Critique: ‘Dallas’ Episode 112 — ‘Fringe Benefits’

Afton Cooper, Audrey Landers, Dallas, Fringe Benefits

Savvy

In “Fringe Benefits,” Afton sleeps with sleazy Gil Thurman to ensure he’ll sell his lucrative oil refineries to her boyfriend Cliff. Is this yet another example of Afton allowing a man to use her, like she did when she had her doomed fling with J.R.? Perhaps. But Afton’s actions also demonstrate how much she has learned since then. You may not approve of her choices in this episode, but you can’t deny she’s become one of “Dallas’s” savviest characters.

The plot is set in motion when Cliff persuades the cartel to join him in bidding against J.R. for Thurman’s refineries. The prospect of beating J.R. — and proving himself as an oilman — gets Cliff’s juices flowing for the first time since his suicide attempt at the end of the previous season. This, in turn, lifts the spirits of Afton, who has loyally stood by Cliff and struggled to help him recover his spark. But Afton’s excitement is dashed when Thurman tells her he’ll only sell to Cliff if she sleeps with him. Afton reluctantly yields to Thurman’s demands, and in the episode’s next-to-last scene, he drops by Cliff’s office to tell him the refineries are his.

Tellingly, Afton realizes Thurman is a creep the moment she meets him and tries to keep her distance. Contrast this with Cliff, who is oblivious to Thurman’s true nature and his barely concealed interest in Afton. J.R. doesn’t “get” Thurman either. As his competition with Cliff intensifies, J.R. invites Thurman to dine with him and Sue Ellen at her townhouse, even dictating the menu and her choice of outfit — as if these things would matter to a man like Thurman. On the night of the dinner, Thurman arrives before J.R. and propositions Sue Ellen, who practically has to fight him off. Later that evening, when Sue Ellen tells J.R. that Thurman made a pass at her, J.R. reveals he knew Thurman was a womanizer but had no idea he’d come on so strongly. The unquestioned sincerity in Larry Hagman’s voice lets the audience know that J.R. — in this instance, at least — is telling the truth.

So only Afton has Thurman’s number from the get-go. Not that this should come as a surprise. As Dallas Divas Derby has pointed out, Afton’s ability to “read” people is one of her defining traits. During the fifth season, she’s the first to realize Clayton has fallen for Sue Ellen. Later, she figures out long before anyone else that Katherine is up to no good. Afton’s insightful nature makes me wonder: Could she have her own motivation for sleeping with Thurman? Yes, her actions help Cliff seal a major deal, which gives him the ego boost he needs to snap out of his depression. But Cliff’s victory also upsets J.R.’s apple cart, a fitting comeuppance for the man who dumped Afton so cruelly. Could getting back at J.R. be a “fringe benefit” of Afton’s actions?

We may not know for sure if Afton has revenge on her mind, but the other emotions she experiences in this episode aren’t up for debate: She loves Cliff and is desperate to help him succeed, and she is disgusted by Thurman and hates the idea of having to sleep with him. Now stop and ask yourself how you know this. Is it because there’s a scene where Afton confides her feelings in a girlfriend, a therapist, a hairdresser? Do we hear her pouring out her heart in voiceover narration? No. Everything we know about Afton’s emotional state comes from Audrey Landers. Because Afton is a supporting character who doesn’t interact much with the other players, Landers must rely on facial expressions and body language to let us know what’s going on inside Afton’s head.

Contrast this with the lead actors on “Dallas.” In a typical episode, there might be a scene where Miss Ellie confides her latest worries in Donna, or where J.R. lets his secretary Sly in on one of his business secrets. These scenes allow the audience to understand the characters’ motivations. But Landers rarely gets scenes like this, and certainly not in “Fringe Benefits.” Since we never even see Afton sleep with Thurman, it’s up to Landers to let us know that Afton did indeed give in to him, which the actress achieves with a single shamed expression toward the end of the episode. Landers’ ability to do so much with so little makes her one of “Dallas’s” most impressive performers.

The other V.I.P. in “Fringe Benefits:” Albert Salmi, whose crooked smirk and leering eyes make Gil Thurman perhaps the most loathsome creature to slither into the lives of the Barneses and Ewings. Salmi appeared in a lot of episodic television before “Dallas,” including several guest spots on “The Twilight Zone.” It’s hard to imagine any role topping this one. (In real life, Salmi, who suffered from clinical depression, died in 1990 after he shot and killed his wife, then turned the gun on himself.) I also love Ken Kercheval’s performance in “Fringe Benefits,” especially in the scene where Thurman tells Cliff he won the bidding for the refineries. Kercheval pumps his fists in the air like a little boy who has just experienced some minor playground triumph. It’s almost sweet.

The other highlight of “Fringe Benefits” is the fun scene where Sue Ellen and Pam realize how far they’ve come since their early days together at Southfork. As much as I enjoy Sue Ellen’s bitchy attitude toward Pam during “Dallas’s” first few seasons, it’s even nicer to see the women finally getting long and supporting each other. I had forgotten about this scene until I saw “Fringe Benefits” again recently for the first time in several years; it now stands out as one of my favorite “re-discoveries” since starting Dallas Decoder.

