“Penultimate” is an hour of misery and pain, but it contains love too. The story begins where “Dallas’s” previous episode ends, when Sue Ellen drives drunk and crashes J.R.’s car. The accident leaves her with a broken arm and some scrapes and bruises, while passenger Mickey Trotter fares much worse: He slips into a coma after his spinal cord is injured. This leads to tense scenes, like the one where Lucy calls Sue Ellen a “lousy drunk” and blames her for the crash. Mostly, though, “Penultimate” depicts the Ewings and Krebbses as people who are willing to set aside old hurts and day-to-day grievances to help each other get through a crisis. It’s the kind of thing we routinely witness on this show, yet it never fails to move me.
Howard Lakin’s smart script ensures Sue Ellen remains a sympathetic figure, even though it seems like she did indeed cause the accident. Lakin gives us a scene where a guilt-ridden Sue Ellen apologizes to Lucy and pleads for forgiveness, and even though Lucy refuses to listen, other characters don’t hesitate to show Sue Ellen compassion. The crucial moment comes in the first act, when a sore, stiff Sue Ellen comes home from the hospital and goes to her bedroom with Miss Ellie, who offers to help her change into a nightgown. When Sue Ellen begins to cry, Ellie takes her into her arms and holds her close. It’s a touching scene, and also a clever one. If Ellie is willing to forgive Sue Ellen, why shouldn’t we?
Of course, Linda Gray keeps the audience on Sue Ellen’s side too. Throughout “Penultimate,” Gray carries herself like a woman full of regret; we never doubt that Sue Ellen feels terrible about what she’s done. It doesn’t hurt that she looks awful. Sue Ellen’s face is purple and swollen, her arm is in a cast and in the first few scenes, her sweater is torn and stained with blood. How can you not feel bad for this woman? In the same spirit, how can you not admire Gray? Remember, “Penultimate” was made in an era when television audiences demanded gloss and glamour from their favorite actresses, so Gray’s willingness to be seen in such an unflattering light feels like an act of courage. (Other stars soon followed Gray’s lead. The year after “Penultimate” aired, Farrah Fawcett wore a black eye when she played a battered wife in the TV movie “The Burning Bed.”)
Gray’s most impressive performance in “Penultimate” comes in the final scene, when J.R. enters his bedroom late at night and finds Sue Ellen waiting up for him. She calmly asks why he remarried her if he had no intention of being faithful, and when he begins to speak, she cuts him off. “Stop it! Stop it! I don’t want to hear any more from you!” she shouts. But J.R. continues, telling Sue Ellen that he never meant to hurt her. “Believe me when I say that I love you. I truly love you,” he says. Larry Hagman’s delivery is sincere, but Gray is the one we can’t take our eyes off of. When J.R. professes his love, Gray turns away from Hagman and faces the camera. She’s silent, yet her expression tells us how tormented Sue Ellen feels at that moment. Despite the pain J.R. has caused her, is there any doubt she loves him too?
Cry, Cry Again
Charlene Tilton supplies “Penultimate” with its other emotional highpoints. After Lucy lashes out at Sue Ellen and calls her a drunk, she bursts into tears and collapses into Ray’s arms. Later, Lucy is with Ray, Donna and Aunt Lil when the doctor informs them Mickey will probably be paralyzed. Once again, Lucy weeps. Both scenes remind us how Tilton always rises to the occasion when she’s given good material, which happens too infrequently on “Dallas.” I also admire how Steve Kanaly makes us feel every ounce of Ray’s anger and frustration over the tragedy that has befallen Mickey, as well as the guilt consuming Ray over bringing his cousin to Texas in the first place. The other performer to watch in these scenes is Kate Reid, who doesn’t have a lot of dialogue, but who doesn’t need any. Her sad, solemn expression says it all.
Not all of the scenes in “Penultimate” are quite so agonizing. When J.R. goes to Holly’s house to confront her over her attempt to ruin his marriage, we expect J.R. to be full of rage. Instead, he plays it cool, politely offering to give up his share of Harwood Oil — if Holly pays him $20 million, that is. Holly balks, and so J.R. leaves her with a not-so-subtle threat. “Holly, you won a hand in a game of poker,” he says. “You’re seeing me in a mood that you’ll never see again. I strongly advise you to take advantage of it, because considering what it’ll cost if you don’t” — here, Hagman pauses — “twenty million dollars will be chickenfeed.”
