A woman’s touch is a welcomed one for Feud: Bette and Joan. Ryan Murphy’s newest FX anthology series finds Murphy himself evacuating the director’s chair in favor of Gwyneth Horder-Payton, a TV director with a long established history with the station. She helmed installments of The Shield and Sons of Anarchy, as well as The Walking Dead, Battlestar Galactica, The Killing and Criminal Minds, to name a few, elsewhere. Her experienced and assured hand is noticeable all throughout this third episode, “Mommie Dearest,” which is easily the best episode to date, as well as the most telling.
With production on What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? well underway, Joan Crawford (Jessica Lange) and Bette Davis (Susan Sarandon)’s relationship couldn’t be more contentious. Trying to make peace with one another, constantly assuring each other that they’re working in one another’s best interests, it’s clear their boiling hatred is simply too hot not to burn. The awards temptation, which means the world to Joan and to Bette —even if the latter doesn’t want to admit as much — is simply too tempting, too promising, too fetching to their twilight eyes. It’s not about their newest, hammiest performances; it’s about their legacy, and they both would love nothing more than the squish the other into the oblivion of irreverence. They need the other to fail to succeed.
And yet, Baby Jane‘s success hinges on both of them, working together in unison, and they’re not ignorant nor fool-hearted enough to ignore or see past that. In tried-and-true fashion, they’re actually more similar than not, and if they didn’t let their selfish differences get in the way, they’d probably be close friends — at least, in another, less glamorous life. Of course, old Hollywood isn’t about being chummy; it’s about getting ahead by stepping on the other’s neck. Throw some kicking in too, for good measure. Davis and Crawford might not be in their prime, but they know how to kick a head.
Such bickering and biting are expected. What brings “Mommie Dearest” above the rest is the central focus of feminity this time around. Whether it’s motherhood, sisterhood, female friends, frenemies or mere acquaintances, this episode is all about the women. And it damn well should be. Much like how The People vs. O.J. Simpson is at its best when it focuses on racial injustices, as well as society’s inherent sexism, Feud: Bette and Joan should spend more time building its themes on ageism and, yes, inherent sexism. For all its explosive melodrama and heightened emotions, Feud: Bette and Davis is at its best at its calmest this week. A conversation shared between Joan and Bette at a quiet LA bar discussing Joan’s disturbing past and Bette’s feelings of inadequacy are way more inviting than ones where they’re practically at each other’s throats — even though, admittedly, some of those sequences can certainly be a lot of fun to watch.
Feud: Bette and Davis is centered around a larger-than-life feud between two larger-than-life Hollywood legends. It’s understandable why it’s often so lustfully over-the-top. Yet, humanity always rings true. Whether it’s Bette trying to teach her inexperienced daughter B.D. Merrill (Kiernan Shipka) how to act, in an effort to rekindle their bond, or it’s Joan trying to share a moment with her twin daughters, Cathy (Chelsea Summer) and Cindy (Brooke Star) — even though she’s typically too worried about their social appearances than their genuine concerns — or it’s Joan finding a (seemingly) rare moment of genuine emotional honesty with Mamasita (Jackie Hoffman), as well as copious moments of emotional dishonesty with noisy gossipper Hedda Hopper (Judy Davis), “Mommie Dearest” is never short on femininity and its different shades, and it was wise to let a female take the reigns. A woman’s deft, understanding touch is felt throughout, and it makes the impact and the resonance all the more impactful this time.