The opening credits of “FEUD: Bette and Joan” are gorgeous, taking aesthetic inspiration from the cinema of the 1960s. The technicolor silhouette animation is visually reminiscent of “Mad Men,” though the theme is less nostalgic and more urgent; instead of a man falling through a history of trends and fads painted onto skyscrapers, this sequence involves two women circling each other in ever-shrinking circlets. The most chilling shots are those of a man who has the marionette strings connected to these women wrapped carefully around his fingers, making them dance and another man ashing his cigar, causing little Oscars statues to fall from the end of it. The pilot episode of the show is just as enthralling as the credits; it’s the kind of show that has you inching forward on your seat and holding your breath without realizing until the screen cuts to black.
The episode sets up the legendary feud between Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, two power icons of Hollywood, through the story of their only film together: “Whatever Happened to Baby Jane,” a movie about a similar rivalry between two women in 1962. Fittingly, Bette and Joan are played by Susan Sarandon (“Thelma and Louise”) and Jessica Lange (“American Horror Story”) respectively, two women whose careers have been full of rich and powerful roles. The supporting cast, full of recognizable faces like Stanley Tucci (“The Devil Wears Prada”), Alfred Molina (“Spider Man 2”), Kathy Bates (“American Horror Story”), Judy Davis (“The Dressmaker”), and up-and-comer Kiernan Shipka (“Mad Men”) is phenomenal, but Sarandon and Lange are formidable. Both command every room fully; each scene they’re in together is thick with tension. They move through magnificent, lonely halls and delicately constructed film sets with alternating carelessness and overt self-awareness, warily eyeing not only each other but everyone else in the room.
If you’re attuned to the eccentricities that Ryan Murphy can’t help but bring to his work, you can catch some of them in the pilot — perhaps most tellingly, a scene in which Joan, playing a character who is confined to a wheelchair, sees Bette talking quietly with one of the directors and, instead of getting up and striding confidently over to them, wheels herself angrily towards them. There is a perfectly crafted scene involving the two women angling for a specific chair that will give them top billing in the next morning’s paper, and it could not be more meticulously choreographed. The two women never take their eyes off each other, metaphorically — they are straining, always on the edge of propriety, on the edge of their seats, on the edge of snapping at each other’s throats.
The show’s weakest point is trying too hard to make a feminist point through bits of dialogue between the women, when the plotlines and even the score do it more effectively. There are several one-liners that are thinly veiled criticisms of how we treat older women in the media and Hollywood, but it is often unclear what brand of feminism they are truly seeking to represent. At times, these lines slip into the narrative that women are more cruel to each other than they are to men, or than men are to them, and it feels incongruous and wrongfully placed, even in a show about a feud between two famous women.
The pilot captures what happens when beloved ingenues grow into powerful, sometimes unlikeable women, and what those women must do to keep their power at the expense of — well, it’s still unclear. It captures what it feels like to watch your own work, an intensely private yet also public experience in the film industry. The punch that this show packs comes not from the unfolding of any feud yet (incidentally, I have a suspicion that once the feud builds, it’ll lessen the intensity). Rather, the bite of the show comes from the remorselessness of Hollywood and the media in creating a culture in which, as multiple people point out, there can only be one “It girl.” If the rest of the season is this clever and well-paced, slinking towards a kinetic explosion of raw energy, then it has the potential to be a phenomenal bit of storytelling and one of Ryan Murphy’s better pieces.