Critique: ‘Dallas’ Episode 54 – ‘A House Divided’

Dallas, House Divided, J.R. Ewing, Larry Hagman, Who Shot J.R.?

The divider

One school night in 1988, when I should’ve been asleep, I stumbled across a late-night cable showing of “A House Divided,” the third-season “Dallas” finale that famously ends with J.R. getting shot. This was probably the first time I’d seen the episode since 1980, so I was overjoyed. I recorded the rerun on the living room VCR and watched the cassette so many times in the years that followed, the tape eventually warped.

Today, I know “A House Divided” the way other people know “Star Wars.” I have memorized virtually every line from every scene, and I’ve been known to go around the house reciting them for my own amusement, if no one else’s.

It was crooked!

I’d have done the same thing, Bobby. The same thing.

You’re a drunk and an unfit mother, and I honestly think you’ve lost your reason.

My memories of “A House Divided,” together with the weight of its pop culture significance, have always made me think this is one of “Dallas’s” greatest entries. I’m pretty sure it really is among the show’s finest hours, although I’m also the first to admit it’s hard to sweep aside my nostalgia and judge it simply as a “Dallas” episode.

Whether or not it’s one of the best, “A House Divided” is certainly unique. The producers famously constructed the story in reverse: First, they came up with the idea of having J.R. get shot and then they worked backwards, establishing the suspects and their motives along the way.

The result is an episode with a furious rhythm. The action begins with the frenzied press conference in J.R.’s office at the top of the hour and never lets up, propelled not just by scriptwriter Rena Down’s narrative, but also by Bruce Broughton’s driving score.

Hagman’s Zenith

Dallas, House Divided, J.R. Ewing, Larry Hagman, Who Shot J.R.?

Oh, the humanity!

The actors keep things zipping along, too. Among the regular cast, no one delivers more than Larry Hagman, whose portrayal of J.R. reaches its gleefully villainous zenith in “A House Divided.”

Given all the despicable things J.R. does in this episode, I used to feel guilty cheering him on – until I realized I’m not rooting for the character as much as I am the actor who plays him. Hagman is full of zest in “A House Divided” – and he’s never looked trimmer and sexier – yet the actor never allows his performance to devolve into camp or self-awareness.

Consider the scene where J.R. enters the Southfork dining room and finds Miss Ellie in tears because Bobby, fed up with his older brother’s schemes, has finally fled the ranch. “Mama, I don’t want Bobby to leave. You know that,” he says. The sincerity in Hagman’s voice lets us know J.R. means it.

Director Irving J. Moore probably deserves credit for humanizing J.R., too. When the character is waiting for Harry McSween to bring Alan Beam to his office, we see him alone at his desk, shrouded in darkness and holding the framed picture of Sue Ellen he keeps nearby. This fleeting moment invites the audience to wonder what J.R. is thinking. Does he regret the way he’s treated her?

J.R. looks at the picture again in the final scene, right before the unseen assailant enters the office and shoots him. I don’t know if Hagman picked up the frame on his own or if Moore instructed him to do it, but it’s a clever touch. In those seconds before the gun is fired, having him look at the photograph of Sue Ellen reminds us that J.R. is a husband, a father, a man. Yes, he’s also a bastard, but he doesn’t deserve what’s about to happen to him.

Great Performances

Dallas, House Divided, Linda Gray, Sue Ellen Ewing, Who Shot J.R.?

Those eyes

Patrick Duffy is also impressive in “A House Divided,” particularly in the scene where a frustrated Bobby bids farewell to Ellie. In the episode’s DVD commentary, Duffy credits Barbara Bel Geddes with making his performance better in this sequence, and while she is indeed wonderful, he needn’t be so modest. Duffy has always brought a lot of heart to his role, and in this scene, he gives as good as he gets. As his eyes redden, her sobs intensify. Both actors play off each other really well.

“A House Divided’s” other standout is Linda Gray, who is mesmerizing during Sue Ellen’s big confrontation with J.R. in the dining room, where she calls him out for his misdeeds in front of Jock and Ellie. Notice how Sue Ellen’s expression changes during the course of the sequence, shifting from disgust at J.R.’s behavior to fear when he threatens to put her back in the sanitarium. Over the years, more than one “Dallas” observer has suggested Gray acts with her eyes. In this scene, that’s really true.

