In the cold open of this week’s episode, Joan (Jessica Lange) is sitting at her regular table at Perino’s, flanked by her twin daughters and housekeeper Mamasita (Jackie Hoffman). When Mamasita hands Joan a card to sign for opening night of her eldest daughter’s school play, Joan refuses to sign it, lamenting how her own mother never gave her any encouragement when she was starting out, and that’s what made her tough. But after an exchange of sharp looks with Mamasita, Joan caves and signs the card, with heavy hand.
A foreboding opening for an episode foregrounding both Joan and Bette (Susan Sarandon) as mothers, for the first time.
Aptly titled “Mommie Dearest,” the episode opens on B.D. (Kiernan Shipka) and Joan’s twins hanging out on set, B.D. teaching the girls how to smoke. The daughters are fitting foils: Bette’s (Susan Sarandon) daughter, the rebellious one in a sleeveless summer dress, Joan’s daughters primly attired in bows and shin-length skirts. When Joan catches her daughters with the cigarette, she marches to Bette’s dressing room to scold not B.D., but her mother. Turning in her makeup chair, Bette asks with surprising sincerity for Joan’s secret to raising her “well-behaved Pomeranians.”
This exchange leads to our first genuine interaction between the two actresses, as they talk parenting techniques, culminating in their first real hangout.
Naturally, it’s drinks after work. Over martinis (Joan) and scotch (Bette), we learn both women grew up pretty much alone: Joan “lost her cherry” to her step-father at the age of 11 and couldn’t wait to get away from her neglectful mother, while Bette spent her childhood doing “hippie things” at boarding school, like taking naked snow baths in the woods… Although afterward, she says, her mother “never left my side.” It’s a tender scene between two stubborn souls, desperately searching for nothing more than a shoulder to lean on, and refuse to admit it.
It also gives insight into their attitudes toward childrearing: For Joan, children are an endless stream of unconditional love. She spends a chunk of the episode filling her daughters’ empty rooms while they’re away at camp, wondering if they’ll ever come back, and ultimately ending up in bed with Mamasita watching TV. She wants and needs someone around so badly she actually submits an application to the orphanage where she first adopted her children, in order to get another one. And the twins have only been gone two weeks!
Given B.D.’s attitude toward her mother, it appears Bette has taken more of a hands-off approach: When Joan comes to Bette’s dressing room to scold her about B.D.’s smoking, she brushes off the accusation with a firm but simple “She knows she’s not supposed to smoke.”
When Robert (Alfred Molina) takes a shine to Bette’s passing comment about having B.D. fill in the role of the next-door neighbor, Bette actually sees an opportunity to get a little closer with her daughter (and under Joan’s skin, just a little). Her reaction to discovering that B.D. is actually a terrible actress are priceless: A montage of dread, incredulity; the definite sense of a silent what the hell have I done.
In one of the hour’s most heartbreaking scenes, B.D. comes downstairs to rehearse lines with her mother, already sitting on the couch with her co-star Victor Buono (Dominic Burgess). B.D. whimpers that she just wants to be good — and Bette, knowing that will never happen, dismisses her out of hand. “Well, then you better go get your beauty sleep.”
But if Bette and Joan had different views on mothering, we can only assume neither actress would want their children to witness the onset behavior that follows. Like all nice moments in this story, the good will between Bette and Joan doesn’t last long — and we finally get a montage of the famous hijinks that went down between the two at the height of their feud. The aftermath of their night of drinking is a story in Hedda Hopper’s paper that claims Bette is stepping aside to let Joan compete for Best Actress — a total misinterpretation, of course, of a drunken conversation between the two — and the conflict sends both actresses into the first of presumably many bellowing matches.
What ensues is the comedic montage we’ve all been waiting for, perhaps imagined as the setpiece of the season: Joan weighs herself down with weights for the scene where Bette has to drag her across the set, Bette gets a little too real in a scene where Baby Jane kicks Blanche in the head, Joan intentionally breaks character while filming a particularly physical scene for Bette, and Bette intentionally stands in Joan’s line of sight, sipping a Coke while Joan films a solo scenes.
All ingeniously petty and childish, for two women who — correctly — lament not getting any respect in Hollywood. But as the show keeps reminding us, hating the player and not the game is what the game is best at forcing us to do. Otherwise it would all fall apart.
“Feud” airs Sundays at 10 p.m. ET/PT on FX.