Critique: ‘Dallas’ Episode 63 – ‘The Prodigal Mother’

The lady in Houston

The lady in Houston

“The Prodigal Mother” reminds me of one of those “women’s pictures” from the 1950s. The episode marks the end of Pam’s search for her long-lost mother, and it’s as gorgeously soapy as anything Douglas Sirk directed. I love it.

More than anything, “The Prodigal Mother” is distinguished by two big, memorable monologues. This is the first script from David Paulsen, who became one of “Dallas’s” most prolific scribes, and boy, does he knock it out of the park with these speeches.

The first speech comes when Pam visits Rebecca Wentworth, the fabulously wealthy woman that Pam’s private detective has identified as Rebecca Barnes, whom Pam and Cliff believed died long ago. In the scene, Rebecca’s maid escorts Pam into the fern-festooned solarium inside her Houston mansion. Rebecca, draped in what appears to be sea-green satin, stands at the other end, leaning against a column. “Won’t you come in?” she says. It’s the kind of thing people only say in movies.

Victoria Principal steps forward and begins Pam’s speech, which is worth recalling it in its entirety:

I’ve rehearsed it a dozen times. Now the words just won’t come out. I know who you are. When I was a child, I used to think about you every day: My mother, who died and went to heaven. And I used to wonder what you were like. What you smelled like. Sometimes, I even thought I could remember. When Digger told us that you died, I could never really accept that. But when Digger was dying and told us about you and Hutch McKinney, I don’t exactly know why, but somehow I knew that you were still alive. And I’ve been searching for you since that day. Everybody told me I shouldn’t. That it was useless. My brother and my husband said that I’d just be more hurt when I found out that you were really dead. But I found you. You’re alive. And I’m so happy. I don’t know how to tell you how happy I am.

Principal’s delivery is really lovely. It feels very brave: With every line, the actress seems to reveal a little more of herself, so much so that by the end of the monologue, her lip looks like it’s quivering uncontrollably. Principal does this a lot during her crying scenes on “Dallas,” and while I sometimes find it a bit much, I don’t here. Here, it’s perfect.

Mama Said

The daughter in Dallas

The daughter in Dallas

“The Prodigal Mother’s” other big speech comes toward the end of the episode, when Rebecca takes Pam on a stroll through the park and and finally admits she is her mother. I remember watching this scene as a child and being struck by Rebecca’s line about how she “closed a door” in her mind. That line has always stuck with me.

Just as Principal shines during her monologue, Priscilla Pointer does a terrific job delivering hers. Like Barbara Bel Geddes, Pointer is a New York stage veteran who knows how to tone things down for the more intimate confines of television. Pointer’s mannerisms and expressions never feel anything less than natural. She will always be one of my favorite “Dallas” actresses.

I also love how the scene between Pam and Rebecca sounds. When it begins, it’s so quiet – almost eerily so. Aside from the dialogue, the only thing we hear are the women’s heels on the sidewalk and a few birds chirping in the distance. It’s as if the whole world has come to a standstill, and for these two characters, I suppose it has.

And even though Rebecca did an awful thing by abandoning her two small children, this scene makes it impossible for me to dislike her. For this, Paulsen deserves a lot of credit. His dialogue humanizes Rebecca, particularly when she explains why she never divorced Digger. “I was afraid that if I tried, he’d find me, and drag me back to that awful life,” she says. Based on what we know about bitter, miserable Digger, can we honestly blame her? Rebecca might not deserve our respect, but after this scene, she’s at least entitled to some of our sympathy.

Of course, the most haunting part of Pam and Rebecca’s exchange is how it foreshadows Pam’s own tragic character arc, which I hope TNT’s “Dallas” will someday resolve. Imagine seeing Principal sitting on a park bench with Jesse Metcalfe as Pam explains why she abandoned Christopher and Bobby, all those years ago. If done well, it would be even more powerful than what we witness in “The Prodigal Mother.”

Party Lines

The grand sweep

The grand sweep

In another Sirkian masterstroke, before Rebecca comes clean to Pam, Paulsen’s script has the woman run into each in the most glamorous of settings: the black-tie fundraiser for gubernatorial candidate Dave Culver, which the Ewings attend. I love how Irving J. Moore directs the sequence, positioning his camera in the crowd as the Ewings arrive with a grand, all-smiles, glad-handing sweep through the ballroom.

Moore also allows the viewer to eavesdrop on the characters as they comment on the action around them. My favorite exchange begins when Sue Ellen slyly points out the guest of honor is “about as liberal a politician as the state of Texas allows. Ewing money usually never flows in that direction.” J.R.’s response that “Ewing money always flows in the direction of power” is perfect – and perfectly plausible.

