Critique: ‘Dallas’ Episode 134 — ‘The Letter’

Bobby Ewing, Dallas, Letter, Pam Ewing, Patrick Duffy, Victoria Principal

This is how it ends

In “The Letter,” Katherine forges a note from Pam in which she “confesses” she no longer wants to be married to Bobby. When Bobby sees the note, he’s so distraught he resolves to give his wife the divorce he’s been tricked into believing she wants. It’s another example of a “Dallas” character making a major life decision based on half-truths and false assumptions, and yet Patrick Duffy manages to sell it. He makes Bobby’s anguish feel real and believable; I’ve never wanted to reach through my screen and give a television character a hug as much as I do during this episode’s final scene, when Bobby tells Pam he’s decided to let her go.

Of course, Duffy gets help from scriptwriter David Paulsen, whose dialogue casts Bobby as the more sympathetic spouse. The scene opens with him sitting in Thanks-Giving Square, a downtown Dallas plaza, waiting for Pam to arrive and watching a young mother read to her child. When Pam finally shows up, she cheerfully recalls how she used to visit the square with Liz and Jackie, her coworkers from the Store. Bobby’s response: “I know. I used to meet you here too. Remember?” The exchange leaves me with the impression Bobby and Pam’s marriage meant more to him than it did to her. For Bobby, the square holds memories of the times he spent there with his wife. For Pam, it’s notable mostly as the site of workday lunch breaks.

No mention is made of Katherine’s letter during this scene because really, it isn’t all that important; the letter is merely the plot device that brings Bobby and Pam to the moment of truth in their relationship. The real breaking point came during the middle of “Dallas’s” sixth season, when Pam left Bobby because she felt he was too preoccupied with his fight for control of Ewing Oil. This represented a significant change of tune for Pam, who once urged Bobby to take his role within the family business more seriously. In the Thanks-Giving Square scene, Paulsen seems to have Pam allude to this when she mentions how much she and Bobby have changed. Says Bobby: “I don’t think people change so much, really, Pam. It’s feelings that change.”

This is the line that best captures the spirit of the scene, although the dialogue that “Dallas” fans seem to remember most is Bobby’s declaration that his and Pam’s feelings for each other are “just yesterday’s memories.” It sounds harsh until you consider what Bobby is doing: He’s pushing Pam away because he believes it’s what she wants. Regardless, I appreciate how Paulsen doesn’t cast blame for the marriage’s failure on either spouse. Yes, Bobby comes off as the more sympathetic figure, and he sacrifices his own happiness when he agrees to let Pam go. And yes, Pam’s shifting values and dawdling about whether or not to return to Bobby makes her seem a bit wishy-washy. But how can you not feel sorry for both characters in the final shot, when husband watches wife walk away in tears? Katherine’s manipulations notwithstanding, this marriage failed because the spouses grew apart. It’s a breakup with no real villains — just two victims.

Nevertheless, “The Letter” is Katherine’s finest hour. Even if she isn’t the root cause of Bobby and Pam’s split, she still gets bragging right for breaking them up, something J.R. himself couldn’t achieve. I get a kick out watching Katherine slink around Pam’s hotel room in this episode, playing the role of supportive sister while secretly plotting against her. And even though I generally prefer “Dallas” when it resists its campier impulses, I love when Katherine fools Pam into signing the forged letter, then steps into the hallway and says — to herself — “I think you may have just signed away your marriage, sister dear.” It reminds me of something you would see in an old black-and-white potboiler, which is why casting Morgan Brittany was so brilliant. Brittany, with her striking features and piercing eyes, has always exuded old Hollywood glamour. Other actresses could have played this role, but no one but Brittany could have made Katherine this delicious.

“The Letter” is notable for a few other reasons. Composer Bruce Broughton won an Emmy for this episode’s underscore, which soars during Bobby and Pam’s Thanks-Giving Square scene. The episode also marks Christopher Atkins’ debut as fair-haired camp counselor Peter Richards, and seeing him come face to face with Larry Hagman for the first time is a little like watching Luke Skywalker clash with Darth Vader. Speaking of J.R.: My other favorite moment in this episode is the scene where he visits Serena, his favorite call girl, and laments the turn his life has taken. It’s a rare moment of introspection for the character, and it also makes him seem like as a bit of a hypocrite, given his opposition to sending John Ross to therapy. After all, what is Serena, if not J.R.’s headshrinker?

Grade: B

_______________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

Dallas, Katherine Wentworth, Letter, Morgan Brittany

Counterfeit correspondence

‘THE LETTER’

Season 7, Episode 3

Airdate: October 14, 1983

Audience: 18 million homes, ranking 12th in the weekly ratings

Writer: David Paulsen

Director: Nick Havinga

Synopsis: Katherine forges a letter from Pam in which she confesses she no longer loves Bobby. When Katherine shows him the note, he tells Pam he wants a divorce. To help John Ross deal with his emotional problems, J.R. and Sue Ellen enroll him in a day camp, where they meet counselor Peter Richards.

