Critique: ‘Dallas’ Episode 41 – ‘Ellie Saves the Day’

Barbara Bel Geddes, Dallas, Ellie Saves the Day, Miss Ellie Ewing

Savior

“Ellie Saves the Day” is essential viewing for anyone who loves “Dallas” and its mythology. The story brings the Ewings to the brink of financial ruin, and their darkest hour turns out to be one of the show’s finest. This is a great episode.

The plot of is straightforward – the Ewings discover J.R. has secretly mortgaged Southfork, and they must scramble to raise the money to pay the banks – but the subtext is rich. There are allusions to the consequences of codependence and parallels to the real-life economic morass of the 1970s. These themes prove resilient.

In many ways, “Ellie Saves the Day” is the flip side of “The Kristin Affair,” which aired six weeks earlier in the fall of 1979. “The Kristin Affair” is also a classic episode, but it is relatively breezy, while “Ellie Saves the Day” is moodier, broodier and ultimately, more satisfying.

‘I Never Taught Him When to Stop’

Dallas, Ellie Saves the Day, J.R. Ewing, Larry Hagman

Sinner

“Ellie Saves the Day” opens with J.R. panicked because he has hasn’t struck oil in Asia and the deadline to pay the Southfork mortgage is looming. The crisis leaves him gloomy and full of self-pity. “I’ll write you a nice reference,” he tells Kristin.

Seeing J.R. this way invites us to consider the roots of his greed. To say the character is power hungry tells only half the tale. J.R. really craves Jock’s respect, and he believes boosting Ewing Oil’s size and stature is the only way to earn it. For J.R., power is a means to an end.

Unfortunately, J.R. becomes addicted to his own ambition. In “The Kristin Affair,” he gets drunk with dreams of making Ewing Oil “the biggest, most powerful independent in Texas” and mortgages Southfork to finance his overseas drilling venture. It’s a risky scheme, and when it finally unravels in “Ellie Saves the Day,” it’s not unlike watching a drunkard coming off a bender. This idea is reinforced by the five o’clock shadow that shows up on Larry Hagman’s face in the third act.

Make no mistake: J.R. is as compulsive as Sue Ellen. She is an alcoholic, but he is powerless over his own ego, and just as the Ewings indulge her, they also enable him. Jock alludes to this in “Ellie Saves the Day” when he discovers the mortgage scheme and tells Bobby, “I trained J.R. and taught him everything he knows. Gave him the fever for big business. But I never taught him when to stop.”

‘Sweat and Hope and Dreams’

Bobby Ewing, Dallas, Ellie Saves the Day, Jim Davis, Jock Ewing, Patrick Duffy

Humbled

This is just one achingly poignant scene in an episode full of them. In another, Bobby finds Jock sitting alone on the Southfork patio in the dark of night. Bobby sees his father is worried and tells him he can “start over” if Ewing Oil collapses, but Jock waves him off. “Not enough time left for me to do that,” Jock says, and as we watch his silvery hair catch the moonlight, we know he’s probably right.

Jock is nothing if not realistic. “It’s not the oil business that I’m worried about,” he tells Bobby. “There’s just no way that you can build another Southfork. Not in six lifetimes.”

Bobby, true to his nature, doesn’t give up. He implores his father to persuade the banks to extend their loan. “We’ll try, Bobby. We’ll try,” Jock responds. “But this feels like the end of 40 years of sweat and hopes and dreams.”

Jim Davis and Patrick Duffy’s performances in this scene are beautiful, and so is the dialogue. “Ellie Saves the Day” was written by Arthur Bernard Lewis, perhaps “Dallas’s” best scriptwriter, and David Michael Jacobs, who apparently is not the same person as “Dallas” creator David Jacobs. Regardless, Lewis and this second David Jacobs demonstrate they understand better than most what makes “Dallas” tick.

Gunnar Hellström’s direction during Jock and Bobby’s conversation is also inspired. It is intensely quiet, with the faint sound of crickets in the background and a 17-second, longer-than-it-seems pause at the beginning of the scene.  Hellström shrouds Davis and Duffy in blackness, making them look a bit like actors in a stage play. This is fitting, given how Jock and Bobby’s conversation – with all those references to the passage of time, respect and failed dreams – feels like something out of “Death of a Salesman.”

Hellström concludes the scene by slowly pulling back the camera, leaving us with a wide shot of Jock and Bobby, dressed in their pajamas and brooding over what the next day might bring. Never before have these big men seemed humbler.