Gray has another moment I absolutely love. In the scene where Sue Ellen and J.R. fight in their bedroom, she gets swept up in her own fury and asks him “which slut” he plans to spend the night with. The instant she says this, Gray’s lips part and her angry expression melts, as if the harsh words have jolted the onetime Miss Texas into reality. How did her perfect marriage come to this?

The guest stars in “A House Divided” are terrific, too. I especially like Dennis Patrick, whose indignation is palpable in the scene where Vaughn Leland demands restitution from J.R., and Ann Nelson, who plays the little old lady Pam encounters during her visit to Corpus Christi. Down, the scriptwriter, gives Nelson some charmingly homespun dialogue (“She was pregnant. Big with it she was!”), and the actress delivers every line beautifully.

Great Scenes

Bobby Ewing, Dallas, House Divided, Pam Ewing, Victoria Principal, Who Shot J.R.?

Purple rage

I’ve given J.R. and Sue Ellen’s dining room encounter today’s “Scene of the Day” honors, but truthfully, almost any sequence from this episode qualifies. “A House Divided” is one great moment after another.

Every scene has a memorable line, too. Bobby declares he’s leaving Southfork by telling Pam, “I’ve put up with all the wheeling and dealing and backstabbing that I’m going to.” After Kristin vows to kill J.R., Alan tells her to “take a number. There are a few of us ahead of you.” When Sue Ellen asks J.R. which slut he plans to spend the night with, he responds, “What difference does it make? Whoever it is has got to be more interesting than the slut I’m looking at right now.”

“A House Divided” isn’t perfect, of course. The press conference that opens the episode isn’t very credible, especially since the reporter’s last question (“Did Ewing Oil invest all of its capital in those leases and does nationalization mean the end of the Ewing empire?”) really should have been the first.

Also, as good as J.R. and Sue Ellen’s dining room confrontation is, I can’t help but notice Hagman delivers J.R.’s menacing threat (“The sooner we have you put away in that sanitarium, the better off you’re going to be.”) while holding a slice of bacon.

Surprise, Surprise

Dallas, House Divided, J.R. Ewing, Larry Hagman, Who Shot J.R.?

Down, but not out

For me, part of the fun of watching “A House Divided” today is wondering what it must have been like to see this episode when CBS aired it for the first time in 1980. I was 6 at the time and already a “Dallas” fan, so I probably was among the millions of people who watched that broadcast, although I have no memory of it.

Modern audiences likely assume J.R.’s shooting was a surprise, but CBS actually gave away the episode’s pivotal final scene in promos leading up to the broadcast. What a shame. Imagine how shocking the cliffhanger would have been if CBS hadn’t spoiled it.

Then again, when you think about it, the shooting itself really isn’t all that important. What matters is all the great drama that comes before those bullets are fired. In the end, the most surprising thing about “A House Divided” isn’t that J.R. gets gunned down, it’s how entertaining this episode remains, even when you have the whole thing memorized.

Grade: A+

________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

Dallas, House Divided, J.R. Ewing, Larry Hagman, Who Shot J.R.?

Mr. Big Shot

‘A HOUSE DIVIDED’

Season 3, Episode 25

Airdate: March 21, 1980

Audience: 24.9 million homes, ranking 1st in the weekly ratings

Writer: Rena Down

Director: Irving J. Moore

Synopsis: The Asian oil fiasco bankrupts Vaughn Leland. Pam finds no evidence her mother is dead. J.R. shuts down Ewing 23 after learning Cliff is entitled to a share of the proceeds. Bobby and Pam, disgusted with J.R.’s tactics, leave Southfork. Sue Ellen, Cliff, Kristin, Alan and Vaughn vow to stop J.R., who is shot twice by an unseen assailant.

