Critique: TNT’s ‘Dallas’ Episode 15 – ‘Trial and Error’

Dallas, J.R. Ewing, Larry Hagman, TNT, Trial and Error

Last stand

“Trial and Error” gives us the last scenes that Larry Hagman filmed as J.R. Ewing, including his poignant reconciliation with turncoat son John Ross, as well as a spirited clash with Sue Ellen that recalls the couple’s stormier days. But as much as I cherish these final, dwindling moments with my hero, I can’t deny that “Trial and Error” belongs to Brenda Strong. The actress is superb throughout this episode, especially when Ann testifies during her trial. Strong delivers more than 400 words of dialogue, and each one feels achingly real. It’s one of the most moving speeches in “Dallas” history.

Since the new “Dallas” began I’ve rooted for Ann, a modern Texas woman who is every bit as comfortable in pearls and heels as she is in boots and jeans. One of my favorite scenes during the show’s first season was Ann’s showdown with Harris, when she tricked him into confessing to money laundering and other crimes, then slugged him and warned him to stay away from her family. This is why I was so troubled when Ann shot Harris two episodes ago. A punch is one thing, but Harris doesn’t deserve a bullet to the chest. No one does.

“Trial and Error” marks the beginning of Ann’s redemption, although it feels like something even bigger is happening. Ann isn’t really being tried for shooting Harris; she’s on trial for being an imperfect wife and mother. The show isn’t asking us to forgive Ann as much as it’s asking us to accept her humanity. The character’s testimony, the highlight of “Dallas” newcomer John Whelpley’s script, is the crucial moment. During the course of this four-minute scene, Ann recalls being a tall, awkward girl who found love with Harris, only to have his controlling mother Judith undermine her. She also remembers giving birth to Emma and struggling with motherhood, then having the child snatched from her during a fateful visit to the state fair. It’s wrenching.

I suspect many members of the “Dallas” audience nod silently when they watch Ann’s testimony. The situations she describes might be melodramatic, but the feelings they evoke are easily recognizable. When Ann recalls how Judith made fun of her for not going to college, or how Harris chastised her for using the wrong fork at dinner, how can you not think about a time in your own life when you were made to feel inadequate? Likewise, if you’re a mom or dad, do Ann’s memories of Emma’s abduction remind you of a time when you made a parenting mistake? You’d have to reach far back into Ewing family lore – perhaps to Sue Ellen’s sanitarium meltdown during the original show’s third season – to find a “Dallas” monologue that yields so many genuine emotions.

Strong’s beautifully measured, heartfelt delivery provides “Trial and Error” with its moment of catharsis, but there are many other scenes I like. Several involve Jesse Metcalfe and newcomer Emma Bell. No one does impassioned earnestness better than Metcalfe, as we witness in the nice sequence where Christopher urges Emma to give Ann another chance. Metcalfe is also touching when the camera cuts to Christopher during Ann’s testimony and we see that his eyes are wet, as well as in the scene where Christopher puts his hand on Pamela’s pregnant belly and feels their unborn twins. Bell, in the meantime, reveals herself to be the rare actress who requires no dialogue to shine. Emma is a mostly a silent observer in the courtroom, but never once do we question what she’s thinking. Bell lets us see the doubt and confusion tormenting her character.

Millicent Shelton, a first-time “Dallas” director, also gives us some priceless courtroom reaction shots from Judith Light, who made her own mark in television with a classic witness stand breakdown on “One Life to Live” in 1979. While Light nibbles the scenery, Mitch Pileggi goes in another direction, offering expressions and gestures that seem to reveal Harris’s humanity. Notice how Pileggi bows his head when Ann mentions how Harris’s father committed suicide before he was born. Am I the only one who feels sorry for Harris at that moment?

I’m not sure why we never see Bobby testify on his wife’s behalf (or why he isn’t facing his own obstruction of justice trial for falsely confessing to Harris’s shooting). In the same spirit, it’s tempting to knock “Dallas” for offering up Sue Ellen (a disgraced politician) and Pamela (a recent murder suspect) as Ann’s character witnesses, but I’ll resist the urge because I like how it reminds us of the parallels between these flawed heroines. An especially nice touch: When Ann mentions suffering from post-partum depression after Emma’s birth, the camera cuts to Sue Ellen, who must be one of television’s most notorious sufferer of that disorder.

