Critique: ‘Dallas’ Episode 141 — ‘The Buck Stops Here’

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

Round and round

“The Buck Stops Here” memorably ends with Pam Ewing and Jenna Wade competing against each other in a mechanical bull-riding competition. It’s an appropriate metaphor for these characters, whose lives go up and down but rarely move forward. For example, during the course of this episode, we learn Pam is still hung up on ex-husband Bobby, even though she’s also in a relationship with Mark Graison. Meanwhile, Jenna has returned to town after a long absence and rekindled her romance with Bobby, but he upsets her when he asks if he’s the father of her daughter Charlie. If it feels like you’ve seen both of these stories before, it’s because you have.

Let’s start with Pam. She spends most of “Dallas’s” previous season trying to choose between Bobby and Mark, a storyline that makes her seem more than a little wishy-washy. Once Pam divorces Bobby, the writers begin to rehabilitate her character, even giving her a promising new career in the oil industry. It’s the return of the smart, confident Pam that Victoria Principal played exceedingly well during “Dallas’s” early years. Too bad it doesn’t last. In “The Buck Stops Here,” Principal’s character is back where she was a year earlier, torn between Bobby and Mark.

At least Arthur Bernard Lewis’s script makes Pam aware that she’s emotionally stuck. In the first act, Pam confides her conflicted feelings to Katherine, a scene that is probably meant to make Pam seem introspective but instead makes her seem whiny and not in control of her own emotions. At one point, Katherine tells her, “You know, sometimes I don’t understand you at all.” Pam’s response: “Sometimes I don’t understand myself at all.” The exchange brings to mind “Dallas’s” fifth season, when Pam was unable to explain the erratic behavior she exhibited before her mental breakdown — a storyline I’d just as soon not be reminded of.

The weak plotting leaves me feeling bad for Principal, an enormously appealing actress who deserves better material. Don’t get me wrong: I want Bobby and Pam back together as much as anyone, but if the show was going to insist on breaking them up, at least give Pam something better to do than to pine after her ex-husband. On the other hand: I’ll confess I get a kick out of seeing Pam and Jenna shoot daggers at each other throughout the charity rodeo and the mechanical bull-riding competition. There’s also the terrific scene where Jenna compliments Pam on her performance, telling she’s going to be “a tough act” to follow. “I am a tough act to follow,” Pam responds. On this show, have truer words been spoken?

“Dallas” struggles to come up with a fresh angle for Jenna too. The show introduces the character in the second-season episode “Old Acquaintance,” when Jenna — played by Morgan Fairchild — is depicted as a scheming heiress who tries to break up Bobby and Pam by insinuating Charlie is Bobby’s daughter. Eventually, Pam confronts Jenna and forces her to admit that Jenna’s ex-husband is the little girl’s father. In Season 3, Jenna — now played by Francine Tacker — returns briefly and once again tempts Bobby, except this time Charlie’s paternity isn’t part of the equation. So why is Bobby suddenly pestering Jenna about the issue in “The Buck Stops Here”? My guess is the producers figured audiences wouldn’t remember this subplot was resolved years earlier, although I have no idea why they think “who is Charlie’s father?” is such a compelling storyline in the first place.

At least Jenna comes off as a little more clear-eyed than Pam. The character has felt more down-to-earth and interesting since Priscilla Presley took over the role three episodes ago. Some of this comes from the writing — Jenna has lost her fortune and is now working as a waitress to pay the bills — but some of it also comes from Presley, who instills her character with much more backbone than I remembered. In one of “The Buck Stops Here’s” best scenes, Katherine tries to bribe Jenna into moving to Houston and leaving Bobby alone. Katherine pretends she’s acting in Pam’s interest, but Jenna is savvy enough to realize Katherine wants Bobby for herself. I also like the scene where Bobby takes Jenna to dinner at the Oil Baron’s Club (which makes its debut in this episode) and asks her if she misses being rich. “Damn right I do,” she says. Isn’t it kind of refreshing to see the working class depicted as something other than noble?

Besides recycling old storylines, “The Buck Stops Here” demonstrates the sexism that pervades this era of “Dallas.” At the beginning of the episode, when Pam and Katherine have their heart-to-heart talk, Katherine is aghast to learn Pam and Mark have never had sex. “You can’t expect a man to wait forever. This isn’t the 19th century,” she says. It also seems like every man on this show has at least two women interested in him: Mark is romancing Pam while being chased by snooty socialite Tracy Anders, while Pam, Jenna and Katherine are all in love with Bobby.

(Frankly, everyone’s interest in Patrick Duffy’s character mystifies me a little, at least in “The Buck Stops Here.” Notice how Bobby cheerfully tells Katherine all about his wonderful afternoon with Jenna, even though Katherine confessed her own unrequited romantic feelings for Bobby during the previous episode. Likewise, isn’t it kind of crass of Bobby to plant such a passionate kiss on Jenna at the end of this episode, knowing that his ex-wife is watching them? Where’s the sweet, sensitive Bobby that we all know and love?)

Amid all the complications and sexism that characterize Bobby and Pam’s love lives, Sue Ellen’s May/December romance with camp counselor Peter Richards feels like a breath of fresh air. At least this is a love triangle where one woman (Sue Ellen) is the object of affection for two men (J.R. and Peter). The previous episode ended with Sue Ellen and Peter sharing a brief kiss, but in “The Buck Stops Here,” she meets Peter for lunch — the restaurant’s name isn’t shown, but I’d recognize the inside of a 1980s Pizza Hut anywhere — and wisely tells him that their relationship can’t go any further. It’s nice to see Sue Ellen grow as a character, even as some of her “Dallas” sisters struggle to move forward.