Cast: Barbara Bel Geddes (Miss Ellie Ewing), Kale Brown (reporter), Christopher Coffey (Professor Greg Forrester), Jeff Cooper (Dr. Simon Elby), Mary Crosby (Kristin Shepard), Jim Davis (Jock Ewing), Patrick Duffy (Bobby Ewing), Meg Gallagher (Louella), Linda Gray (Sue Ellen Ewing), Larry Hagman (J.R. Ewing), John Hart (Dr. David Rogers), Ron Hayes (Hank Johnson), Susan Keller (reporter), Ken Kercheval (Cliff Barnes), Jeanna Michaels (Connie), Ann Nelson (woman), Dennis Patrick (Vaughn Leland), Randolph Powell (Alan Beam), Victoria Principal (Pam Ewing), Don Starr (Jordan Lee), Charlene Tilton (Lucy Ewing)

“A House Divided” is available on DVD and at Amazon.com and iTunes. Watch the episode and share your comments below.

Comments

  1. brian smith says:

    hey chris i love DALLAS decoder you have done wonderful with it i remember watching a house divided in 1980 i turned 14 the night J.R. was shot i thought that was so cool it happened on my birthday. like i said much congrats to DALLAS decoder thank you for doing it take a bow you deserve it much thanks best regards brian

    • How cool that you share a birthday with one of the all-time great “Dallas” episodes! “Dallas” aired on my birthday once — the day I turned 9 — and it wasn’t a very memorable episode.

      Thanks for commenting and your kind words. I really appreciate it. I’m having a lot of fun doing Dallas Decoder. It’s definitely a labor of love.

      Thanks again.

      Chris

  2. Excellent commentary!

  3. I think I need to watch this one again. I don’t remember being as impressed with it as I expected (or as I know you are), but perhaps I’m thinking more about the episodes that followed it, which I thought were underwhelming, given the build up and history of “Who Shot J.R.” I think what you say about them having the written the episodes backward from the shooting makes sense when you watch it, although I’m not sure that’s necessarily a good thing, since then action is always serving plot rather than motivation. That said, I think you’ve done an excellent job writing about the episode and capturing its highlights, particularly the performances of the actors (Hagman, Gray, etc.).

  4. Lloyd Ferrigon says:

    Bobby’s reason for leaving Southfork was lame. If he decided to leave because he is a 30 year old rich man and should live his own home fine but because JR closed down an oil so that the person who tried to convict their father of murder can’t benefit from it is dumb.

  5. Anonymous says:

    I totally buy Bobby’s reasons for leaving. He sees that JR is willing to lose money just to hurt an enemy. As a fan of the new show I can see how much like JR Cliff became . Most whodunnits are silly and tedious with characters screaming I’m going to kill you in crowded rooms. This one was masterfully constructed. They all (except Bobby) have credible reasons for shooting him. I can see that the pace of the new show most closely resembles this episode. Cidre has also said that she constructs her stories in reverse.
    I cheered when Bobby left. I felt bad for Ellie but Ellie and Jock allowed JR to get away with too much for too long and thus have a hand in him becoming the monster he is. They did entirely too little to protect everyone else at Southfork from JR.
    The Lucy story is a snooze.

    JR is so much more vicious than John Ross on the new show. I really hope they never make John Ross this mean. This show is the one where I really understood how JR was the character you loved to hate.

  6. “A House Divided” Will Not Stand! C.B., u get that the title was taken directly from the Civil War context of President Abraham Lincoln J.R. as head of Ewing Oil in tandem with Brother Bobby is at war with his home, his wife, his family, Cliff Barnes, his enemies. Everyone & anyone who got in his way. Honest Abe had to rebuild the “House” or the North & the South after a terrible conflict while J.R.’s family may hate him but they realize they must come together to punish who(m)ever shot him! The parallel C.B. & Andy is exactement! The parallel is DALLAS!