I also love this episode’s scenes between Barbara Bel Geddes and Dale Robertson, who makes his last appearance on “Dallas” as Frank Crutcher, the gentle widower who was so sweet on Ellie. Robertson was a fine actor and would have made an interesting addition to the “Dallas” cast, although looking back, it’s pretty clear the producers only intended Crutcher to be a temporary character. (Even the character’s name is apt: He was merely a “crutch” for Ellie to lean on as she emerged from her mourning of Jock.) I’ll miss Frank, although I also know someone even better is waiting around the bend for Mama.

Grade: A

_______________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

Albert Salmi, Dallas, Fringe Benefits, Gil Thurman

Slimy

‘FRINGE BENEFITS’

Season 6, Episode 9

Airdate: November 26, 1982

Audience: 17.9 million homes, ranking 5th in the weekly ratings

Writer: Will Lorin

Director: Michael Preece

Synopsis: Cliff wins a competition to purchase Gil Thurman’s refineries, unaware Afton slept with Thurman so he could seal the deal. Punk urges Bobby to find out why J.R. is pumping beyond capacity during an oil glut. Donna becomes more involved with a legislative effort to tighten oil industry regulations. Miss Ellie tells Frank she’s only interested in being his friend.

Cast: Barbara Bel Geddes (Miss Ellie Ewing), Jack Collins (Russell Slater), Patrick Duffy (Bobby Ewing), Fern Fitzgerald (Marilee Stone), Linda Gray (Sue Ellen Ewing), Larry Hagman (J.R. Ewing), Susan Howard (Donna Krebbs), Steve Kanaly (Ray Krebbs), Ken Kercheval (Cliff Barnes), Kenneth Kimmins (Thornton McLeish), Audrey Landers (Afton Cooper), Priscilla Pointer (Rebecca Wentworth), Michael Prince (John Macklin), Victoria Principal (Pam Ewing), Dale Robertson (Frank Crutcher), Albert Salmi (Gil Thurman), Carol Sanchez (maid), Paul Sorensen (Andy Bradley), Don Starr (Jordan Lee), Morgan Woodward (Punk Anderson)

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

Comments

  1. Stephan says:

    Thank you for another invaluable critique. Almost squeezed in between big events like the Oil Baron’s Ball, the reading of Jock’s will, J.R. and Sue Ellen’s wedding and the Ewing Barbecue, “Fringe Benefits” is easy to overlook, although it is indeed one more highlight of this fabulous season.
    Your contrasting lead actors and supporting actors on the basis of the material that they are given, comes as quite a revelation: The big stars do get the chance to verbalize their characters’ feelings and relationships – the scene with Sue Ellen and Pam, which does nothing to advance the plot, is a good example. Audrey Landers, on the other hand, is really given very little dialogue at any time. So she well deserves the praise you give her and the space you dedicate to the discussion of her performance. When we take the second season of TNT’s DALLAS into consideration, we can see that – 30 years later – Audrey can still pull it off. I hope we’ll get to see more of Afton!

    • Stephen, thank you so much. You have terrific insight into “Dallas,” so I’m glad you enjoyed this critique. And I agree: I hope we get to see more Afton on TNT’s “Dallas” too.

      Thank you again.

      Chris

  2. Dan in WI says:

    I’ve never considered the possibility before that Afton had any measure of revenge in mind when she was sleeping with Thurman. I always saw it as a very misguided assist to Cliff. While it is an interesting hypothesis I don’t think that is the case and even if it was the remorse she goes on to show makes that act a bad idea regardless of motivation.

    • Dan, I haven’t reached the episode where the truth comes out about Afton and Thurman, so I’m a little fuzzy on the details. In the long run, though, I don’t think this causes lasting harm to her relationship with Cliff, does it?

      • Dan in WI says:

        As I recall the truth drives a pretty good wedge between Afton and Cliff. Cliff flies completely off the handle. Not because his girl slept with another man. No he gets mad because he thought he beat JR on this deal all by himself and his ego is hurt because he had to have help to get the deal.
        But that isn’t even what I was referring to. Afton quickly feels remorse simply for prostituting herself. So Afton hurts her own self esteem here. Then when Cliff goes ballistic she only feels worse. This is the point where my memory goes fuzzy to. Does this result in one of their breakups or not? You’ll be able to report back on that before long.

  3. I think it’s interesting to consider Sue Ellen’s decision not to sleep with “slithering” Thurman in contrast with Afton’s move to do so. Sue Ellen’s decision is knee-jerk and understandably so, but Afton’s is calculated, even if remorseful. I think she knew what she was doing.

  4. Margaret Krebbs says:

    Great critique!!!!

