Critique: ‘Dallas’ Episode 145 — ‘Peter’s Principles’

Christopher Atkins, Dallas, Peter Richards, Peter's Principles

What principles?

Since I began re-watching “Dallas’s” seventh season for the first time in years, I’ve been surprised by how interesting I find Sue Ellen’s affair with college student Peter Richards. I used to dismiss their romance as hopelessly gimmicky — J.R.’s wife chases a younger man! — but now that I’m older and hopefully a little wiser, the relationship makes perfect sense. I can see how Sue Ellen might turn to a man like Peter to regain her confidence after all those years of being mistreated by J.R. Or at least that’s how I felt before “Peter’s Principles.” This is the episode where Sue Ellen and Peter sleep together for the first time, but instead of illuminating the reasons these characters are attracted to each other, the love scene reveals the storyline’s flaws. It turns out there are quite a few.

When “Peter’s Principles” begins, Sue Ellen is worried because the Ewings haven’t heard from Peter in several days. She suspects he is upset because she recently told him their flirtation can’t continue, so she contacts one of his classmates and learns Peter has dropped out of school. When Sue Ellen finally tracks down Peter, he doesn’t want to speak to her, but she doesn’t give up on him. She goes to his apartment the next day and urges him not to abandon his studies. Peter tells Sue Ellen that if he can’t have her, college no longer matters to him. She hesitates for a moment, then says, “If I were with you, if we saw each other, would you go back to the university?” Peter’s response: “Yes, it would all be completely different then.” Before you know it, Sue Ellen is kissing Peter as he lays her down on the bed.

Groan. Until this scene, which is the last one in “Peter’s Principles,” I liked how Arthur Bernard Lewis’s script depicted Sue Ellen as a woman with determination and purpose. She works hard to find Peter and 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 Principles,” though, Sue Ellen has reverted back to her old habit of allowing men to dominate her. When she asks Peter if he’ll go back to school if she starts a relationship with him, what does she expect him to say? Sue Ellen doesn’t just allow Peter to pull her strings; she puts the controls in his hand.

Besides undermining Linda Gray’s character, the scene suggests “Dallas” is chickening out on the entire storyline. For a show dominated by alpha males, Sue Ellen and Peter’s relationship has been refreshingly different. The last time “Dallas” depicted a May/December romance, an aging man (Jock Ewing) became involved with a younger woman (Julie Grey). This time around, the gender roles are reversed: Sue Ellen, who is in her 40s, flirts with Peter, who is in his 20s. But instead of showing her going to bed with him merely to fulfill her own sexual desires, Lewis’s script tries to cast Sue Ellen’s choice as some kind of noble sacrifice. She essentially tells Peter, “OK, I’ll have sex with you if you promise to go back to school and study hard.” Why can’t Sue Ellen have a carefree fling like the men on this show?

I suppose all of this can be viewed as another example of Sue Ellen’s self-delusion. Maybe she can’t bring herself to admit her attraction to Peter, so she fools herself into believing she’s merely providing him with the incentive he needs to get an education. But then what are we to make of the fact that we never see these characters in bed together? In the final shot, as Peter moves Sue Ellen onto the bed, the screen goes black and the closing credits flash, making this one of the few times “Dallas” skips its traditional freeze frame. It’s as if the producers can’t quite bring themselves to showing this relationship being consummated.

Then again: Maybe we’ve seen enough. Leonard Katzman, “Dallas’s” executive producer, once called this storyline the show’s “biggest mistake” because Christopher Atkins looked too young to play Peter. It’s not fair to lay the blame at Atkins’ feet, although the actor was too boyish to be believable as Sue Ellen’s lover. Don’t get me wrong: Atkins is a good actor who does a nice job conveying his character’s awkward transition into adulthood. Peter can be charming one minute and petulant the next, just like a lot of real-life college students. Atkins’ youthfulness also works well in his scenes with Larry Hagman, where Peter is the fair-haired Luke Skywalker to J.R.’s black-hearted Darth Vader. But whenever the script calls for Peter and Sue Ellen to share a romantic moment, I can’t help but wish he looked a little older.

