Critique: ‘Dallas’ Episode 131 — ‘Ewing Inferno’

Dallas, Ewing Inferno, J.R. Ewing, Larry Hagman

Surprise, surprise

“Ewing Inferno” famously ends with J.R., Sue Ellen, Ray and John Ross trapped inside Southfork as fire sweeps through the house. I wonder: When this episode debuted in 1983, did anyone doubt all four characters would escape the blaze? After all, three of them appear in the opening credits and the fourth is a child; by the conventions of 1980s television, their survival seems assured. Not that I’m complaining. This may not be “Dallas’s” most suspenseful cliffhanger, but it does put a poetic punctuation mark on the sixth season. After a year in which everything goes to hell for the Ewings, what could be more fitting than seeing them surrounded by flames?

Besides, it’s not like “Ewing Inferno” doesn’t deliver its share of surprises, especially where J.R. is concerned. When the episode begins, he’s business as usual, demanding $20 million from Holly to leave her company. Later, in one of their classic clashes, J.R. lobs such ugly insults at Pam that she slaps him. (“Damn, I hate that woman,” he says as she stomps away.) Then, in the second act, J.R. has an honest-to-goodness epiphany. He brings little John Ross into the bedroom to give Sue Ellen a goodnight kiss, only to find her passed out, an empty bottle of booze at her side. J.R. sends the boy away, sits on the bed and gazes at his wife. “I know you’ll never trust me again, Sue Ellen,” he says. “But I love you. … We should’ve had a wonderful life together. What have I done to you?” The monologue brings to mind the second-season finale, when J.R. sits at the hospital bedside of a comatose Sue Ellen and laments the turn their marriage has taken. Now here he is, four years later, delivering a similar speech. As Miss Ellie wondered a few episodes ago: Doesn’t he ever learn?

Perhaps he does. In the next scene, Bobby comes home and finds J.R. alone in the Southfork living room. The mood is somber, serious. Bobby asks how Sue Ellen is doing. “Not good,” J.R. responds. He tells Bobby that he’s been thinking “real hard” about their fight for Ewing Oil, and the toll it has taken on the people around them. Both brothers’ marriages have suffered. Miss Ellie is heartbroken. Rebecca Wentworth is dead. Mickey Trotter is dying. “I’m not sure that this fight between us is worth what it cost the family,” J.R. says. Bobby is stunned and asks J.R. if he wants to end the contest. J.R.’s response: “By my calculation, I’m way ahead of you, but I really don’t give a damn.”

I really don’t give a damn. Not since J.R. slipped into his deep depression after Jock’s death has our hero seemed so unmoored.

‘Into Oblivion’

Dallas, Ewing Inferno, Linda Gray, Sue Ellen Ewing

But not oblivious

J.R. and Bobby don’t get around to finishing this conversation, but no matter. There’s no doubt J.R. has been humbled. Consider the third act’s final scene. After ordering Teresa to lock up the liquor, J.R. finds Sue Ellen getting drunk in the living room, having swiped a bottle of burgundy from the kitchen. The confrontation that follows plays like something out of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” As J.R. stands still and stares ahead, Sue Ellen circles him, a glass in one hand, the wine bottle in the other, and releases her fury. She references his marital sins (“Did you find someone new to sleep with today? Or did you have to rely on one of your old mistresses?”) and tells him he “ruined” her life. Then, to show how she has stopped giving a damn, Sue Ellen moves closer to J.R. and whispers, “Now, why don’t you do one kind little thing for me, hmm? Unlock the liquor, because I’m going to drink myself into oblivion.”

Linda Gray and Larry Hagman are magnificent in this scene. Every one of her lines drips with acid, while his stoic expression makes this a cathartic moment for the audience. J.R. doesn’t fight back because he knows he’s wrong. He accepts Sue Ellen’s punishing words because he deserves them. Even at the end of the scene, when Sue Ellen flings the bottle at him and it smashes against the wall, J.R. barely flinches. Where his wife is concerned, J.R. simply doesn’t have any fight left in him — although as the big red stain on the wallpaper foreshadows, a different kind of battle is about to come to him.

