Critique: ‘Dallas’ Episode 128 — ‘Tangled Web’

Dallas, Linda Gray, Sue Ellen Ewing, Tangled Web

Truth hurts

Sue Ellen refuses to believe Holly Harwood’s claim that she’s sleeping with J.R., so Holly invites her to visit her home and see for herself. At the end of “Tangled Web,” Sue Ellen accepts the challenge. Our heroine, clad in a huge fur coat, parks her car in Holly’s driveway, where J.R.’s Mercedes sits. She exits the vehicle and slowly walks toward the house, her heels clicking and clacking with every step. The door is unlocked, and for a moment, Sue Ellen seems to lose her nerve. But she presses on, and in the final shot, she stands silently in the bedroom doorway and sees her husband making love to Holly.

This is a brilliant, devastating sequence. The shots of Sue Ellen are interspersed with scenes of J.R. and Holly in bed; the audience knows what Sue Ellen is going to see before she does, allowing the tension to build until it’s almost unbearable. Director Nicholas Sgarro shows Sue Ellen parking her car, and then he cuts to J.R., wrapped in a bed sheet, popping open a fresh bottle of champagne as Holly massages his shoulders. We see Sue Ellen begin to cross the driveway, and then we cut to Holly pulling J.R. close. For most of Sue Ellen’s scenes, there is no underscore; the only sounds we hear are her heels on the driveway, some crickets in the distance and the soft music playing in Holly’s bedroom. And then, the final shot: a tight close-up of Linda Gray’s tear-streaked face. In a poignant touch, we hear her sniffle as the frame freezes and the credits flash.

When I listed “Dallas’s” 35 greatest moments in the spring, I ranked this scene at No. 20. I now wonder if I should have moved it a little higher. The sequence is much more artistic than what we usually see from “Dallas” and other early ’80s television dramas. The toggling between Sue Ellen in the driveway and J.R. and Holly in bed reminds me of the crosscuts that have become a signature of TNT’s “Dallas,” although if these scenes were produced today, it almost certainly wouldn’t be so eerie and quiet. The sequence also makes me wish Sgarro had directed more episodes of the original series. “Tangled Web” is his only “Dallas” credit, although he helmed 54 hours of “Knots Landing” and no doubt had a hand in establishing that show’s stylish look.

“Tangled Web’s” ending is easily this episode’s best moment, but it isn’t the only good one. I also like when Miss Ellie questions Clayton about his relationship with Sue Ellen. Barbara Bel Geddes stammers through her dialogue, as Ellie gradually musters the courage to ask Clayton if Sue Ellen is the mystery woman he once loved. Bel Geddes’ halting delivery is her trademark and one of the reasons Ellie always feels so believable. She speaks the way people do in real life. The actress also possesses a sincerity that other “Dallas” cast members, no matter how wonderful they are, lack. Consider the “Tangled Web” scene where Ray tells Aunt Lil that Jock was his father. This is another moving scene, and Kate Reid is quite good here, but her delivery feels more deliberate than Bel Geddes’. When I watch Reid, I never forget I’m seeing an actress affecting a homespun, humble sensibility, whereas Bel Geddes regularly disappears into her role. In other words: Lil comes off like a character, while Ellie feels like a person.

“Tangled Web” also offers several fun moments, including the scene where J.R., returning from his triumphant tour of the Caribbean, sweeps into the Ewing Oil offices with presents for the secretaries and a box of cigars for Bobby. “That little deal I made down in Cuba is going to make me the new daddy of Ewing Oil. Have a Havana?” J.R. says, reaching into his suit pocket and retrieving a cigar for his brother. (I wonder how Larry Hagman, an anti-smoking zealot, felt about that line?) Indeed, David Paulsen’s script is chock full of terrific one-liners. Katherine to Cliff, after he denies Bobby the use of the Tundra Torque: “You vicious little man!” Clayton to Sue Ellen, after she’s told him about J.R.’s trip: “Doggone, old J.R. went to Cuba. And they let him out?” Afton, after Cliff laments that he thought of himself “for once” in his life: “For once? No, not for once. For always! Cliff, you are the only person you ever do think of!”

