“Feud: Capote vs. The Swans” Episode 5 Recap

February 24, 2024

BY Eric Rezsnyak

We often use “jump the shark” to describe one-great shows that have tipped into absurdity or awfulness. “Jump the shark” references an infamous 1977 episode of “Happy Days” in which Fonzie strapped on a pair of water skis and jumped over an actual shark. I honestly don’t remember why, but it happened. For “Feud,” I’m going to use a more specific term to denote this episode, when I fully give up on this season: “Feud” has eaten the swan.

I’ve been wrestling with this season since it debuted. After the two-episode premiere, I bemoaned what I thought was a clear divergence in tone from the aggressive marketing campaign, which positioned the season as a frothy, scandal-filled exploration of mid-century New York wealth. Instead, what we got was a deeply morose meditation on sadness and pain. I committed to respecting the show for what it was, and focused on the excellent acting we continue to get week after week. I also found much of the dialogue to be sharp and memorable.

But I have been wary of where the show — especially Episode 2 — seemed to be going in terms of a moral judgment on the central figures. In the first season of “Feud,” the series was fairly even handed in its exploration into who was at fault for the decades-long turmoil between Joan Crawford and Bette Davis. Each side of that argument got in their licks, and each side was also humanized by the show in various scenes that helped explain why they behaved the way they did toward the other. This season is different. At its core, it’s about a group of friends — we’ll use that term liberally, as they were certainly never peers — and one specific, jaw-dropping betrayal that shatters that circle. There is no “both sides” here. There is one aggressor who made a very deliberate decision to publicly humiliate people by sharing very private information, and then the fallout from that action, which ruined numerous lives in addition to reputations.

So explain to me how the people behind this episode of “Feud” got to the decision that it was in fact Truman Capote who was the victim here. Because that’s sure what I got from this episode. The Truman Capote Was Justified arc was splashed all over the screen in scene after scene, line after line, that left me gasping in its entitlement, its tone deafness, and frankly, in its casual misogyny and, arguably, de facto racism.

The episode picks up in 1975, immediately after Capote’s “La Côte Basque 1965” article published in Esquire, his opening shot at the Swans, detailing many of their secrets as a teaser for his subsequent full-length book detailing the sordid private lives of New York’s rich and powerful. A furious Bill Paley threatens Truman over the phone, telling him that basically, his life in high society is over, and that he should run fast and far from New York, or risk even further repercussions. In response, Truman takes a handful of pills in a half-hearted suicide attempt. The next morning he wakes up to a call from James Baldwin, the noted Black author and activist played here by actor Chris Chalk. Baldwin — referred to Tom Hollander’s Capote as “Jimmy” throughout — takes Capote out for a day in Manhattan in an attempt to move him past the guilt of his betrayal, and encourage Capote to recommit himself to finishing his scathing critique of America’s ruling class, which he believes is Capote’s reason for being.

Where to begin here?

First, apparently the adventure with Baldwin never happened. While Capote and Baldwin were certainly contemporaries, by the time the Esquire article was published, Baldwin had relocated to Paris. If anything the two were acquaintances, not friends, which is alluded to in this episode. I agree with writer Jon Robin Baitz in his interview with Town & Country when he said that at this point in the story, an outsider needed to become involved and essentially reset Truman’s worldview, setting us up for Act III. Because we can’t sit here and just wallow in self-pity and self-destructiveness for this entire series. That may very well be what Capote did in real life, but as a TV show? Not particularly compelling, no matter how delicate the words or evocative the acting.

But why exactly did it have to James Baldwin playing this role? The sole actor of color on this series — aside from Babe Paley’s housekeeper, very much a background character — is brought in to act as the dispenser of wisdom to the self-destructive white man? The optics in that are terrible. Has nobody on this writing staff ever heard of the “magical negro” trope? Or understand how problematic that is in contemporary film and TV? Because it was the first thing I thought of when watching this episode. Any number of other 1970s literary figures could have served that purpose. But in choosing Baldwin, even if it was out of reverence for him — and James Baldwin deserves to be revered, and Chalk does a great job bringing him to life here — having the only person of color on this series filling this role was an issue, for me at least.