‘It’s Time That Southfork Repaid Those Debts’

Barbara Bel Geddes, Dallas, Ellie Saves the Day, Miss Ellie Ewing

Capped

The somber tone of “Ellie Saves the Day” reflected the national mood in 1979, when gas shortages and the Three Mile Island meltdown were seen as signs of American decline. For some people in today’s audiences, these themes will still resonate.

Jock’s “six lifetimes” line also reminds us the collapse of Ewing Oil and the foreclosure of Southfork wouldn’t be equal losses. These twin institutions define “Dallas” and its characters, but the ranch is by far the more precious of the two. It’s no accident Miss Ellie, “Dallas’s” moral center, personifies Southfork, while the corrupt J.R. embodies the company. (It’s also no surprise the virtues of drilling on Southfork will again be debated during TNT’s new “Dallas” series.)

From this vantage point, “Ellie Saves the Day” resembles a parable about the inequities in American capitalism and conservationism. In the real world, we rush to relax our environmental standards when the economy suffers – even President Obama has weakened clean-air rules – just as Ellie decides to bail out Ewing Oil by lifting the generations-old embargo against drilling on the ranch.

As she tells Jock at the end of this episode, “Forty years ago, Ewing Oil paid off the mortgage on Southfork – and saved it. Now I think it’s time that Southfork repaid those debts.”

‘I May Never Forgive You for This, J.R.’

Barbara Bel Geddes, Dallas, Ellie Saves the Day, Miss Ellie Ewing

Giant

Barbara Bel Geddes’ performance in “Ellie Saves the Day” might be her best during the series. She delivers her lines with her trademark quiet conviction, but I also love the way she carries herself. Bel Geddes might be small, but her grace makes her a giant.

This is best illustrated in the final scene, when Miss Ellie refuses to use Vaughn Leland’s pen to sign away the mineral rights to her family’s land. If we saw another actress do this, it might make Ellie seem petty. When Bel Geddes does it, it’s a moment of triumph.

Of course, this scene also exposes the just-below-the-surface flawed logic in “Ellie Saves the Day.”

To make the storyline work, the producers fiddle with the show’s continuity: When “Dallas” begins, Ewing Oil and Southfork seem to operate independently of each other, but at the beginning of the third season, they suddenly are referred to as subsidiaries of “Ewing Enterprises,” a parent company that is rarely mentioned again after this season. From this perspective, the Ewings kind of get what they deserve. Who in their right mind makes the family home dependent on the family business?

Another quibble: In the episode’s closing moments, when Ellie is leaving the Ewing Oil office, she glances at her eldest son and says, “I may never forgive you for this, J.R.” Bel Geddes’ face isn’t shown when she delivers the line, which sounds like it was dubbed in after the scene was filmed. I don’t know why the people who made “Ellie Saves the Day” felt the line was needed. Imagine if Ellie had simply turned to J.R. and cut him a withering look. Her silence would have been more unsettling than anything she might have said.

Regardless, the fact Ellie is unmerciful toward J.R. is telling. It lets us know she may be able to save Southfork and Ewing Oil, but she knows she can’t save her son’s soul. He’s too far gone for that.

Grade: A+

________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

Barbara Bel Geddes, Dallas, Ellie Saves the Day, Miss Ellie Ewing, Ray Krebbs, Steve Kanaly

Thinker

‘ELLIE SAVES THE DAY’

Season 3, Episode 12

Airdate: November 30, 1979

Audience: 18.5 million homes, ranking 13th in the weekly ratings

Writers: David Michael Jacobs and Arthur Bernard Lewis

Director: Gunnar Hellström

Synopsis: The Ewings learn J.R. mortgaged Southfork to finance his Asian deal. To stave off foreclosure, Miss Ellie decides to allow Ewing Oil to drill on the ranch.

Cast: Barbara Bel Geddes (Miss Ellie Ewing), 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), Ken Kercheval (Cliff Barnes), Jeanna Michaels (Connie), Dennis Patrick (Vaughn Leland), Randolph Powell (Alan Beam), Victoria Principal (Pam Ewing), Don Starr (Jordan Lee), Charlene Tilton (Lucy Ewing), Jimmy Weldon (Sy Stevens)

“Ellie Saves the Day” is available on DVD and at Amazon.com and iTunes. Watch the episode and share your comments below.

Comments

  1. barbara fan says:

    fantastic review
    great episode and BBG rocked

  2. I loved how Ellie saved the day. It shows how she has a lot of power in the Ewing family–muscle she doesn’t need to flex as regularly as J.R., Bobby or Jock, but it is there nonetheless. It’s a shame she doesn’t hold to her word of not forgiving J.R., since, of course, she eventually does and he inevitably betrays the family again…and again…

  3. Regarding the connection between Southfork and Ewing Oil, it doesn’t sound so strange to me, thinking about what little I know of how real life rich families operate (from buying the special Forbes 400 issues every years since 1990). As had been established in Dallas history, Jock and Ellie’s marriage was originally mostly a business arrangement, with Ellie marrying Jock because Southfork was in trouble and he could afford to save it (although The Early Years later retconned it into them getting married because she got pregnant with J.R.).

