Critique: ‘Dallas’ Episode 139 — ‘The Oil Baron’s Ball’

Dallas, Linda Gray, OIl Baron's Ball, Sue Ellen Ewing

Open door policy

J.R. and Sue Ellen’s relationship takes a lot of twists over the years, but nothing fascinates me more than when she starts emulating him. It begins during Linda Gray’s final seasons on the original “Dallas,” when Sue Ellen becomes a wheeler-dealer in business, and it continues on TNT’s sequel series, when we see her reach into J.R.’s bag of tricks to defeat enemies like Governor McConaughey. In “The Oil Baron’s Ball,” Sue Ellen’s transformation into J.R.’s protégé is still a few years away, but this episode nonetheless offers a glimpse of where Gray’s character is headed. By the end of the hour, we see just how much Sue Ellen is learning at the feet of the master.

Gray has three notable scenes in this episode. In the first, Sue Ellen is strolling through a park when she notices all the happy young couples surrounding her. Eventually, she comes across a group of attractive, shirtless men playing football and stops to watch. Writer-director Leonard Katzman shows the game in slow motion, allowing the camera to linger on the players. There’s no doubt what this scene is supposed to represent: Sue Ellen’s sexual desires, which have gone unfulfilled since she moved out of J.R.’s bedroom several episodes earlier. By today’s standards, the football scene seems a little campy — especially when all those half-naked, straight-from-the-80s hunks start falling all over each other — but it also strikes me as surprisingly progressive. Here’s “Dallas,” easily one of the era’s most chauvinistic TV shows, taking a moment to acknowledge that women don’t exist solely to please men; they have needs of their own. How can you not admire that?

As soon as the football scene ends, Katzman cuts to Southfork that night, where J.R. is reading in bed. Suddenly, the door opens, revealing Sue Ellen’s silhouette. “Do you want something?” he asks. She strides into the room, flings the door closed behind her and climbs onto the bed. “Yes, I want something,” she says, taking the book out of J.R.’s hand and kissing him aggressively as the screen fades to black. The next time we see the couple, Sue Ellen is turning on the bedside lamp as a beaming J.R. watches from under the covers. When she tells him she’s going back to her room, he’s confused. Sue Ellen explains: “You see, J.R., I have no desire to live with you. Now, granted, from time to time, I may need you. And if and when that happens, then I’ll be back. But that’s all. That’s as close to being married as we will ever be.” J.R. is furious and accuses her of treating him like “some kind of stud service.” Her response: “What other possible use would I have for you?”

This is a terrific scene for a lot of reasons, beginning with Gray’s playfully sultry delivery. It’s a moment of triumph for Sue Ellen — and Gray savors every second of it. Indeed, consider how far her character has come: In “Spy in the House,” “Dallas’s” third episode, a sexually neglected Sue Ellen buys a negligee, hoping to get J.R.’s attention; when he calls it “cheap” and walks out on her, she collapses in tears. Sue Ellen soon begins turning to other men, but “The Oil Baron’s Ball” marks the first time we see her take charge of her sexual relationship with J.R. It puts her on the same page as Pam, who is the original “Dallas’s” most sexually liberated woman (occasionally incurring her own husband’s wrath). Perhaps more anything, J.R. and Sue Ellen’s bedroom scene is an exercise in poetic justice: The man who has treated countless mistresses as sexual playthings now gets a taste of his own medicine — and from his wife, no less.

Sue Ellen’s most J.R.-like moment in “The Oil Baron’s Ball” is yet to come. In the third act, our newly empowered heroine visits Windsor Meadow and sends John Ross to summon Peter, the camp counselor to whom she finds herself increasingly attracted. Sue Ellen asks Peter to escort Lucy to this year’s Oil Baron’s Ball, although it’s pretty obvious that Sue Ellen really wants Peter for herself, not for her niece. Peter is reluctant to accept — the young man harbors a secret crush on Sue Ellen and has never even met Lucy — but every time he comes up with an excuse to not go, Sue Ellen is one step ahead of him. When Peter tells her that he would feel out of place at the ball, she responds there’s no place he wouldn’t fit in perfectly. When he says he doesn’t own a dark suit, Sue Ellen reveals she has already arranged for him to visit J.R.’s tailor to be fitted for a tuxedo, compliments of her. Peter has no choice but to say yes, demonstrating once again how much she has learned from her husband. Sue Ellen has always had a manipulative streak, but her use of charm, confidence and gifts to bend Peter’s will comes straight from J.R.’s playbook.

