Critique: ‘Dallas’ Episode 106 — ‘Billion Dollar Question’

Billion Dollas Question, Charlene Tilton, Dallas, Lucy Cooper, Pam Ewing, Victoria Principal

Sob sisters

“Billion Dollar Question” is dominated by the Ewings’ squabbling over whether to have Jock declared legally dead, but I find the subplot about Lucy’s abortion much more interesting. “Dallas” handles her situation with a good deal of sensitivity and care, making this one of those times when the show seems to want to make its audience think, not just entertain them. It’s nicely done.

In the preceding episodes, Lucy learns she’s pregnant after being raped by her stalker, Roger Larson, and tells Pam she’s decided to have an abortion. At the beginning of “Billion Dollar Question,” Lucy’s doctor warns her some women have “tremendous psychological problems” after having the procedure, but Lucy is adamant that she wants to terminate the pregnancy. “I was raped. How could I be a good mother if every time I looked at the baby, it reminded me of that?” she asks. Lucy also rejects the idea of putting the child up for adoption, telling the doctor: “If I don’t get this over and behind me, I think I may just go out of my mind.”

Later in “Billion Dollar Question,” Pam visits Lucy at Dallas Memorial Hospital, where Lucy is anxiously waiting to have the procedure done. When Lucy asks Pam what she would do if she were in a similar situation, Pam recalls her own struggle to have children, adding that she isn’t sure how she would respond if she became pregnant after a rape. “Pam, don’t hate me for this,” Lucy says. Pam’s response: “Hate you? I could never hate you, no matter what. I love you.” The next time we see the two women, the abortion is over and Lucy is crying in her hospital bed as Pam strokes her hair. “I don’t know if I did the right thing or not,” Lucy says.

Arthur Bernard Lewis’s script doesn’t really take a side on the abortion debate, allowing the audience to decide for itself if Lucy made the best decision. It’s worth noting that Pam, “Dallas’s” original moral compass, shows compassion toward Lucy, even if she doesn’t necessarily agree with her decision. Pam also respects Lucy’s privacy — to a point. She breaks her niece’s confidence when she tells Bobby that Lucy had an abortion, but when Bobby suggests Miss Ellie should know too, Pam responds: “I don’t think we should be the ones to tell her. That’s something Lucy’s got to work out for herself.”

Charlene Tilton and Victoria Principal both deliver nice performances throughout this episode, although not everything about the storyline holds up. At times, Lewis’s script gets bogged down in the sexism that pervades this era of “Dallas.” When Pam asks the doctor if Lucy is emotionally prepared for an abortion, he responds, “I’ve always felt it’s very difficult for a man to make a proper judgment in a case like this. Very difficult.” Later, as Lucy is getting ready to leave the hospital, she tells Pam the doctor has assured her she’ll be able to have a baby one day. “And I will want one, when I find the right man,” Lucy says. Other lines sounds like they come straight from a medical encyclopedia: There are numerous references to the procedure being a “therapeutic abortion,” for example.

Of course, this attention to detail isn’t an altogether bad thing. When I recently watched “Billion Dollar Question” for the first time in years, I found it odd that Lucy had the abortion at Dallas Memorial and not a clinic — until I did some research and discovered some hospitals do, in fact, perform the procedure. Lucy refers to this when she tells Pam, “I should have just gone to a clinic. Everything takes so long here. … I’ve heard of women going in, a few hours later they go home. It’s over.”

I know a lot of  fans watch “Dallas” for escapism, but the producers deserve credit for their willingness to tackle a topic that, in some respects, remains taboo on television. Bea Arthur’s character famously had TV’s first abortion in a 1972 episode of “Maude,” but there aren’t many other examples from ’70s and ’80s television. Yet when histories of abortion in prime time are written, Lucy’s is almost always omitted. Did her procedure generate less controversy because it was the result of a rape? Does she get overlooked because “Dallas” is a soap opera?

Besides Lucy’s storyline, “Billion Dollar Question” is also distinguished by J.R. and Holly’s scenes aboard her yacht, which showcase the playful chemistry between Larry Hagman and Lois Chiles, as well as a nifty bird’s eye shot of J.R. tooling along the highway in his Mercedes. I also like Barbara Bel Geddes’ scene with Hagman, when Miss Ellie tells J.R. that his father never played dirty when he was president of Ewing Oil. J.R.’s response: “Mama, you don’t know the half of what Daddy did when he was running that company.” For once, I get the feeling he isn’t exaggerating.

Grade: B

_______________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

Billion Dollas Question, Dallas, Holly Harwood, J.R. Ewing, Larry Hagman, Lois Chiles

Das boots

‘BILLION DOLLAR QUESTION’

Season 6, Episode 3

Airdate: October 15, 1982

Audience: 17.2 million homes, ranking 12th in the weekly ratings

Writer: Arthur Bernard Lewis

Director: Michael Preece

Synopsis: J.R. pressures Miss Ellie to have Jock declared legally dead but she tells him she needs more time. Holly rejects J.R.’s offer to mix business with pleasure and questions his advice to buy a refinery. Lucy has an abortion. Cliff accepts Marilee’s job offer. Ray learns Amos has died. Clayton tells Sue Ellen that Dusty is planning a visit to the Southern Cross.