Later, Bobby urges Holly not to give J.R. the money until after the contest for Ewing Oil ends. Frankly, of all the surprising moves Bobby makes during the sixth season, this one shocks me most. It’s one thing for Bobby to blackmail George Hicks, the crooked energy regulator, or to stage a sting against Walt Driscoll, J.R.’s accomplice in the illegal Cuban oil deal. But after all the suffering the battle for Ewing Oil has caused, Bobby is still willing to wheel and deal to win the contest? Maybe Pam is right. Maybe her husband really has changed.
Hear the Trumpets
Like all great “Dallas” episodes, “Penultimate” is a creative achievement on multiple levels. Along with the strong performances and writing, Richard Lewis Warren’s underscore is essential to the episode’s success. In several scenes, a few piano keys give way to the mournful blaring of trumpets. It fits the somber mood perfectly, not that any of us should be surprised. Warren’s music never gets in the way of the storytelling but helps it along, which is why he’s one of my favorite “Dallas” composers.
“Penultimate” also offers some of the sixth season’s niftiest camerawork. The episode opens at the site of the car accident, as an ambulance pulls away and a tow truck backs up to J.R.’s overturned Mercedes. Southfork looms in the distance, lit up in the black sky, until the camera slowly zooms in for a close-up. I also like how director Nick Havinga opens one scene with a tight shot of the Ewings’ liquor cart. In the background, Sue Ellen enters the room and gradually comes into focus as she approaches the booze and reaches for a bottle. Havinga also plays with our depth perception in a shot in the hospital where Kanaly stands in the foreground and exchanges dialogue with Susan Howard, whose position in the background makes Donna look like she’s a few feet shorter than Ray.
Lakin and Havinga also do a nice job keeping the audience in the dark about the extent of Sue Ellen and Mickey’s injuries when “Penultimate” begins. The first scene in the emergency room shows a medical team tending to an unseen patient. Amid the beeps and whirs of the machinery, one of the doctors drops references to irregular breathing patterns and a possible spinal injury. “Looks like there’s a bad fracture in the right leg,” a nurse announces. Says the doctor: “Yeah, we’ll worry about that later. Right now, let’s just try to keep this patient alive.” Moments later, we see J.R. escort a shaken Sue Ellen into a hospital corridor, and only then do we realize Mickey is the patient in critical condition.
This turns out to be the episode’s most suspenseful moment. The only other mystery presented here is the identity of the driver of the car that struck Sue Ellen and Mickey’s vehicle, which won’t be revealed until the next episode. Indeed, “Penultimate” serves mostly as a prelude to that installment — not that I’m complaining. The season’s plot lines may not advance much during this hour, but the characters do. Isn’t that more interesting anyway?
Season 6, Episode 27
Airdate: April 29, 1983
Audience: 19 million homes, ranking 3rd in the weekly ratings
Writer: Howard Lakin
Director: Nick Havinga
Synopsis: While Mickey lies in a coma, doctors determine he’ll likely be paralyzed. Sheriff Washburn tells J.R. that Sue Ellen will be charged with manslaughter if Mickey dies. Ray urges Washburn to find the driver of the car that struck Sue Ellen and Mickey’s vehicle. After J.R. invites Holly to buy him out of her company, Bobby urges her to delay her payment to him until the contest for Ewing Oil is over. Cliff pressures Pam not to give Bobby the drill bit.
Cast: John Beck (Mark Graison), Barbara Bel Geddes (Miss Ellie Ewing), Lois Chiles (Holly Harwood), Roseanna Christiansen (Teresa), Barry Corbin (Sheriff Fenton Washburn), Michael Cornelison (Dr. Snow), Patrick Duffy (Bobby Ewing), Eric Farlow (Christopher Ewing), Linda Gray (Sue Ellen Ewing), Larry Hagman (J.R. Ewing), Alice Hirson (Mavis Anderson), Susan Howard (Donna Krebbs), Steve Kanaly (Ray Krebbs), Howard Keel (Clayton Farlow), Ken Kercheval (Cliff Barnes), Joe Maross (Dr. Blakely), Timothy Patrick Murphy (Micheky Trotter), Victoria Principal (Pam Ewing), Kate Reid (Lil Trotter), Danone Simpson (Kendall), Charlene Tilton (Lucy Ewing), Deborah Tranelli (Phyllis), Morgan Woodward (Punk Anderson), John Zaremba (Dr. Harlan Danvers)