There’s no happy ending to be mined from the lives of Joan Crawford and Bette Davis. Their final days, like their embittered rivalry, was filled with anguish and dismay, and the only difference between the days of What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? and, for the most part, the remainder of their careers and existence is that society stopped caring about their well-being. Popular culture deemed them both hags and has-beens from a dejected era, like old linens ready to be sent to the thrift store or the dump. Whichever got rid of them sooner. Crawford and Davis’ ill-feelings towards each other were instead projected inward towards themselves. Their final years weren’t meant for happiness. Instead, it became a cornerstone for unending regret, the kind that doesn’t let one leave this miserable earth easily. Crawford and Davis left this planet crippled, sad and alone. Feud: Bette and Joan reflects that sadness appropriately. Sometimes, one’s resolution is knowing it didn’t come at all. Sometimes, we must accept that closure can simply be the lack thereof. But that doesn’t mean the tragic can’t also be painfully beautiful.
With last week’s penultimate episode serving as a more traditional, bombastic finale, this week’s actual finale, the remorsefully-titled “You Mean All This Time We Could’ve Been Friends?,” serves as a sorrowful, tenderhearted epilogue and a heartbreaking goodbye. After soiling every sense of good decency left in her deflating career, Crawford (Jessica Lange) finds herself in a spacious, if isolated and empty, NYC apartment, with only the companionship of a cute little pupper. With nearly zero offers coming her way, Crawford must degrade herself to cheap shlock like Trog, a notoriously terrible creature feature that also happens to serve as the legendary actress’ final feature film. Between the horrible new movie and her bizarre advice book, My Way of Life, which many readers purchased just to laugh at Crawford’s embarrassing expense, Crawford decides enough is enough. If the world is going to treat her like a laughing stock, then the world won’t see her at all. She isn’t going to parade herself as a joke simply for everyone else’s amusement. If she’s going to be miserable, she’s going to be miserable all by herself.
Meanwhile, Davis (Susan Sarandon) doesn’t find much satisfaction in her later years either. Forced into unremarkable television work, where she sacrifices the choosiness of her earlier, better years, Davis lives comfortably as a shell of her former stature. She lacks the raw intimacy that she once commanded onto the screen. In other words, her work has become excruciatingly dull. If that weren’t enough, she cannot ultimately earn the love and affection of her daughter, B.D. (Kiernan Shipka), who is progressing into a woman very much unlike her mother. Set to become a born again Christian alongside her recent husband, whom she married far longer than her mother ever anticipated, B.D. doesn’t hold much sympathy for Bette Davis’s late-minute plea for tolerance. If she wasn’t so caught up in her own petty self-indulgence, maybe things would be different. But, alas, Feud is an anthology series that’s defined by the misery, mistakes and regrets.
For as it has been made abundantly clear, Feud: Bette and Joan is all about suffering. Admit all their bickering and squabbling, the greatest tragedy of Bette and Joan’s relationship is that they could never see their similarities, only merely their differences. Is that the fault of the studio, who abused their indulgent ugly sides? Or is it the fault of the Hollywood system, who regrets older women and anyone that doesn’t meet their high standards of beauty? Or is it ultimately the fault of the two actresses, who couldn’t ever reconcile, even in their pained final years? Perhaps it’s a combination of all three. Because Crawford and Davis were informed by their weaknesses, however, they both ended up neglected and unloved. It’s a pitiful story, but one with great resonance too.
In the end, Crawford and Davis were screen icons, even if they didn’t understand it or even appreciate it. That point is made rather poignantly, if not necessarily with subtlety, throughout this final episode. As a Ryan Murphy production, Feud: Bette and Joan never had the benefit of nuance. Some rather on-the-nose dialogue, especially towards the last half of this final episode, made its final points a little overstated for their own good. Yes, these aren’t necessarily complicated ideas, but such explicitly stated segments lack the richness of Feud at its best. Ultimately, however, it was a mixed bag from the beginning to the end, and any time the series found itself at a high point, it also found a way to end it on a low note. This finale, while very good for what it was, isn’t necessarily different.
Overall, though, I’d feel comfortable calling Feud: Bette and Joan a good, if flawed, series. Its powerhouse performances, its impeccable period designs, its tender, yet epic, empathy, all of it serviced a heartfelt, inspired, passionately created series that explored meaningful themes and painful revelations with gravity and gravitas. Feud: Bette and Joan doesn’t quite live up to Murphy’s highest standards, but like Davis and Crawford at the pique of their on-screen dynamic, when it came together just right, it was electric. It was risque. It was bold. It was flashy. It was occasionally brilliant. It was a ferocious, fitting finale, filled with feelings and fervor. It was fun and it was forlorn. It was Feud.
Thank you so much for reading. I hope you enjoyed the ride as much as I did.