When Ryan Murphy first started Feud, going off of the first few episodes, it seemed to be a delightful, wholly reverent look at a particular slice of Hollywood history and the stars who resided within. Looking back, I can hardly believe where we’ve wound up. Murphy, the stars, and other creative forces of Feud have taken us to a place where this one central relationship offers commentary on aging, women, even the sense of our own personal identity: Who are we, really? What kind of legacy will we leave? What will people say about us when we’re gone?

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I usually watch these episodes twice for my review, but I couldn’t watch this one again. At this point, after seven weeks, our identification with these characters is so great that I couldn’t bear to see Joan go through those humiliating moments on Trog again, or burn her hand on the toaster oven. Her existence is so bleak that when a brief respite comes—a puppy, the return of Mamacita—we all breathe a sigh of relief. I probably started crying when Joan’s daughter tells her that she’s the greatest mommy in the world, even as Christina’s galleys start to circulate. Even after all Joan has done, all her machinations at the 1963 Oscars, she’s depicted in such a savage light here, it’s hard not to have sympathy for her. And as we do, we wonder where we’ll be when we cross the age of 70: Will we still have friends to visit, relatives to take care of us? Or will we also be cast aside, like even a movie star like Joan Crawford was.

It’s a sobering, unflinching gaze at the winter of life: again, not something I was expecting when I started this series. I thought seeing two movie queens battle it out was going to be fun and campy, and it was. But Feud transcended that main relationship—throughout the season, but really with this final episode. As Victor says, Bette is the only person who knows what Joan is really going through, but they’re so estranged by this point, Bette can’t get through a single phone call. Joan’s dream, then, or vision, crafts resolution in a fantasy where we know there was none in reality (as Bette’s words to the AP reporter appear to put the final nail in that particular coffin).

I imagine the fantasy sequence may be controversial for some, but longing for that nonexistent resolution, I really enjoyed it. First it was fun to see Hedda and Jack, and even Joan and Bette return in all their peak Hollywood glory (I guess adding Bob would have been too much, but I missed him). Judy Davis and Stanley Tucci just killed it throughout the series, and true to form, I don’t think Hedda Hopper and Jack Warner would have behaved any other way or had any regrets, like they said. As Hedda points out, unlike the rest of us, Bette and Joan will always be young and beautiful, always perfectly captured in their prime, in riveting black-and-white as the statuesque beauty of Grand Hotel, the playful coquette of Jezebel. But probably the most revealing moment is when Joan says that she didn’t know who she was when she wasn’t a movie star: the concept of “Joan Crawford” had taken over Lucille LeSueur so completely, she had no sense of identity when she was on her own.

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That was probably what enabled Bette Davis to be a bit stronger than Joan: Davis was such a spitfire, even with all her insecurities, and she never counted on her looks for success (even though she was just as lovely as Joan in all those early close-ups). But even Davis has her own sense of loss this episode, when she finds the vindictive letters from her mother, who she considered her best friend, and becomes estranged from B.D. Kiernan Shipka wasn’t given a ton to do in this series, but she sells that scene well, especially when Bette claims that all her “swats” didn’t traumatize B.D., and the look on her daughter’s face makes it clear how much they did. We don’t see Bette’s final days, so we don’t know how isolated she got, but it’s likely that they were as lonesome as Joan’s, so it’s nice to see her with Olivia, Joan, and Victor at the Oscars, toasting their fallen colleague.

The only false note for me in the whole finale is the female assistant at the end wanting to go back to the first day on set. It’s a bit of a stretch, but it gets us to a nice circular place, where Joan and Bette again hope for friendship. We’ve seen how the studios, their public, and their own egos made it impossible for that to happen, but at the end of eight episodes, it somehow stings even more.

I’ve mentioned that I’ve been watching this show with my 10-year-old son, so I will watch have to watch this episode again with him. While we do, I’ll try to remind him to visit me once in a while when I’m old. I’ll also try harder to gauge my own actions, wondering what memories he’ll have of me when I’m gone, hoping they will include some fond ones of watching screeners, curled up with me on the sofa. And I’ll try to remind myself to enjoy every moment, as every old person wonders where all the time has gone (and I’m already older than I could even have possibly imagined as a kid). It’s a lesson I’ve definitely heard before, and seen onscreen many times—but I don’t ever recall in such a heartbreakingly effective way as the Feud finale.

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Finale grade: A

Series grade: A-

Stray observations

  • Why no “what happened to” card for Joan Blondell, show? Could have included a Grease shoutout.
  • Friends who’ve read Joan’s book tell me it is surprisingly helpful about things like housekeeping and wardrobe organization.
  • Jessica Lange sending a little shade toward her Postman Always Rings Twice co-star, Jack Nicholson.
  • The Bette Davis roast was brutal, but the portrayals of Dean Martin and Vincent Price were impressively spot-on.
  • Have you ever heard of anything more horrific than “the buckle”?
  • Please offer your Emmy speculations in the comments. At first I thought that Sarandon was a lock, but now Lange has won me over. In a perfect world, there would be a three-way tie with Nicole Kidman.
  • Also, favorite Feud moments? My favorite scene was probably Jack visiting a drunk Joan at her house, when she screams at him to get out. And I’ll never forget Sarandon’s devastation when Bette lost the Oscar.
  • Loving this first season of Feud like I did, I will definitely be checking out season two, which will focus on Charles and Diana. It’s surprising how much this series has raised my estimation of Ryan Murphy at this point so that at least I’m hopeful, even though I’m not as much a fan of the subject matter, and this season is a lot to live up to. See you then, and thanks so much for reading.

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