“Tangled Web” also marks the end of Pam’s vacation on the French Riviera, one of my least favorite sixth-season subplots. Pam has left Bobby, but is it really appropriate for her to travel halfway around the world with Mark Graison, a man who quite obviously has designs on her? Toward the end of “Tangled Web,” Pam seems poised to sleep with Mark, but the mood is killed when Afton calls to warn her that Katherine has set her sights on Bobby. It reminds me of the fourth-season episode “Start the Revolution With Me,” when a tipsy Pam is having a jolly time in her hotel room with Alex Ward — until Bobby calls from Dallas.

Perhaps Pam should stop answering the phone call when she goes away. Better yet, maybe she should stop traveling with men who aren’t her husband.

Grade: A


Dallas, Holly Harwood, J.R. Ewing, Larry Hagman, Lois Chiles, Tangled Web



Season 6, Episode 25

Airdate: April 1, 1983

Audience: 21.3 million homes, ranking 4th in the weekly ratings

Writer: David Paulsen

Director: Nicholas Sgarro

Synopsis: J.R. is released from the Cuban jail, collects his $40 million and returns to Dallas. Sue Ellen walks in on J.R. and Holly in bed. Bobby plans to ask for Pam’s help getting the Tundra Torque, but Katherine tells him that Pam is in France with Mark. Afton calls Pam to warn her about Katherine’s interest in Bobby, prompting Pam to cut short her vacation. Clayton tells Miss Ellie that he once loved Sue Ellen. Ray tells Lil that Jock was his father.

Cast: Tyler Banks (John Ross Ewing), John Beck (Mark Graison), Barbara Bel Geddes (Miss Ellie Ewing), Morgan Brittany (Katherine Wentworth), William Bryant (Jackson), Lois Chiles (Holly Harwood), Patrick Duffy (Bobby Ewing), Nate Esformes (Perez), Linda Gray (Sue Ellen Ewing), Larry Hagman (J.R. Ewing), Dennis Holahan (George Walker), Susan Howard (Donna Krebbs), Steve Kanaly (Ray Krebbs), Howard Keel (Clayton Farlow), Ken Kercheval (Cliff Barnes), Kenneth Kimmins (Thornton McLeish), Audrey Landers (Afton Cooper), Cindy Landis (waitress), Tom McFadden (Jackson’s partner), Santos Morales (Cuban leader), Marnie Mosiman (manicurist), Victoria Principal (Pam Ewing), Kate Reid (Lil Trotter), Debbie Rennard (Sly), Jacqueline Ray Selleck (Marie Walker), Danone Simpson (Kendall), Charlene Tilton (Lucy Ewing)

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


  1. One of the many outstanding episodes of this season. I like your comparison of Barbara Bel Geddes’s and Kate Reid’s acting; it really makes the point very clearly: two actresses who do great work in very different ways.
    One point in your analysis, however, needs correcting: The shots of Sue Ellen in the closing sequence did have an underscore – and a very good one at that – in the version that aired originally. It is omitted from the version on DVD (for some kind of copyright reasons, I believe) like the undscore of the final scene of “The Search”. Anyone who has the DVDs with the German (dubbed) version can still hear the proper underscore. It’s well worth it although the silent footsteps and Linda Gray’s breathing at the very end have a lot to recommend them, too. Listening to both versions makes it hard to decide which one has the more dramatic effect…

  2. Great, great, GREAT critique! I’m so often mesmerized by your analysis of a scene and all its subtleties. Of course this one is a very favorite of mine. I wanted to climb into the TV, hug Sue Ellen, throw Holly out of her own house and slap JR. (This is where I really want that hologram we discussed.) I want to comment on what you key on with the silence of the scene. Just the sound of her footsteps on the cement made me crazy with anticipation. It’s the audio of her approaching devastation. I’m so glad the director did not score it with some violin strings for tension then or today’s tendency to use a song with clever lyrics. It was a perfectly horrible scene of a despicable act. Here’s a question: why do you think they dresses Sue Ellen in that over-the-top fur coat? I think it was visual insulation from epic betrayal. JR and Holly are naked together; Sue Ellen’s alone and completely covered in this big fur, what a contrast.

