Our review last week of the first episode noted our slight surprise on how light a touch creator Ryan Murphy took when it came to playing around with the campier elements of the story. With the second episode, it’s clear that the camp factor has ramped up considerably, but Murphy has taken the somewhat admirable, but slightly unworkable approach of marrying that gay camp sensibility to woke 2017 feminism. Murphy and team are making the argument that Davis and Crawford were two women who were more alike than unalike (which is questionable, but not a bad starting point) and who could have been amazing allies if The Man hadn’t pitted them against each other after The System exploited them, chewed them up and spit them out. There are times where the attempts to mirror each woman to the other come off a bit clumsy this episode in a “Here’s Joan’s problem and her approach to it, and now here’s Bette’s problem and her approach to it” kind of way, just as there are times when the desire to be woke conflicts with the desire to serve up high camp. This prompts a question that fascinates us, for which we have no good answer: Can a feminist point be effectively argued when married with gay male camp? We’re inclined to say that it can, but we wonder if it can be sustained over the course of the next six episodes.
The best – and slightly cringeworthy – example of this “gay camp feminism” issue came during the framing sequence set at the 1978 Oscars. This frame is working less and less as time goes on, partially because the novelty of watching Kathy Bates channel Joan Blondell and Catherine Zeta Jones create her own idiosyncratic version of Olivia deHavilland is beginning to wear thin. But it’s also becoming something of an issue that neither of the women in this sequence sound like human beings. They’re exposition machines with a couple of one-liners thrown in every now and then. Davis tells director Bob Aldrich, in one of the more quotable lines of the series “I don’t need subtext, Bob. I need good text!” But that could’ve been the title of this episode, given how openly characters tend to state their agendas and fears.
Anyway, Bates-as-Blondell got a line in as she disagreed with Zeta-Jones-as-deHavilland about how women would never allow themselves to be manipulated into war with each other anymore. Blondell snorts her disagreement, tells her not to kid herself and then says, “Women will do what they always do when they’re cornered. Eat their own and pick their teeth with the bones.” It’s a witty, drag-worthy line that could’ve come straight out of the script for The Women, which is partially why it lands with a thud here. It’s one of those “Sex and the City”-style lines written about women, spoken by a woman, but sounding every bit like something a gay man would say. And while it’s certainly easy to argue that a woman like Joan Blondell would not likely be making modern feminist statements in 1978, it still struck us as an odd, clunky choice to make; to basically undermine the entire argument of your piece because you want a character to have a funny, campy line.
It might not have stood out to us at all except for the scenes with Bob Aldrich (a never-better Alfred Molina) and his wife Harriet, which were unexpectedly poignant and got straight to the heart of the series’ main point, which is that women are at the mercies of men in ways big and small all throughout their lives, and men turn around and blame and belittle them for it. Now, there’s nothing wrong with showing multiple arguments and points of view. There is a question throughout the series as to whether these women could have ever gotten along (“It was chemical!” says Blondell) or whether they were victims of a patriarchal studio system that pitted them against each other. Blondell got a great crack in arguing the former, but Molly Price is giving such a quietly wounded performance as Harriet Aldrich that her more sensitive argument naturally has more weight to it.
But we should stop right here and repeat something we said in last week’s review: If we’re nitpicking, it’s because there’s just so much here to mull over. In the end, we’re inclined to think there’s nothing wrong with marrying a camp sensibility to a feminist argument. It’s just a very difficult thing to do and sometimes, the show seems to struggle with it. We spent four paragraphs on the topic of Camp vs. Feminism not to be critical so much as to point out how much this show is giving us to talk about. Make no mistake: this was a great episode of TV, even better than the pilot. First, because both leads are fully settled into their roles and any wobbling we might have noticed in last week’s performances (especially Sarandon) has evaporated this week. Lange is fully occupying a fully constructed version of Joan Crawford that’s utterly fascinating to watch. We talked a bit last week about how she’s using light touches of Joan in her mannerisms and walk without going overboard. This week, we found ourselves fascinated by the ways in which she’s modulating her voice. Listen to her the next time Joan gets really angry or really upset. There’s a deep, old-school actress quality to it that we’ve never heard from Lange before. She sounds like a woman who got voice lessons, in fact; which Crawford did. It’s a brilliant touch.
This episode seems to go to great lengths to show how manipulative Crawford could be when she wanted. She played Bob by making an unsuccessful move on him (which he rejected by explaining that he’s trying to save his marriage), and then when she got caught by Peter, immediately pivoted to essentially firing him as her boy toy, telling him he needs to be “recast,” much in the same way the sexy neighbor on WEHTBJ? did. To Joan, there is no real difference between the peculiar politics of the film set and the outer world. Lovers can be recast as quickly and coldly as day players – and for largely the same reason: because they make Joan Crawford feel bad about herself.
On the flip side is Bette, who is committed to her art but fearful of the places it’s taking her. “I don’t want to look ridiculous,” she says, of what will become her most iconic screen look. Crawford’s insecurities are bound up in loss of power, both professional and sexual. Davis’ insecurities are no less powerful than Joan’s but they focus more on her worth as an artist rather than her value as a sexual creature. Still, despite the ways the show tries to underline these differences between the women, in the end, Bette’s no less vain than Joan about her looks. It’s clear that, though she considers the Baby Jane makeup an artistic choice, she’s scared to death at the thought of how it’s going to be received. B.D.s almost shockingly cruel diatribe (Kiernan Shipka, no doubt realizing a decade-long dream to play Sally Draper as a hardcore bitch) to her mother about how pathetic she is had Bette in Bob’s arms within the hour. We’re not sure we totally buy the framing that these two actresses were so similar (although they clearly had a lot in common), but we can’t deny that as a storytelling device and a character framework, it’s working really well.
As for Sarandon, she lost the Sarandon sultriness that was getting in the way last week. We imagine it’s hard for her as an actress to just tamp down on her natural sensuality, but she managed it brilliantly this time, giving us a Bette who not only isn’t necessarily smooth and comfortable with sex (note her reaction when Bob touches her leg to position it during rehearsal), but also seems to turn to it as a way to make her feel pretty – or at the very least, less ugly. Her Davis is mercurial, fierce, funny, brilliant, but also insecure about herself in a way she can’t ever admit. And she’s got the cigarette mannerisms down cold.
The production design continues to dazzle and we’ll have much to say about the delights that passed in front of our eyes in this week’s “Bette and Joan Style” post, but we’ll say this for now: That scene of Jessica Lange in that RIDICULOUSLY fabulous caftan with Judy Davis in that straight-up ridiculous hat may just be our favorite costume moment of the year.
[Photo Credit: Suzanne Tenner/FX]