Critique: ‘Dallas’ Episode 103 – ‘Goodbye, Cliff Barnes’

Cliffhanger

Cliffhanger

“Goodbye, Cliff Barnes” leaves the title character’s fate up in the air after he tries to kill himself, making this the most literal of all “Dallas” cliffhangers. For a long time, I also considered it one of the show’s least satisfying season finales. Was there ever any doubt Cliff would survive?

I now realize that’s not the real question here. Cliff is merely a supporting player in the bigger story of “Dallas’s” fifth season: J.R.’s fight to reclaim Sue Ellen and John Ross. As the year draws to a close, everything is going his way – until Cliff, depressed over being beaten by J.R. yet again, overdoses on tranquilizers. Suddenly, J.R.’s grand plan to reunite his family looks like it’s going to collapse.

The final scene is telling. J.R. and a guilt-ridden Sue Ellen hover at the hospital bedside of the comatose Cliff. “If Cliff dies, I don’t think I’ll ever be able to marry you,” she says. Larry Hagman inhales, and as the frame freezes and the executive producer credit flashes, the image we’re left with isn’t Cliff with that tube coming out of his mouth; it’s a shot of an anxious – and possibly conscience-stricken – J.R.

You have to admit: This is a pretty nifty trick by the people who made the show. Cliff is the character who might be dying, but J.R. is the one we’re worried about. This cliffhanger is also the act of confident storytellers. Although “Dallas’s” ratings dropped during the 1981-82 season from the “Who Shot J.R.?”-inflated highs of the previous year, it was still the most popular show on television. The producers knew they didn’t need a gimmicky finale to keep the audience hooked.

Of course, even though “Goodbye, Cliff Barnes” keeps the focus on Hagman, don’t overlook Ken Kerchval. He delivers his most moving performance since Cliff’s reunion with Rebecca at the end of the previous season. Kercheval is especially heartbreaking in the scene where Cliff begs Sue Ellen to take him back. “I know I can start over. I know I can build a new life if you’ll just believe in me and love me,” he says through sobs. This is why I love Kercheval: He’s never afraid to show us Cliff at his most pathetic. Kercheval is probably “Dallas’s” bravest actor.

Linda Gray does a beautiful job in this scene too. Tears streak her face when Sue Ellen rejects Cliff’s plea and tells him she has accepted J.R.’s marriage proposal. “Cliff, I don’t want to see you again. Please go,” she says. Bruce Broughton’s background music, which includes those exquisite strings, adds to this scene’s tragic spirit. (I also love Gray’s breathy delivery in the episode’s final moments. “If Cliff dies, I don’t think I’ll ever be able to marry you” is one of those bits of “Dallas” dialogue I like to go around quoting, not because it’s such a great line but because it’s so much fun to imitate Gray’s performance. Try it yourself sometime.)

Two other scenes in “Goodbye, Cliff Barnes” mine “Dallas’s” rich history. In the first, Cliff gets drunk in a dive bar, evoking memories of Digger’s debut in “Dallas’s” first episode. Later, Rebecca storms into Southfork, confronts Miss Ellie and points out how the Barnes men always seem to end up carrying torches for Ewing women. It’s a great moment not just because Barbara Bel Geddes and Priscilla Pointer are such fun to watch, but also because it’s nice to see their characters finally acknowledge the complicated history they share.

Other highlights: The glamorous shot of J.R. and Sue Ellen kissing after a night at the symphony. The fun scenes of Bobby and Pam chasing down clues about Christopher’s paternity in Los Angeles (even if Pam forgives Bobby a little too easily for initially lying about the child’s identity). Howard Keel’s nice performance in the scene where Clayton scuttles his plan to propose to Sue Ellen.

None of this makes “Goodbye, Cliff Barnes” the show’s best cliffhanger, but it’s certainly much better than I remembered. Then again, that’s turned out to be true for much of the fifth season. These episodes are three decades old, but they still manage to surprise me. It’s another reason “Dallas” is such a durable show.

