TV Review: “Feud”–“Mommie Dearest” (S1, Ep. 3)

Just when I thought that Feud couldn’t get any better, it manages to continue to showcase the ability of Ryan Murphy to plumb the depths of despair and sadness in the human psyche. In particular, it shows his longstanding interest in the suffering that women endure in a patriarchal world that rarely, if ever, values them for themselves.

Overall, the episode offers a surprisingly nuanced and sympathetic portrait of the convoluted nature of motherhood in particular. As is well-known, both Bette and Joan had quite vexed relationships with their children. Overall in this episode Bette is the one who emerges as the most compassionate mother, in that she continues to try to support B.D., even though it’s obvious she’s a terrible actress. Further, she also continues working in order to pay the bills for her younger daughter’s schooling.

It is her relationship with Victor Buono, her effeminate and portly gay co-star, that really cements Bette’s inner core of maternal feeling. In Buono, she sees a companion spirit, a man who has suffered because of his sexuality (at one point he is arrested in a vice sting and she has to bail him out of jail), but in whom she sees a great deal of genuine talent. The scenes that show them together show a meeting of the minds, a young acolyte starstruck and determined to make the most out of this moment to costar with one of the greatest stars in Hollywood history (incidentally, Buono would also star with Davis in Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte).

Even Crawford, whose motherly reputation has long been overshadowed by her daughter’s tell-all memoir and its filmic adaptation, appears in this episode as a woman who genuinely wants to care for the children who come under her care. The episode makes it clear that she craves the affection that she was denied in her childhood (except from her stepfather), and that it is this desire for human connection that drives so much of what she does. The brutal irony, of course, is that she cannot see the truth that is right in front of her face. It is Davis, more than any other character, who actually understands Joan and what she suffers, yet she is the one person that she cannot quite bring herself to be friends with, no matter how much it might benefit the two of them.

This episode, as with the ones preceding it, continues to show the extent to which both Joan and Bette are being manipulated by those who have a vested interest in keeping them at one another’s throats. It’s particularly frustrating that it’s Hedda Hopper who continues to pull the strings on Crawford, for as a woman one would think that she would be more sensitive to the need for women in Hollywood to band together and support one another. But, like so many others in Hollywood, all she can see is her own aggrandizement, no matter the human costs.

Yet the episode also shows that, for all of their foibles and flaws, both Crawford and Davis are consummate masters of their craft. Even Crawford, acknowledged as somewhat less than an accomplished actress by subsequent filmgoers, manages to impress even Davis by her delivery of Blanche’s final, crushing revelation. All in all, the episode manages to do justice to both of these phenomenal women of old Hollywood.

However, I do have to express a small amount of concern over the future of the show. After all, we’re only in the third episode, and now, diegetically, Whatever Happened to Baby Jane has finished filming. Where will the show go from here? Presumably, it will stretch into the drama over the Oscars, and perhaps will even show the women as they pursue their careers in the aftermath of

TV Review: “Feud”–“The Other Woman” (S1, Ep. 2)

There’s nothing quite like settling in with your Boyfriend to catch up on last week’s episode of Ryan Murphy’s FX series Feud: Bette and Joan. In the episode, titled “The Other Woman,” the tensions between the two women continue to ratchet ever-upward, exacerbated by the machinations of the men running the show (Robert Aldrich and Jack Warner) and by the malevolent Heddy Hopper and other gossip columnists who are only too eager to exploit the escalating tensions between the two women for their own financial benefit.

The strongest part of the series continues to be the performance from Lange and Sarandon. While Lange manages to convey the bruised and aching heart of Crawford–battered by decades in Hollywood at the mercy of the men in charge–she also shows the inner core of iron that allowed this working-class girl to become one of the most prominent stars of classic Hollywood. For all of her vulnerability, there is still a harshness to her, one that only bursts out of her at moments of extreme stress and anger, as when she commands her current husband to leave.

For her part, Sarandon continues to bring a similar amalgam to her characterization of Bette Davis. Her voice has the same sort of tough hoarseness that was Davis’s trademark, and she also manages to convey a similar blend of steely strength and aching vulnerability. Sarandon’s Davis is a woman caught in an impossible position; her belligerent daughter has already begun to turn against her, reminding her in a fit of the fact that she is no longer young. Yet she also is a woman single-mindedly devoted to her craft. Unlike Joan, who seems to be more committed to her star status, Davis sees herself as an actress, a distinction that has, in the historiography of both stars, become the accepted wisdom.

