“That’s what I meant when I told Princess Margaret it was too bad she didn’t like fags, because it meant she would have a very lonely old age. Fags are the only people who are kind to worldly old women.”

The quotation above is neither the most scandalous nor the most offensive line from “La Côte Basque, 1965,” the short story published by Truman Capote in Esquire magazine in the fall of 1975. But it’s the bit that best distills the themes of “Feud: Capote vs. the Swans,” a limited series that fictionalizes the story’s fallout among the celebrated author’s social set in New York high society. Technically, “Capote vs. the Swans” is the second installment of “Feud,” one of power producer Ryan Murphy’s many anthology shows on FX. But unlike “Bette and Joan,” the first and until now only season of “Feud,” from 2017, “Capote vs. the Swans” doesn’t revel in the rancor between two equally matched opponents. Instead, it’s a more diffuse and melancholy take on a dense thicket of themes: aging; substance abuse; self-destruction; the predatory relationship between writer and subject; and above all, the complex, enduring, often co-dependent bond between straight women and gay men. 

“Capote vs. The Swans” shares a profile with some of the strongest entries in Murphy’s portfolio. The executive producer has no writing or directing credits on the project; playwright and screenwriter Jon Robin Baitz adapted Laurence Leamer’s nonfiction account “Capote’s Women” into an eight-episode season largely helmed by veteran director Gus Van Sant. (Max Winkler and Jennifer Lynch direct one chapter apiece.) As with “Pose” and “American Crime Story: The Assassination of Gianni Versace,” Murphy’s most legible impact here is not as a showrunner, but in using his considerable sway to put a spotlight on previously niche elements of queer history and culture. “Capote vs. the Swans” may not always be artful in how it digests all the ideas heaped on its plate, and treads in dangerous waters when inviting comparison to a cutting wit like Capote’s. Yet the series is ultimately a sincere and moving study of a dynamic that’s rarely explored with such empathy and depth, a novelty that makes its flaws more forgivable as the price of ambition.

Coming off “The White Lotus,” British actor Tom Hollander has become an unlikely poster boy for precisely this dynamic. (He was one of the widely memed gays trying to murder Jennifer Coolidge’s Tonya, a goal they only sort of achieved.) With his distinctive, high-pitched whine, and a look — fedora, glasses, scarf — almost as indelible as Audrey Hepburn’s in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” the most famous adaptation of his works, Capote has all the outlines of a caricature, and in fact became one later in his life. “That’s how I pay my rent now,” he sighs in the show. “It’s not through writing. It’s through being a persona.” But Hollander doesn’t just nail Capote’s mincing affect and reedy wheeze. He finds the sadness of a man whose demons have drowned out his gifts, and who sold out his friends in a dual act of desperation and self-sabotage.

Those friends are the eponymous “swans,” a group of well-heeled socialites whose Manhattan milieu was meant to be the setting of Capote’s final novel, “Answered Prayers.” (The title comes from an apocryphal quote often attributed to St. Teresa of Ávila: “More tears are shed over answered prayers than unanswered ones.) “Answered Prayers” was never completed or published in Capote’s lifetime, though you can read the unfinished version today. Its inspirations were nonetheless immortalized in “La Côte Basque, 1965,” named after the Midtown restaurant where the ladies would often lunch. The Regina George of these proto-Plastics is Babe Paley (Naomi Watts), wife of famed CBS executive Bill Paley (Treat Williams, in his final performance). She’s flanked by Slim Keith (Diane Lane), ex-wife of Hollywood legend Howard Hawks; avid equestrian and gardener C.Z. Guest (Chloë Sevigny); and Lee Radziwill (Calista Flockhart), sister to former First Lady Jacqueline Onassis. (Molly Ringwald’s Joanne Carson, ex-wife of “Tonight Show” host Johnny Carson, serves as the swans’ West Coast correspondent.) Over soufflés and Champagne, these American aristocrats hold court, with Capote their welcome guest until he very dramatically isn’t.