Grade: B

_______________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

Dark of the moon

Dark of the moon

‘GOODBYE, CLIFF BARNES’

Season 5, Episode 26

Airdate: April 9, 1982

Audience: 27.9 million homes, ranking 1st in the weekly ratings

Writer: Arthur Bernard Lewis

Director: Irving J. Moore

Synopsis: Sue Ellen accepts J.R.’s marriage proposal and breaks the news to Cliff, who tries to kill himself by overdosing on tranquilizers. After Rebecca vows revenge, Miss Ellie promises to oust J.R. as Ewing Oil’s president. Bobby and Pam learn Farraday, not J.R., fathered Christopher. Lucy tells Muriel that Roger raped her.

Cast: Tyler Banks (John Ross Ewing), Barbara Bel Geddes (Miss Ellie Ewing), Karlene Crockett (Muriel Gillis), Patrick Duffy (Bobby Ewing), Phyllis Flax (Mrs. Chambers), Fern Fitzgerald (Marilee Stone), Linda Gray (Sue Ellen Ewing), Larry Hagman (J.R. Ewing), Susan Howard (Donna Krebbs), Bob Hoy (Detective Howard), Steve Kanaly (Ray Krebbs), Howard Keel (Clayton Farlow), Ken Kercheval (Cliff Barnes), Audrey Landers (Afton Cooper), Priscilla Pointer (Rebecca Wentworth), Victoria Principal (Pam Ewing), Charlene Tilton (Lucy Cooper)

“Goodbye, Cliff Barnes” is available on DVD and at Amazon.com and iTunes. Watch the episode and share your comments below.

Comments

  1. Garnet McGee says:

    I didn’t realize this was the season 5 finale until I read this review. It didn’t seem like a season finale but more like the the second to the last or third to the last episode of a season. Sue Ellen’s willingness to constantly forgive and take back JR make her seem like a dope. I always thought she should ask him to give her shares of Ewing oil that she could use to vote against him if he ever double crossed her. I feel a little more sympathy this time because JR declares to Marilee that he is going to turn over a new life and from now on his life is going to be strictly monogamous. He seems to believe it when he says it. Sue Ellen accepts his proposal even though she believes that she will return to Southwork to live with JR’s and Kristen’s son. Huh? Everyone seems to have forgotten that. She still doesn’t know what the audience now knows. I love Rebecca’s declaration that the feud is still on and stronger than ever. Will we hear Rebecca’s namesake granddaughter make a similar declaration in the near future? I hope so. I would love to see the only viable remaining Barnes restart the feud. There is so much delicious potential between the remaining Barnes descendant and Jock’s descendant.

    • Oh, wow, Garnet. I never thought about that: The audience knows more than Sue Ellen at this point. Very good observation. Thanks. And yes … I wonder the same thing about Pamela on the TNT series.

  2. I’m glad Cliff didn’t die. But, if he had, he wouldn’t have been able II order the deaths of his & Brother Bobby’s grandchildren in Pamela’s womb.

  3. JR was so evil this Season. If only Sue Ellen knew about John Ross voting shares she would have realize that is why JR was so persistent in wooing her back to South Fork. Although JR did play are part in Cliff’s downfall and attempted suicide, Cliff’s greed and obsession with beating JR led him to make hasty decisions without properly thinking them through which made easy target for JR’s manipulations and tricks.

Trackbacks

  1. […] “Goodbye, Cliff Barnes,” “Dallas’s” fifth-season finale, Miss Ellie (Barbara Bel Geddes) is in the Southfork living […]

  2. […] a word about Sue Ellen’s new hairdo: When the fifth-season finale “Goodbye, Cliff Barnes” ended, Sue Ellen had long, luscious locks. “Changing of the Guard” picks up moments later, yet […]

  3. […] When the 1981-82 season ends, Sue Ellen is at Cliff’s hospital bedside and your hair is long and flowing onto your shoulders. […]

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