As with the pilot, this episode of Feud continues to highlight its awareness the hypocrisy and cynicism that seethes beneath the glossy surface of Hollywood life. Hollywood cares for nothing more than the accumulation of further financial gain, and it is willing to destroy the lives of the women who, it must be admitted, are key to its very system. Even the redoubtable Hedda Hopper, along with her truly glorious hats, can’t seem to find in herself to have any innate compassion for her fellow women. It is only when Joan promises to let her in on some juicy gossip for her noxious columns that she agrees to be her ally, and it is her machinations that lead Aldrich to betray both women in his own relentless pursuit of career advancement.

While they only appear only briefly, both Kathy Bates and Catherine Zeta-Jones deliver strong, precise performances as Joan Blondell and Olivia De Havilland. Both of them act as a sort of Greek chorus, offering the audience a sense of the conflicted position women occupied (and continue to occupy) in the entertainment industry. They are the source of one another’s greatest strength and yet they are repeatedly encouraged by the industry to tear one another apart in the media and in the eyes of the public.

All in all, I found this to be an extremely compelling piece of television. Love him or hate him, but Murphy has a knack for churning out stories that help us to understand and empathize with powerful women who are punished by the societies in which they live. It remains to be seen, however, whether Feud can continue threading the precarious needle it has set itself. Is it possible to critique a system that encourages women to hate each other by providing a pleasurable drama about…women hating each other?

Only time will tell.

The Great “Golden Girls” Marathon: “Blind Ambitions”

Since it’s been quite a while since I posted about my dearly-beloved Golden Girls, I thought I’d take a minute and post about one of my favourite episodes from the first season. In this episode, we meet yet another member of the extended family, in this case Lily, Rose’s sister, who has recently gone blind and struggles to make it on her own.

As my Boyfriend recently pointed out, it’s an interesting fact that the women that hail from St. Olaf (with the exception of Rose) seem to be a bit quicker on the uptake than Rose herself. This is distinct from the men, such as Rose’s cousin Sven or the three men who come to determine whether Rose will be eligible for the St. Olaf Woman of the Year Prize, all of whom are quite as dense (if not more so) than Rose. Lily seems to have escaped the veil of idiocy that surrounds almost all of the other inhabitants of this small Minnesota town.

Throughout the episode, brief as it is, we get a good sense that Lily has really struggled to adapt to life as a blind person. She is clearly a woman who is used to doing what she wants when she wants, and her physical disability has made it difficult for her to adapt to a different kind of life. As a result, she finds that she has to rely on Rose to an extraordinary degree and, unsurprisingly, she asks Rose to come life with her. As happens so often in the series, Rose finds herself torn between various competing personal loyalties.

I’ve always thought that The Golden Girls was fairly progressive in its articulation and representation of disability. The disabled persons who appear in the show are, in many ways, treated just like any other characters. For the most part they aren’t just magical figures that sweep in for a very special episode, only to serve as a message. Now, admittedly, Lily doesn’t really appear again in the show, but it is true that she has a richness and a depth that one rarely sees in a one-off sitcom appearance. We get a real sense of her, both as an individual as well as part of Rose’s very large family. Just as importantly, we also get a strong, almost gut-wrenching sense of what she has lost, when she breaks down and confesses that she yearns for the days when she could still see.

It is thus refreshing that the episode ends with Lily taking control of her own life and deciding that she can, indeed, be independent without Rose’s assistance. Rose’s decision to force Lily to be independent is certainly heart-wrenching for her, but in the end it enables Lily to prove to herself and to her sister that she is capable of leading a life of her own without assistance from others.

Of course, the episode is also full of some truly hilarious moment, as when Rose rediscovers her old teddy bear that was almost sold at the garage sale. The high-pitched voce that she adopts when talking with that teddy bear engenders a screech of dismay from Dorothy, and it is hard not to erupt into laughter at the banter between these two.

Next up, we meet Blanche’s father Big Daddy. Blanche, like her fellow women, must contend with the various pressures of a family.