‘The Last Person in the World’

Dallas, Ewing Inferno, J.R. Ewing, Larry Hagman, Ray Krebbs, Steve Kanaly

Daddy’s watching

J.R.’s chastening during the course of “Ewing Inferno” is thorough but incomplete. In the final scene, when Ray arrives at Southfork to confront him, J.R. offers his half-brother a typically frosty greeting. “Ray, you’re about the last person in the world I needed to see tonight,” he says. I usually laugh when Hagman delivers a line like this, but there’s nothing funny about J.R.’s dark mood. Before long, the two men are scuffling, and even though the fight scene isn’t exactly credible — stuntmen are clearly substituting for Hagman and Steve Kanaly in the wide shots, J.R. knocks out Ray with a plastic telephone — there’s something deeply poignant about Ray’s attempt to avenge Mickey and J.R.’s determination to rescue his family once the fire starts. How can you not feel moved when he notices the blaze, cries out for his wife and son and braves the flames to try to save them?

Also, consider this: For two seasons, J.R. and Ray have each struggled to honor the dead father they worshipped. J.R. tries to do it through business, while Ray tries to emulate Jock by taking Mickey under his wing, just like Jock did with young Ray. I suppose that’s why it’s so fitting that J.R. and Ray’s fight occurs under the watchful gaze of Jock’s portrait, which looms in the background of so many crucial scenes during the sixth season, including the will reading and J.R. and Sue Ellen’s spat after she catches him in bed with Holly. What hath Jock wrought?

‘Our Marriage Doesn’t Work’

Bobby Ewing, Dallas, Ewing Inferno, Patrick Duffy

Cry, Bobby

For all its poignancy, the true cliffhanger in “Ewing Inferno” has nothing to do with the Southfork fire. The question I’m left asking is this: What will Bobby do? After J.R. offers to call off their fight, Bobby receives a phone call from Pam, who tells him she’s decided to give him the Tundra Torque, the experimental drill bit he needs to move forward with his Canadian oil venture. Since the deal is a guaranteed blockbuster, it will almost certainly allow Bobby to clinch victory over J.R. Bobby now has a dilemma: Should he make peace with his brother, or should he see the contest through until the end, knowing he has what it takes to finally beat J.R.?

By the end of the episode, Bobby’s decision isn’t clear, although his conversation with Katherine in the next-to-last scene suggests he will indeed use the drill bit. Regardless, I wish scriptwriter Arthur Bernard Lewis had paid more attention to this subplot and shown Bobby weighing his choices. After a season of tough ethical compromises, wouldn’t this be Bobby’s biggest decision yet?

On the other hand: Lewis has a lot of narrative ground to cover, and he does a nice job bringing the other storylines to a climactic finish. The cast does good work too. The scene where Pam tells Bobby she wants a divorce (“Our marriage doesn’t work anymore”) is very moving, especially when that single tear begins its slow journey down Patrick Duffy’s cheek. I also love when Pam tells Cliff and Katherine that she’s decided to give Bobby the drill bit. What’s more fun: Ken Kercheval’s combustible response or Morgan Brittany’s sly smirk? The guest stars shine too: Kate Reid is mesmerizing when she delivers Aunt Lil’s weary monologue, Ben Piazza is the profile in agony when Driscoll visits Mickey’s bedside, and thanks to Barry Corbin, I feel every bit of Sheriff Washburn’s frustration when Ray goes rogue during the investigation into Mickey’s accident.

Like so many other “Dallas” episodes during the sixth season, “Ewing Inferno” also makes me appreciate the technical expertise behind the camera. Fred W. Berger, the editor, won an Emmy for this episode. Surely director Leonard Katzman deserves one too. In the fourth act, I like how he shows J.R. escorting Dr. Danvers out of the bedroom, through the hall and down the stairs into the foyer. The sequence establishes how these spaces fit together, so that during the fire, when J.R. races up the steps and collapses, we understand his proximity to his wife and son.

You also have to admire Katzman’s lack of restraint. According to Barbara A. Curran’s 2004 book “Dallas: The Complete Story of the World’s Favorite Prime-Time Soap,” Katzman built a replica of the Southfork foyer, just so he could burn it down for this episode’s final scene. That’s pretty spectacular, even if it isn’t all that suspenseful.

