Critique: ‘Dallas’ Episode 38 – ‘Mastectomy, Part 1’

Barbara Bel Geddes, Dallas, Mastectomy Part 1, Miss Ellie Ewing

Oh, pioneer

In the 1970s, Edith Bunker and a few other major television characters had cancer scares, but no one actually got the disease. “Dallas” upends this convention in “Mastectomy, Part 1,” when Miss Ellie learns a newly discovered lump in her breast is malignant.

This storyline, like the second-season episode about Kit Mainwaring’s coming out, demonstrates the pioneering spirit that distinguished “Dallas’s” earliest seasons. The show’s willingness to venture into unchartered territory is commendable, even if it occasionally stumbles along the way.

For example, some of the dialogue in the “Mastectomy” episodes sounds like it was lifted from the cancer brochure Ellie is seen reading in “The Dove Hunt,” an earlier third-season entry. Various characters refer to “regular checkups,” “frequent self-examination” and “special radiation treatment.”

The clinical talk is clumsy, but in the pre-Google era, at least “Dallas” cared enough about its audience to want to educate them. (A measure of television’s potential back then: The “Mastectomy” episodes were originally broadcast as a single two-hour “Dallas” installment, drawing half the homes that watched TV that night.)

Of course, the heavy-handed dialogue isn’t as bothersome as the subplot about Amanda, Jock’s first wife, whom the “Dallas” writers seemingly invented to drive a wedge between Jock and Ellie before her surgery. This plot device is unnecessary. Cancer is scary enough. “Dallas” didn’t need to artificially heighten the drama surrounding Ellie’s diagnosis.

But don’t let the subplot distract you from Barbara Bel Geddes’ flawless performance, which undoubtedly helped her win the Emmy for best dramatic actress at the end of the 1979-80 season.

The actress is especially good when Ellie’s doctors explain what will happen if her tumor is malignant. In the scene, Ellie sits on her hospital bed, dressed in a pink medical gown, looking tinier than usual. As her doctors speak, tears slowly streak her face. It would’ve been easy to go overboard here, but Bel Geddes was smart enough to know those silent tears were all she needed to convey Ellie’s fear.

This is heartbreaking stuff, but the saddest moment in “Mastectomy, Part 1” comes when Jock turns to his sons and says, “God, why couldn’t it have been me they cut up instead of her?”

The line is made poignant by the fact Jim Davis died of cancer a little more than 500 days after the “Mastectomy” broadcast. Hearing him deliver the dialogue reminds us how real cancer is, and how frightening it remains.

Grade: B


Dallas, Jim Davis, Jock Ewing, Mastectomy Part 1

Poignant pause


Season 3, Episode 9

Airdate: November 16, 1979

Audience: 22 million homes, ranking 5th in the weekly ratings

Writer: Arthur Bernard Lewis

Director: Irving J. Moore

Synopsis: After Jock tells Miss Ellie about his first wife, she refuses to tell him she is having a breast cyst examined. Jock eventually finds out and is at Ellie’s side after her surgery, when he learns the tumor was malignant and the doctors removed her breast.

Cast: Barbara Bel Geddes (Miss Ellie Ewing), Jeff Cooper (Dr. Simon Elby), Mary Crosby (Kristin Shepard), Jim Davis (Jock Ewing), Patrick Duffy (Bobby Ewing), Linda Gray (Sue Ellen Ewing), Larry Hagman (J.R. Ewing), Steve Kanaly (Ray Krebbs), Jane Kean (Mitzi), Ken Kercheval (Cliff Barnes), Lev Mailer (Dr. Mitch Andress), Jared Martin (Dusty Farlow), Jeanna Michaels (Connie), Randolph Powell (Alan Beam), Victoria Principal (Pam Ewing), Charlene Tilton (Lucy Ewing), John Zaremba (Dr. Harlan Danvers)

“Mastectomy, Part 1” is available on DVD and at and iTunes. Watch the episode and share your comments below.


  1. I didn’t realize BBG won an Emmy. Good for her. She was really good in this episode.

  2. I forgot to mention what I didn’t like about this episode though, which was the extent to which Ellie hid her cancer from Jock–not even telling him when she goes in for surgery. That seemed really nuts, given how close we’re to believe they are, even if she is perturbed about this ex showing up.

  3. R.J. Koopmans, President, Ewing Oil Co. Ltd.-Canada says:

    Mastectomy truly highlights theearly need IV screening by women (& men) for breast cancer as both men & women can get it. Game Show Announcer for “The Price Is Right With Bob Barker” on CBS (DALLAS’s network) Rod Roddy died of it. Yes this episode was ahead of its time.


  1. […] and “Return Engagements,” but the actress also shows us her character’s vulnerable side in “Mastectomy, Part 1” and “Mastectomy, Part 2,” the episodes that won Bel Geddes an Emmy. She earned the award, but I […]

  2. […] “Mastectomy, Part 1,” a third-season “Dallas” episode, Pam and Miss Ellie (Victoria Principal, Barbara Bel Geddes) […]

  3. […] “Mastectomy, Part 1,” Miss Ellie gets breast cancer, probably becoming television’s first major character to have the […]

  4. […] that he’s hidden from her for 40 years: He was previously married to a woman named Amanda. In “Mastectomy, Part 1,” Jock finally tells Ellie about the marriage, explaining how he divorced Amanda after she suffered a […]

  5. […] the third-season episode “Mastectomy, Part 1,” Kean played Mitzi, the waitress at the diner where Sue Ellen and Dusty Farlow have a secret […]

  6. […] “Dallas’s” history. “Eye of the Beholder” arrived four seasons after the show’s classic “Mastectomy” episodes, which broke ground by making Ellie one of the first major characters in prime time to get […]

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