Critique: ‘Dallas’ Episode 100 – ‘Blackmail’

Dark room

Dark room

In “Blackmail,” J.R., armed with newly obtained evidence that suggests Christopher is his biological son, comes home to Southfork and enters the nursery. It’s a dark and stormy night, and the little boy is whimpering in his crib as thunder crackles outside. J.R. doesn’t comfort the child, though. He merely watches him. “Hello Christopher,” J.R. says. “You don’t know it, but I’m your daddy. I wonder how your Aunt Pam would feel about it, if she found out?”

The line is made all the more ominous by the wicked smile Larry Hagman flashes after he delivers it. We don’t discover what J.R. is plotting until later in the episode, when he tells Bobby he’ll reveal the “truth” about Christopher’s paternity unless Bobby agrees to do his bidding at Ewing Oil. This is one of J.R.’s most despicable deeds, and not just because he’s using his own child to blackmail his brother. Consider: J.R. grew up with the pain that came from knowing Jock favored Bobby over him. Yet here J.R. is many years later, following in his father’s footsteps: J.R. has one son he adores (John Ross) and another (Christopher) he’s treating as a pawn in his quest for power.

In a clever touch, “Dallas” underlines J.R.’s favoritism by evoking the third-season classic “Paternity Suit.” In that episode, J.R. receives the blood test results that prove he’s John Ross’s father and visits the nursery, where he picks up the boy for the first time. This tender moment stands in sharp contrast with J.R.’s crib-side encounter with Christopher in “Blackmail.” (And even though we’ll soon learn Christopher is not J.R.’s child, “Dallas” doesn’t abandon the theme of J.R. emulating Jock’s parenting style. Toward the end of the show’s run, J.R. learns he has an illegitimate son, James, whose arrival leaves John Ross feeling like the neglected brother.)

The nursery scene isn’t the only dark moment in “Blackmail.” Bobby discovers Farraday’s dead body inside his dingy apartment, while Roger strikes Lucy and knocks her to the floor when she tries to escape from his captivity. I love the suspenseful music that composer Richard Lewis Warren uses to score both sequences, as well as the camera work from director Michael Preece. These two also collaborate nicely in the scene where the grieving Miss Ellie sits alone at the Southfork breakfast table and breaks into tears; Warren’s music grows more mournful as Preece slowly zooms in on Barbara Bel Geddes.

Bel Geddes helps supply “Blackmail” with its other highlight: the scene where Donna sits with Ellie in the Southfork kitchen and tells her the story of how Jock and Sam Culver’s land grab a half-century earlier resulted in another man’s suicide. Ellie refuses to accept the truth and threatens to sue Donna if she includes the story in the biography of Sam she’s writing. I love how Bel Geddes goes from disbelief to rage in a matter of seconds; Susan Howard’s performance is equally heartbreaking.

This scene, perhaps more so than any other in “Blackmail,” makes me appreciate how “Dallas” eschewed gimmicks during its heyday. When I was younger, I used to watch this episode and wonder why the show didn’t bring in a special guest star or deliver a major plot twist to mark its 100th hour. Now I realize: When your cast includes great actresses like Barbara Bel Geddes and Susan Howard, who needs stunts?

Grade: A

_______________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

Woman alone

Woman alone

‘BLACKMAIL’

Season 5, Episode 23

Airdate: March 19, 1982

Audience: 26.9 million homes, ranking 1st in the weekly ratings

Writer: Leonard Katzman

Director: Michael Preece

Synopsis: J.R. tells Bobby he’s Christopher’s father and vows to keep quiet if Bobby cedes control of his voting shares. Cliff moves forward with his drilling project, even after J.R. reveals the land is dry. Miss Ellie explodes when Donna asks for permission to publish the story of Jock’s land grab. Roger holds Lucy captive. The police question Bobby after Farraday is discovered dead.

Cast: Tyler Banks (John Ross Ewing), Barbara Bel Geddes (Miss Ellie Ewing), Patrick Duffy (Bobby Ewing), Fern Fitzgerald (Marilee Stone), Jonathan Goldsmith (Joe Smith), Linda Gray (Sue Ellen Ewing), Larry Hagman (J.R. Ewing), Art Hindle (Jeff Farraday), Susan Howard (Donna Krebbs), Bob Hoy (Detective Howard), Steve Kanaly (Ray Krebbs), Howard Keel (Clayton Farlow), Ken Kercheval (Cliff Barnes), Leigh McCloskey (Dr. Mitch Cooper), Pamela Murphy (Marie), Victoria Principal (Pam Ewing), Dennis Redfield (Roger Larson), Debbie Rennard (Sly), Tom Stern (Detective White), Charlene Tilton (Lucy Cooper), Deborah Tranelli (Phyllis)

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

Comments

  1. Another great critique of a great episode. I like your take on the stand-out scene between Miss Ellie and Donna. This one becomes even better when you compare it to the way it was written: I have a copy of this particular script and it indicates that Miss Ellie “explodes” at the moment when she asks Donna how she can make up such lies about Jock. The way Barbara Bel Geddes does it – at first pitying Donna for believing, not making up(!), such false information about Jock, and then exploding later, when she realizes that Donna actually means it – is of course so much more effective.