On a similar note, did any actual women read this script? The whole thing? Because on their magical mystery tour of 1970s NYC, Baldwin and Capote — but mostly Capote — make numerous comments about the Swans that I found to be breathtaking in their blanket contempt for women in general. The horrors they put themselves through to avoid aging. The widespread eating disorders. The savagery in which they take each other down, and lack an ounce of genuine compassion for anyone but themselves. Their utter self absorption. The neglect of their children. Capote might have been specifically speaking about his Swans in those moments, but I wouldn’t be surprised if many women watching at home weren’t given pause at the brutality in which those behaviors — magnified, hyperbolized here — might also apply elements of their own lives. And not for nothing, but as a gay man, every word Capote said here could EASILY apply to a great number of homosexuals I know.

That is not to say there was not truth here. Truth in Capote’s scenes-long diatribes against the swans, and truth in what Baldwin was saying to Capote. The parts about the racism and the classism inherent in the world of the Swans — for sure, and I was glad to see it called out. The antisocial behaviors of some of those women — sure, I believe many of that to be true. My issue is the same across the board: the choice of messenger.

Truman Capote is going to sit here and judge the Swans for their affairs? The man who was actively fucking a married a man earlier in this series? Truman Capote is going to accuse these women of lacking empathy, after actively participating in the bullying of at least one woman to the point of suicide? Truman Capote is going to these women of disloyalty when he has betrayed in the most astonishingly bold way? Are we actually supposed to be buying this? Because I think the writers genuinely think we should be Team Truman here.

The moment this episode that specifically had me rolling was Baldwin sympathizing with Capote about how the Swans “abandoned” him. They abandoned him? Are you actually crazy? He took years of his supposed friends’ deepest and darkest secrets — things that had absolutely nothing to do with him — and published them for everyone to read in one of the leading magazines in the world, using only the thinnest of disguises for their identities? And they abandoned him? Who the fuck is WRITING this?

I genuinely kept asking myself that question scene after scene of this episode. Is it possible that Truman Capote himself, after publishing that article, for even a moment thought he would be welcomed back by the people who he deliberately, maliciously fucked over in his search for more fame and fortune? He was a paragon of delusion, so it’s possible. But beyond that, is it possible that the writers of this show truly see him as the sympathetic character, who should have been forgiven by the Swans, bygones be bygones? Do they actually think that Capote was in any way justified in writing that article, or the subsequent book that would have gone even deeper into their lives? Because if so, I want no part of seeing that story.

The only possible justifications I’m seeing thus far — and I am fairly convinced after this episode that the writers really do see Capote as ultimately the tragic figure here, not the Swans — is that 1) the Swans were generally cruel, vapid creatures who deserved to be taken down; and 2) Truman Capote is one of our great American writers, and it is the job of writers to speak truth into the world, especially when it comes to institutions of power. I can agree with both of those statements. But the fact that Truman Capote, who sucked up to these apparently abhorrent people solely to further his own ambitions, lacked any kind of moral high ground in this equation. He’s not some queer folk hero to be admired. He’s a suck-up who built a nest in their walls and then weaponized their companionship and position to further his own career, regardless of the lives he ruined.

These were not his stories to tell. These were not sources who were aware what they were saying would be entered into the public record, while he gathered intel over 10 years. He was not reporting on actual crimes that were public record. While the Swans were rich and powerful, they were essentially private figures — they weren’t politicians, or actors, or businesspeople. It’s fucked up any way you slice it, and anyone who thinks there’s any kind of ethical gray area here, please get your moral compass checked.

But ultimately, this is a television show. What Capote did or did not do is irrelevant. Is the show ABOUT it any good? The acting remains great. The dialogue — when not carelessly veering into misogyny — is often lovely. But that last scene, which I assume is completely fictionalized, was just groan-inducingly bad. Capote hires a server from Tavern on the Green to sneak into Central Park at night, murder a sleeping swan, and then prepare said swan for Truman to eat. And if that weren’t bad enough, Truman was both subtly sexually harassing the young man as well as condescending to him about his vocabulary and refinement — essentially, the very qualities he spent most of the episode torching the Swans. And then Truman ate the swan. HOW CLEVER AND SUBTLE.

There are so very many talented people both in front of and behind the camera on this project. I am genuinely stunned that some of this made it to air without a single person saying, “You know, maybe this is a bad idea.” Because this episode was a Bad Idea Parade.

We have three episodes left? I shudder to think how they’re going to fill them, I really do.

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