Television: Feud: Bette and Joan

How do we feel about this series? I'll say overall I enjoyed it. I think Susan Sarandon and Jessica Lange did amazing jobs. In fact, everyone involved did really well. And the broader look at how difficult it was to be a woman—especially an older woman—in Hollywood was equally spot on. And continues to be relevant now.

Of course, I worry that whenever a show like this tries to embed social commentary in the spectacle, that commentary gets lost under the color and noise of the story. It's easy for people who don't want the system to change to ignore what's being said and just stay in the plot. One can discard the additional layers the way one eats just the frosting on a cake and throws away the rest.

But anyway. The arc of this particular season: Joan and Bette are each tapped for Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? We see how, for them this is a step down in the world, but they're desperate for whatever roles they can get. These two women, clinging to their heydays . . . And here, too, is where the message about women being disposable in the industry can also be subverted by anyone who would rather things remain the way they are. Because it's just as easy to say, "Those broads shoulda known when to let go and retire gracefully."

Of course, if they'd done that there would be no story.

Feud: Bette and Joan is as much a story of two strong personalities as anything else.

In any case, the arc goes on, through the troubled production—though it felt somewhat tame in this retelling—and the nasty Oscar race that followed (probably the best episodes of the season). And then continued to meander through each actress' career and personal life, though the second half of the season felt a little limp. They almost worked together again, but things got vicious (again), and then they lost touch and each slumped in her own way. It's tough to maintain tension at this point because they didn't work together again or even stay in touch from what we see. We can only marvel at the similarities and wonder at their lack of mutual compassion, even as one character points out to Bette that Joan is probably the only other person in the world who understands how she feels. But instead of commiserating, they bristle at one another. The two cats of Kilkenny come to mind.

Any time you retrace someone's life, you play a game of "if only." The missed opportunities, the what ifs. There's a lot of "it's too bad" in there, too. One can feel sorry for Bette and Joan, and one can also feel frustrated by them, but what's the lesson here? Aside from a sad story of two women struggling against a system stacked against them, that is? What can we take away and use? Because if there's nothing but the tragedy, we're really only voyeurs.

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