Cast: Tyler Banks (John Ross Ewing), Barbara Bel Geddes (Miss Ellie Ewing), Lois Chiles (Holly Harwood), Roseanna Christiansen (Teresa), Patrick Duffy (Bobby Ewing), Fern Fitzgerald (Marilee Stone), Linda Gray (Sue Ellen Ewing), Larry Hagman (J.R. Ewing), Alice Hirson (Mavis Anderson), Susan Howard (Donna Krebbs), Steve Kanaly (Ray Krebbs), Howard Keel (Clayton Farlow), Ken Kercheval (Cliff Barnes), Audrey Landers (Afton Cooper), Dennis Lipscomb (Nelson Harding), Frank Marth (Dr. Grovner), George O. Petrie (Harv Smithfield), Priscilla Pointer (Rebecca Wentworth), Victoria Principal (Pam Ewing), Kate Reid (Lil Trotter), Charlene Tilton (Lucy Cooper)

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

Comments

  1. Realistically, she should have gone to some small clinic. When you consider how big The Ewings were supposed to be in Dallas, it’s hard to believe that Lucy Ewing could get an abortion in a major hospital and that it wouldn’t leak to the press, or @ least become gossip in their social circles.

    • Great point, J.R. Thank goodness the medical professionals of Dallas respected Lucy’s privacy! (Even if Pam didn’t when she blabbed about the abortion to Bobby.)

  2. I’m watching the show for the first time and your AMAZING site has been a joy to go hand in hand with the show!

  3. Margaret Krebbs says:

    I was prompted to watch this episode again after reading your really insightful critique!!
    The entire episode is full of mostly women supporting other mostly women or weakened men. Pam supporting Lucy, Afton supporting Cliff, Rebecca supporting Afton (and by default Cliff). Mavis supporting Miss Ellie, Donna supporting Ray – but at least we got a scene earlier in the episode when Ray supported Donna. We also get support JR style – when he advises Holly Harwood and ‘supports’ Miss Ellie.

    While I agree with most of your fine analysis, and I think the episode did a pretty decent job showing the complex emotions that some women experience when undergoing the procedure, I can’t help but feel as if Lucy is being punished for being herself. She wants marriage, a career and a family. She decided to continue pursue her modeling career even if it meant loosing her unsupportive husband, and excels to the point where she must be knocked over, weakened, put in her place, and “raped” in literal and figural terms.

    That no one truly cares about Lucy is the reason why she sleeps with creepster Roger in the first place. Lucy wants validation from men, any man, be they super-weird,super-pretty, gay, crooked, whatever, even though she claims to want independence. Her modeling career, while laughable because of her pint-sized statue, makes sense because all she ever really wanted was for someone to notice her, to acknowledge her, to look at her and see her.

    Who is there to support Lucy in her hour of need? Aunt Pam to the rescue, a woman who went bonkers because she couldn’t carry a baby to term. Pam chooses to speak to Lucy in a high pitched voice, as if she is speaking to a child, not a young woman making a very adult decision. Instead of validating Lucy’s decision – couldn’t Pam have said something to the effect of “The right decision is whatever decision you will make for yourself, Lucy” – instead of the whole “I’m not you…” crap she gives Lucy? When Lucy is shown crying after the procedure, she says she feels empty (how unfortunate) and asks Pam if she made the right choice. The script could have instead explained her crying as relief that the terrible and tragic pregnancy and rape was over.

    Maybe I am being a bit harsh but it seems like any woman that chooses career over marriage, any woman that believes she can fulfill her ambitions outside of Southfork, the home, men, children, must be shown the consequences of such a selfish choice.

    Anyway… sorry for rambling on so long and thanks for making me revisit this episode!

  4. Garnet McGee says:

    The Lucy rape story was hard to watch. I am so tired of female characters being punished with this cliche. That being said at least we were spared scenes of Pam begging her not to go through with it. I did like the doctor’s line about it being something a man can’t make a proper judgement about. I also thought it was nice that they had Pam say “I’m not you I can’t decide for you”. The writers didn’t know what to do with Lucy and did a horrible job of integrating her story with the other stories. Speaking of the sexism of the era, Rebecca’s advice to Afton about looking at herself in the mirror to assure herself that Cliff would never choose Marilee over her is frightful. She is telling her “judge yourself by your looks”. On the plus side BBG is transcendent and luminous as usual. She has these great turns of the head and looks that she does. Her statements about widowhood after marriage really ring true.
    Lois Chiles continues to delight me. Her accent seemed real when I heard her speak. It is even more natural than Larry Hagman’s. She struck me as a real Texan. I looked her up on IMDB and she was a bona fide Houston girl with connections to the oil business. The real Lois Chiles could have been the fictional Sue Ellen’s college classmate since they both attended UT Austin at the same time. Chiles is so natural and casual in her acting much more so than some of the actors on the show. I just dread what they will do to her strong, sexy independent female character. Once again Clayton overwhelms me with his courtly handsomeness. I would have advised Sue Ellen to marry him or at least shack up with him. JR’s passive aggressiveness is a hoot. It is good to see that Harris has inherited the crown of Mr. Passive-Aggressive from JR. They both have to get in those passive aggressive whiny digs that make you laugh.

  5. C.B., Dallas Memorial is not 50.01% operationally controlled by Catholics. Most Catholic hospitals will not perform abortions, but some do, such as in a rape, or if the baby mama’s life is in danger.

Trackbacks

  1. […] “Billion Dollar Question,” a sixth-season “Dallas” episode, Miss Ellie and J.R. (Barbara Bel Geddes, Larry Hagman) sit at […]

  2. […] Cliff (Audrey Landers, Ken Kercheval) discuss his career choices in this 1982 publicity shot from “Billion Dollar Question,” a sixth-season “Dallas” […]

  3. […] see,” J.R. quips. Holly flirts with J.R. — which is a bit odd, given the brush-off she gave him a few episodes earlier — and even suggests he “stretch out” and spend some time with her by the pool. To the […]

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