Cast: Christopher Atkins (Peter Richards), John Beck (Mark Graison), Stephanie Blackmore (Serena), Morgan Brittany (Katherine Wentworth), Diana Douglas (Dr. Suzanne Lacey) Roseanna Christiansen (Teresa), Patrick Duffy (Bobby Ewing), Eric Farlow (Christopher Ewing), Tony Garcia (Raoul), Linda Gray (Sue Ellen Ewing), Larry Hagman (J.R. Ewing), Susan Howard (Donna Krebbs), Steve Kanaly (Ray Krebbs), Omri Katz (John Ross Ewing), Ken Kercheval (Cliff Barnes), 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)

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

Comments

  1. Kelley Tyler says:

    Bobby and Katherine have unfinished business, plain and simple. There are so many broken story lines in the original Dallas that can’t be fixed due to actors that have passed or actors that for some reason just refuse to return. So Why not fix the most beneficial story lines when the opportunities arise? Katherine has a place in the new Dallas and Ms. Brittany is interested in being involved.

    As die-hard Dallas fans, let’s let the writers and know what we want.

  2. Love how you describe Brittany as exuding old Hollywood glamour. And the Star Wars comparison is great too! Peter did look a little like Luke Skywalker–it’s the hair.

    • Thanks! Christopher Atkins spoofs his resemblance to Mark Hamill during a “Star Wars”-inspired scene in “The Pirate Movie,” a 1982 musical (!). Now that I’ve mentioned it, I think I need to see that movie again.

      • Dan in WI says:

        I recently rediscovered “The Pirate Movie” after repeatedly watching it as a kid. It didn’t hold up all that well but it still brought back a memory or two.
        The classic line as Atkins sword flies into his hand “I saw it in a movie once.”

      • When my family got cable television in the early 1980s, “The Pirate Movie” seemed to be on an endless loop. I feel like I watched every single telecast. I thought it was a lot of fun, despite the savage reviews it received from critics.

  3. Dan in WI says:

    Just remember JR claims credit for flushing out the first Pamela when he confronts Cliffs daughter 25+ years later but it was really Katherine. Come to think of it JR never got rid of Pamela Rebecca either. So that claim he would be 2 for 2 was only off by 2.

  4. Jennifer Irons says:

    This was an incredibly sad episode for me because I hated that Pam and Bobby broke up, not knowing that each did not really want the divorce and not knowing that Kathering forged the letters to each of them. Also, I did not like the character of Peter Richards. To me, he was totally unnecessary and not very interesting, IMHO!

    • Jennifer, I know what you mean about Bobby and Pam. This is probably the saddest moment they’ve encountered so far as a couple. Isn’t Patrick Duffy amazing in this episode? His performance breaks my heart.

      • Jennifer Irons says:

        Agreed, Patrick Duffy gave an Emmy worthy performance in that episode! But to me he is amazing in every episode of both old and new Dallas!!

  5. cstephandoerr says:

    What I love about Katherine’s letter is how cleverly the device is handled: Based on the fake information, no matter what Pam says, Bobby is bound to let her go. And the way in which he acquired his knowledge of what he believes to be Pam’s true feelings will effectively prevent him from actually mentioning it to her! I find this so brilliant that on that account alone, the episode would get an A from my point of view. And as your great critique points out, there is much more to be loved, making “The Letter” one of the all-time stand-out episodes of DALLAS.

    • Stephan, you make great points as always. You reminded me that I forgot to include a mention of the e-mail that broke up Christopher and Elena, which is part of the backstory of the new series. I think the reason Katherine’s letter works so much better is because — as you point out — Bobby really couldn’t mention the note to Pam, lest he betray Katherine’s confidence. By contrast, there was really no reason Christopher and Elena couldn’t have mentioned the e-mail to each other. I should probably amend my critique to reflect this point.

      As always, thanks for your good insight!

      Chris

    • Dan in WI says:

      Chris B writes:
      No mention is made of Katherine’s letter during this scene because really, it isn’t all that important; the letter is merely the plot device that brings Bobby and Pam to the moment of truth in their relationship.
      From a plot standpoint isn’t that that the letter didn’t need to be mentioned here, that letter really couldn’t be mentioned here. If Bobby says I know about the letter all Pam has to say is “what letter?” and then the divorce probably doesn’t happen. Plus after Pam says “what letter?” chances are they compare more notes and Bobby learns about how JR threatened both himself and Cliff if the divorce doesn’t happen. From there you could see how that would ripple effect into Bobby NOT sharing Ewing Oil after the Canadian oil strike wins him Ewing Oil. From there so much of the story and plot which follows would be scrapped.
      So it was critical that the letter not get mentioned here in order to have the following storylines take place.