Over the course of the season, the swan metaphor is inevitably overworked. But Capote initially explains the collective nickname as a reference to the hidden effort it takes his friends to maintain their immaculate facades, akin to a bird paddling its feet underwater. Paley, in particular, wears her sky-high bouffant like a piece of armor, working to stage manage every last detail of her social life to compensate for a lack of control over her husband’s affairs. Capote is closest with her, seeing a connection between her secret struggles and the forced privacy of the closet. (Capote’s own executor described him as asexual, an inaccurate portrait the series forcefully rebuts.) Paley, in turn, sees Capote as a trusted confidante, providing the emotional intimacy she can’t find in her marriage. “The only person who could ever really hurt me is you,” she foreshadows in the premiere. “Only real love could wound you the way he did,” she observes after “La Côte Basque, 1965” hits newsstands, though the repetition is hardly needed to drive the point home.

The idea that Capote and his fellow “walkers,” to use a contemporary euphemism, offered an extramarital outlet to women trapped in gilded cages is one of many that Baitz’s scripts work to exhaustion. The third episode is a fictional film by documentarians David and Albert Maysles, riffing on the brothers’ real-life short film “With Love From Truman.” Capote’s interlocutors ask questions more rhetorical than inquisitive. To a swan, about Truman: “There seems to be a natural connection between gay men and glamorous women. Why do you think that is?” To Truman, about the swans and their crises: “Does it give you a sense of purpose? Being able to swoop in?” 

These explicit instructions for how to watch “Capote vs. The Swans” are initially offset by other modes of maximalism. The first half of the show has plenty of the delicious diva meltdowns promised by the “Feud” setup. When Truman accuses wealthy widow Ann Woodward (Demi Moore) of murdering her husband, she assails him in public; the spectacle of Moore spitting the words “vicious little faggot” at a nonplussed Hollander feels destined for a long afterlife on the internet. Longtime Murphy muse Jessica Lange floats in and out as the ghost of Capote’s troubled mother, a Gothic flourish at least as entertaining as it is psychologically obvious. Lange is effectively reprising her “All That Jazz” role as the angel of death, but this time more boozy than beatific.

Gradually, the show starts to shift toward a different use of its namesake symbol: the swan song. The initial confrontation between Capote and his spurned subjects all but winds down by the season’s midway point. From there, the show becomes less linear and more metaphorical. Both Capote and Paley have greater nemeses than each other: Capote his writers’ block and addiction to alcohol; Paley the lung cancer that would end her life in 1978, just a few years after the release of “La Côte Basque, 1965.” As each mourns the end of their friendship, “Capote vs. The Swans” mourns the fading of youth, the end of elite society as Paley and her ilk knew it and the loss of a great talent.

In the process, “Capote vs. The Swans” grows increasingly unmoored from its inspiration, pivoting from a highbrow tabloid scandal to a more abstract exploration of loneliness and angst. Both sides of the show have their strengths and weaknesses. Lane shines in the first, slinging bitchy one-liners in a clipped mid-Atlantic accent; Sevigny stands out in the second as the sole New York swan who maintains good relations with Truman, mostly out of pity. The first is gorgeous and opulent, a Vegas buffet of costume and production design that’s also somewhat surface-level. The second is affecting and tragic, though takes high-concept swings that often fail to land. (An episode that pairs Capote with a famous peer reduces both literary lions to mouthpieces.) But even at its lowest, “Capote vs. The Swans” is as rich a text as you’ll find in contemporary television. As Capote proved with “La Côte Basque, 1965,” attention — even the unflattering kind — is an expression of love. By illuminating a once-obscure corner of the past, “Capote vs. The Swans” shows an affection that’s contagious. 

The first two episodes of “Feud: Capote vs. The Swans” premiere on FX on Jan. 31 at 10pm ET, with remaining episodes airing weekly on Wednesdays.