Feud: Capote vs the Swans review – starry New York catfight stings with sadness

<span>Tom Hollander as Truman Capote.</span><span>Photograph: FX</span>
Tom Hollander as Truman Capote.Photograph: FX

The wise decision to rethink the centering of Charles and Diana in the second season of Ryan Murphy’s tabloid anthology drama Feud has allowed a less overheated story to take its place, an unusual seven-year gap leading to an unusually thoughtful follow-up. The first season followed the downward spiral of Joan Crawford and Bette Davis as they pushed each other from bad to worse, a zippy eight-parter that transformed snippets of tawdry behind-the-scenes gossip into a propulsive, if frothy, showbiz drama.

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One would assume from both the set-up and marketing of the second season that things would be even cattier this time around, Feud: Capote vs the Swans sold with doctored images of glamorous actors, from Diane Lane to Demi Moore, underlined with the tagline “The Original Housewives”. And while we do get a lot of the bitchiness we expect, spewed by finely coiffed women holding coupe glasses, we also get the poignancy we don’t, the series a rather sad, and surprisingly sensitive, look at the wine-soaked misery behind the baity headlines. Based on the bestselling book Capote’s Women by Laurence Leamer, it offers a time-jumping tale of acrimony and isolation in New York’s high society, led by Truman Capote and his closest female friends and frenemies.

In the aftermath of In Cold Blood, Capote (Tom Hollander) is in high demand, gliding from talkshow appearance to dinner party, fawned over yet often feared by the rich women who rule the roost. He’s the gay friend du jour, encompassing court jester, gossip and shoulder to cry on, loved by those who make the cut and loathed by those who don’t. His closest friend is Babe (Naomi Watts, nailing brittle stateliness), the magazine editor turned socialite whose lucrative and once-loving marriage to Bill Paley (the late Treat Williams) has now soured after his many affairs. Capote is trusted by her and the other women who lunch alongside (from Lane to Chloë Sevigny to Calista Flockhart), storing their many secrets with him in exchange for his magnetic presence, regaling them with lurid stories of the rich and famous. But when Capote’s pen starts to sharpen toward them, with the release of an excerpt from his new book, which thinly uses the tawdry details of Babe’s life as fodder, the dynamic starts to fracture.

There’s an early vicarious thrill to the sleekly recreated party scene of 60s and 70s New York – regular boozy lunches swirling in cigarette smoke, artfully designed events with gleefully exclusive guest lists – wonderfully brought to life by directors including Gus Van Sant, a smart, prestige get and a delicate queer eye. But as the tone darkens, the series becomes more about the awful emptiness at its core: horribly treated women then treating others horribly in turn and the gay man who followed suit, desperately trying to escape the ghost of his past by climbing further to the top (quite literally, the apparition of his vile yet wounded mother played with expected relish by Jessica Lange).

The complexities contained within the friendships that blossom, and often rot, between women and gay men have rarely been examined with all that much depth, unsurprising given issues of specific representation yet surprising for the dramatic opportunities they provide. The character of the gay friend has mostly been a flattened trope on screen, alternating between supportive nodding and smutty jokes, always in the shadow of the woman he’s propping up (Ana Nogueira’s incisive 2022 play Which Way to the Stage managed to add rare depth to the dynamic). Capote is aware of his place within the system and he plays the role well, comparing himself to a Pomeranian, “there to cuddle when they need something fluffy to hold on to” yet when a growl comes, it’s “off to the pound”.

The series, from the playwright Jon Robin Baitz who also cursed us with the script for 2015’s comically atrocious Stonewall, provides balance where others wouldn’t, a feud with no heroes or villains and definitely no winners, just different variations of loss. Capote can be an exhausting character, veering between charismatic and thoughtful to nasty and selfish, a shift that’s usually fuelled by an increase in vodka consumption. A virtuosic Hollander, who avoids the trap of easy impersonation, gives us enough to understand why those around continue to offer him chances yet reminds us why regret usually follows, the impossibility of trying to save someone determined to sink into the abyss, bringing all with him. The women he surrounds himself with find solace in a man they can trust, at a time when their husbands continued to betray them, but as Capote knows, his seat at the table is precarious, too many of them relishing the opportunity to be punitive (the word “faggot” is easily uttered by those who turn against him).

There’s grief not just for the end of a friendship but also of an era, what happens to those at the party when the lights come up. Yet the show doesn’t get lost in rose-tinted nostalgia; a clever episode has Capote lunch with James Baldwin, reminding him of just how much both Black and gay men are still deemed lesser in these circles. There are missteps in the slightly padded eight-hour run – a timeline that darts around confusingly, some dialogue that is a little too obvious and in the later episodes, a few too many flights of fancy – but by choosing to highlight melancholy over meanness, the second Feud burns far brighter then the first.

  • Feud: Capote vs the Swans is available on FX on Wednesdays and Hulu on Thursdays in the US with a UK date to be announced