Grade: A+

_______________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

Dallas, Ewing Inferno, J.R. Ewing, Larry Hagman

Welcome to Hell

‘EWING INFERNO’

Season 6, Episode 28

Airdate: May 6, 1983

Audience: 20.3 million homes, ranking 2nd in the weekly ratings

Writer: Arthur Bernard Lewis

Director: Leonard Katzman

Synopsis: J.R. offers to end the contest for Ewing Oil. Pam decides to divorce Bobby but gives him the Tundra Torque, enraging Cliff. Driscoll kills himself after revealing he drove the car that struck Sue Ellen and Mickey’s vehicle because he thought J.R. was behind the wheel at the time. After Ray learns of Driscoll’s role in the crash, he gets into a fight with J.R. During the scuffle, Southfork catches fire, trapping J.R., Sue Ellen, Ray and John Ross.

Cast: Tyler Banks (John Ross Ewing), John Beck (Mark Graison), Barbara Bel Geddes (Miss Ellie Ewing), Morgan Brittany (Katherine Wentworth), Lois Chiles (Holly Harwood), Roseanna Christiansen (Teresa), Barry Corbin (Sheriff Fenton Washburn), John Devlin (Clouse), 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), Audrey Landers (Afton Cooper), Kate Reid (Lil Trotter), Ben Piazza (Walt Driscoll), Victoria Principal (Pam Ewing), Debbie Rennard (Sly), Danone Simpson (Kendall), Charlene Tilton (Lucy Ewing), Deborah Tranelli (Phyllis), John Zaremba (Dr. Harlan Danvers)

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

Comments

  1. This is a great critique for season 6’s fine closing episode. I really enjoyed the Battle for Ewing Oil storyline, which the show used effectively to spin off plenty of engaging subplots and character development while keeping a steady momentum on J.R. and Bobby. I wasn’t sure I’d like it at first, but in the end it worked. Your analysis of the episode’s editing for establishing spatial knowledge to inform the viewer’s understanding of a later key scene is nicely done.

    • Chris, I look forward to your summing up of Season 6 – hope you do the same for the excellent Season 7. IMHO Season 6 is a contender for Dallas’ greatest season; while the budget/production values are ramped up another notch over the next 3 seasons ( and season 6 are pretty good ), this is the best dramatically and from a character development point of view.
      It’s perhaps the only season that doesn’t have a single bad episode or subplot. (I’m a bit of an amateur script-writer myself and I think the plotting/writing of this particular season is flawless.)

    • Thanks, dear! I’m glad you liked this season as much as me.

  2. As much as I agree that the scene between Bobby and Sue Ellen is wonderfully done, I just adore the scene between him and Katherine. Granted, he is pretty naive to think she really wants to help him save his marriage, the line about who he is and has always been “I was raised by a strong mother and a very tough father” is simple and profound. Dallas is best when it brings the storyline and motivations back to the core of men raised by very strong personality parents and what that means to each of them. Patrick Duffy’s delivery is perfect! Somewhere along the way Pam did change. In the beginning she was the one encouraging Bobby to take a bigger role in Ewing Oil (that is why JR hated her so much) and then she resents him for wanting to succeed in that role.
    Amazing episode all around!

    • Missiea5, I love what you wrote here. “Simple and profound,” indeed. Thank you!

    • Dan in WI says:

      I’m not usually one to defend Pam but I’m not sure she changed all that much. Did she initially encourage Bobby to get more involved with the family business? Yes. But my understanding is that Bobby and Pam had a whirlwind courtship and a pretty impromptu wedding. When things go that fast you don’t necessarily properly get to know the person you chose as a mate. Chances are when Pam was encouraging Bobby to get more involved she probably had no idea what kind of businessman he would become because this was part of the getting to know him that was skipped during that whirlwind. We’ll never know for sure but it is very possible she never would have encouraged that had she known Bobby better.

  3. A great season, and a great season-ending-episode! All the actors and actresses are shining here, showing their finest performances ever, I think.
    I like your comparison to “Who’s afraid of Virginia Woolf” in the scene with JR and Sue Ellen.

    Oh, the “classic clash” between JR and Pam! As much as I disliked Pam’s trip to France with that annoying Graison character, I applauded her slap into JR’s face – he deserved it!! *satisfied grin*

    • He did deserve that slap, didn’t he? Miss Principal packs a mean punch.