The rest of “The Oil Baron’s Ball” is a mix of heavy drama and light moments. The episode picks up where the previous hour left off, with Lil taking the stand in Ray’s trial and revealing he did indeed pull the plug on Mickey, but only because she couldn’t bring herself to do it. This is a fake-out worthy of TNT’s “Dallas” (admit it: you thought Lil was the culprit), and Kate Reid does a nice job delivering her character’s monologue. The most moving moment, though, comes when Donna tells Ray that even though she believes he had no right to take Mickey’s life, she doesn’t want him to go prison for it. I love this scene because Susan Howard is so good in it — she makes me feel very ounce of Donna’s anguish — and also because it clearly spells out the character’s dilemma of reconciling her personal beliefs with her desire to stand by her husband.

Still, I can’t help but think this conversation between Ray and Donna should have occurred at the beginning of the “who killed Mickey?” mystery, not at the end. For that matter, I also wish this storyline should had been wrapped up in the previous episode, “Ray’s Trial.” No sooner has the judge handed down Ray’s sentence — parole, not jail (naturally) — then Ray and Donna are dancing at the glittery ball. It’s odd to see these characters move on so quickly. Likewise, we never see Lil bid farewell to the Krebbses; after the verdict is announced, Reid simply vanishes from “Dallas” (although she does pop up again briefly a few years later). After the trial, wouldn’t it have been nice to see Ray, Donna, Lil and Lucy visit Mickey’s grave? Besides giving the audience a sense of closure, it would have served as a nice bookend to the memorable Amos Krebbs’s funeral scene a year earlier, when the Trotters were introduced.

Even if the juxtaposition between the courtroom and the ball is jarring, I must admit: The latter scenes are awfully fun. Ken Kercheval somehow manages to make Cliff seem both humbled and overbearing in the instant when the character is named oilman of the year, and the clash between the Ewing and Barnes/Wentworth women in the powder room is delicious. Above all, I love the bon mots J.R. drops during the course of the ball. When Pam arrives and drops by the Ewing table, J.R. delights in re-introducing her to Bobby’s date, Jenna Wade. Bobby tells him to cut it out, but J.R. can’t help himself. “Well, for those who don’t have a program, I’m just going to have to announce the names of all the players, aren’t I?” he says. Larry Hagman’s smile is even more mischievous than usual.

Later, when J.R. sees how uncomfortable Bobby, Pam and Jenna are around each other, he declares this is going to be “one of the great nights of my life.” Leave it to Sue Ellen to put him in his place. “Nothing brings out the best in you like other peoples’ unhappiness,” she says. The line makes me think: Perhaps J.R. has a thing or two to learn from her too.

Grade: B


Dallas, Donna Krebbs, Oil Baron's Ball, Ray Krebbs, Steve Kanaly, Susan Howard

At last


Season 7, Episode 8

Airdate: November 18, 1983

Audience: 23 million homes, ranking 2nd in the weekly ratings

Writer and Director: Leonard Katzman

Synopsis: After Lil testifies that Ray pulled the plug on Mickey at her request, Ray is found guilty but given parole. Sue Ellen treats J.R. like a sexual plaything and persuades Peter to escort Lucy to the Oil Baron’s Ball. At the ball, Pam and Jenna clash and Cliff is named oilman of the year.

