Critique: ‘Dallas’ Episode 116 — ‘Mama Dearest’

Barbara Bel Geddes, Dallas, Mama Dearest, Miss Ellie Ewing

Mother knows best?

In “Mama Dearest,” Miss Ellie embarks on a quest to break Jock’s will and stop J.R. and Bobby’s contest for Ewing Oil. This causes the alliances within the family to shift, sometimes dramatically. J.R. and Bobby both oppose Ellie’s efforts, but when J.R. suggests the brothers join forces to defeat their mother, Bobby refuses. J.R. isn’t on his own, though: He gets support from Sue Ellen and Lucy, who believes the competition for the company should play out the way Jock intended. In the meantime, Pam rushes to support Ellie, which strains her marriage to Bobby.

Some of these reactions are surprising, but all of them make sense. I believe J.R. would be the first to recognize that it would be in his best interest to call a temporary truce with Bobby, just as I believe Bobby would be reluctant to join J.R. because he doesn’t trust him. Likewise, Pam’s allegiance to Ellie feels reasonable, although I suspect Pam’s response has more to do with her own opposition to the contest than it does with her concern for mother-in-law’s emotional wellbeing. More often than not, Pam is a pragmatist.

Lucy’s support for J.R. is unexpected, of course, but notice how she never lets him know she’s in his corner. Even if Lucy agrees with J.R., she isn’t going to give him the satisfaction of knowing it. Instead, Lucy confides her feelings in Ellie. This conversation occurs late at night, when Lucy sits with her grandmother at the Southfork kitchen table and gently questions her decision to break the will. Charlene Tilton, in a lovely performance, manages to convey Lucy’s almost-childlike belief in her grandfather’s infallibility, as well as her confidence that he knew what he was doing when he decided to pit J.R. and Bobby against each other. “I’m sure it’s all turning out just the way Granddaddy expected,” Lucy says. It’s nice to see this character growing up and becoming wiser.

Barbara Bel Geddes, the actress at the heart of “Mama Dearest,” is terrific in this exchange too. She avoids eye contact with Tilton, which helps convey Ellie’s uncertainty about whether her legal challenge is appropriate. Even at the end of the conversation, when Lucy reaches across the table and touches Ellie’s arm, Bel Geddes looks away. Contrast this with her performance in the scene where J.R. joins Ellie for breakfast on the Southfork patio. He tries to turn on the charm, but Mama doesn’t fall for it. “You get a good night’s sleep?” J.R. asks. Ellie looks at him and coolly says, “J.R., I don’t think you really care how I slept last night.” It’s a telling moment: Even if Ellie isn’t sure she’s doing the right thing, she’s smart enough to know she shouldn’t let J.R. know she has doubts. Mama probably would have made a good poker player.

Another great scene in “Mama Dearest” belongs to Patrick Duffy, who also directed this episode. After a frustrated Bobby takes off for a nighttime drive to collect his thoughts, he returns home and finds Pam waiting up for him. Bobby tells her that he’s upset over her decision to support Ellie, and then he explains why he wants the contest to continue. Duffy’s delivery is impassioned; he makes a fist and practically shakes it at the camera as he speaks. The words are as important as the delivery. Here’s his speech:

“Pam, you don’t understand what drove Jock Ewing. And I don’t think you really understand what drives me, either. When I was at the university, making the football team just wasn’t enough. I had to be varsity. I had to be captain. I had to make All-Southwest Conference — and I did! I did all of that. When you and I met, I wasn’t just a roadman for Ewing Oil. I was the best roadman for any oil company. Because that’s what Daddy expected. And that’s what I expect from myself. And J.R. and I are a lot alike because he’s not going to take second best either. You see, that’s why Daddy turned away from Gary. The Ewings must succeed, and Gary didn’t care about that, but Pam, J.R. and I do! Now, Daddy chose that the future of Ewing Oil is going to be in the hands of the son strong enough to run it. And that’s the way it’s gonna be.”

This monologue, besides being one of the highlights of Arthur Bernard Lewis’s script, helps demonstrate why the contest for Ewing Oil is such a satisfying storyline. Bobby is usually the yin to J.R.’s yang, but notice how he doesn’t mention J.R. until almost the end of the speech. This time, Bobby isn’t simply reacting to J.R.’s schemes. For the youngest Ewing son, the contest is as much about proving himself worthy of his father’s expectations as it is stopping J.R. from committing some heinous act. The scene reminds us that Bobby is a pretty interesting character in his own right.

