Critique: ‘Dallas’ Episode 129 — ‘Things Ain’t Goin’ Too Good at Southfork’

Dallas, Linda Gray, Sue Ellen Ewing, Things Ain't Goin' Too Good at Southfork

The bottom

Linda Gray always hits her marks on “Dallas,” but she’s especially effective when Sue Ellen is hitting the bottle. Unlike so many other actors who go overboard playing drunks, Gray is precise: never too slurry, never too silly, never too sullen. She gets it right, every time. Because her performances are so convincing, the audience never loses sight of Sue Ellen’s humanity, ensuring she remains a sympathetic character. This is a creative achievement, but it’s something else too: Given “Dallas’s” popularity, I’m convinced Gray has contributed to our understanding of alcoholism as a disease. I often refer to Sue Ellen as a heroine, but when you think about it, the same thing can be said of Linda Gray.

I offer these observations because Gray’s heartbreaking depiction of Sue Ellen’s fall from the wagon in “Things Ain’t Goin’ Too Good at Southfork” 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 lounge, where she takes her first drink since the end of the third season. And then she has another, and then another. Sue Ellen drinks so much that the bar manager cuts her off, which sends her running into the arms of Clayton, who gently rejects her advances but allows her to spend the night in his hotel room. The next morning, Sue Ellen is embarrassed and promises Clayton she won’t drink again. Yet before he knows it, she has emptied one of his vodka bottles. Eventually, Ellie retrieves her troubled daughter-in-law and brings her home to Southfork, where Sue Ellen is once again full of regret. “Miss Ellie, I just want you to know that I never meant to hurt you,” she says.

The more Sue Ellen drinks in this episode, the more her spirit deteriorates. She goes from giggly in the bar to flirty in Clayton’s hotel room to depressed at Southfork. Her pattern with alcohol — relapse, recovery, repeat — mimics the rhythms of her marriage, which is an endless series of rifts and reconciliations. Listen to what Sue Ellen tells Clayton in this episode while she’s nursing her hangover. “I believed him,” she says, referring to J.R. “He promised me there would be no games, and no other women. And I did believe him until last night. I saw him with my very own eyes, and all those vows and promises didn’t mean anything.” This dialogue reminds us that alcohol isn’t Sue Ellen’s only addiction; she’s powerless where J.R. is concerned too.

On the Rocks

Dallas, J.R. Ewing, Larry Hagman, Things Ain't Goin' Too Good at Southfork

Caught

As we watch Sue Ellen’s spiral in this episode, we know she’s eventually going to have to come face to face with J.R. It’s the moment we dread and anticipate at once. Scriptwriter Leonard Katzman wisely saves the confrontation for the next-to-last scene, when J.R. arrives home and finds Sue Ellen drinking in the living room. By this point, the booze has lost its numbing properties. She lets J.R. have it (“You bastard!”) and tells him she knows he slept with Holly. J.R. tries to deny he cheated, believing his wife only saw his car parked outside of Holly’s house. Soon, he realizes Sue Ellen knows the ugly truth. Her rage turns to tears, and when J.R. tries to comfort her, she tosses her drink in his face, grabs his car keys and rushes out of the room.

This is a short scene, lasting less than two minutes, but it tells us so much about the characters, as well as the actors who play them. When the scene begins, we want Sue Ellen to give J.R. hell, and Gray doesn’t disappoint. Her voice is full of incredulity and also clarity, even as she slurs her words. But then her voice cracks, and we realize Sue Ellen is in too much pain for this to be a moment of triumph. Seeing Gray go from wrathful to weepy is one of the episode’s most moving moments. Larry Hagman is impressive too, of course. J.R. is stunned to discover Sue Ellen knows he cheated with Holly, but listen closely to the inflection in his voice when he says, “Sue Ellen, don’t fly off the handle. I can explain all of this.” It’s always hard to know what J.R. is really thinking at a given moment, but in this instance, Hagman makes me the believe his character isn’t trying to save his own skin as much as he’s trying to shield Sue Ellen from more pain. J.R.’s love for his wife is clear, even if his respect for their marriage isn’t.

Collision Course

Barbara Bel Geddes, Dallas, Miss Ellie Ewing, Things Ain't Goin' Too Good at Southfork

No saving the day this time

“Things Ain’t Goin’ Too Good at Southfork” is a whimsical title for an episode that’s anything but. The director is Gunnar Hellström, who also helmed the third-season classic “Ellie Saves the Day,” another dark hour in Ewing family history. In that chapter, J.R.’s business dealings brought the family to the brink of financial disaster. This time around, the fallout from his scheming is personal. J.R.’s own marriage suffers, and so do the relationships of most of the show’s other couples.