“Trial and Error” also gets a lift from Hagman, who filmed some of his scenes for this episode just days before his death last November – not that you’d know it by watching him here. Consider the shot of J.R. observing John Ross from the mezzanine inside the courthouse. Isn’t it amazing how Hagman can exert so much authority, just by standing silently? I also love J.R.’s quip-filled scene with John Ross in the men’s room (“We dinosaurs are known to bite”), even if it’s an odd place to stage their reconciliation, as well as the exchange where Sue Ellen gives her ex-husband a piece of her mind (“Fathers are supposed to take the high road when it comes to their sons. Forgive John Ross!”). J.R.’s surprise encounter with Cliff is old-school “Dallas” fun too, although I wish Hagman and Ken Kercheval could’ve done the scene face to face instead of over the phone.

This isn’t Hagman’s final “Dallas” appearance. A J.R. scene that was left over from a previous episode has reportedly been inserted into the next hour, “Blame Game,” although we probably won’t know what the moment entails until TNT telecasts it next week. This made watching “Trial and Error” a bit surreal. I wondered: Is J.R.’s exchange with Sue Ellen the last time we’ll see him share the screen with Linda Gray, or will we get one more chance to revel in their magic? What about Bobby and John Ross? Have we already seen J.R.’s final scenes with them too?

This feeling has plagued fans like me all season long, actually. Watching “Dallas” and knowing that our hero will soon go away is the worst of all possible spoilers. Part of me still refuses to believe it’s going to come true.

Grade: B


Ann Ewing, Brenda Strong, Dallas, TNT, Trial and Error

Her day in court


Season 2, Episode 5

Telecast: February 18, 2013

Writer: John Whelpley

Director: Millicent Shelton

Synopsis: Ann proves she shot Ryland and goes on trial. During her testimony, she reveals her struggles as a young mother but refutes Harris’s accusation of neglecting Emma. The jury finds Ann guilty. Cliff tells J.R. that John Ross betrayed him, but Sue Ellen persuades J.R. to forgive their son. Christopher softens toward Pamela, who rejects John Ross’s romantic overtures. Drew is arrested for transporting stolen goods.

Cast: John Athas (Ellis), Kuno Becker (Drew Ramos), Emma Bell (Emma Brown), Carlos Bernard (Vicente Cano), Holt Boggs (state trooper), Jordana Brewster (Elena Ramos), Brett Brock (Clyde Marshall), Candice Coke (Tamera Carson), Patrick Duffy (Bobby Ewing), Rick Espaillat (Dr. LaFont), Wilbur Fitzgerald (Judge Wallace Tate), Julie Gonzalo (Pamela Barnes), Linda Gray (Sue Ellen Ewing), Larry Hagman (J.R. Ewing), Josh Henderson (John Ross Ewing), Ken Kercheval (Cliff Barnes), Judith Light (Judith Ryland), Jesse Metcalfe (Christopher Ewing), Glenn Morshower (Lou Bergen), Kevin Page (Bum), Mitch Pileggi (Harris Ryland), Brenda Strong (Ann Ewing), Brian Thornton (Detective Miles Danko), Rebekah Turner (jury foreman)

“Trial and Error” is available at, and iTunes. Watch the episode and share your comments below.


  1. After watching the episode – and while reading your comment – I was absolutely certain that this would get an A. Where does the B come from? 🙂 “Trial and Error” deserves all the good things you say about it. I found it a riveting experience, which had me (almost literally) glued to the screen. I watched it twice in a day and thought it was getting better and better.
    I am amazed at how the episode manages to give closure to J.R.’s relationships to Sue Ellen, John Ross and Cliff, although at the time nobody knew that these would be their last scenes together… I felt a great sense of relief when I saw how Larry Hagman’s scenes played out. The last thing we see of J.R. is him sitting next to Sue Ellen – finally having developed a genuine respect for her.
    I also loved the way the episode was filmed, especially the Ewings’ arrival at the courthouse. The original DALLAS excelled at doing courtroom episodes, and this one can compete with the best of them.

    • Stephen,

      Thank you for these comments. I really like this episode. It’s a solid hour, for all the reasons you cite. (Thanks especially for pointing out the sequence of the Ewings arriving at the courthouse. I loved that too.) And there did seem to be some unintended closure to J.R.’s scenes, especially with John Ross. I’m a little disheartened that Cliff got the better of J.R. in their final encounter, though.