  3. Tony Ewing says:

    @ Stephen. You’re right. The underscore in the original version made the entire scene so dramatic. Sueellen’s breathing in the DVD was good but I was disappointed when I watched it as I knew this scene was one, (in my opinion) of the best throughout all of Dallas. I was lucky enough to have taped it onto video all those years back so was able to get it transferred onto DVD – just for the underscore!

    • Garnet McGee says:

      Lois Chiles is so good as Holly I really wish they had written Holly differently. Why not write her as a naive but smart woman who finally comes into her own and learns how to play with the big boys in the oil biz? She has a very natural, convincing delivery like when she asks for Miz Ewing instead of Mrs. Ewing. They should never have had her conducting business in a bedroom and in skimpy swim suits. I really dislike the addition of Katherine to the cast. This is the kind of soapy, cliched character that people associate with laughable over the top melodrama. Usually Dallas doesn’t have that over the top quality. Her character feels so predictable, shallow and dated. She is not done any favors by Morgan’s wooden delivery of her lines either.
      So weird that SUe Ellen just walks into Holly’s house. At least Holly isn’t falling for JR’s crap like the woman on this show always do.
      JR and Cliff are really two sides of the same coin. They both are almost incapable of taking a minute and looking outside of themselves. John Ross on the new show is starting to exhibit this quality. The only difference between Cliff and JR is that one is usually the victor and one the loser. Given the opportunity or resources Cliff ask just as JR and vice versa. The new version of Cliff is in keeping with the one on display here.

  4. Miss Ellie’s stammering reminds me of the style & pitch of Captain Kirk’s voice. And comparing her to Bill Shatner who is great at that voice format is a compliment to both C.B.

  5. I did not like Pam at all the latter part of this season. She was behaving like a slut. She is swayed too easily by Mark (the chump) like she was with Alex Ward (men she just met). She claims to love Bobby yet she was ready to sleep with Mark after just separating from Bobby (thank God for Afton’s call) and continually going out with him. It is like to me she did not take her marriage very seriously any kind of trouble Pam is ready to run. Bobby to me seems to be the one who was more committed to the marriage than she was, he never strayed or was seduced by women except that almost one time with Jenna Wade. Holly Harwood tried to seduce him and failed miserably and that hooker (who he paid to get dirt on Gregory Hicks) came on to him which he rebuffed (these were beautiful women). I mean this was a man who was a playboy who played around with a lot of women, yet he had eyes for and wanted only Pam. Pam should feel very ashamed of herself!!! Also did not like her in Season 7.

    • I like her better in Season 8, when she gets some of her fire back. Or at least that’s how I remember it!

    • Dan in WI says:

      It’s really hard to say who took the Pam/Bobby marriage more seriously. Mary Ann makes her point about which member of the marriage could be more easily tempted in the fidelity department. On the other hand Pam definitely has a point that Bobby does have a tendency like JR and Jock before him to put business before the marriage. In my opinion that too is wrong and while I don’t condone Pam’s response to the problem I do see where she has a legitimate grievance.

  6. Dan in WI says:

    For some reason this episode was one of the most daytime soap feeling episodes of Dallas. I don’t keep nearly as close track of directors as our site owner does nor have I ever seen a single episode of Knotts Landing. I don’t have any idea what Sgarro’s work on that other show is like but I have to wonder if the super soapy feel of this episode is more him or script.
    The scenes in France, Holly in general (in this episode), Sue Ellen acting a bit more over the top mellodrama and that very catty fight between Afton and Katherine are the things I point to that didn’t really feel quite Dallas.

  7. Miss N’Ellie says:

    Holly sucks

    Mega tramp!

    That is all


  1. […] “Tangled Web,” a sixth-season “Dallas” episode, Miss Ellie and Clayton (Barbara Bel Geddes, Howard Keel) sit […]

  2. […] is one of the milestone moments in the life of the character. The episode opens where the previous one left off, with Sue Ellen spying J.R. in bed with Holly Harwood. Sue Ellen flees to a cocktail […]

  3. […] final moments in “Tangled Web” never fail to give me chills. We’re with Sue Ellen every step of the way when she walks across […]

  4. […] Holly says Sue Ellen will find J.R. in her bed. The audience watches as the fur-clad Sue Ellen arrives at Holly’s, slowly crosses the driveway (click clack go the heels), turns the front door knob […]

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