Of course, J.R. remains the most fascinating figure of all in “Mama Dearest.” Throughout this episode, Larry Hagman gives us the feeling his character is genuinely frightened by the prospect that Ellie might stop the contest and sell Ewing Oil out from under him. Notice how J.R. loses his cool with Ellie at the beginning of the episode, after she’s announced her decision to challenge the will, and later when he realizes she’s getting advice from Clayton. (Is it a coincidence that the last time we saw J.R. this rattled occurred after he ran into Clayton and Rebecca at the French restaurant?) I also think it’s telling the lengths he’ll go to shore up support from the other Ewings. When J.R. is trying to persuade Bobby to join him in fighting their mother, he tells him, “We may battle a lot, but I just want you to remember: You’re my brother, and I love you.” The “l word” isn’t one J.R. uses a lot. Later, J.R. stands behind Sue Ellen as she gazes into a mirror and promises she’ll one day be mistress of Southfork and share his power. He really knows how to tell other people what they want to hear, doesn’t he?

J.R. also figures into “Mama Dearest’s” funniest scene, when he arrives at Holly’s home and discovers she runs Harwood Oil from her bedroom. (“You know as many oil deals are made in bedrooms as in boardrooms,” she purrs. The line would be a groaner if Lois Chiles didn’t look like she was having so much fun delivering it.) This is one of those “Dallas” moments that I recall watching as a kid, although my memory turned things around: I mistakenly remembered Holly keeping a bed in her office, not a desk in her bedroom. Either way, I can’t help but wonder why J.R. never followed suit. Imagine how much easier life would have been for ol’ J.R. if the Ewing Oil executive suite had come equipped with a mattress.

Grade: A


Bobby Ewing, Dallas, Mama Dearest, Patrick Duffy

Rising son?


Season 6, Episode 13

Airdate: December 31, 1982

Audience: 15.2 million homes, ranking 24th in the weekly ratings

Writer: Arthur Bernard Lewis

Director: Patrick Duffy

Synopsis: Miss Ellie asks lawyer Brooks Oliver to help her break Jock’s will. Pam sides with Ellie, straining her marriage to Bobby. J.R. orders Holly to cancel her military contracts so she can refine his crude. Donna urges her fellow energy commissioners to not restore J.R.’s variance to pump excess oil. Bobby pressures the cartel to uncap the Wellington property so he can compete with J.R. Cliff buys a townhouse.

Cast: Barbara Bel Geddes (Miss Ellie Ewing), Paul Carr (Ted Prince), Lois Chiles (Holly Harwood), Karlene Crockett (Muriel Gillis), Patrick Duffy (Bobby Ewing), Bobbie Ferguson (Terri), Linda Gray (Sue Ellen Ewing), Larry Hagman (J.R. Ewing), Susan Howard (Donna Krebbs), Steve Kanaly (Ray Krebbs), Howard Keel (Clayton Farlow), Ken Kercheval (Cliff Barnes), Audrey Landers (Afton Cooper), James Karen (Elton Lawrence), Julio Medina (Henry Figueroa), Donald Moffat (Brooks Oliver), Timothy Patrick Murphy (Mickey Trotter), George O. Petrie (Harv Smithfield), Robert Pinkerton (Elliot), Priscilla Pointer (Rebecca Wentworth), Victoria Principal (Pam Ewing), Debbie Rennard (Sly), Danone Simpson (Kendall), Arlen Dean Snyder (George Hicks), Paul Sorensen (Andy Bradley), Joan Staley (Ms. Stockwood), Don Starr (Jordan Lee), Charlene Tilton (Lucy Ewing), Deborah Tranelli (Phyllis), Morgan Woodward (Punk Anderson)

“Mama Dearest” is available on DVD and at and iTunes. Watch the episode and share your comments below.


  1. Great episode. It was the second time mentioned that JR served in the military when JR asks if they lost his discharges papers.

    As for the fight for Ewing Oil, Pamela should have stayed out of it as JR said it was not her fight. A apart of me wanted JR to back hand her when she remarked that he did not know his own mother.

    I liked Ellie and Lucy’s conversation in the kitchen. I don’t remember there ever have a grandmother/granddaughter moment like that. I know they had scenes together but not like that. Yes Lucy hero worshipped her grandfather a very nice scene.

    Shame the writers gave up too soon on Lucy. There were many missed opportunties with her character never explored. Charlene Tilton played the role very well.

    I know that Jock and JR never would have allowed Lucy to be part of Ewing Oil but she was Jock’s first grandchild after all. I read in the Enquirer before Charlene came back to the show which stated that she was going to be part of the company and help it out of its financial problems. That never happened which means that it was not going to or the writers at some point dropped the idea.

    JR verbally going off on Ellie I understood. He loved her but at times she did turn on him and disappointed him like when she refused to help him get John Ross off the Southern Cross.

    Bobby’s analysis of being a Ewing was great. I loved it.

