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Feud: Capote vs. The Swans Had No Victims or Villains

By offering an even playing field of moral deficiency, Season 2 may have been a darker watch than Bette and Joan.
  • Calista Flockhart and Tom Hollander in Feud: Capote vs. The Swans (Photo: FX)
    Calista Flockhart and Tom Hollander in Feud: Capote vs. The Swans (Photo: FX)

    Even though FX’s surprisingly morose Feud: Capote vs. The Swans was the second installment in Ryan Murphy’s pop-culture thunderdome, it felt less like a continuation and more like a wild experiment in what is truly possible for the franchise.

    In the final episode of the season, titled “Phantasm Forgiveness,” Truman Capote (Tom Hollander) lives out the happy endings he never had with his embattled Swans through the pages of his final book, Answered Prayers. Under a pseudonym, Capote makes peace or something like it with Babe Paley (Naomi Watts), Slim Keith (Diane Lane), C.Z. Guest (Chloë Sevigny) and Lee Radziwill (Calista Flockhart) before burning the manuscript, forever sealing those imagined fates, and then dying at the home of Joanna Carson (Molly Ringwald). It all ends with a flash forward to 2016, when his ashes are sold at auction (that really happened!) as the ghosts of his Swans look on with disgust for what’s happened to their beloved New York.

    It is a fittingly sour end for a series that was remarkably resolute in denying its characters, on both sides of the battlefield, any vindication for their actions. While somewhat depressing to watch as a viewer, it was ultimately quite liberating for a series that has already, in just two seasons, wavered about what it actually finds interesting about feuds.

    The show’s first season, titled Feud: Bette and Joan, fit squarely into the campy prism of what Murphy was churning out for FX in the heyday of their partnership — Hollywood-centric stories served with a queer sensibility and a flair for famous faces. Murphy’s muse Jessica Lange and Susan Sarandon played the big screen’s most infamously intertwined enemies Joan Crawford and Bette Davis, respectively, as they mounted an unexpected comeback by playing sisters in 1962’s Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? Their catty feud lived just barely on the respectable side of pulpy, as both glamorously petty and intrinsically reflective of the deep wounds the two legends bore from working in an industry that devalued them more with each passing year. As Catherine Zeta-Jones, in a controversial impersonation of Olivia de Havilland, says in the 2017 premiere, “Feuds are never about hate. Feuds are about pain.”

    While that is a nice sentiment when trying to understand the bigger battles Crawford and Davis waged in the latter half of their careers, hatred can’t be removed from the equation of a feud. It is simply too strong of an emotion to exclude from something so passionate and personal. The many sources of hate and contempt are what complicate a worthy fight, and yet Bette and Joan seemed more interested in casting Davis and Crawford in the dual roles of sinner and saint because they weren’t each other’s true enemy. They played the parts the studio system, the tabloids, and Feud itself wanted them to play. But as a viewer, it’s hard to have skin in the game when the announcer wants you to pull for everyone. That approach neutralizes the fire of a feud and deflates the sacrifices made along the way.

    Conversely, Capote vs. The Swans had no qualms about spending its eight episodes reassuring the audience it is OK to find everyone involved messy and downright unlikable. It gave viewers permission to detest the actions of Capote and the Swans, and not worry about finding sympathy on both sides of the aisle. Instead, you could live in your own emotions of envy, contempt, and morbid fascination.

    Oddly enough, that wouldn’t have been the case had Murphy followed through with his original plan for a second season focused on the marital strife between then-Prince Charles and the late Princess Diana (Matthew Goode and Rosamund Pike were cast to play the royal adversaries). The series would have been a broader, more commercially accessible next step in the series, but it would, without a doubt, have maintained the universally acceptable roles of victim (Diana) and villain (Charles). There would have been no mystery to where the series could take the audience that 20 years of media coverage hadn’t already, and it was ultimately scrapped. After that reversal, Feud as a series looked lifeless until the somewhat surprise announcement of Capote vs. The Swans in 2022.