  6. I agree that this was a very sad episode – watching both Bobby and Pam long for each other while silently believing the other one doesn’t love them anymore is simply heartbreaking.
    It’s interesting to think, however, if Bobby and Pam’s marriage would have lasted anyway. It is true that Katherine’s letter set the ball rolling this time, but even without that letter… I wonder. I really loved Pam’s speech to Katherine in the fitness club, how she angrily and self-confidently swears never to let anything or anyone come between Bobby and her… it’s “good old” Pam again, the woman with a strength and fire inside her that wouldn’t let JR scare her away. It’s that kind of Pam we hardly ever see again in the episodes after season 3 or so.
    Still, if we try to imagine a life of Bobby and Pam away from Dallas, away from Southfork… Here, I believe Katherine actually has a point: How long would it have taken for Bobby to finally blame Pam for having lost all that?… You never know, of course, but it’s interesting to think about it.

    • Balena sums up a lot of why I believe Pam was not Bobby’s ideal match. She nails it here. Katherines letter only finished the job but they were growing apart anyway. For that matter Marc Graison only suceeded in getting between Pam and Bobby because there is an opening to exploit in the first place. Bobby is no JR. But apparently he has just enough of that killer instinct to suceed in the oil business in his own right. But that “just enough” killer instinct is what caused Pam to move away from Southfork in the first place earlier in previous season. I truly believe that Bobby and Pam both were in love with idealized versions of each other and not in love with the Bobby and Pam that actually existed.

      I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again if I have to. April Stevens was the only Bobby love interest who didn’t leave Bobby of her own accord. And even that was rocky. (The jury is still out on Ann.)

      • Thanks, Dan. I love what you wrote here: “Bobby and Pam both were in love with idealized versions of each other and not in love with the Bobby and Pam that actually existed.” That’s good stuff.

        I’m looking forward to reviewing the Bobby/April love story. At the rate I’m going, it’s going to take me awhile to get there, but it’ll be interesting to see how it holds up against Bobby/Pam and Bobby/Ann.

      • Jennifer Irons says:

        I totally agree that Pam and Bobby would have broken up with or without Katherine and/or JR’s influence! Bobby was not willing to give up fighting for Ewing Oil even when Pam asked him to do so. So as much as I loved Pam, I loved April even more b/c I don’t think she would have asked Bobby to give up something important to him; same with Ann!

      • Thanks, Jennifer. It’s nice to see April (and Ann) receive so much support on this site. Of course, we all know the best match for Bobby is his number one fan, Jennifer Irons. 😉

      • Jennifer Irons says:

        Chris B, you are so sweet to say that I am Bobby’s best match and, IMHO, you are right, LOL! Now if only we could get Patrick Duffy to feel that way, haha!

      • Dan in WI says:

        Exactly Jennifer. When Ewing Oil was in trouble over the Westar tanker collision April didn’t ask Bobby to quit. She was willing to open up her checkbook and help. Of course Bobby was too proud to take it and that is why they were rocky too at times.

    • Yes! I love the scene between Pam and Katherine in the fitness room too. It’s always nice to see the “old” Pam return. I wish she would visit more often at this point during the show’s run.

      And like you, I believe Bobby and Pam would probably have broken up regardless of Katherine’s interference. And as you point out, Bobby himself seems to acknowledge that he wouldn’t really be willing to give up Southfork and Ewing Oil, even for Pam.

      I always enjoy reading your comments, Balena. Thanks!

  7. Garnet McGee says:

    Although I appreciate Bobby and Pam’s conversation the whole letter scenario was like a bad movie. Crazily enough it annoys me even more than the silly email that broke up Chris and Elena. At least the email in the new show brought a fantastic couple together in the form of Chris and Rebecca Sutter (Pamela Rebecca Ewing). JR always looks so uncomfortable outdoors like when he visits the summer camp.

  8. Let me point out that the letter isn’t “forged” until Brother Bobby or others discover it so. It gets read into the script & Bob can’t prove it isn’t “real” until he investigates & finds out from Miss Wentworth &/or any possible accomplice cropped it together. So he has to take it as the “gospel truth.”

  9. chris52700 says:

    So, I’ve been watching this series in order and have just seen this one. I have to say, i really dont care for the new look of this season, it seems really washed out. Plus, so far, the plotlines have been way over-soapy. Season 6, with the fight for Ewing Oil in full swing, was so much better. Every episode kept me wanting to come back for more. So far this season, im continuing on principle. Hopefully it picks up.

Trackbacks

  1. […] “The Letter,” a seventh-season “Dallas” episode, Bobby (Patrick Duffy) is seated in Thanks-Giving Square when […]

  2. […] Three more scenes in “My Brother’s Keeper” deserve mentioning. In the first, Donna stands with Ray at a fence outside their house as he laments the tragedy that has befallen his family since Amos Krebbs’ funeral a year earlier. The shot echoes one from “Where There’s a Will,” the sixth-season episode where Ray and Donna stand in the same spot as he debates whether to attend the funeral. I also like the “My Brother’s Keeper” scene where Bobby and Pam sit silently in an office while their lawyers politely discuss the terms of their divorce. Patrick Duffy and Victoria Principal avoid eye contact throughout this sequence, making it feel even sadder than their farewell conversation at the end of the previous episode. […]

  3. […] I’m even a little surprised to discover the baby-faced Peter shaves. Like Bobby and Pam’s breakup at the beginning of “Dallas’s” seventh season, this is another example of how the writers […]

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