      I’ve always believed the opinion of Dallas Decoder readers count as much as mine, so what do other folks think? What grade would you have given this episode? Sound off below. I’m eager to hear how others feel.

      Thanks again, Stephen.


  2. I thought Brenda Strong was excellent in this episode, particularly during her monologue, which you’ve so nicely summarized here. I agree it deserves a “B” (keep in mind that a “B” is not a bad grade), since, although it was great, I felt it stalled the momentum on the Ewing Energies storyline, which hardly got screen time in this episode. And not that the show strives for realism, but that the defense would allow Pamela Barnes to testify on behalf of Ann defies belief.

    • To begin, I loved the episode. However, I will give it a B as well…but for a specific reason. There was a clear time jump…..Ann’s trial obviously didn’t start overnight and Pamela didn’t start showing that much overnight. I am perfectly fine with that. However, there was not a time jump in the Drew /John Ross/Clyde story. It is not like Drew has been driving that truck for weeks. So that kind of storyline cohesion issue is what garners a B for me.

      Ahh…where to start…I liked a lot of things about this episode. To begin, I have to say hats off to Jesse Metcalfe. This episode was one of his best. Great reaction shots to Ann. Nice scene with Emma. He was spot on perfect in the scene with Pamela. He had such a sweet earnestness about him that is very compelling.

      I like that we actually got to see a lot of Sue Ellen. I am glad that she is part of the family action. I don’t mind that they used her. I just wish that court scene was longer I wanted to hear more about Ann from her point of view. nice to see a glimpse into their backstory.

      You know I loved the JR/Sue Ellen scene on the balcony. You are right that he can look so powerful without saying a word. He looked angry, disappointed, and menacing all in one. I like that Sue Ellen has become his conscious. Sue Ellen always knew JR better than anyone…this scene and the slap scene last year are a testament to how she knows to get thru all of his JR-ness…LOL.

      Scene with John Ross… glad this scene happened. How sad would it have been for JR to die before

      • forgiving JohnRoss of betraying his plans to Cliff? I liked that JR used Sue Ellen as an excuse to forgive JohnRoss….it amuses me for some reason. But in the end he just said it. I forgive you. And I loved the dinosaur remark….made me laugh. And looked how JR3 lost that little smug look when JR knew what he was up to.
        All the talk has been about the exchange between JR and JR3….BUT…we are all missing another point. What on earth was JR doing in the men’s room with Bum? You know JR was checking out Ryland Industries on his IPAD earlier and was constantly watching Ryland duirng the trial. I think that him and Bum were discussing his plans against Ryland and John Ross walked into the conversation. I wonder are we ever going to see his plan in action…even though we won’t see him carrying it all the way through?

        Like one of the above posters, I liked the way they filmed the scene as they went into the courthouse. Excellent job.

        Oh….BTW…do you realize the second to last time we will ever see JR is when he was sitting next to Sue Ellen in that courtroom? That is nice to a long, long, time JR and Sue Ellen fan. And like you I loved the fact they gave a nod to the past and gave us a shot of Sue Ellen while Ann talked about her struggle with post partum depression.

        Of course, I loved the Cliff and JR phone conversation….quintesssentially them…LOL. And Cliff….when he came across the room with his arms spread to Pamela, that brought back a lot of memories. Cliff at 70 can be almost be as giddy as Cliff at 35…and as blind to what the other person is really feeling as well. That scene was TOTAL CLiff!

        I also have to give kudos to Ann and Emma. I totally agree with you about them. Very touching scene with Ann on the stand. Emma became more likable to me this week. And yes, I actually felt a twinge of sympathy for Harris. I wonder if Ann’s testimony will sink into him at all? And OMG…Judith is fun to watch…forget nibbling…she goes beyond even chewing to just ripping the scenery apart! Her hair and outfits paired with dramatic tilts of the head …fun.

        You know, I enjoyed watching Bobby this week as well. He is always the mooring for the other characters. His steadfastness and centeredness requires a more nuanced performance from Patrick..and he continually delivers.

        My questions for the previews….will Sue Ellen take EE shares from Elena? and why is everyone at SF? will Ann go to jail or be on probation? and What will be JR’s last scene?