      • Garnet McGee says:

        This is one of very few episodes where JR actually shows not only remorse but self-awareness. One of the reasons I dislike the character is that he always blames others for his misfortune when the blame rests squarely on his own shoulders, Sue Ellen’s drinking just gives JR an excuse to be a jerk but be right. Instead of drinking she should have been on the horn with the justice department about his Cuba trip. The Walt Driscoll twist was very smart and one I did not see coming, Sue Ellen’s line that she allowed him to explain away 10 years of hell was spot on. So many of the fans of this couple seem to overlook that he put her through hell and in no way deserves her.
        The way John Ross antagonizes Chris on the new show reminds me of the way JR antagonizes Chris’s mother even though he needs something from her. Neither can set their temper and arrogance aside for long enough to see that they are damaging themselves.
        Onto season 7.

  4. I’m sick of Brother J.R. getting the blame entirely here. A. He didn’t start the fight with Half-Brother Ray, B. He didn’t force Miss Texas II get behind the wheel, C. He didn’t force Mickey Trotter to stop Miss Texas, it was Little Lucy who asked Mickey II assist. D. J.R. didn’t cause Walt Driscoll to decide II ram the car & try to (successfully it turned out) to committ vehicular homicide C.B. All J.R. did was cheat on Sue Ellen. That’s a marriage thing between hubby & wife. J.R. should get Sue Ellen in2 rehab again & every1 else should have left them alone. Sue Ellen should have had her driver’s license suspended as the Ewings can afford to drive her or hire a 24/7 on call driver service 4 her.

  5. Great recap and some interesting points, really enjoyed reading.

    One thing, Jocks painting. It was never mentioned and obviously must have survived the fire. Would have been a nice touch for JR to go back into the house at the start of the next season after jumping into the pool with John Ross to retrieve it.

Trackbacks

  1. […] “Ewing Inferno,” “Dallas’s” sixth-season finale, J.R. (Larry Hagman) comes home and finds Sue Ellen (Linda […]

  2. […] of the Ewings are together in one room (even Gary’s there!), and J.R. and Ray’s fistfight in “Ewing Inferno,” when all hell breaks loose — literally. TNT, take note: This is how you use a portrait to help […]

  3. […] then brings us inside the house, where we find the occupants right where we left them at the end of “Ewing Inferno,” the previous season’s cliffhanger: Sue Ellen and John Ross are asleep in their beds, each unaware […]

  4. […] Bobby to the rescue. “Dallas’s” sixth season ends with J.R., Sue Ellen, John Ross and Ray trapped inside Southfork as flames sweep through the […]

  5. […] 4. Slap! J.R. and Pam’s fights almost never turned physical. Emphasis on “almost.” While Pam waited alone for Bobby inside his office one day, J.R. popped in to say hello. She wasn’t in the mood for his insincerities. “Save that nonsense for somebody who doesn’t know you,” she said, then chastised him for his latest extramarital fling. “Climb down off your soapbox, honey,” J.R. responded before accusing her of sleeping around. Before all was said and done, Pam had stomped away, leaving J.R. with a big red mark on his cheek. (“Ewing Inferno”) […]

  6. […] Like the earlier promos, this one also features an unmistakable fire motif: There are lots of shots of flames — even the TNT logo is ablaze — along with this voiceover: “February 24, the new season of ‘Dallas’ ignites.” Could this mean we’re going to see another Ewing inferno? […]

  7. […] to hold the family together with help from second hubby Clayton Farlow (Howard Keel). Southfork burns down, but the Ewings rebuild it. Cliff hooks up with Afton Cooper (Audrey Landers), who gives birth to […]

  8. […] will the Southfork fire start? It’s no secret there’ll be another Ewing inferno in “Where There’s Smoke” — TNT’s promos for the episode show Southfork engulfed in […]

  9. […] why J.R. (Larry Hagman) had all those candles burning at Southfork on the night Ray showed up to confront him over Mickey Trotter’s accident? I mean, it’s not like J.R. was trying to set a romantic mood […]

  10. […] and in case you’re wondering: When “Dallas” set Southfork ablaze in 1983, the episode, “Ewing Inferno,” was seen in 20.3 million homes, ranking second in the weekly […]

  11. […] midseason finale ended with Southfork once again engulfed in flames. Is the fire an accident caused by the drunken Sue Ellen, who was trapped […]

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