and lighting here is quite warm, an evocation of Crawford’s renewed sense of vitality and happiness that she has once again returned to being adored by her legions of fans. One also gets a sense that the episode is making a conscious reference to Lange’s role of Big Edie Beale in Grey Gardens, which also featured her in the role of a woman clinging to vitality in the face of adversity.

For all of her talent, however, Crawford knows something that the others seem reluctant to acknowledge: the golden age of classic Hollywood is well and truly over. When she turns down Pauline’s efforts at jumpstarting her own directorial career, she does so not (so she claims) because the latter is a woman, but because she’s a nobody. Crawford is old enough and wise enough to recognize that Hollywood is a cruel and ruthless business, and she is just cutthroat enough to do what needs to be done to ensure her own legacy (it doesn’t hurt that she’s also being manipulated by the waspish Hedda Hopper).

Despite how despicable he can be at times, Molina’s Aldrich continues to come across as affable, accomplished, and likable, if more than a little self-centered and misogynist. He knows as much as the women do that his career is on the line, and indeed that, for all of his aspirations, he is not, after all, fated for greatness. Even his success with Baby Jane, however, is not quite enough to rescue him and elevate him to the status of an auteur. In a taut and unpleasant conversation with Jack Warner, the latter makes the cutting observation that he is nothing more than a journeyman, it’s a remark that hits all too close to the bone.

Feud is a delicious treat, but it’s also far from subtle. With Joan Blondell and Olivia de Havilland (Kathy Bates and Catherine Zeta-Jones) as the film’s chorus, we are left in no doubt how we are supposed to feel about the characters and their circumstances. For all that, though, the show continues to hold up a none-too-flattering mirror to the machinery of Hollywood, an industry that still has a lot of distance to go in terms of the way that it treats women.