      • More good observations! Thank you Hel. I wonder if we’ll one day get a deleted scene that explains what J.R. is going in the men’s room with Bum? And yes: Ken Kercheval’s scene with Julie Gonzalo was classic Cliff!

        And like you, I can’t wait to find out what everyone is doing at Southfork next week? How nice would it be to have an old-fashioned Ewing dinner scene while everyone is together in one place?

      • Hel, you always have amazing observations. Sue Ellen really is his conscience, isn’t she? I also thought about how the scene on the balcony echoed last year’s slapping scene. And thank you for giving Jesse Metcalfe some love. He deserves it. I agree this was one of his best episodes. Christopher is a worthy heir to his dad as the show’s resident good guy.

      • Okay…have to backtrack on my above statement regarding the time jump. While rewatching the show I noted that Clyde tells JohnRoss that Drew has made 4 trips across the state. Okay….that makes since in the one month difference… So my bad .

        Plus, JR and Bum walk into the bathroom where JR3 is…not vice versa …but the pint still,stands why is JR hanging out with Bum at the courthouse. Me thinks they smell a Ryland.

      • Ha ha! Love your last line, Hel.

    • Thanks dear. Good points. I think it would’ve been fine to have Pamela come to court to lend moral support to Ann, but having her testify on Ann’s behalf was a little much.

  3. I think it was the best one this season, mostly because Larry gets nice scenes with most of the old and better new co-stars

  4. BTW….I love that you always have these great photos of JR from each episode as the heading. they are wonderful.

  5. Up to this point in season 2 I felt that every episode was better than anything offered in season 1. I did not feel that way about this episode. I felt something was lost in moving so many storylines forward so fast. With that said, this episode had some of the very best moments of the new series. Sue Ellen telling JR how to be a good father and he listened to her. It seemed like Bobby was all dressed up with nowhere to go this episode. I look forward to the rest of the episode. Will Christopher hook up with Emma? Get back with Pamela Rebecca? Will he stay with Elena?

    I agree with the B rating, even this this could be the must watch episode to understand what unfolds for the rest of the season.

    • Great points, Jumpsteady! Your line about Bobby being all dressed up with no place to go made me laugh. As far as Christopher and Emma: He’s already married his cousin (Pamela), so why shouldn’t he hook up with his stepsister?

  6. Dear all,
    I must say I felt not so enthousiastic after watching the 5th episode. Maybe because the previous episode was so good, it could hardly be matched ! I felt that this episode was mostly made as a “courtroom episode”, which recalls some great moments of the original series, but it was a bit too much in my opinion. The acting was very good, however, and all the scenes involving Larry Hagman are simply great for all the reasons mentioned above. Ken Kercheval is also great in there, and looks more like the “old Cliff” than ever, something i missed. About the storyline, i also feel disappointed that we have Vicente’s coming back exactly in the same court and the same day than Ann’s trial… isn’t that too much of a coincidence? Emma Bell proves herself as a strong addition to the show, and i wouldn’t be surprised if we see her character becoming a love interest for one of the boys sooner or later. The touching scene between Pamela Rebecca and Christopher was also a highlight for me, and i look forward an evolving relationship between them.
    On a sidenote, it seems that french channel TF1 will broadcast this spring the two seasons back to back, making them a whole season of 25 episodes. That makes Dallas a product similar of all the mainstream US series we use to have in France. Then i truly hope we will have a third full-blown season of at least 22 episodes 🙂

    • Hi Dallas France! I found Vicente’s appearance a little too coincidental too. I like seeing the flashes of the “old” Cliff too. As far as a 22-episode season: I think I might prefer the more 15-episode season. So far, the storytelling has been solid — not too fast, not too slow. Just right.

  7. As much as I love Judith Light’s performance in the general I do find her southern drawl gets a bit thick (unnaturally forced) at times. It reminds of the bad southern accent of Carroll O’Connor from In the Heat of the Night.

    Chris, I just noticed how you list the cast list for these episodes in alphabetical order. I have to believe that is homage to the original series. I like it.

    The final JR/Cliff scene: Add my voice to the list of those wishing it was a face to face. This is the type of thing that would have been handled one of two ways in the past A) An encounter at the Oil Barron’s Club or B) Cliff barging right past Sly into JR’s office. It feels like we’ve been cheated doing it over the phone. I’ve even watched the scene a few times trying to decide if perhaps it hadn’t been intended to be something else entirely and posthumously changed into what we have. JR’s dialogue is a bit vague and could have been a part of a totally different scripted scene but I’ve decided that isn’t very likely.

