[WARNING: The following story contains spoilers about Sunday's Feud: Bette and Joan finale. Read at your own risk.]
In last week's episode of Feud: Bette and Joan, Olivia de Havilland (Catherine Zeta-Jones) was asked by a documentary filmmaker in 1978 if she felt bad for ending Joan Crawford's (Jessica Lange) career when she replaced her in Hush... Hush, Sweet Charlotte.
"Time did that all on its own," de Havilland says. "As it does to us all."
Time is also the offender in Sunday's finale, not the least because it ends with Crawford's death in 1977. Feud, which derived much of its buzz from the real-life bad blood between two screen legends, has primarily concerned itself with depicting the rampant misogyny and ageism in Hollywood that has barely changed in the 55 years since What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? But in its last few hours, the show has slyly pivoted to a poignant exploration of old age — a move that was very much purposeful.
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"What I really wanted to do was [to have] the last episode to be a meditation about aging," creator Ryan Murphy tells TVGuide.com. "It really was about my grandmother," who was the one to regale a young Murphy about Davis and Crawford's drama at the 1963 Oscars.
"I wanted to do something very emotional," he says. "It's the '70s [and] it was a very difficult period for both of them. They were losing roles or got very few good roles. I wanted that to be a microcosm of aging in general and how older people are treated or forgotten."
Down to Davis and Crawford donning a pair of red dresses in a dream sequence but short of a searing Ellen Burstyn monologue, the finale evokes shades of Requiem for a Dream, perfectly channeling the loneliness of old age. The opening montage, of Crawford doing mundane chores around her New York apartment and struggling to zip herself up in a dress that once fit, is both sad from a distance and unnerving once you start to picture yourself being eventually consigned to that same life of solitude. A chance to play a scientist in an indie movie perks her up, but then that movie turns out to be the schlocky B flick Trog. Davis, meanwhile, made eight failed television pilots and took jobs, as Victor Buono (Dominic Burgess) says, that were below her "high standards."
"That was the stuff I didn't really know about [until I started researching]," Murphy says. "Trog was [Crawford's] last movie — Trog! That was humiliating for her — you can see it on her face in the movie. Bette doing eight pilots that never went. They both had more to give but didn't have the chance to. To me, that's the most heartbreaking thing. They were survivors and were both fighting to stay in the game. That really moved me."
Even after her mastectomy and a series of debilitating strokes in 1983, Davis worked all the way until her death in 1989. Crawford, though, after seeing an unflattering photo of herself and pal Rosalind Russell in the paper, retired and effectively became a recluse until her death, holed up in her apartment with her Shih Tzu Princess Lotus Blossom and Mamacita (Jackie Hoffman), who returned to her on a part-time basis. (In real life, Mamacita never left Crawford and stayed with her until 1974.) It's in line with everything we know about stars and how the series has portrayed them — Crawford, so broken, demanding and image-obsessed that she pushed people away and, as Lange heartbreakingly verbalizes in the finale, doesn't "know who I am when I'm by myself"; Davis, a consummate workhorse who charged ahead in the face of adversity and could still connect with others and enjoy herself. (Murphy himself can attest to that — he met and interviewed the icon shortly before her death after writing to her as a child.)
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Despite their differences and yin-and-yang personalities, Feud has always made a point of showing how similar Crawford and Davis are, and one of their biggest common grounds was motherhood. They were both very aware they were far from perfect mothers but not for lack of effort. The finale wisely sidesteps Mommie Dearest — the book-turned-film that has unfortunately clouded Crawford's legacy — save for Crawford telling one of her twins, Cathy, that she knows about the "vile" tell-all her daughter Christina was writing. She declined to read the galleys because why read "something that could only hurt you" when you have so little time left.
Cathy says she's been a great mother in a way that's less about engendering sympathy for Crawford to combat the specter of Mommie Dearest and more about a daughter reassuring her mother that she did the best she could, and that will always be enough. Davis' daughter B.D. (Kiernan Shipka), who'd go on to write her own unflattering book about Davis, My Mother's Keeper, tells off her mother after an incident involving B.D.'s sons. Davis later voices her parenting regrets and makes new promises to her mentally challenged and institutionalized daughter Margot.
And what is old age without regrets? In a feverish dream sequence over cocktails and cards, Crawford, Davis, Jack Warner (Stanley Tucci) and Hedda Hopper (Judy Davis) air their grievances and reminisce about old times, wondering if the pain and suffering were worth it. (It was also a way to get Crawford and Davis in a scene together after they went their separate ways in the penultimate episode.) Davis proposes she and Crawford play a card game called Regrets (subtle!). "I'm sorry I wasn't more generous with you," Crawford says. Davis: "I wish I'd been a friend to you."
It's a little on the nose (the finale was also named after Jane's final line to Blanche in Baby Jane: "You Mean All This Time We Could Have Been Friends?"), but is beautifully played by Lange and Sarandon, and is no less moving or deeply sad in underscoring their wasted potential. The same goes for the final scene — a flashback to the stars' first day on Baby Jane, when they were laughing, joking and telling each other they hope to make a new friend from this experience. "By most accounts and from what Bette told me, I do believe [at first] there was that feeling of solidarity and putting differences aside to get through the movie," Murphy says. "But during filming, all these reports and rumors came out and they were pitted against each other, and it changed. ... That's the tragic part of it. You wonder what could've been."
Even Davis' famous quote about Crawford's death — "My mother always said don't say anything bad about the dead; only say good. Joan Crawford is dead. Good" — is tinged with melancholy, after a shell-shocked Davis rattles it off to a reporter who informs her of the news. "I loved how Susan played it," Murphy says. "Much more emotional than you would think and full of regret, which [Davis] told me she was when I interviewed her."
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Through eight episodes, Feud has completed an addictively watchable high-wire act of balancing delicious camp, eye-popping glamour (the Oscars episode remains a high point, and the show also re-recorded "Come Light the Candles" for the 1978 Oscars In Memoriam segment in the finale) and nakedly raw pathos while portraying and subverting sexism and ageism in the industry. It wasn't always executed elegantly, but it was always entertaining and affecting, and tremendously acted by its leads. Feud is sort of like the sweet spot between American Horror Story and The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story.
It'll be interesting to see how and if that tone, one that plays to Old Hollywood, changes for Season 2, which will tackle Prince Charles and Princess Diana. Murphy thinks he's "done" with Hollywood rivalries, which is a shame because he already has half of the legendary Olivia de Havilland-Joan Fontaine feud cast.
De Havilland, 100 and retired in Paris, told The Hollywood Reporter in a glorious — and in true Feud form, shady — email last week that she hasn't seen Feud. But Murphy thinks Crawford and Davis would've watched it — and would've liked it.
"I think they would be proud about it," he says. "I think they would be emotional about it and I think they would be thrilled that we talked about those issues, which they both in the later years of their lives talked about so much — equality, how the men got paid more than they did. I think they would dig it."
Feud returns next year to FX.