The Great “Golden Girls” Marathon: “Job Hunting” (S1, Ep. 22)

In today’s entry of the marathon, I want to talk about “Job Hunting,” one of the final episodes of the first season. In this episode, Rose loses her job at the counseling center and, faced with financial insolvency, embarks on a job search that proves less than fruitful.

This is one of the first episodes that starts to address the broader cultural issues of the 1980s head-on. In this case, one of the primary thematic interests of the episodes is the fact that many employers will refuse to hire a person simply because they have reached a certain age (this will be a recurring issue in later episodes as well). Rose has to face the unpleasant realization that the late 20th Century workforce is incredibly hostile to those over 50, particularly women. So great is her shame at this, indeed, that she conceals the full extent of her futile search from her friends, until the futility of it makes it impossible to hide any longer.

Furthermore, it is also striking that Rose, perhaps more than any of the other characters, has had to contend with the economic realities of being a widow after being a housewife. When Dorothy pointedly asks her what she did after Charlie died, she had to pick up the pieces and try to forge an independent identity for herself. However, she also reminds Dorothy that she was younger then and Dorothy’s response–which hilariously points out that both she and Blanche have also gotten older–is not only uproariously funny but also a reminder that the women need each other’s strength to get through these difficult times.

The issue of elder poverty is one that will recur throughout the series, as each of the women must contend in one way or another with the fact that their lives are predicated on a certain scarcity. Though it is easy to forget, part of the reason that they live with one another is because it was too expensive to live on their own. The economic realities of the world they live in are rarely far outside the frame, a perpetual reminder of the precariousness of each of their lives. It is also noteworthy that the women continually support one another in these pinched financial times, for they understand that it is only through their collective emotional and financial strength that they can manage to withstand the curveballs that their culture continually throws at them.

It is striking that the job that Rose eventually attains is one which Blanche roundly criticizes as being beneath her. Yet, as Rose passionately responds, it’s better than sitting around feeling sorry for herself. The chance to work again, even if it as at a diner, represents for her an opportunity to reclaim her lost agency. (Of course, it’s worth pointing out that she eventually returns to being a counselor at a grief center, though whether it’s the one that recently closed or another one is never clarified).

In the next episode, we meet Rose’s sister, and Rose has to face a perilous choice about that sister’s disability.

The Great “Golden Girls” Marathon: “Flu Attack” (S1, Ep. 21)

Well, it has been a long time since I wrote a post on The Golden Girls. So, to take a bit of a break from the oppressive political news that seems to assail us each and every day, I decided to do a short entry on one of the final episodes of the first season, “Flu Attack,” in which Blanche, Dorothy, and Rose contract a flu and, in the midst of their sniping, also must contend with the fact that each of them is in the running for a prestigious volunteer award.

The episode is marked in particular by one of Sophia’s most humorous and self-reflexive stories. In her telling, pesto was inadvertently created when a village healer gave “Salvador, the village idiot” a salve for an ear infection. Once he realized that the substance actually tasted great on linguini, he decided to market it. When Dorothy accuses her of making the whole thing up, Sophia immediately responds, “I’m old. I’m supposed to be colorful.” Naturally, the scene is played for laughs, but it also contains an awareness of the

The revelation that it is Sophia who will be winning the Best Friend of the Friends of Good Health Award is one of the first instances in which we see her extraordinary level of involvement in the community (this theme emerges more fully in a future season). Furthermore, it also allows us to see the extent to which all four of them are deeply engaged in civic and public service. In the past, some critics have reprimanded the show for not allowing its four women to be more politically active, and I have always wondered if they have been watching the same show that I have. While a writer like Susan Faludi states that the women are safely ensconced in the home (and thus do not pose a challenge to the male order), I would argue that these moments of engagement on their part actually do serve as a site of resistance. They refuse to fade into irrelevance,

I’ve always found this to be one of the best episodes from the first season, as it is one of the ones that clearly shows how both the writing has matured and the four leads have begun to grow more comfortable with one another. There is still a bit of an edge to the comedy, but by now it has already been tempered by the obvious love among the four women, a love made all the more touching by their reconciliation at the end of the episode. It’s worth pointing out, however, that the sparring between Blanche and Dorothy in particular is uproariously funny, particularly their argument over custody of the blanket.