But even if Sue Ellen and Peter’s love scene in “Peter’s Principles” worked better, it still wouldn’t be the most provocative moment in this episode. No, that distinction belongs to the wonderful exchange where Miss Ellie admits to Donna that she’s nervous about marrying Clayton because she hasn’t “been” with a man since Jock died. This conversation, which takes place while Ellie and Donna are exercising in the Southfork fitness room, lets us know Ellie remains a sexual creature. This would be a progressive idea for television to address today, so I can only imagine how extraordinary it must have seemed 30 years ago. Both actors are quite good here: Barbara Bel Geddes conveys Ellie’s quiet anxiety without sacrificing the character’s dignity, while Susan Howard’s gentle responses signal Donna’s respect for the Ewing matriarch. I especially like when Ellie says that she and Clayton “never had any real physical contact … beyond a kiss and a hug,” and Donna responds, “Yes, ma’am. I understand.” This is exactly how I would expect Donna to treat a woman like Ellie.

“Peter’s Principles” also shows Clayton confiding in Ray his own unease about marrying Ellie and moving onto “another man’s ranch and into another man’s house.” This marks the beginning of Clayton and Ray’s friendship, a relationship that makes a lot of sense given the outsider status both men occupy in the family Ewing. I also like the “Peter’s Principles” scene where Bobby and Pam have dinner because it makes them seem like two mature people who have remained friends despite the fact they are ex-spouses. This exchange is also useful because it helps the audience understand how much risk is involved in Cliff’s offshore oil venture, which is one of the major subplots in the coming episodes. As Bobby explains to Pam, it can cost as much as $300,000 to tow a rig to a drilling site, $40,000 a day to rent the rig and $20,000 a day to operate it. These numbers boggle my mind today; imagine how big they must have seemed three decades ago.

There’s also a lot of humor in “Peter’s Principles,” beginning with J.R.’s quips about Clayon’s son (“Dusty or Steve or what the hell ever that rodeo rider calls himself nowadays”) and Ray’s wife (“You sure married a winner”). I also like when Clayton announces he’s taking Ellie to see a revival of “Camelot” — a sly reference to one of Howard Keel’s famous stage roles. Other funny moments are unintentional: The exterior shot of Peter’s apartment is the same one used for Mitch Cooper’s residence during the fourth season; look closely and you’ll even see Mitch’s Mustang parked near the curb. Also, as much as I love Ellie and Donna’s scene in the fitness room, I can’t help but notice that despite all of Howard’s huffing and puffing while doing her character’s leg lifts, there’s no weight on the bar.

Poor Donna. Perhaps she would benefit from some professional training at Pam’s aerobics studio. Come to think of it, whatever became of that place?

Grade: B

_______________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

Dallas, Peter's Principles, Philip Capice

Fade to black

‘PETER’S PRINCIPLES’

Season 7, Episode 14

Airdate: January 6, 1984

Audience: 21.3 million homes, ranking 1st in the weekly ratings

Writer: Arthur Bernard Lewis

Director: Patrick Duffy

Synopsis: Sue Ellen learns Peter has dropped out of school but persuades him to return by sleeping with him. J.R. continues digging for dirt on Clayton and confirms a dark secret about Edgar. Clayton and Ellie harbor private reservations about marrying each other. Marilee expresses interest in joining Cliff’s offshore oil venture and comes between him and Afton. Bobby and Pam have dinner, upsetting Jenna and Mark.

