Feud: Bette and Joan S01E02 “The Other Woman”
Director: Ryan Murphy
Starring: Jessica Lange, Susan Sarandon, Alfred Molina
Writers: Jaffe Cohen & Michael Zam, Tim Minear
A review by Michael Wall-Kelly
Episode two of Feud: Bette and Joan, titled The Other Woman, continues all the good work of the first episode while also expanding in theme and scope. We get a better look at our supporting characters and we dig a little deeper into Bette and Joan’s relationship with each other. The main focus of the episode is an aspect that was touched on in the premiere: how and why Hollywood makes women compete against each other.
The episode even opens with a small vignette of Bette and Joan teaming up to get a younger, prettier actress fired from the film. It’s both vicious and kind of heartwarming. As awful as it is to see this woman fired through no fault of her own, it’s still kind of great to watch the powers of Bette and Joan combined.
Unfortunately these two powerful actresses working well together isn’t as good for business as putting them at each other’s throats would be.
That’s where Stanley Tucci’s Jack Warner comes in. The embodiment of everything wrong with patriarchy, he’s basically an erection with a moustache. He has a history with both women and clearly dislikes them both for having the audacity to demand a little respect. He also loves money. So he decides to open Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? in 400 theatres and he demands that Alfred Molina’s Bob Aldrich keeps the women fighting.
Bob is a pretty unsympathetic character as well. Harriet, his wife, is played by Molly Price. We meet her this episode and get a better understanding of Bob and how his choices affect her. She knows she doesn’t rank first in his life, she’ll always be behind the stars in his films and possibly the women he keeps on the side. Price does some great, subtle work in only a few small scenes and I hope we see a lot more of her.
So Bob, spineless coward that he is, does what Warner wants and plants stories in the gossip columns that pits his two stars against each other. The benefit of this is that we get to see Jessica Lange and Susan Sarandon tear up the screen opposite each other. No one could deliver a line like “How dare you mention Pepsi! Unlike you it’s good and pure” and make it badass like Lange can. Sarandon is also given the best exchange of the episode with this interaction with a reporter:
“What’s your name, sweetheart?”
“Fuck off, Sylvia.”
There are a lot of layers to what they’re doing. They have to play Bette’s and Joan’s private lives, their public lives, and their on-screen personas. They manage to keep it on just the right side of caricature, which is a small miracle and a testament to their talents when they’re playing women with such large personalities.
The title of the episode comes into play a lot. There are multiple different “other women”: Bette and Joan to each other, Bette and Joan with the other actress, Bette and her daughter, Harriet and the stars of Bob’s film, Warner using Joan against Bette in a flashback scene. Hell, even Hedda Hopper gets pitted against a rival gossip columnist. What the show tries to tackle this episode is the unfortunate way that society tries to keep women fighting each other. There’s the literal manufacturing of the fighting by Jack Warner (“Joan was Jack’s message to Bette: you’re not the only bitch in the kennel”) and the sadder, more internalized need to compete caused by society. Joan and Bette are in constant competition due to their own egos, their own insecurities, their massive amounts of talent, and their fading relevance.
It looks like there’s plenty more feuding to come as the episode ends with Bette having a big fight with her daughter, B.D. (Kiernan Shipka) and then presumably having an affair with Bob. We’re left with the image of his wife, wide-awake as he slips just in time for the alarm to go off and his day to start. She’s stuck there while he heads off to be with his other women.
Definitely keep watching. The only thing dragging the show down a bit are the occasional interludes to Kathy Bates’ Joan Blondell and Catherine Zeta Jones’ Olivia de Havilland. They give us some context but it’s mostly unnecessary. It’s still sort of worth it for the cool Hollywood history lesson aspect. Everything else is top-notch. We’re only a quarter of the way through the series but I think it may end up rivalling The People v. O.J. Simpsons as my favourite of the Ryan Murphy anthology shows.