However, there are a few tender moments sprinkled amidst the vitriol, as when Blanche in a fit of pique calls Rose a “nerd” and the latter breaks down into tears. While it is clearly intended to be a humorous moment (and it is), it also reveals both Rose’s innate tenderness (for all of her competitiveness) and is also a moment of release from the bickering that has so far taken place. Rose can give as good as she gets, however, as when she passive aggressively reminds Dorothy that she cannot possibly get the award, given that too few people like her. And of course Blanche has her own vulnerabilities, as when she pays a waiter at the event to be her “date,” since her own was unwilling to go with her in her state.

All in all, this is one of the funniest episodes of the first season, if not an explicitly political one.

In the next installment, Rose finds herself unemployed and must attempt to find another job, which turns out to be much more difficult than any of them had anticipated.

The Great “Golden Girls” Marathon: “The Operation” (S1, Ep. 18)

In today’s installment of “The Great Golden Girls Marathon,” we get to see both a moment of vulnerability from Dorothy and a truly spectacular dance scene between Dorothy and Rose. When Dorothy accidentally injures herself during a tap dance, she is forced to contend with her fear of hospitals and of surgery, while the other two must decide how they are going to perform without her (they eventually dub themselves “The Two Merry Widows”).

It’s rather nice to see Dorothy manifest something other than the sort of steely strength that is normally her way of being in the world. She is clearly quite frightened about the fact that she has to go through a fairly major surgery (and who wouldn’t  be scared, when even the doctors blurt out the truth that they can’t really guarantee that something won’t go amiss). While the whole scene in which the doctors act like complete idiots is played for laughs, it has just the slightest bit of edge to it, and that gives Dorothy’s determination to see the surgery through–but only after briefly escaping from the hospital.

Yet the episode also takes pains to show that, to a degree at least, she’s being just a bit ridiculous about the whole thing. When she meets her roommate, Bonnie, played by the inimitable Anne Haney, famous for her roles in both Mrs. Doubtfire and Mama’s Family), she realizes that her own crisis is rather small potatoes compared to Bonnie’s survival of breast cancer. While the particularities of women’s health issues wouldn’t really take full shape and get full treatment until later seasons, the fact that it is brought up in this early episode indicates how deeply this concern runs in the show’s ethos.

The highlight of the episode, in my opinion, is the spectacular tap-dancing scene between Rose and Blanche. There is something uniquely pleasurable in general about seeing the human body engaged in the beauty of the dance, and it becomes even more so when it is two characters that we have already begun to love. Rue and Betty seem to have a particular bond with one another that exists in that pleasurably intimate space between intense friendship and romantic desire, and this is frequently expressed in their ability to be physically intimate with one another.

Of course, it’s worth pointing out that the strongest bonds (particularly physical) exist in distinct pairs:  Dorothy/Blanche; Dorothy/Sophia; Blanche/Rose. I am not exactly sure what to make of this as of yet, though I suspect part of it has to do with the rather vexed relationship that existed between Bea and Betty when they weren’t in character. There’s no denying that there is powerful affection between all of the women, but there’s also truth to the observation that it’s definitely stronger between some of them than others.

In the next installment, Blanche meets yet another man who wants to make her a permanent part of his life, while Dorothy and Rose attempt to take on that most gargantuan of household tasks:  the installation of a toilet.

The Great “Golden Girls” Marathon: “The Truth Will Out” (S1, Ep. 16)

In today’s entry in “The Great Golden Girls Marathon,” we once again meet some members of the girls’ family, in this case Rose’s daughter Kirsten and granddaughter Charley. While Rose has spent the years since her husband’s death cultivating his legacy and encouraging her children to see him as a successful businessman, it gradually becomes clear that, in fact, he was a terrible salesman, and that he left her very little in his will.

However, on the way to that revelation, Rose finds that she has to lie to both her daughter and her friends, claiming that it was bad investments on her part that led to the lack of funds. Kirsten, unsurprisingly, condemns her mother’s alleged irresponsibility, proclaiming that she has never been so ashamed of her. Somehow, it becomes acceptable for her to show the utmost disregard for her mother’s feelings, to say nothing of the respect that she should theoretically at least an effort to demonstrate.