Cast: Charles Aidman (Judge Emmett Brocks), Christopher Atkins (Peter Richards), John Beck (Mark Graison), Morgan Brittany (Katherine Wentworth), Delores Cantú (Doris), Roseanna Christiansen (Teresa), Glenn Corbett (Paul Morgan), Patrick Duffy (Bobby Ewing), Linda Gray (Sue Ellen Ewing), Larry Hagman (J.R. Ewing), Susan Howard (Donna Krebbs), Richard Jaeckel (Assistant District Attorney Percy Meredith), Steve Kanaly (Ray Krebbs), Omri Katz (John Ross Ewing), Ken Kercheval (Cliff Barnes), Audrey Landers (Afton Cooper), Timothy Patrick Murphy (Mickey Trotter), Priscilla Presley (Jenna Wade), Victoria Principal (Pam Ewing), Kate Reid (Lil Trotter), Debbie Rennard (Sly), Charlene Tilton (Lucy Ewing), Deborah Tranelli (Phyllis), Debi Sue Voorhees (Caroline), Morgan Woodward (Punk Anderson)

“The Oil Baron’s Ball” is available on DVD and at and iTunes. Watch the episode and share your comments below.


  1. Margaret Krebbs says:

    I absolutely love that after Sue Ellen beds JR, a viral, macho, red-blooded Texan, she then lusts after and aggressively pursues young, boyish, immature and inexperienced Peter. Of course, I understand that Peter’s character had to be written as a non-threat to JR’s masculinity. And Sue Ellen already finished with Dusty, who’s character became completely emasculated…

  2. I love that picture of Sue Ellen’s silhouette in the bedroom’s doorway! And it felt so good witnessing Sue Ellen telling JR “What other possible use would I have for you?” and JR’s face… 😉

    I too missed a sense of closure to the Mickey-Ray-Aunt Lil-plotline. I thought it was strange that Aunt Lil just disappeared without a proper farewell – she was only mentioned a few episodes later when either Ray or Donna said they talked to her on the phone, and she “took it quite well”. I think it didn’t do the character enough justice. Again, that’s a typical soap opera thing: New plotline – other characters – off with the old ones – out of sight, out of mind.

    Oh, here comes Peeeduuuurrrr (I just love that spelling of his name, whoever invented it, LOL). This is one of the storylines that make me feel especially bad for John Ross. At last he has found a friend, somebody (beside his parents) who cares for him – only to eventually lose him again, but I’ll hold back my other comments until the story evolves further…

    • Thanks, Balena. As soon as I saw the shot of Sue Ellen’s silhouette, I knew I had to make it the image to accompany this critique. Also glad you agree Aunt Lil deserved a better sendoff.

  3. What a great review! It reminds me of why I love the original #Dallas so much!!!

  4. Little Lucy wouldn’t wanted to have wiped Mickey Trotter’s ass & change his diapers. She’d be too active for that. Mickey would have been good husband material & what Ray did was right. There are many 1/2 past dead seniors here in North America who should have their plugs pulled to free up health care resources for young folks. Perhaps Dutch euthanasia laws here might be wise. After all, J. R. Ewing wouldn’t have wanted to live on like this.

  5. WHAT-WHAT-WHAT ??? (as kyle’s mom said in south park) even not a pic of aroused sue ellen in the garden park and one of cliff’s head when he’s waiting for his trophy? and when he got it ? PLEAAAAASE Chris, give those pics 😉

  6. Glad to see my mom and I weren’t the only ones who thought Aunt Lil’s departure was a little unceremonious. She should have been given some closure, I really like your idea of the 4 of them visiting Mickey’s grave, that would have been perfect.

  7. Agreed — it was strange to see the entire family at a party so soon after the trial!


  1. […] “The Oil Baron’s Ball,” a seventh-season “Dallas” episode, J.R. and Sue Ellen (Larry Hagman, Linda Gray) are in bed, […]

  2. […] seem destined to tear them apart them. Sue Ellen is drawn to Peter’s youth and, having had her first taste of self-empowerment in the previous episode, she seems to enjoy being the dominant player in their relationship. Notice […]

  3. […] persuade him to go back to school, displaying the kind of gumption we haven’t seen from her since “The Oil Baron’s Ball,” the episode where she treats J.R. like a sexual plaything. By the end of “Peter’s […]

  4. […] like J.R. This is one of the underlying themes of “Dallas’s” seventh season, going back to “The Oil Baron’s Ball,” when Sue Ellen treats J.R. like a sexual plaything. Now she’s walking away from a disillusioned […]

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