Cast: Christopher Atkins (Peter Richards), John Beck (Mark Graison), Barbara Bel Geddes (Miss Ellie Ewing), Martin E. Brooks (Edgar Randolph), James L. Brown (Detective Harry McSween), Pat Colbért (Dora Mae), Roseanna Christiansen (Teresa), Patrick Duffy (Bobby Ewing), Al Dunlap  (decorator), Fern Fitzgerald (Marilee Stone), David Gale (Melvin), 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), Howard Keel (Clayton Farlow), Ken Kercheval (Cliff Barnes), Audrey Landers (Afton Cooper), Anne Lucas (Cassie), Lee Montgomery (Jerry Hunter), Louis R. Plante (Robert)Priscilla Beaulieu Presley (Jenna Wade), Victoria Principal (Pam Ewing), Julie Ronnie (student), Don Starr (Jordan Lee), Charlene Tilton (Lucy Ewing)

“Peter’s Principles” is available on DVD and at Amazon.com and iTunes. Watch the episode and share your comments below.

Comments

  1. I have always disliked the Peter storyline, to the point it makes me cringe. The actor was massively too young for the role so it makes it seem like Sue Ellen is dating a child, not just a younger man. Certainly he isn’t “man enough” for Sue Ellen given what we know she finds attractive in a man. Plus, he seems very immature in general- even Lucy’s interest in him seems very off.

    You cannot help but love any scene with Donna and Ellie! In some ways I think Donna is a younger more modern version of Ellie. And Donna was right about one thing, that ring was amazing!

  2. Dan in WI says:

    Chris> You comment how daunting those off shore rig costs sound even today and wonder what it would have sounded like in 1984… In rough round numbers, according to one inflation calculator I found on the interwebs those numbers adjust to the following today:
    $650,000 to tow the rig to the site
    $87,000 a day to rent the rig
    $43,500 a day to operate the rig
    So that give it a bit more perspective.

  3. I actually think that we need to see Sue Ellen sleeping with Peter as the “noble sacrifice” you mention: To me, it has been obvious from the start that Sue Ellen has no real sexual interest in the much younger man. Their affair is her atonement for what she did to Mickey Trotter, when her drunken state caused him to jump in the car that was going to crash. After destroying one young man’s life, she puts her own interests behind those of Peter when she finds that the only way for him to pursue his career is when she goes to bed with him. From an objective point of view, it is definitely a bad idea, but seen in the context of Sue Ellen’s situation and her feeling of resposibility, it makes sense… I guess.

    • Interesting ideas, Stephan. Thank you. I really like your idea that Sue Ellen’s affair is atonement for Mickey’s death. I wish the show could somehow have made that more explicit.

  4. Miss Texas getting a young boy to go back to his schoolin’ with the promise he can see “nirvana” between her legs along with other sexual favours. Take Preter to an academic crisis counsellor Sue Ellen, don’t offer up your vagina for sexual manipulation degradation just to get a boy his education. Uh-uh! Unwise Miss Texas!

  5. Pam and Bobby the exes having dinner was wonderful to see. You can also see their respect for one another and the attraction is still there. Mark and Jenna was right to be upset because they see but will not admit to themselves that Pam and Bobby are not finished or truly over each other even a blind person would have seen this. This is why Mark tried so hard with Pam because he deep in his heart knew Pam was still in love with Bobby which is why she could not really and would never commit to him. If Season 9 was not a dream Bobby would have had to die and physically be out of her life in order for her fully commit to Mark. It also had to take Mark being seriously ill like he was to have Pam remain with him due to obligation and sympathy, how could she leave a dying man who was good to her. It was the same thing with Donna and Sam she cared and loved him but was not in love with him (she was in love with Ray) and remained with him until his death.

  6. Glad you noticed Mitch’s old apartment with his car parked on the street,LOL. Dallas was famous for doing that.

    When watching the first episode of the next season, name fails me, (“Killer At Large”?) they used the same scene after JR was shot for the aftermath of Bobby’s shooting. It has the same paramedic; guy with the glasses and mustache who looks like a guy from the music group ELO pushing the stretcher. (“clear the lobby please”).

Trackbacks

  1. […] “Peter’s Principles,” a seventh-season “Dallas” episode, Donna (Susan Howard) sits on a weight bench and does leg […]

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