Feud: Bette and Joan is, above all else, an anthology series centered around feminism and ageism in the dog eat dog boy’s club known as Hollywood. Joan Crawford (Jessica Lange) and Bette Davis’ (Susan Sarandon) bitter rivalry during the making of What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? is, expectedly, the fine dressing around these heated themes. Similar to how Ryan Murphy’s previous FX endeavor, The People vs. O.J. Simpson, wasn’t merely a well-made recreation of “the trial of the century,” Feud is tactfully, skillfully and poignantly about the bigger picture around this very particular picture.
“More, or Less,” the fourth episode in this eight-episode season, is centered around conviction and compromise, the bitter failure in the midst of unequivocal success. With their controversial “b-movie” in the can, Davis, Crawford and director Robert Aldrich (Alfred Molina) sit around with their anxious thumbs twiddling before their expected flop is savaged by audiences and the critics alike. Instead, it’s a bonafide hit, with rave reviews, ravenous standing ovations and endless other accolades and acclaims. But it’s no paradise for Crawford. Riddled with self-pity in light of dried up opportunities, she spends her days drunkenly refusing to promote the damn movie, much to Jack Warner’s (an endlessly marvelous Stanley Tucci) annoyance. With the Oscars on the very near horizon, Davis is expected to earn a nomination while Crawford is potentially left out. As if their hypersensitive ego couldn’t be bruised enough as it is, that’s the final straw.
Of course, the ramifications of such self-aggrandizing won’t be seen until next week. Instead, Feud wisely focuses on the supporting cast this time, namely on Aldrich and his poor, underappreciated assistant, Pauline Jameson (Alison Wright). The former wants to use Baby Jane‘s success to jumpstart his ascension into a serious film director; the latter wants to direct, period, in a time when female directors are more than a rarity, if not a complete anomaly. Of course, both start out hopeful, only to be ruthlessly, mercilessly stripped of any semblance of happiness. Jameson wrote a script during all of Baby Jane‘s madness —somehow and quite miraculously —called The Black Slipper, which she wants Aldrich to produce and Crawford to star in. Crawford isn’t interested, as she believes she shouldn’t waste her final “last chance” on some “nobody’s first chance.” It would be beneath her, she believes. Meanwhile, Aldrich is supportive at first, but the high pressures of Four for Texas, his ill-conceived western comedy starring an unmanageable Frank Sinatra, and other personal problem make him lash out at Pauline, in what’s easily the episode’s most devasting, defeating moment. Thankfully, she has one persistent fan in Mamacita (Jackie Hoffman), Crawford’s loyal assistant.
Mamacita believes Jameson’s future directing prospects represents America’s ingrained optimism and hopeful spirit, and with the female population expected to outweigh the male, the immigrant believes it’s only a matter of time before Jameson gets her own shot — either metaphorically or literally. In a way, Jameson’s subplot serves as both this episode’s most hopeful and most pessimistic inclusion. Unless proven otherwise, there’s little evidence that The Black Slipper was, in fact, a real project, which suggests it’s an inclusion from the showrunners to bring home the larger themes of this new series. There’s, of course, nothing wrong with that; creative liberties are TV’s bread and butter. But knowing it’s (likely) fiction makes the impact cut not quite as deep, as least for me. If this were taken straight from the true story, then it’s utterly heartbreaking. Knowing it’s added to make the story more modernized, though, cuts a little bit of the injustice.
But knowing “More, Or Less” is directed by a woman — in this case, Liza Johnson, the filmmaker behind Hateship, Loveship and last year’s Elvis & Nixon — makes the impact felt all-the-same. Like last week’s installment, Feud is at its best when it has something meaningful to say. Even when the 1973 interview segments with Catherine Zeta-Jones and Kathy Bates get preachy, at least they seem moderately sincere. Feud continues Murphy’s pursuit to push the envelope and to use the past to inform our troubled present. It’s never perfect, but it’s powerful in key moments, like this newest episode.
Feud: Bette and Joan airs Sunday nights on FX.