Of course, even though I like seeing the Ewing and Barnes women take center stage for a change, I can’t help but feel bad for J.R., who doesn’t have much to do in “The Buck Stops Here” except to stand by helplessly as Cliff steals another deal from him. In fact, Larry Hagman is completely absent from the episode’s fourth act, an extreme rarity on this show. It’s no fun to watch our hero get beat, but but I’m heartened by the scene where J.R. summons Harry McSween to his office to help him set a trap for his enemy. “I want that little insect to bite — and bite hard,” J.R. says. The line leaves me rubbing my hands in glee. J.R. vowing to exterminate Cliff? Oh, this is going to be fun!

Grade: B

_______________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

Bobby Ewing, Dallas, Jenna Wade, Patrick Duffy, Priscilla Presley

Busy Bobby

‘THE BUCK STOPS HERE’

Season 7, Episode 10

Airdate: December 2, 1983

Audience: 22.3 million homes, ranking 3rd in the weekly ratings

Writer: Arthur Bernard Lewis

Director: Leonard Katzman

Synopsis: Peter tells Sue Ellen he loves her, but she insists it’s merely an infatuation. Pam sleeps with Mark after she spots Bobby kiss Jenna passionately. After J.R. loses another deal to Cliff, he realizes Ewing Oil has a mole.

Cast: Christopher Atkins (Peter Richards), Mary Armstrong (Louise), John Beck (Mark Graison), Tye Bell (Buzz), Morgan Brittany (Katherine Wentworth), James L. Brown (Detective Harry McSween), Jack Collins (Russell Slater), Joe Dorsey (Ben Kesey), 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), Omri Katz (John Ross Ewing), Ken Kercheval (Cliff Barnes), Audrey Landers (Afton Cooper), Roy McAdams (rodeo announcer), Andrea McCall (Tracy Anders), Shalane McCall (Charlie Wade), Priscilla Beaulieu Presley (Jenna Wade), Victoria Principal (Pam Ewing), Debbie Rennard (Sly), Danone Simpson (Kendall), Don Wood (Dan Fuller)

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

Comments

  1. This is an awesome episode – one of my favourites and coming very soon after another top 2 episodes – the Oil Baron’s Ball double episode 138/139 – Dallas has reached its absolute peak in the first half of season 7.
    Chris, I’m especially glad you’re a fellow fan of Priscilla Presley/Jenna Wade – a much under-rated character and Presley, who had virtually no acting experience at this point plays her very well. I love the scene in this episode where she sees through Katherine and tells her to get lost – what a contrast with drippy Pam who is still taken in by her.
    Also interesting that JR doesn’t dominate this episode – I wouldn’t want Dallas to make a habit of this but occasionally it was good to let the other characters shine – Dallas was a very rare show that had a great main character but also a superb supporting cast, as this season will show more than ever.

  2. The thing is, Brother J. R. being really only in 1 scene with Harry McSween makes u crave his character a lot more for future episodes.He is instructing Harry to find the mole & take a “bite” out of him or her. Its biting, brilliant television, its genius. Just like the anticipation in Commander/Secret Agent 007’s (I believe it was “Dr. No”) where a tarantula is placed in bed with the Commander. Its not the actual killing bite that the audience is waiting for here, its the anticipation of how Commander Bond & how Brother J. R. are going to manouvre to put the bite on their enemies. Commander by smashing the tarantula & tracking its trail & J. R. by putting Harry in charge of wielding the axe, but of course being seen as “the totally innocent one!” Its Machiavellian brillance at its best!

  3. Garnet McGee says:

    This season has been a struggle to watch. There is too much repetition and too much bad acting. I appreciate the way Jenna is written. It is refreshing to see a self sufficient, introspective woman, working woman on this show. Priscilla is lovely. But she needed more acting lessons before taking on this role. Her line delivery is so so stiff and her facial expressions are so unvarying. On top of Priscilla we must put up with Chris Atkins. The love affair with Sue Ellen could have been something very touching and charming. Too bad they killed off Mickey because he would have made a very believable and sweet love interest for Sue Ellen. Murphy was fantastic and would have made a great Peter. I usually love younger man-older woman romances but Atkins’ bad acting just ruins it for me. The writing for JR is entirely too one note and simplistic. They need to show him with more vulnerability and he needs to express more emotional hurt by now. It has been 7 seasons and I wish we got to see some real character growth. I don’t want to see him reform but it would have added to the story if he was motivated by insecurity and his inability to emotionally connect with the woman he claims to love. Maybe I’ve been watching too much Tony Soprano and Walter White but I’m getting bored with JR. The writers of the current Dallas are on the right track with the way they write John Ross. I wish the old JR had been written in more of that style.

  4. I think Bobby kissing Jenna at the end is showing himself and Pam he is trying to move on without Pam. After all he thinks (because of The Letter) Pam does not love or want a life with him anymore and it hurts him to see her with Mark. He is trying to prove to himself that he can move on and also didn’t Mark kiss Pam when he helped her on to the mechanical bull and we saw Bobby’s face he was hurt.

Trackbacks

  1. […] “The Buck Stops Here,” a seventh-season “Dallas” episode, J.R. (Larry Hagman) is seated in his office at night when […]

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