We begin Feud: Capote vs. The Swans in 1984. Truman Capote (Tom Hollander) is wandering around a graveyard, and his eyes linger on a bevy of swans floating around a neighboring lake. Two key items of context here: First, a group of swans is indeed called a “bevy,” so get used to that word—you’re going to see a lot of it while reading about this show. And second, Capote died in 1984. Were these his final visions?
Capote vs. the Swans then flashes back to 1968, where a younger Truman consoles Babe Paley (Naomi Watts) on the verge of a mental breakdown. She’s had it with her husband, Bill (the late Treat Williams in his final role), who destroyed their bedsheets when he slept with the governor’s wife, Happy Rockefeller (Rebecca Creskoff), in their bed while she was menstruating. But Truman has an easy cure for Babe’s woes: Take a valium and think of the finest pieces of jewelry in the world. After all, Bill will agree to buy Babe anything to keep this scandal from leaking. Babe settles down with Truman as her big spoon, the only man she’ll ever need in life—and also the only man who could ever really hurt her. “And that would never happen,” Truman promises.
Want to make a bet, Truman?
Then, we go back even further in New York history to 1955, where the Paleys are about to take a vacation with a handful of friends—including Happy. One pal, David (Yuval David), suggests they should invite his friend Truman. Truman? Like the president? Babe and Bill are shocked to meet a fabulous gay man instead of the Missourian politician, but it ends up working in their favor. At dinner, everyone’s schmoozing and puffing on cigarettes while Truman flamboyantly tells the story of how Ann Woodward (Demi Moore) allegedly killed her husband, William. Babe is seduced by his charisma. While her husband smooches Happy, she seeks out Truman—who quickly becomes her new best friend.
Truman launches into a quick explanation via narration on why he calls Babe—and most of his other ebullient lady friends—a swan. Babe had a terrible car crash way back when, leading her to have a good amount of facial reconstructive surgery. She became a swan from an ugly duckling, as Truman says.
One last time jump—promise, this is the final one. We’ll stay in 1975 from here on out, into the second episode as well. Truman, unable to keep up his career’s momentum after the success of In Cold Blood a decade ago, has now become a raging alcoholic. He no longer writes. His partner, Jack (Joe Mantello), is leaving, worried that Truman will never be his true self again. That’s no problem. Truman finds a new partner, John O’Shea (Russell Tovey)—who identifies as simply a man “obsessed” with sex in all forms—in a nearby sauna.
Soon enough, Truman is toting John around, taking him to lunch at luxurious Manhattan cafe La Côte Basque with the swans. The swans, we learn, are women who glide through society, looking brilliant and beautiful. But below the surface, they have to paddle even faster than the rest of the world to stay afloat. Some swans, Truman tells John, drown underneath their plumage. Truman briefs John on the women he’s about to meet: the beautiful Babe, cunning Slim Keith (Diane Lane), and masterful gardener C. Z. Guest (Chloë Sevigny).
As the camera sweeps over the exuberant ladies pecking at their lunch and drowning themselves in martinis, John sticks out like a sore thumb. The women’s speech sounds as if it’s written in cursive, whereas John butts into the conversation with a messy scrawl. When John goes to the bathroom, the women all agree: John has no place here. Truman should get rid of him. The relationship has bad news written all over it.
When John returns, the table has another guest: a fuming Ann Woodward, infuriated that Truman has been smearing her good name all over town. Not only has her husband just died—which is bad enough as it is!—Truman has told nearly everyone that Ann killed him. Now, she wants to know why. Truman liked her at one point, he says, until he heard she was calling him a “f*g” behind his back. Ann refutes this—she called him something much, much worse (too jaw-dropping to print, and we can’t really do Moore’s line reading justice here, anyways). Before flouncing off, Ann tosses Truman’s wine in his face.
Truman attempts to canoodle with John on the subway home, although the closeted, married John isn’t much for PDA. He does, however, have something else to offer Truman: a great idea. What if Truman wrote that entire lunch down, throwing his swans under the bus for one really, really great piece? It could detail Ann’s breakdown, Babe’s husband’s affair, and anything else the public wants to know about these socialites.
It’s brilliant. Truman is typing away, faster than ever before. He sends the story off to Esquire, blowing up his relationships with one salacious article. Remember when Truman promised he would never hurt Babe just under an hour ago? Oops. Babe is bereft, comforted only by her similarly traitorous husband. She wonders if her husband’s affair or the “homosexual court jester singing for his supper” did more damage to her public image and well-being—although, for a woman like Babe Paley, these two things are synonymous.