    So we know that was her motivation, but there had to be a reason for Jock to go through with it. He must have wanted a piece of Southfork which, let’s remember, is also a business, which raises and sells cattle (& whatever else ranches do to make money). So if Jock, as owner of Ewing Oil, used Ewing Oil to pay off Southfork’s mortgage, that would then put Southfork in debt to Ewing Oil, and so the deal was likely arranged in such away that future profits from Southfork were now funneled through Ewing Oil, to pay off that debt. And “Ewing Enterprises” could have been created as just a kind of umbrella corporation for legal purposes, not an actual company, just something that existed on paper, as the technical owner of both Ewing Oil and Southfork, and probably whatever other companies the Ewings may have operated over the years (like that construction company Bobby was running for awhile). And then it’s likely that after this debacle Jock would have dissolved the corporation, to separate Southfork ownership from Ewing Oil, so that this couldn’t happen again. Hence why it was never mentioned after this, and why the Ewings didn’t lose Southfork when the Justice Department took Ewing Oil away from them.

  4. The insight by J.R. Lemar is superb here. Recall J.R. & C.B. if u will when J.R. creates “Petro-State” with the sole owner being I believe Holly Harwood as a holding firm to manoeuvre cash around & make it seem like a real firm & to shunt illegal monies thru. He does it to with other firms when he makes his secretary, Miss Lovegren the President, CEO, & Chairman of a few firms to hide a tad of cash, such as Cuban monies in his contest for 51% control of Ewing Oil with Brother Bobby! I would have to say that this was a rather “Sly” manoeuvre!

  5. I’m afraid I didn’t quite get it. If Southfork and ranch territories and all were given to the bank – the bank should have got all the rights for the oil drilling there as well, shouldn’t it? So what was the advantage of Miss Ellie’s proposal for the bank?

    (Sorry for my mistakes in English, I’m not an English-native speaker.)

    And, Chris, I would love to thank you very much for your wonderful site!
    I started to see “Dallas” series in Internet accidentally, out of boredom – and fell in love in J.R. Ewing immediately. 🙂 The show is excellent, simply wow! 🙂 What a pity that “Dallas” is not so popular in my country.
    And your site is very useful, it is full of information and is a real pleasure for mind and heart of a fresh Dallas’s fan. Thank you!

    • Nataly, welcome to “Dallas” fandom! Thanks also for your kind words about my site. I appreciate them. As far as Southfork, the bank and the mineral rights, the rules that govern such dealings on “Dallas” often bear little resemblance to real life, as you’ll discover when you watch more of the show. 🙂

      Thank you again,
      Chris

Trackbacks

  1. […] early and final seasons of the original series. It’s worth it to watch the Season 3 episode, “Ellie Saves the Day” before seeing the new series. The discussion about Southfork oil reserves and mineral rights is […]

  2. […] the ranch. He has a brief sweet graveside monologue, which harkens back to the classic episode, “Ellie Saves the Day.” When Bobby says to Ellie here that he knows she’ll understand why he’s about to allow […]

  3. […] second time this season, after he’s ambushed in “The Dove Hunt”). But my ultimate choice is “Ellie Saves the Day,” the poignant hour that brings the Ewing empire to the brink of collapse. If you want to understand […]

  4. […] – the idea that sometimes you have to sacrifice your principles for the greater good (see also: “Ellie Saves the Day”) – this scene reminds me how much I love Patrick […]

  5. […] the end of “Ellie Saves the Day,” one of my favorite “Dallas” episodes, Miss Ellie sits at J.R.’s desk and signs paperwork […]

  6. […] A pensive Ellie strolls around the Southfork grounds, recalling the walk she takes in the classic “Ellie Saves the Day.” She visits the stables and lovingly strokes Blazer, Jock’s horse. “You miss him too, don’t […]

  7. […] and announces she’ll raise the cash by allowing Ewing Oil to drill on the land. It’s an early example of an enduring “Dallas” theme: Sometimes you have to set aside your principles to protect your […]

  8. […] that’s anything but. The director is Gunnar Hellström, who also helmed the third-season classic “Ellie Saves the Day,” another dark hour in Ewing family history. In that chapter, J.R.’s business dealings brought the […]

What do you think?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: