“Family Business” offers nothing less than the redemption of J.R. Ewing. In this deeply poignant episode, our aging antihero is called upon to face hard truths and make tough choices, and for once in his life, he does the right thing. By the time the closing credits roll, J.R. has a grown as a person. “Dallas” has grown too.
Rather brilliantly, “Family Business” ends with Johnny Cash’s “The Man Comes Around” playing under a series of chilling scenes that leave the fates of several characters hanging in the balance. J.R. is not among them, but no matter. There’s no doubt the song is meant to evoke the journey he takes in this episode, when one by one, the three people J.R. loves most – John Ross, Sue Ellen and Bobby – persuade him to end the war for Southfork.
These are moving, meaningful scenes. In the first, John Ross pleads with J.R. to give the ranch back to Bobby, prompting J.R. to ask his son, “What’s gotten into you, anyhow?” John Ross’s cutting response: “A little decency.” Later, Sue Ellen storms into the room, slaps J.R. and reminds him how his past schemes left him with “nothing.” When J.R. remains defiant (“Well, I’m back honey, and I’m gonna be bigger than ever.”), Sue Ellen’s exasperation dissolves into pity. “And you still have nothing,” she says.
Only after J.R. speaks with Bobby does he finally, fully see the light. In the scene, Bobby sits in his sickbed and gently admonishes his oldest brother, then tells him, “J.R., I love you. No matter what. You remember that.” J.R.’s face falls – and with it, so do the last vestiges of his bravado. “Well,” he says softly, “My memory’s not what it used to be either. You’re just going to have to keep telling me.”
In each of these scenes, director Michael M. Robin’s clever staging tells us as much as scriptwriter Bruce Rasmussen’s heartfelt dialogue. J.R.’s confrontation with Sue Ellen ends with him standing in front of a mirror that reflects the back of his head, a reminder that there is another side of J.R., even when he can’t see it himself. In the exchange with John Ross, J.R. sits on his bed while the younger man stands over him, symbolizing how the son has achieved moral superiority over the father. In the third scene, the positions are reversed: Bobby is in bed, while J.R. stands. This is when we know J.R., who has always been the big brother, is about to become a bigger man.
Indeed, the next time we see J.R., he is sitting alone in his bedroom, staring at the Southfork deed, a glass of bourbon to his right, his old oil-derrick model to the left. With heavy eyes, he glances at the framed picture of Miss Ellie, sips his drink, puts pen to paper and finally returns ownership of the ranch to Bobby.
The man has come around.
‘He’s J.R. Ewing’
If there is justice in television, “Family Business” will be the episode that earns Larry Hagman an Emmy next year. The actor is full of wicked charm here, but more than anything, his performance has heart. J.R. has never felt so human.
And while we’re on the subject: Is it too much to ask for Patrick Duffy to receive some Emmy recognition too? I love the sad-eyed, world-weary demeanor he brings to his scenes with Hagman, but Duffy also deserves praise for making Bobby’s seizures look and feel frighteningly real.
Among the younger actors, I’m most impressed by Julie Gonzalo, who knocks me out with Rebecca’s hopeless desperation in “Family Business’s” final scene, when Rebecca turns the gun on Tommy (“Please, please you have to go!”), as well as Josh Henderson, who shows us what John Ross is made of during his character’s confrontation with J.R.
Henderson also shines when John Ross stands in the Southfork driveway and pours out his heart to Elena. “I spent my entire life missing him, wanting to be with him, wanting to be him,” John Ross says of his father. After a beat, he adds: “He’s J.R. Ewing” – letting us know the son’s mistake wasn’t that he failed to live up to his father’s legend, but that he tried in the first place. The “Dallas” makeup artists might be responsible for the cuts and bruises on John Ross’s face, but Henderson gets the credit for showing us the scars his character carries around on the inside.
Other great “Family Business” moments: Christopher reminds John Ross that Bobby was like a surrogate father to him growing up and later proposes going into business with John Ross and Elena – signaling the beginning of an intriguing story arc for the series. Meanwhile, after Harris tries to blackmail Sue Ellen – and mocks her sobriety by pouring her a glass of wine – she confides in Ann her plan to drop out of the gubernatorial race. “I would have made a good governor, don’t you think?” Sue Ellen asks through wet eyes. Has Linda Gray ever been more heartbreaking?
Speaking of Ann: Brenda Strong is wonderful in the scenes that depict her character as devoted wife and friend, but I get the biggest kick out of seeing Ann spar with her wily brother-in-law. I loved J.R. and Ann’s storage barn encounter in “The Price You Pay” and their heated exchange in “Truth and Consequences,” but the “Family Business” scene where she chases him out of Bobby’s room (“Don’t you darlin’ me!”) is the best of the lot. Strong is one of the few actors on the TNT show who can hold her own against the mighty Hagman in every way.
‘Hear the Trumpets, Hear the Pipers’
“Family Business” is a technical achievement as much as anything. Since TNT’s series began, I’ve sometimes struggled to get used to the background music, which is so different from what we heard on the old show. But the new style really works here. Rob Cairns scores several scenes in this episode with sentimental strings, which fit well with the intimate atmospherics.
Of course, “Family Business’s” standout sequence is that Johnny Cash montage. Notice how perfectly his haunting lyrics match what we see on screen. Rebecca pulls the gun out of the safe deposit box as Cash sings, “The hair on your arms will stand up.” Tommy’s face fills the frame when we hear, “Whoever is filthy, let him be filthy still.” Bobby’s monitor flatlines as Cash’s voice booms, “Hear the trumpets, hear the pipers.” And then the punctuation: the ping of the shell casing hitting the counter as blood splatters the stuffed animals Rebecca brought home at the top of the hour.
After I saw this sequence for the first time, I went back and watched it again and again, reveling in how good it is. It reminded me of how I kept “A House Divided,” the episode where J.R. gets shot, on a seemingly endless loop when I was a kid.
But the comparison goes beyond the fact both episodes end with gunshots. The original “Dallas” was never the same after “A House Divided,” and “Family Business” feels destined to become a landmark episode too. I have a hunch we’ll one day look back and remember this as the moment the TNT series became the show we always knew it could be.
Season 1, Episode 9
Telecast: August 1, 2012
Writer: Bruce Rasmussen
Director: Michael M. Robin
Audience: 4.8 million viewers (including 3.2 million viewers on August 1, ranking 17th in the weekly cable ratings)
Synopsis: After Elena discovers a way to extract Southfork oil from a neighboring property, John Ross, Christopher and Elena form a company, Ewing Energies. When Harris tries to blackmail Sue Ellen, she decides to quit the gubernatorial race rather than submit to his scheme. Bobby is diagnosed with a cerebral aneurysm, prompting J.R. to return ownership of Southfork to him. After Bobby learns he may have to incriminate J.R. in the fraud, he suffers a seizure. Tommy is revealed to be working with Frank Ashkani, Cliff’s henchman, who tells Tommy his services are no longer required. Tommy attacks a gun-wielding Rebecca; the weapon fires during their struggle.
Cast: Jordana Brewster (Elena Ramos), Mari Deese (bank manager), Patrick Duffy (Bobby Ewing), Marlene Forte (Carmen Ramos), Julie Gonzalo (Rebecca Ewing), Linda Gray (Sue Ellen Ewing), Larry Hagman (J.R. Ewing), Callard Harris (Tommy Sutter), Josh Henderson (John Ross Ewing), John McIntosh (Dr. Bennett), Jesse Metcalfe (Christopher Ewing), Glenn Morshower (Lou), Kevin Page (Bum), Mitch Pileggi (Harris Ryland), Brenda Strong (Ann Ewing), Tina Parker (nurse), Faran Tahir (Frank)