“The Prodigal Mother’s” other great scene is its last. Pam, having just agreed to keep Rebecca’s identity secret, comes to Cliff’s apartment to tell him what she learned during her visit to Houston. As expected, Cliff, who believes Pam shouldn’t be digging up the past, doesn’t try to conceal his indifference.

“So, do we have a mother?” he asks.

Pam is silent. Cliff again asks what she learned during her trip.

Finally, she lies and tells him her detective was mistaken. Principal then delivers the episode’s final line, which is its best. “The lady in Houston,” she says, “was just a lady in Houston.”

Oh, that line gets me every time. What sacrifice! What noble suffering! What exquisite agony!

What a great episode.

Grade: A+

________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

Benchwarmers

Benchwarmers

‘THE PRODIGAL MOTHER’

Season 4, Episode 9

Airdate: January 2, 1981

Audience: 28.1 million homes, ranking 2nd in the weekly ratings

Writer: David Paulsen

Director: Irving J. Moore

Synopsis: Pam’s detective tracks down her mother: Rebecca Wentworth, the wife a wealthy Houston industrialist. Rebecca tearfully admits her real identity to Pam but says she doesn’t want her ill husband to know the truth. Lucy proposes to Mitch, who accepts.

Cast: Barbara Bel Geddes (Miss Ellie Ewing), Michael Bell (Les Crowley), Karlene Crockett (Muriel Gillis), Jim Davis (Jock Ewing), Patrick Duffy (Bobby Ewing), Tom Fuccello (Senator Dave Culver), Linda Gray (Sue Ellen Ewing), Larry Hagman (J.R. Ewing), Jerry Haynes (Pat Powers), Richard Herd (John Mackey), Susan Howard (Donna Culver), Steve Kanaly (Ray Krebbs), Ken Kercheval (Cliff Barnes), John Martin (Herbert Wentworth), Leigh McCloskey (Mitch Cooper), Priscilla Pointer (Rebecca Wentworth), Victoria Principal (Pam Ewing), Don Starr (Jordan Lee), Charlene Tilton (Lucy Ewing), Morgan Woodward (Punk Anderson)

“The Prodigal Mother” is available on DVD and at Amazon.com and iTunes. Watch the episode and share your comments below.

Comments

  1. This was a great episode. Priscilla Pointer was an excellent choice as Rebecca, who quickly becomes an interesting and important character. I like how you describe her “ferm-festooned solarium.” And Cliff deserves what he gets from Pam in the end. His single-mindedness frequently works against him, but this is a very personal example.

  2. J.R.Ewing says:

    There are some truly touching seens in this episode and I have always believed extremely well acted. The plot to find Rebecca I thought maybe dragged on to long, it seems like an eternity since Digger died, however in conclusion could not have been better.

  3. Pam holding out on Cliff was beyond brave. U could just see she wanted to tell him C.B. Great acting Victoria!

  4. Lloyd Ferrigon says:

    MItch was an ass and Lucy could do better. All JR did was offer the jerk a job which he would have declined. Instead of that ridiculous temper tantrum they threw. I did not care for MItch at all. He was a crappy husband. Jock was right.

  5. Yeah, Mitch was a little proud, wasn’t he?

Trackbacks

  1. […] 14. Advising Lucy. The Ewings didn’t always want to hear Jock’s opinion, but usually he was right. Example: When Lucy (Charlene Tilton) was brooding after a spat with Mitch, Jock told her, “He’s a nice enough boy [but] you can do a lot better.” Lucy ignored Jock’s advice – she and Mitch got hitched – but she probably should’ve heeded Granddaddy’s wisdom. After all, the marriage lasted just 12 episodes. (“The Prodigal Mother”) […]

  2. […] 9. Pam’s discovery. Pam (Victoria Principal), believing Rebecca Wentworth is her long-lost mother, confronts the Houston matron in her opulent home. “I found you. You’re alive. And I’m so happy. I don’t know how to tell you how happy I am,” she says through tears. With every line, Principal seems to reveal a little more of herself, so much so that by the end of the speech, her lip quivers uncontrollably. Bravo. (“The Prodigal Mother”) […]

  3. […] to announce the death of Digger’s. I also appreciate how “Guilt by Association” mimics “The Prodigal Mother,” the classic “Dallas” episode in which Pam goes to Houston to confront her long-lost mother, […]

  4. […] Wentworth swept into “Dallas” like a character from a Douglas Sirk movie, so it’s only fitting that she […]

  5. […] home where Pam supposedly lived; the shot was reminiscent of the scene in the classic episode “The Prodigal Mother” where Pam and Mackey (Richard Herd) staked out Rebecca’s Houston residence. Also: Christopher […]

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