The first act includes a terrific scene where Pam, who has left Bobby because she feels he’s too preoccupied with defeating J.R., confronts her husband about his relationship with her sister Katherine. Bobby says Katherine is nothing more than a friend — and then he asks Pam if she can say the same thing about her relationship with Mark Graison. It’s a damning moment for Pam, who admits she is confused about her feelings toward Mark, but it’s a great moment for Bobby, whose righteousness feels absolutely justified when he calls out his wife’s hypocrisy. (To that end: Does anyone do marital indignation better than Patrick Duffy?)

Later, Ellie is understandably rattled when she shows up at Clayton’s hotel room and finds Sue Ellen there, drunk and wearing nothing more than one of Clayton’s dress shirts. Barbara Bel Geddes does a beautiful job conveying Ellie’s quiet dismay here, but the actress is at her best a few moments later when Ellie gives Sue Ellen a much-needed dose of tough love. “Sue Ellen, now you listen to me,” Bel Geddes says, grabbing Gray by the arms and glaring at her. “Get into bed and sleep. Try to sober up. And then we’re taking you home!”

By the end of this episode, the war for Ewing Oil touches Lucy and Mickey’s lives too. The young lovers are grilling hamburgers on the Southfork patio and playfully planning their future when Sue Ellen staggers out of the house after her fight with J.R. She climbs behind the wheel of his Mercedes and begins to drive away, prompting Lucy to order Mickey to stop Sue Ellen before she hurts someone. Mickey hops into the passenger seat and pleads with Sue Ellen to pull over. She refuses, and as the Mercedes exits the Southfork driveway, another car strikes the vehicle, flipping it on its side. Freeze frame, roll credits — and if you’re watching this scene on DVD, try to resist the temptation to flip over the disc and immediately begin watching the next episode.

Wrecked

Charlene Tilton, Dallas, Lucy Ewing, Mickey Trotter, Things Ain't Goin' Too Good at Southfork, Timothy Patrick Murphy

What future?

Sue Ellen and Mickey’s accident puts a dramatic punctuation mark on “Things Ain’t Goin’ Too Good at Southfork,” even as it demonstrates the limits of ’80s era television production. When the car begins to roll, a chain attached to the vehicle can be seen on the underside. I assume the chain played some role in creating the stunt, and even though it probably wasn’t noticeable on analog TVs three decades ago, it’s as clear as day when I watch this episode today. Similarly, the car accident is shot from a wide angle so we never get a close-up of Sue Ellen and Mickey inside the Mercedes — except for a the moment of impact, when we catch a glimpse of the stuntmen sitting in for Gray and Timothy Patrick Murphy.

But these are quibbles. The car wreck remains about as fitting an ending as I can imagine. It perfectly encapsulates how the Ewings’ world is beginning to crash down around them. And when you stop and think about it, the whole episode is the “Dallas” equivalent of rubbernecking: No matter how much misery the Ewings experience during the course of this hour, we can’t bring ourselves to look away.

Grade: A+

_______________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

Dallas, Things Ain't Goin' Too Good at Southfork

The upside of down

‘THINGS AIN’T GOIN’ TOO GOOD AT SOUTHFORK’

Season 6, Episode 26

Airdate: April 15, 1983

Audience: 20 million homes, ranking 3rd in the weekly ratings

Writer: Leonard Katzman

Director: Gunnar Hellström

Synopsis: Sue Ellen resumes drinking and seeks comfort from Clayton, which drives a wedge between him and Miss Ellie. Later, Mickey tries to stop Sue Ellen from driving drunk, but their vehicle is involved in a serious accident. Pam returns home, where Katherine denies being interested in Bobby. Cliff pressures Pam to side with him in the fight over the Tundra Torque.

Cast: Barbara Bel Geddes (Miss Ellie Ewing), Morgan Brittany (Katherine Wentworth), Delores Cantú (Doris), Lois Chiles (Holly Harwood), Roseanna Christiansen (Teresa), Patrick Dollaghan (bartender), Patrick Duffy (Bobby Ewing), Eric Farlow (Christopher Ewing), 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), Kenneth Kimmins (Thornton McLeish), Audrey Landers (Afton Cooper), Timothy Patrick Murphy (Mickey Trotter), Victoria Principal (Pam Ewing), Kate Reid (Lil Trotter), Debbie Rennard (Sly), Charlene Tilton (Lucy Ewing), Deborah Tranelli (Phyllis)

“Things Ain’t Goin’ Too Good at Southfork” is available on DVD and at Amazon.com and iTunes. Watch the episode and share your comments below.