    Unlike Bette and Joan, and certainly Charles and Diana, the battle between Capote and the wealthy socialites he collected like horcruxes isn’t a well-known story outside certain circles. Capote has name recognition, thanks to In Cold Blood, but if you polled the masses on names like Babe, Slim, C.Z., and Lee, you are likely to draw shrugs and blank stares. That was the stirring appeal of the new season. The you-had-to-be-there standoff between a literary giant and the women who steered culture in their corner of the world was a fresh canvas on which to investigate culpability with each episode.

    The feud, itself, was relatively simple. Capote charmed and disarmed the defenses of the women of New York’s high society in more ways than one. As an out gay man, he was as much a commodity to them as their highfalutin lifestyles were to him. As a notorious gossip, he was an endlessly entertaining guest of honor to show off to their friends, offering a who’s who of salacious tales spun with the wit and whimsy of a world-class writer. As a best friend, he was the guardian of their secrets, each lured by the delusional promise they wouldn’t become his next dinner-party monologue. Only when Capote inevitably used those tawdry secrets in the pages of Answered Prayers did he declare a war for the ages.

    What Capote vs. The Swans did once the fuse was lit was unexpected, and offers insight into the potential for future seasons. It slyly sets up the blame game by doing exactly what Capote himself did best — luring the viewer in with the false sense of security that they were watching a story of women done wrong, only to slowly peel away the shroud of sympathy. Even the trailers were propulsive in their promise for a reckoning orchestrated by the Swans.

    Series writer Jon Robin Baitz never lets Capote off the hook for his opportunistic and self-destructive tendencies, each insecurity and vice fed by his addictive nature and the spectral presence of Capote’s late mother, Lillie Mae Faulk (played by Lange). In his final days, he lived in a societal prison of his own making, clinging to the bottle and his talent as his one form of connection after the Swans shunned him.

    But perhaps more intriguingly, Baitz is also devoted to a critical assessment of the bad behavior of the Swans, who lest we not forget had the secrets to spill in the first place. Slim’s habit of sleeping with the husbands of her friends and acquaintances; Babe’s increasing disregard for her children; and Lee’s prejudices for the very people with whom she associates. Only C.Z. comes out relatively unscathed, though she had her own misdeeds. These women, in addition to casually dripping in a detestable level of wealth and influence, were also just cruel in their actions, to each other and to Capote –– a fact they freely admit.

    While Capote vs. The Swans may have been a darker watch than Bette and Joan, by offering an even playing field of moral deficiency, it offers a franker look at the many faces of a feud. Maybe forgiveness and acceptance aren’t the natural conclusions to a fight, even if that’s what our elementary teachers told us. It is certainly what Capote begs for in the finale: “Apologies, when heartfelt, matter. That is how the heart is built. It wants to forgive.” But as Capote’s confidante Jack (Joe Mantello) says, “I think this might be wishful thinking on your part.”

    Ending with a void of satisfaction opens a door to messier, more complicated feuds for the show’s future. Might we leave the mid-20th century for a time when gossip rags weren’t the main instruments of societal hit jobs? Could the show live in the modern age, where decorum is chipped away at with each social media post? When resolution and forgiveness are taken off the table, what kind of tragic and real faceoffs can be brought to the forefront? After two seasons of spats, it’s clear that no true fight can be tied up with a nice bow –– and that’s OK. After all, we watch to be entertained, and Feud would be wise to use the bitter brawl between Capote and his Swans as the blueprint moving forward.

    Hunter Ingram is a TV writer living in North Carolina and watching way too much television. His byline has appeared in Variety, Emmy Magazine, USA Today, and across Gannett's USA Today Network newspapers.

    TOPICS: Feud: Capote vs. The Swans, Feud: Bette and Joan, Calista Flockhart, Chloe Sevigny, Demi Moore, Diane Lane, Molly Ringwald, Naomi Watts, Ryan Murphy, Tom Hollander, Truman Capote