    Hel corrected herself about the problems of the Drew trucking scenes over the time jump. As she figured out there have been several truck runs during the one-month time jump. That said it is still problematic. Are you trying to tell me that over that month Clyde couldn’t figure out what Drew was involved with? I see this supporting the theory that time jump probably wasn’t originally planned.

    Speaking of re-worked scenes, the silent presence of Bum screams after the fact alterations to me. I have nothing to back this up but it cements my personal fears that we were to see JR take down Harris but with Larry’s sudden passing it just isn’t to be. I really feel JR and Bum were probably discussing just that and took a brief break so JR could talk to John Ross.

    So Harris’ father committed suicide. I wonder what drove him to that. I’m looking at you Judith.

    Two things occurred as Ann is about to be led from the courtroom following her conviction. First we see a very smug/pleased look on Harris’ face. If we were supposed feel some sympathy for him during his testimony it was wiped out in this instant. Then we saw JR slowly turn toward Harris with that I’m coming for you look on his face. I’m turning into a broken record here but oh I wish we could have seen that.

    JR died being JR. Did you catch the way he checks out that hot blond extra when entering the courtroom?

    We’ve been told this episode contains the very last scene Larry filmed. Do we know which scene that is?

    • I don’t know what scene from “Trial and Error” was the last one Larry filmed. When I participated in the press call with Brenda Strong a few days ago, she recalled Larry being present during the filming of one of the courtroom scenes on the Tuesday before his death. Perhaps the last thing he filmed was one of the scenes where he is sitting in the courtroom?

      The idea that J.R.’s phone conversation with Cliff might have been reworked hadn’t occurred to me. I think you’re probably right about the men’s room scene with Bum. What a shame we’ll never see J.R. take down Harris face to face.

      And yes, I absolutely caught the way J.R. checked out the blonde. A priceless moment.

      Also: The alphabetical listing is indeed my way of honoring an old “Dallas” tradition. Thanks also for noticing Ms. Light’s absence from these credits. I fixed that and found a few other oversights. I appreciate your eagle eye!


  1. […] “Trial and Error,” a second-season “Dallas” episode, Ann (Brenda Strong) testifies before her attorney Lou (Glenn […]

  2. […] are the questions we’re pondering as we await tonight’s telecast of “Trial and Error,” TNT’s latest “Dallas” […]

  3. […] audience has grown for the second week in a row. The TNT drama’s latest episode, “Trial and Error,” was seen by 2.5 million viewers on February 18, up from the 2.4 million who watched the previous […]

  4. […] audience has grown for the second week in a row. The TNT drama’s latest episode, “Trial and Error,” was seen by 2.5 million viewers on February 18, up from the 2.4 million who watched the previous […]

  5. […] will forget the courtroom testimony that Ann (Brenda Strong) delivered at the end of “Trial and Error,” last week’s “Dallas” episode. Here’s a look at the 10 most memorable monologues from the […]

  6. […] Ann go to prison? In “Trial and Error,” last week’s episode, Ann (Brenda Strong) proved she shot Harris and went on trial, where her […]

  7. […] is also getting a big boost from DVR users. For example, 2.5 million viewers watched the episode “Trial and Error” on February 18, but by the middle of the week, DVR users had pushed its haul to 3.2 million […]

  8. […] in “Guilt and Innocence” takes place in the hospital. This makes the episode reminiscent of “Trial and Error,” an earlier second-season episode that unfolded almost entirely in the courthouse during Ann’s […]

  9. […] This is probably Bell’s best scene yet and Strong’s finest moment since Ann’s testimony in “Trial and Error.” (Perhaps not coincidentally, that episode, like “Love and Family,” was written by John […]

  10. […] As EW sees it, the second-season finale, “Legacies,” was the show’s finest hour in 2013 while “Trial and Error” was the worst, although the magazine doesn’t seem to have many complaints about it. Neither do […]

  11. […] offs himself in “False Confessions,” Brenda Strong kills it during Ann’s testimony scene in “Trial and Error,” Vicente bites the dust in “Blame Game,” and then the saddest shot of all: the death of J.R. […]

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