Comments

  1. I’ve been reading all your latest posts quietly. Still such great insights. I really like the original Dallas much better, and admit I fell off the New Dallas wagon when Season 2 started. :/ Today I watched a 17 minute video of Duffy and Brenda Strong scenes from Dallas season 2 and was reminded why I loved those 2 characters the best in the new show. As a huuuuge Duffy fan I have to say that nobody does Marital or Righteous indignation better than him! 😀 This whole season seemed like the beginning of the end for all the Ewing offspring…but not Ellie, whose life is blossoming again thanks to the wonderful Clayton.

  2. Jennifer Irons says:

    In answer to your question about “marital indignation”, Patrick Duffy definitely conveys this like no one else; he’s that good an actor! Linda Gray, I believe, is the best actress at realistically portraying an emotionally hurt woman and is so believable as a woman with alcohol problems! This was probably one of her best performances! And the accident with her and Mickey was so sad!!

  3. What about when Miss Eillie yelled at JR, “You’ve ruined her life again, will you never learn!” I love how BBG’s voice becomes a guttural growl conveying her rage. By far the angriest I’ve ever heard her.

  4. I love this episode. I remember watching it live thinking it was the season finale & being so surprised to see scenes for the next episode!!! I love how all the story lines crescendo to the car crash: Walt Driskell being blackmailed, Holly Hardwood, Mickey Trotter all because of Bobby & JR’s fight to win Ewing Oil. A+++++

  5. Sue Ellen is indeed the Queen of this episode – no doubt about that!

    Some things about this episode struck me as really stupid. As in many cases, it’s “plot versus character”, or “plot versus common sense”. The morning after Clayton found Sue Ellen deeply drunk in his bed, a woman who’s having a serious alcohol problem AND is in a state of emotional devastation, he’s going out – and leaving Sue Ellen in his room with litres of alcohol, asking her something like, “Will you be a good girl, not touching any alcohol?” I mean… PLEASE!…
    Same goes for Sue Ellen back at Southfork – has Ellie already forgotten what state Sue Ellen had been in the night before? There was Sue Ellen merrily pouring alcohol down her throat in the living room, all alone?… I know all this was for dramatic reasons, but still, it makes me wonder if everybody around Sue Ellen is totally ignorant, or stupid, or just doesn’t care…?

    Another thing that made me shake my head: When Sue Ellen calls Bobby at the office letting him know she’s staying with a friend, she doesn’t even for a second ask if John Ross is all right. I know she’s self-centred at the moment, but she has always been a caring and loving mother to John Ross – in her own way (except the very early days right after his birth).

    And Pam!!! Oh my gosh, is she annoying in this episode… I don’t have enough vocal capacity to groan as much as I’d like to! Coming home, after not having seen her little son for a whole week, all she does is pick him up for two or three seconds, not even giving him as much as a loving look, or a word, like, “Hi, Mommy’s back, I missed you!”, whatever – no, she immediately starts fighting with Bobby, pushing the child to Teresa, announcing she’s going to take him back to the hotel – as if Christopher was just another piece of her luggage.
    Gaaaaaaaaaaaaaahhhh!!

  6. Garnet McGee says:

    Mark and Pam are starting to get repetitive. It is during stories like theirs that I long for the pacing of the new Dallas. I hate to see Sue Ellen drunk but she does it really well. Lois Chiles is also really good. I agree with Sue Ellen that Clayton is the only man who ever truly really loved her. Ellie balances all of the high drama with her subtle reactions. Loved the little touch of humor when JR forgets Mickey’s name. I wish Bobby had been right when he told JR that when they made him they broke the mold. Unfortunately as we are seeing with John Ross nothing could be further from the truth. It is very smart of CC to have the JR cheats/ Sue Ellen drinks dynamic again not with John Ross and Pamela but John Ross and Sue Ellen.

  7. Actually Chris, J.R. has every right to cheat here. He needs to have sex with Miss Harwood in order to help maintain shell company’s and monies in what seem like legit accounts & sex is just part of the deal, its just business & Sue Ellen should understand that here. Its the same thang in IIday’s DALLAS, Pam understands that John Ross needs to cheat with Miss Ryland to completely lock in those heavy hauler trucks for long distance oil tracking boy! Its just sex, its just businesds, its just DALLAS!

Trackbacks

  1. […] “Things Ain’t Goin’ Too Good at Southfork,” a sixth-season “Dallas” episode, J.R. (Larry Hagman) enters Southfork and heads toward the […]

  2. […] an hour of misery and pain, but it contains love too. The story begins where “Dallas’s” previous episode ends, when Sue Ellen drives drunk and crashes J.R.’s car. The accident leaves her with a broken […]

  3. […] doesn’t just lose her self-respect; she comes close to losing her life when she drives drunk and crashes J.R.’s car. What impresses me most about Gray is how she makes sure the audience never loses […]

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