Critique: ‘Dallas’ Episode 142 — ‘To Catch a Sly’

Dallas, Debbie Rennard, J.R. Ewing, Larry Hagman, Sly Lovegren, To Catch a Sly

Spy another day

One of the reasons J.R. Ewing is so entertaining is because he’s always a few steps ahead of the “Dallas” audience. We watch him plot and scheme, never knowing what trick he’s going to pull out of his sleeve next. That’s why the show’s seventh-season corporate espionage storyline is so unusual. From the beginning, viewers know Cliff Barnes is blackmailing J.R.’s secretary Sly into leaking Ewing Oil secrets, but J.R. is in the dark. Interestingly, this never makes Larry Hagman’s character seem weak or even vulnerable. In fact, it has almost the opposite effect, because we know once J.R. finds out who’s betraying him, there’s going to be hell to pay.

Indeed, that’s pretty much what happens in “To Catch a Sly.” When the episode begins, J.R. has just learned Cliff has a spy at Ewing Oil but he doesn’t know who it is, so he goes to work trying to root out the fink. He finally discovers Sly is the culprit in the fourth act, and in the closing moments, he confronts her. This scene begins with Sly at her desk at the end of a workday, getting ready to go home. J.R. appears in his office doorway and summons her inside. She swallows hard before entering the room, where J.R. makes small talk and begins opening a bottle of wine. “You know, you’ve been looking a little peaked lately, Sly,” he says. She tells him she’s been having “some personal problems,” adding that “it’s nothing serious.” J.R. turns toward her, hands her the glass of wine he just poured and says, “If it’s the problem I’m thinking of, it’s very serious indeed.” Uh-oh.

What follows is one of the great “Dallas” moments. Sly sits in one of J.R.’s guest chairs as he walks to his desk and retrieves a stack of photos that show her and Cliff during some of their secret meetings. The director, Michael Preece, keeps Debbie Rennard in the foreground as Hagman hovers in the distance, holding the pictures aloft. With this shot, Preece encapsulates the whole storyline: Here’s J.R., the businessman who’s been betrayed; Sly, the secretary who’s been forced to double-cross her boss; and Cliff, the smarmy enemy who’s stooped to a new low in his never-ending quest for vengeance. As soon as I saw how Preece framed this scene, I knew it would be the image that accompanied this critique.

As the sequence continues, J.R. slowly shuffles through the photos, showing them to Sly one by one. “You recognize anybody in these pictures?” he asks. She stares at the floor in silence. “Sure, you do,” he says. “This is you, and this is Cliff Barnes.” Hagman’s voice is calm, soft, almost melodic. It reminds me of Mister Rogers addressing an audience of children, although when J.R. speaks this way, it’s anything but reassuring. Preece, who has been focusing on the pictures in a tight close-up, pans upward and allows Hagman’s face to fill the frame. Finally, J.R. poses the question he’s been waiting to ask: “Sly, why did you betray me to that man?”

The line alleviates the tension because it suggests J.R. is going to stop torturing Sly with politeness and cut to the chase. He listens as she tearfully explains how Cliff pressured her to sneak him advanced information about J.R.’s business dealings by threatening to prevent her jailed brother from being paroled. In a clever touch, Rennard doesn’t make eye contact with Hagman until Sly says, “J.R., I love my brother. I couldn’t pass up a chance to help him.” Preece cuts to a reaction shot from J.R., whose face displays a flicker of recognition. He knows a thing or two about brotherly love, after all.

Indeed, this is the moment we know J.R. is going to show Sly mercy. He tells her that he’s pleased she didn’t try to “cover up” when he confronted her with the pictures, and then Hagman lifts the corners of his mouth, ever so slightly. You can practically see the wheels turning inside J.R.’s head. He suggests he’s going to turn Sly into a double agent, using her to feed Cliff bad information. “You’re going to set him up?” she asks. J.R. shakes his head no. “He set himself up,” he says. “What I’m going to do is bring him down — and bring him down very, very hard.”

The episode ends there, leaving us with plenty to ponder. For starters: How twisted is it that J.R. turns out to be pleased by this turn of events? He now has an excuse to go after Cliff with gusto, not that he needs one; batting around Cliff has always been J.R.’s favorite sport. For a moment, I also wondered if J.R.’s vow to “bring him down” reflected paternal feelings toward Sly. In other words: Does he want to avenge her honor after Cliff took advantage of her? Ultimately, I decided that’s not what’s happening here. I have no doubt J.R. has affection for Sly, but if he really cared about her, would he turn her into a double agent? Isn’t he treating her like a pawn, just like Cliff did?

Regardless, Rennard does a nice job conveying Sly’s shame and guilt, as well as the character’s paranoia in her earlier scenes in “To Catch a Sly,” when Sly realizes J.R. is closing in on her. This episode also reminds us how much Hagman’s performance has evolved over the years. Remember: This isn’t the first time one of J.R.’s secretaries has betrayed him. In “Spy in the House,” the show’s third episode, Julie Grey sneaks a copy of Ewing Oil’s notorious “red file” to Cliff. When J.R. discovers Julie double-crossed him, he looks devastated, but Hagman offers no hint that J.R. feels personally wounded by Sly’s treachery. At this point during “Dallas’s” run, the actor had long since honed J.R.’s killer instincts, and that’s what he gives the audience here.

