For us, there really is no such thing as an unenjoyable episode of Feud. We’re too far in and the show pushes too many buttons for us not to start each episode from a place of love. It’s Ryan Murphy’s little campy gift, just for us.
Having said that, we think this episode reveals the weakness behind the idea of devoting 8 hours to this story. There really isn’t eight hours of story to be told. Now, Murphy and team covered that in the manner we expected them to before we saw a second of footage: by bouncing around on the timeline to give the audience more backstory on the two women. With the flashbacks to their time in the ’40s and ’50s ruling Hollywood to the flash-“forward” to 1978, a year after Crawford’s death, Murphy & Co. have given themselves enough leeway to tell a story somewhat broader and deeper than one “merely” about two aging stars fighting on a movie set. And for the most part, the pacing and storytelling have been fairly meticulous by Murphy standards, allowing the story to unfold somewhat confidently, with underlying themes of female aging and Hollywood misogyny firmly in place.
But with this episode, the thinness of the plot became a bit more evident to us. What happened this episode? The cast and crew of WEHTBJ spend the weeks before its release worried about its success, then spent the weeks after its release reacting to its success with a sense of surprise. That’s about it – and it’s not quite enough to cover an hour of interesting television.
Sure, we got to reiterate the differences between the two leads; how Joan reacted to success by obsessing over her co-star’s better reviews and how Bette reacted to success with great vigor and indulgence. But we also got sidelines about Frank Sinatra being an asshole and the wholly fictional Pauline attempting to start a career as a director. Admirable attempts were made to loop these two storylines back to the main one. The Sinatra interlude was set up to show how much Hollywood just eats up its players and treats them like crap; how everyone, no matter how successful, is just another meal on the Hollywood food chain because there’s always going to be someone higher up. The Pauline storyline was a variation on the theme of sexism in Hollywood – and a reminder that women from Crawford’s generation, no matter how primed they might have been by the circumstances of their lives to accept a feminist argument, were simply in no position to do so. Crawford made a good argument about how money in Hollywood will always win out over question of equality, but the reality of that scene was about how blithely cruel and dismissive she was to another woman trying to make her way in the game.
Neither of these interludes were necessarily poor fits to the story (and the Aldrich sideline sets him up emotionally to take on the director role for Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlotte), but they did feel a bit … thin. Wheel-spinning, until we can get to the real fireworks of the 1963 Oscars and the doomed attempt to recapture the WEHTVJ success with another film. And we can’t deny that the Sinatra stuff was entertaining to watch. Toby Huss nailed the essence of Sinatra so well in such a few short scenes that we want to see him do a biopic now. But the Pauline stuff felt exactly like what it was: tacked on to the story. It’s as if they couldn’t find a way to continue the feminist argument into this episode, so they merely had Alison Wright jump in front of the camera to remind the audience “… and also: WOMEN DIRECTORS!” Wright is very charming as Pauline and we have no problem watching her, but the entire side arc didn’t feel like it was going to go anywhere after this (a likelihood given the fictional nature of the character).
Fortunately, this show is stuffed to the gills with great actors who know what to do with the material. We can make critiques about the slight loss of focus this episode, but when we get killer scenes like Stanley Tucci as Jack Warner going toe-to-toe with Jessica Lange as a drunken, bitter Joan Crawford … well. It’s time to shut up, lean back, put your feet up, and just enjoy the hell out of it. Ditto with Susan Sarandon awkwardly singing her way through a near-perfect recreation of the awkward way Bette Davis sang on The Andy Williams Show. While these little bits of Hollywood history ephemera don’t necessarily advance the themes or plot either, they’re just way too much fun for us to complain about.
But we’ll take the interludes and the slightly weak asides; first, because the show remains entertaining, and second, because we know there are major fireworks to come. It’s the Oscars next week, bitches, and Joan don’t play.
[Photo Credit: Suzanne Tenner/FX]