It should come as no surprise that Kirsten proves to be quite the ungrateful and indeed disrespectful to her mother when she believes that Rose has squandered the fortune that her father allegedly built. The fraught and often contentious relationship between children and their parents would prove to be an ongoing tension in many episodes of the series (not least between Dorothy and Sophia), but here it takes on an especially cutting edge, and we’re definitely not encouraged to sympathize with Kirsten.

Indeed, it’s only when Rose realizes that the myth she has propagated about Charlie has begun to distort the view that her grandchildren have of their grandfather that she feels that she must at last come clean about the reality of his legacy. It’s rather touching, I think, that Rose was willing to sacrifice her own good image in her daughter’s eyes rather than sully her husband’s conversation. It’s also rather nice that Rose, and Kirsten, finally realize that it is Charlie’s success as a good person that matters, more than the amount of money that he was able to leave his widow and family.

In a fun bit of casting trivia, this is the first of two times that daughter Kirsten appears in the show. She would return in the final season when Rose suffers cardiac arrest, though in the latter she is played by a different actress. If anything, her later incarnation is even more unpleasant, since she blames the other four women for her mother’s health scare. Truly, Kirsten is one of the most unpleasant of the many progeny that appear in the show, and one wonders how someone as sweet and kind as Rose could raise such an unpleasant daughter (I’ll have much more to say on this when we get to Kirsten’s second appearance).

In the next episode, we meet yet another member of the extended family (which happens a great deal in the series, particularly in the first season), when Blanche’s niece Lucy comes for a visit and reveals that she acts a little more like Blanche than is probably good for her.

The Great “Golden Girls” Marathon: “In a Bed of Rose’s” (S1, Ep. 15)

In today’s installment of The Great Golden Girls Marathon, Rose strikes up a one-night-stand with a man who, unbeknownst to her, is actually married. The real kicker, though, is that he dies after their encounter (in her bed!), leaving Rose to deal with the consequences.

Of course, it ultimately becomes apparent that Al is in fact a married man, and that Rose–who has always considered herself the most morally upright of the four women–has become the very thing she had condemned Dorothy for being. She has become the other woman. That being said, she deserves kudos for being willing to meet Al’s wife face-to-face to tell her not only that her husband has been carrying on an affair, but that he also died in her bed. The conversation between the two women, in which Al’s wife reveals that she has long known of his infidelity, is one of the richest and most compelling in the entire first season, as the women commiserate over their shared relationship with a man who was, all things considered, something of a cad.

It’s particularly striking that this episode comes after one in which Dorothy also has to contend with the moral consequences of adultery. Rose, however, has to deal with the other side of that equation, in that she has to do the right thing and actually confront the wife of her paramour. As always, The Golden Girls shows just how complicated, messy, and sometimes unpleasant life can be. Even when we think we’re just having a bit of fun, sometimes our actions have unintended consequences with which we then have to contend.

Furthermore, Rose also has to contend with the fact that Al, like her husband Charlie, died while making love. She clearly has a great deal of emotional guilt that she carries around as a result of Charlie’s death, and she has to accept that sometimes bad things happen, and that there is nothing intrinsically wrong with her that leads to men happening to die while in her amorous embraces. (There’s also a great joke near the end of the episode, in which she says that her next date also dies, as well as the police investigating the case. Truly one of the funniest moments in the first season).

All in all, this is one of my favourite episodes of the first season, because it truly does allow Rose to finally begin breaking out of her prudish shell and engaging in the same sort of romantic escapades as the other women.  As such, it stands as one of those points where we do see some character development and, frankly, I have always found the later Rose much more appealing and charismatic than her iteration in the first few episodes of the first season.

Rose will also be the focus of our next entry. In the next episode, we’ll discover some deeply-held secrets about Charlie, as Rose has to contend with her desire to protect Charlie’s memory with the demands and judgment of her daughter Kirsten.

The Great “Golden Girls” Marathon: “That Was No Lady” (S1, Ep. 14)

Today on The Great Golden Girls Marathon we’ll be talking about the episode in which Dorothy takes up with a married man, a fellow school teacher named Glen O’Brien. While Sophia, unsurprisingly, judges her harshly for doing so, Blanche and Rose remain divided in their advice.