David Paulsen’s sharp script gives us lots to consider besides this final scene. For example, when J.R. drops by Cliff’s office and plants the recording device in his phone, I wondered: Would Cliff really be foolish enough to allow J.R. to use his office when he isn’t there? I decided he would be. I’ve always believed Cliff doesn’t want to beat J.R. as much as he wants to be J.R. Cliff mimics his enemy as far back as the second-season episode “For Love or Money,” when he uses one of J.R.’s own lines to break up with Sue Ellen. Cliff also emulates him when he blackmails Sly, tossing around the word “baby” the way J.R. does “darlin’.” So in “To Catch a Sly,” when J.R. shows up on Cliff’s doorstep to congratulate him on his recent victories over Ewing Oil, I can buy that Cliff is so blinded by the idea that J.R. is impressed with him that he lets down his guard and leaves him alone in his office. Besides, just because Cliff is devious doesn’t mean he’s smart.

“Dallas’s” various romantic entanglements also take interesting twists in “To Catch a Sly.” The episode opens with the newly divorced Pam awakening after sleeping with Mark for the first time, while Bobby continues to resist bedding Jenna, even though she says she wants to have sex with him. Did you ever expect to see a Ewing man insist on taking things slowly with a woman? Meanwhile, Sue Ellen’s ongoing May/December flirtation with Peter Richards leaves me feeling a little cold, at least in this episode. Until now, I’ve been intrigued by Sue Ellen and Peter’s connection, but he seems a little bratty — not to mention stalkerish — when he follows her to her appointment with hairdresser Mr. David. (By the way: Mr. David has evidently moved to new digs since the exterior of his salon doesn’t match the building used in the previous season. And where’s the valet parking?)

Finally, a few words about the technology displayed in “To Catch a Sly.” This episode seems to offer more than the usual share of gadgets and gizmos that were considered cutting-edge in 1983 and now seem hopelessly dated. Examples: J.R. wears a pager on his belt when he visits Cliff’s office, and after he bugs his phone, he listens to the recorded conversations on what appears to be a Sony Walkman. (How, exactly, does the little device that J.R. drops into Cliff’s receiver yield audiocassette recordings of Cliff’s calls?) Later, when Katherine goes to the library to dig up dirt on Jenna, she looks up old newspaper articles on microfiche. Finally, when J.R. brings John Ross to the Ewing Oil offices, the little boy pounds on the keyboard attached to Sly’s computer, which has a monitor that seems to display graphics in two colors: white and blue.

Look closely and you’ll also see the logo of the company that made the machine: Texas Instruments. What else would you expect from the Ewings?

Grade: A

_______________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

Dallas, Debbie Rennard, J.R. Ewing, Larry Hagman, Sly Lovegren, To Catch a Sly

Busted

‘TO CATCH A SLY’

Season 7, Episode 11

Airdate: December 9, 1983

Audience: 23 million homes, ranking 3rd in the weekly ratings

Writer: David Paulsen

Director: Michael Preece

Synopsis: J.R. discovers Sly is spying on him for Cliff and decides to turn her into a double agent. Bobby is bothered when he discovers Pam slept with Mark. Katherine noses around in Jenna’s past. Sue Ellen begins planning the annual Ewing Barbecue and feels envious when Lucy expresses interest in dating Peter.

Cast: Mary Armstrong (Louise), Christopher Atkins (Peter Richards), John Beck (Mark Graison), Morgan Brittany (Katherine Wentworth), James L. Brown (Detective Harry McSween), 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), Sherril Lynn Katzman (Jackie Dugan), Ken Kercheval (Cliff Barnes), Lisa LeMole (Judy Baker), Edward Mallory (Stanger), Shalane McCall (Charlie Wade), Priscilla Beaulieu Presley (Jenna Wade), Victoria Principal (Pam Ewing), Debbie Rennard (Sly), Danone Simpson (Kendall), Charlene Tilton (Lucy Ewing), Deborah Tranelli (Phyllis)

“To Catch a Sly” is available on DVD and at Amazon.com and iTunes. Watch the episode and share your comments below.

Comments

  1. Texas Instruments! Good eye. I enjoyed the turn the “Sly as spy” story took in this episode and from here on. Especially after she discovers Cliff’s promises to help her brother were hollow, Sly shows she’s a J.R. girl, relishing her role in his plot.

  2. I always thought that Sly should have been given say 2-3% of Ewing Oil for reverse paterrn faking out Cliff Barnes. In this way, she’d have cashflows in her name. I know when J. R. created Petro-State, a dummy corp in Miss Lovegren’s name it was a handy way for him to move cash around. If Sly had a miniority ownership stake, she’d be able to steer J. R. led projects in the company forward & with gusto!

  3. chris52700 says:

    This was one of the better episodes so far this season. The reason to me is simple; this episode had more focus on the business dealings and revenge rather than the boring romance. Now, i dont mind the romance stuff as secondary arcs, but they’ve been way too far in front in season 7.

  4. Cliff never learns, he should have known it would back fire on him, because JR would have eventually found out about him using Sly. Bobby was truly hurt when he figured out Pam slept with that idiot Mark, also Pam that morning after they slept together looked liked she regretted it and it was not all that, he mind was on Bobby. Mark certainly lacked something and obviously not better or even close to Bobby in the sex department!!!

Trackbacks

  1. […] “To Catch a Sly,” a seventh-season “Dallas” episode, J.R. (Larry Hagman) stands in his office doorway as Sly […]

  2. […] It’s fun to see her take charge of planning the annual Ewing Barbecue in this episode and the previous one, and I like how the writers use Sue Ellen to fill the void left by Southfork’s original […]

  3. […] parole denied if she didn’t cooperate. Sly reluctantly went along with the scheme — until J.R. caught wind and turned Sly into a double agent, using her to feed Cliff bad information that brought his […]

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