  2. I think this episode really points to JR’s true nature- that power/Ewing Oil are what he desires and cares for most. I don’t doubt he loves John Ross but I tend to think his interest in him during this season is more about his voting shares than the boy himself. As you said, this is JR at his most despicable. The reasons he has this obsession with power may garner my sympathy but his actions are quite unforgivable.
    I am so glad that you highlighted the dining room table scene with Miss Ellie, it has always been one of my favorites! Like with her scenes there during The Gathering Storm and others this season, it not only highlights Barbara Bel Geddes AMAZING ability to convey immense emotion without uttering a single word, it also reminds the viewer that the character’s core belief is family is everything and facing the loss of Jock strikes this very core. I have always thought that, for Miss Ellie, Southfork and family are one in the same and that table sort of became the physical embodiment of the meeting of those two things during the run of the show. Nothing made her happier than a full table! In a way, having Miss Ellie’s impassioned defense of Jock (and thus the Ewing family) in the same episode that showcases how JR is willing to sacrifice his family-Christopher and Bobby- really illustrates the tremendous difference between mother and son.

    • Misslea, your comments about the table are really insightful! That had never occurred to me, but you’re so right. And the contrast between J.R. and Miss Ellie is spot on. That hadn’t occurred to me. Thank you so much for sharing these ideas!

      Chris

  3. Lloyd Ferrigon says:

    I am not codoning what JR but I understand it. The voting shares plotline was dumb to begin with. Giving Lucy, Gary, and Ray a say in who can run Ewing Oil was absurd given these three had no inclination of the oil business or of Ewing Oil.

    • Thank you for pointing that out, Lloyd. I can understand Jock’s desire for his other family members to share in the wealth generated by Ewing Oil, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they should have a say in how the business is run.

  4. I feel compelled to attempt to stick up for good ol’ J.R. in this matter. True, it’s pretty bad to basically use his own son in a blackmail scheme like this, but it Bobby really any better here? Think about it, @ the time he was convinced that this was J.R.’s son, and yet Bobby was perfectly willing to sneak behind his back and basically steal his own brother’s son for himself! So both of these brothers were being deceitful and working for their own self-interests. Sure, we tend to excuse Bobby’s actions because we think that @ least his motivation (not wanting to hurt Pam, knowing how badly she wanted a child) was a bit more “pure” but, really, it’s still pretty awful, if you think about it.

    • That’s a great point, J.R. Thank you for making it. And you’re always welcome to stick up for ol’ J.R.!

      CB

    • I think the big difference is JR is plotting his using of Christopher in a cold and calculating way whereas Bobby got blind-sided when Pam was home and make a snap misunderstanding that Christopher was hers. At that point Bobby felt painted into a corner, made an equally snap decision to go along with it and never backed away because of the fear of what it would do to Pam’s mental state. In short JR knew what he was doing and Bobby was just reacting.

  5. This episode truly reflects why Bobby is so well liked and J.R. is so well liked to be hated. Bobby wants more than anything, since the beginning of Dallas, to have a child and raise a family with his wife Pam. Bobby also knows that his wife wants a child too, even more than he does. JR wants Ewing oil. Bobby went to great extremes to buy Christopher from Jeff Farraday. It is almost as if Christopher was a black-market baby except for Kristin Shepard, Christopher’s mother, is by marriage, related to the Ewings.
    The Bobby and Farraday storyline is one of the best of season 5. It is clear where Boby’s passion and heart is. It even lead to him having to talk to the FBI in their murder investigation of Farraday. Do we ever find out who killed Jeff Farraday and/or Kristin Shepard? Will Christopher ever learn the truth about Jeff Farraday and Kristin Shepard?

    We also see clearly where JR’s passion lies and where his heart is. He wants Ewing Oil. The extremes JR goes to. The way he deals with his own brother and a child he believes is his own son. JR wants to remove anything that gets in between him and Ewing Oil.

    They acting is top notch. It is hard to remember that these are just actors on a soundstage, when I watch the earlier seasons.

    To me, all of this casts are stars. Dallas had a true “all-star cast”.

  6. Great comments! I mostly agree with everything said here – I’ve got only a small thing to nitpick about in this episode; I wonder if it’s been noticed or mentioned before by anybody:
    When Bobby finds Jeff Farraday’s dead body in the apartment, he immediately starts searching around, opening some drawers and stuff. I couldn’t believe he left his fingerprints all over the place! THEN, when it was too late anyway, he used a hanky to cover the telephone receiver and the door knob.
    I wonder if the Dallas staff was going to point out Bobby was no “professional burglar” or something like that?…

  7. I can’t remember C.B. the actor who played Jeff Faraday. But he’s a Canadian gentleman having appeared in many tv shows up here on CTV & CBC, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.

Trackbacks

  1. […] “Dallas’s” fifth-season episode “Blackmail,” Miss Ellie (Barbara Bel Geddes) sits at the Southfork kitchen table while Donna (Susan Howard) […]

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