It’s actually rather surprising, and pleasant, to see the vulnerability Dorothy expresses in her tender moments with Glen (before she realizes that he’s cheating on his wife). For her, Glen represents another opportunity to share her life with someone with whom she has a powerful physical and emotional connection, someone with whom she can be completely comfortable in her own body. While Bea Arthur is not always associated with vulnerability, this is one instance in which her skills as an actress are brought to the forefront. The unfortunate realization that Glen has been cheating on his wife all along punctures that pleasantness, revealing Dorothy to be, at first inadvertently, and then willingly, the other woman.

There is a certain irony that Dorothy continues to see Glen even after she discovers that he is cheating on his wife. It almost seems disingenuous that a woman whose husband left her for a younger woman after 38 years of marriage would then herself indulge in an extramarital affair. But then, that is not being entirely fair to Dorothy. The heart wants what it wants, and it sometimes doesn’t care about the the obstacles that our everyday life puts in thew way. It is this fraught and dangerous personal territory that she has to traverse as she tries to figure out how she should contend with this seemingly intractable problem.

Of course, for all of its subversive strains, The Golden Girls remains in many ways a somewhat conservative show, and so the affair ultimately ends, with Dorothy recognizing that she cannot continue putting her own morality in such jeopardy. Even so, there is an acknowledgment that dating and romance can be especially challenging as one gets older and as the old ties that bound us start to loosen up. It’s hard not to feel at least a little bit of sympathy for Glen’s plight; he recognizes that while his marriage has failed, it’s not as easy as he would like it to be to start out afresh. He cannot recognize (though Dorothy does), that life doesn’t always work out as neatly as you might like it to.

Having re-watched The Golden Girls in its entirety, it’s rather striking the extent to which the first season focuses so much on the romantic exploits of Dorothy. Given the fact that so many jokes in subsequent rely on the fact that she is dateless and has no social life, her rather robust and eventful dating life in the first season is all the more extraordinary. Further, as I noted before, it also gives Bea Arthur a chance to show off her acting abilities; she’s just as compelling a romantic leading lady as her co-stars.

Next up, Rose has her own extramarital affair to deal with, when the man she has been sleeping with ends up dying in her bed.

The Great “Golden Girls” Marathon: “A Little Romance” (S1, Ep. 13)

In today’s episode of The Great Golden Girls Marathon, we find out that Rose has begun to fall in love with one of her colleagues at the counseling center, a certain Jonathan Newman who, it turns out, is a little person. Shenanigans ensue, of course, especially when Blanche invites Rose’s beau over for dinner.

As it would come to do with several other minority identities, The Golden Girls does a fairly nuanced job of portraying Jonathan as simply a person like anyone else. He is intelligent and well-spoken with a wicked sense of humour. However, he is also flawed and rather intolerant in his own way, as evidenced by the fact that he can’t continue his relationship with Rose due to her non-Jewish identity. Of course, the thwarting of their romance is quite in keeping with the series’ investment in ensuring that we in the audience understand that it is the relationship among the four women that takes center-stage.

Certainly, there are parts of the situation that cause us to laugh, but I would argue that we are not invited to see Jonathan’s short stature as the source of the humour. Instead, it is Blanche’s awkwardness and inability to cope with it that incites our laughter. Jonathan is so clearly comfortable in his own skin that he throws her own awkwardness into sharp relief.

This episode also featured two notable guest stars:  Billy Barty and the renowned psychic Jeane Dixon (both of whom appear in a dream sequence of Rose’s that is as ridiculous as it sounds). Of course, this wouldn’t be the last time that the show would feature famous personalities and actors, and that roster would come to include such luminaries as Bob Hope, Debbie Reynolds, and so many others would grace the stage.

This is one of those early episodes that does not, as of yet, dive headfirst into the political as would come to be the case in Seasons 2-6 (I’ll get to the final season at some point). Instead, it relies on a typical sitcom setup to make a larger point. It’s a subtle point, certainly, but it does help to illustrate just how versatile The Golden Girls was and how even at this early stage in its development the show had already managed to hone the sharpness of its humour.

Up next, the women dive into some murky moral ground when Dorothy finds herself having an affair with a married man.