Babe returns to La Côte Basque, sobbing over lunch with Slim. Slim has news: Ann has died by suicide after reading an advance copy of Truman’s piece. He killed Ann, Slim says, upset with her friend’s betrayal. So, Slim tells Babe, there’s only one thing left to do. They need to cut Truman Capote out of their lives.
We pick up here in Episode 2. Babe is starting chemotherapy for lung cancer—she wishes she had Truman by her side during this difficult journey. Instead, the swans will be her support system. The bevy attends Ann’s funeral together, arm in arm. Ann’s son gives a eulogy, tearing into Truman’s terrible “fiction” about his late mother.
Lunch at La Côte Basque afterwards is tense. Everyone is worried about Babe, who looks sickly. The swans are now joined by Lee Radziwill (Calista Flockhart), Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis’ sister, who follows Slim like a little duckling. While C. Z. and Babe are unsure if they can follow Slim’s no-contact rule, Lee is ready to remove Truman from her rolodex. Slim launches into a rant about how she believes gay men are prone to hating women, which is why this Truman situation isn’t going to end with a simple apology. They need to unite and destroy him. No phone calls. No flowers. No lunches. Truman Capote is dead to the swans.
Their plan to ice him out works. The episode goes back and forth between a struggling Truman—who drunkenly calls Babe over and over again, misses his lines while recording a mystery TV show, and hallucinates that the swans are following him around—and the high-and-mighty swans. Together, they claim to hate all men. But secretly, Babe misses the fun Truman brought to every event.
If the women are swans, Slim muses, what, then, is Truman? “Is there anything in nature that pretends to love you and then tries to eat you?” she asks Babe.
C. Z. is the first swan to break the pact. She agrees to meet Truman for lunch and says the other women are participating in “asshole behavior.” Still, C. Z. is equally pissed at Truman, who is too stubborn to admit that what he did was morally wrong. He’ll apologize, sure. But is he actually sorry for ruining Babe’s life? C. Z. sees no benefit to publishing the article, unless Truman wanted to be vilified. While she can’t promise that the other girls will forgive him, C. Z. ultimately gives in and invites Truman to her big Thanksgiving soirée in Palm Beach.
Immediately after, Slim confronts C. Z. about having lunch with “the traitor.” C. Z. tries to fight back—there was, after all, some truth to Truman’s story—but she’s no match for Slim’s strong-willed ways. C. Z. will have to cancel on Truman unless she, too, wants to get the silent treatment from her friends.
We then get two separate dinners juxtaposed: While the swans have a magnificent, well-lit (Babe even comments about how lovely the warm light bulbs are, they’re that gorgeous) dinner, Truman is sitting amongst chaos with John and Joanne Carson (Molly Ringwald), Johnny Carson’s ex-wife, who sits lower in the social pecking order. Truman is happy to be surrounded by people—Thanksgiving is, after all, his favorite holiday—but he misses his main girls.
Truman drowns out his sorrows with an ocean’s worth of liquor. The morning after Thanksgiving, he asks the in-house bartender to whip him up a screwdriver. While that happens, Truman drifts off into a daydream, and his late mother, Lillie Mae Faulk (a stunning cameo from Jessica Lange), appears. Truman accuses her of passing down this nightmarish personality and addiction to booze, but Lillie isn’t too upset. In fact, she wants Truman to follow her. She instructs him to get his beautiful Tiffany’s pill case and swallow everything inside.
Truman turns her down. He won’t be facing death quite yet. He has a masterpiece to finish.
Back in the real world, Truman continues to struggle. John is so upset that he’s had to spend Thanksgiving with these people instead of his real family, so he takes it out on Truman by punching him in the face. It’s violent and disturbing, and apparently, John’s outbursts are happening regularly. Jack, who has left Truman’s side for good, calls Babe about this: If someone doesn’t help Truman get out of this abusive relationship, he’s going to die.
Babe hesitates. She does care for Truman. But ultimately, she tells Jack, she can’t help. If Babe were to forgive Truman, he’d become like her second husband (splitting duties with Bill) all over again, and she’s finally found peace with Bill. This, Jack argues, will be the end of Truman Capote.