    The episode’s opening scene is my absolute most favorite JR and Sue Ellen scene of the entire series. It’s such a wonderful analysis of their entire relationship – JR charming as ever, convincing, conniving, wheeling and dealing and pimping his own wife for his own selfish needs. The camera’s round-the-table slow pan while the couple makes measured small talk about their new future together, the moody colored lighting, the buttoned-up-to her-chin, just discovered the joy of cooking Sue Ellen – it’s all so perfectly revealing. Sue Ellen and JR are playing their roles perfectly. He’s asking her to prostitute herself as much as she can stomach for his power grabbing business deal, and so subtlety reminding her that they will soon be married and so, with his slick soft-spoken Texas charm, lets her know what’s expected of a Ewing wife. It’s a threat wrapped up in romantic candle lit dinner haze. If you want to spend your days sunning at the Southfork pool, or shopping at Neiman Marcus before luncheons, you gotta pay for the priviledge, you gotta be loyal to family and husband, no matter what. Sue Ellen’s in on his motives, yet both put up a facade of the devoted wife helping the loving husband. Sue Ellen knows she can’t make it on the outside, all alone, at the mercy of commoners. They just take and grab, they don’t ask for her charming feminine wiles all soft-spoken like and sugar coated. Wasn’t it a few episodes before that the cold cruel men of the world outside of Southfork manhandled her at her own townhouse party? The devil you know is often a much better devil…..JR’s not really asking what he’s really asking. As long as neither acknowledge the truth, all is well.

    The second scene is a perfect contrast to the opener. Afton, looking sexy and alluring, sits down in the nightclub to chat with Mephistopheles Gil Thurman. She fends off his advances at first, disgusted by his directness. But when she figures out he can help Cliff, she strikes her devil’s bargain. She controls the when and the how and the where, unlike Sue Ellen who just takes orders and is only allowed to control how much.

    I love how this episode shows how very much these two women have in common. Both have traded on their looks and sensuality to win the affections of powerful men. And both will do anything to keep their powerful men, even at the expense of loosing their self-respect. All in the act of loyalty, love and support. While Sue Ellen is more passive in achieving her ambitions, Afton is more active and aggressive in her pursuit. I like them both alot, but Afton wins me over in this episode. Her morality is never questioned because we know why she’s doing what she’s doing. With eyes wide open and full commitment and ownership, she dives in head first. We just hope Cliff is worth it.

  5. I really like everybody’s insightful comments to this episode – most of all, I agree with Margaret Krebbs. You really pinned it down perfectly, I think. And I love your choice of name for Thurman, Mephistopheles! 🙂

  6. This reminds me of the new Mego styled action figures that are coming out by Figures Toy Company featuring J.R Ewing. I’ve always been a fan of Dallas!

  7. Garnet McGee says:

    The writers kept JR’s thoughts about the Thurman situation ambiguous. I couldn’t quite tell if he was really shocked that Thurman was such an animal or if he knew at some level. As much as I hate the character of JR (and I don’t even love to hate him, I just hate him) not even he would knowingly put his wife in a situation where she might be raped. He has too much male pride for that. I don’t think he would be too concerned whether Sue Ellen was psychologically crushed by an attack. I wish they had referred back to Afton’s betrayal of Cliff during the Asian oil deal. Cliff never found out that it was Afton who drugged his coffee and let Jr’s henchman to look at the documents for the hearing. Wouldn’t it have added to the story if we saw her willingness to sleep with Thurman as penance for her past betrayal? I expected it to come up again and it never did. I love the way Dallas TNT has used some of these same story elements involving sexual favors and blackmail from the old show but modified them to fit a world where women have as much power as men. Albert Salmi was great in this episode. His murder of his wife is so sad.

  8. At the time of this episode, there was an oil glut as the saying goes. If Brother J.R. had instead pumped natural gas wells at an overage, which was in a much shorter supply C.B., he might have been able to overcome Brother Bobby’s financial advantage gained in the signing of the Canadian deal with the McLeish’s & won the deal outright. The deal being 51% ctrl. of Ewing Oil.

  9. Dan in WI says:

    Are we absolutely sure JR didn’t know to what level Thurman would stoop? Typically when JR is “unavoidably late” or is “abruptly called away” and leaves someone alone with a woman he knows exactly what he’s doing. On the other hand he usually pulls that stunt with Serena not his wife. In fact I wondered why it wasn’t Serena this time around. So in my mind while JR didn’t necessarily think Sue Ellen would sleep with Gil I truly believe he wanted to apply some degree of feminine wiles.

Trackbacks

  1. […] “Fringe Benefits,” a sixth-season “Dallas” episode, Sue Ellen and Pam (Linda Gray, Victoria Principal) leave a […]

  2. […] brouhaha he caused at the wedding. In a tense moment, she also comes close to confessing her recent indiscretion with Gil Thurman, only to chicken out at the last minute and collapse into Cliff’s arms. I’m a […]

  3. […] time in recent episodes that J.R. has used Sue Ellen as a pawn in the battle for Ewing Oil: In “Fringe Benefits,” he asks her to host a dinner party for Gil Thurman, even though he knows the lecherous Thurman will […]

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