    • LBF, I remember that article in the Enquirer! I recall reading it and being really excited about the show turning Lucy into an oil executive. I think that would have been a hoot, and I bet Charlene Tilton would have enjoyed showing us another side of her character. What a shame the show didn’t actually follow through with those plans.

      As always, thanks for commenting!


  2. Barbara fan says:

    Great review of a great episode that really begins to divide the Ewing family and their loyalties – this really is a fantastic season and BBG gets a bigger piece of the pie which is good for me.
    Sadly it marks the beginning of the end for Dallas’s own Romeo and Juliet aka Bobby and Pamela. The next 2 episodes make this such an exciting time for Dallas fans.

  3. Dan in WI says:

    I’ve always viewed this episode as the beginning of the end for Pam & Bobby. Bobby wants to compete for Ewing Oil and Pam doesn’t want him to. So when Pam chooses to side with Miss Ellie against her husband everything from here on out in the disintigration of their marriage can be traced back to that decision. If Pam isn’t siding with Miss Ellie she probably doesn’t meet Marc Graison (in the attempt to get the services of Brooks Oliver). If she never meets Graison he certainly doesn’t go hard after her exploiting the rift between her and Bobby. On the other side of the coin Katherine Wentworth also doesn’t have said rift to exploit in her manipulations of Bobby and Pam.
    This really is a no looking back turning point.

  4. missiea5 says:

    Love this episode- it really begins the best story arch on the show.
    I am always a fan of the smaller scenes and I adore the “mistress of Southfork” scene with JR and Sue Ellen. It brings back Sue Ellen as Lady MacBeth. It reminds me so much of the very early scene of her prancing around the Southfork stairs pretending to greet her guests/admirers. Even then, Miss Ellie reminded her that this ranch was only big enough for one Queen.
    Plus, anytime Patrick Duffy gets to play Bobby with an edge it is just fantastic!
    Wonderful critique!

    **It is ironic that if Ellie hadn’t challenged the will Mark would never have met Pam. But it is equally ironic that if JR had played a little more fairly Ellie may have let the battle play out and not turned to Clayton thus staying a grieving widow a little longer- fantastic writing all around!

    • Thank you so much, Missiea5! Interesting point about the ironic consequences of J.R.’s actions. I wonder what he hated more: having Pam as a sister-in-law or Clayton as a stepfather?

  5. Anonymous says:

    What a great reading, thanks again. The whole family torn apart, what outstanding drama. I liked the TNT version, but after reading your review,
    it’s hard not to long for more when the TNT Ewings are fighting over Ewing Oil.

  6. Garnet McGee says:

    I love when Miss Ellie stands up to JR. Too bad she never follows her speeches to their logical conclusion and kick him off Southfork. The line “there’s nothing like the threat of violence to bring the Ewing clan right together” reminded me of Dallas TNT after the rig explosion. I love it when Bobby calls his wife Pamela since it reminds me of Pamela Rebecca. Someone says that breaking the will is the most difficult decision Ellie’s ever made. I’d say her decision to pursue a divorce from Jock was probably the most difficult decision she ever made. Ellie idealizes Jock. I agree Jock would approve of JR’s methods. Why does Afton stay with Cliff? He is too old for her and treats her badly. Afton’s daughter Pamela Rebecca can be a bit of pragmatist herself just like her namesake Aunt. Bobby was the good guy but still such an interesting character. I wish his son was as interesting. I’m not sure if its the writing or acting but I’m waiting for Christopher to fascinate me as Bobby and John Ross do.

  7. Do u realize that if Brother J.R. was alive today & had his business dealings run out of his bedroom, Pzizer’s entire stock of Viagra could be delivered to The Ewing Oil Co. Ltd. C/o: J.R. Ewing’s Boudoir?!

  8. I agree that Bobby’s preoccupation with beating JR was his long desire to please Jock. Jock from the show started always pressured Bobby to settle down and concentrate on doing one thing and do it well. I remember Bobby did the rancher thing, architecture business and being a senator and working with JR, he was all over the place so proving to Jock even in death that he could accomplish one thing that his father challenged him to do he had to do it. Bobby did cross some lines and got down in the mud in the fight for Ewing Oil but what made him different from JR was that he had a conscience and was willing to admit it when he did something wrong as he did to Pam regarding Hicks. I always found Bobby interesting and never boring, which is what I could never say about Mark Graison or Christopher.


  1. […] “Mama Dearest,” a sixth-season “Dallas” episode, Miss Ellie and Lucy (Barbara Bel Geddes, Charlene Tilton) sit […]

  2. […] obsessed with beating his oldest brother. Bobby’s preoccupation is rooted in his longstanding desire to please his daddy, but he also wants to ensure his newly adopted son Christopher doesn’t lose his share […]

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