  7. I just recently watched a House Divided for the 6th time and it never gets old still entertaining. The scene in Ewing office where Vaughn Leland and Jordan Lee confront JR so great you could feel their anger. The thing that upsets me is the next scene in which Jock asked JR if he knew the Wells were going to be nationalized and he says no and dumb Jock believes him. How gullible or blind was Jock this is the same son that mortgage Southfork. JR in this season was at one of his most nasty and evilest form especially to Sue Ellen. The scene where Bobby tell his parents he and Pam were leaving Dallas was touching and BBG and Duffy were great, although I think Bobby was not right for not letting Pam say goodbye to Miss Ellie. (Side bar – I wished Bobby and Pam did leave Dallas and moved in where Gary and Valene were – Knots Landing, maybe they would have been really happy and certainly stress free from JR evil doings, I would not mind seeing them there instead of Dallas I certainly would have watched Knots Landing more because I watched Dallas mainly because of them.) Although I suspect Dallas would not be the same without them, just like it was not the same with PD’s year absence and when VP left. I also have to comment on the bad make up in this episode why was PD eye liner so thick?. The women in this season to me had great hair and makeup, anyway great episode because of the drama as you said CB before the shooting.

    • Maryann, you’re so right about the eyeliner! I’ve noticed that too. You’re also very correct that this episode never gets old. “A House Divided” is like my “Star Wars.” I can watch it over and over and always be entertained. Thank you!

Trackbacks

  1. […] right? Resist the urge. People have a tendency to get maimed in these offices: Your daddy J.R. was shot in the hallway, Uncle Bobby was gunned down while sitting at J.R.’s desk and a dead CIA agent was once left in a […]

  2. […] the inside. The plan worked like a charm, but when J.R. and Alan had a falling out, Alan became a prime suspect in J.R.’s shooting. (FYI: He didn’t do […]

  3. […] the famous “Who Shot J.R.?” episodes, more so than Larry Hagman. She is mesmerizing in “A House Divided,” the season-ending cliffhanger where J.R. is shot, and she absolutely owns “Who Done It?”the […]

  4. […] the third year’s finest hour is tough. A strong case can be made for “A House Divided,” the finale that famously ends with J.R. getting shot (for the second time this season, after he’s […]

  5. […] tacked on at the last minute. The contrast couldn’t be sharper with the previous season finale, “A House Divided,” which rhythmically built toward J.R.’s climactic […]

  6. […] Shooting J.R. No one knew who gunned down J.R., but when the weapon was discovered in his bedroom closet, the cops arrested Sue Ellen. She […]

  7. […] 7. Out of the frying pan… J.R. is fixing his breakfast plate in the Southfork dining room when he notices Jock comforting a distraught Miss Ellie. It seems Bobby has just told them he’s leaving the ranch because he’s fed up with J.R.’s dirty deeds. That’s when Sue Ellen chimes in, pointing out J.R. has driven away another Ewing brother. Dumb move, darlin’. J.R. responds with a vicious tirade, calling his wife a “drunk and an unfit mother” and announcing it’s time to send her back to the sanitarium. This is J.R. at his most menacing – which is remarkable since Hagman holds a strip of bacon the whole time he delivers J.R.’s venom-filled speech. (“A House Divided”) […]

  8. […] of shocking “Dallas” shootings? Because CBS spoiled the surprise. Before the network broadcast “A House Divided,” the serial’s most famous cliffhanger, it aired promos that showed J.R. getting shot. As if that […]

  9. […] It’s also worth noting how different this whodunit is from the one triggered by the 1980 episode “A House Divided.” Back then, J.R.’s shooting capped an hour in which several characters were each given a clear […]

  10. […] characters who fascinate audiences and make us care. Despite his dastardliness, after J.R. was shot, we couldn’t help but feel sympathetic toward him as he struggled to regain his ability to walk […]

  11. […] until I heard Patrick Duffy praise Barbara Bel Geddes during the audio commentary on the DVD for “A House Divided.” Duffy says he always stepped up his game when Bobby had a scene with Miss Ellie, and it seems like […]

  12. […] “A House Divided,” “Dallas’s” third-season finale, Sue Ellen (Linda Gray) follows J.R. (Larry Hagman) into the […]

  13. […] Oil employee’s threat to blow up the drill site in the episode’s title, which J.R. shut in “A House Divided” to prevent Cliff from sharing in the […]

  14. […] Greatest Moment: Who shot J.R.? Sure, taking a couple of slugs to the gut is no fun for our hero, but at least he makes billions of dollars in a risky offshore oil deal […]

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