Bobby has lost his eyesight in “Battle Lines,” but J.R. has lost his mojo. The eldest Ewing brother is unusually angsty in this episode: He’s guilty because he believes the bullets that blinded Bobby were meant for him, he’s nervous because his would-be assassin is still on the loose, he’s depressed because his scheme to ruin Cliff Barnes has backfired spectacularly, turning Dallas’s biggest born loser into an overnight success in the oil business. It’s never fun to see J.R. down and out, but these moments tend to give us insight into his character. This one is no exception.
In one revealing scene, J.R. is leaving for work when John Ross asks him if he’s planning to take over Ewing Oil now that Uncle Bobby is in the hospital. J.R. leans down, looks the boy in the eye and tells him he plans to win control of the company some day, but not while Bobby is sick. “With family, you play fair,” J.R. says. “There are rules to follow, and if you do, you’ll be able to live with yourself.” Larry Hagman’s delivery is so sincere, you get the feeling J.R. believes what he’s saying. Who knew the master of deception was so good at deceiving himself? Later, we see J.R. lose his cool — twice. First, he argues with Donna after she arrives at Ewing Oil to look after the ailing Bobby’s interests, and then J.R. clashes with Cliff, dousing him with champagne during a dust-up at the Oil Baron’s Club.
Toward the end of “Battle Lines,” J.R. finally opens up to Sue Ellen about everything that’s bothering him. This might be the episode’s most revealing moment of all. “Dallas” rarely lets us know what J.R. is really thinking; when it happens, it usually comes in the form of a monologue delivered to Jock’s painting. Here, J.R. sits on the Southfork patio and confesses all to Sue Ellen, who is so moved by her husband’s display of vulnerability, she takes his hand and assures him everything will be okay. It’s a rare example of these two behaving like spouses who share their problems instead of using them to undermine each other. It’s also the first time in more than a year that Sue Ellen has shown J.R. real affection, and it turns out to be just what the doctor ordered: In the episode’s final scene, J.R. lurks nearby as his goons from the police squad arrest Cliff for Bobby’s shooting. Does J.R. genuinely believe Cliff is guilty, or is he merely taking advantage of an opportunity to pin a major crime on his rival? The answer isn’t clear, but one thing is indisputable: It’s good to see him get his groove back.
J.R. and Cliff’s shifting fortunes lend “Battle Lines” a neat bit of symmetry: J.R. is in the doldrums until the final scene, while Cliff rides high throughout this episode, only to crash at the end. It’s nice to see Cliff succeed for a change, and I always think it’s interesting how he emulates J.R. Cliff uses Marilee for sex in “Killer at Large,” the previous episode, and in “Battle Lines” he sacks Vaughn with J.R.-like efficiency. I also like Cliff’s scenes with Pam in this episode — including their stroll from her swimming pool to her house, which director Nick Havinga films in an unbroken tracking shot — as well as the arrest scene, which ends with Pam looking infuriated when she realizes J.R. orchestrated her brother’s arrest. (One oddity: Why does one detective announce the charge against Cliff while another cop simultaneously reads him his rights?)
Speaking of Pam: I like the scene where she tells Bobby that Katherine forged the letter that broke up their marriage. The couple sits on a bench on the hospital grounds, mimicking their breakup scene in Thanksgiving Square one year earlier. And even though Bobby’s blindness offers an unmistakable metaphor for his inability to see through Katherine’s scheme, I’m no fan of this storyline. Unlike J.R.’s post-shooting paralysis, which humbled his character and made for interesting storytelling, sticking Patrick Duffy behind those oversized dark glasses does his character no favors. Bobby looks weak and ineffectual, and that’s not what the audience needs from him. If the show wanted to use his near-death experience to explore different facets of his character, I would have gone in the other direction and made him royally angry that he took a couple of slugs that were intended for his brother.
Finally, I like how “Battle Lines” brings together characters who don’t usually interact: Ray and Donna investigate the bugged telephones at Ewing Oil with help from Phyllis, while Lucy and Katherine sit together while visiting Bobby at Dallas Memorial. In the latter scene, though, I can’t help but note how overdressed the women appear. Lucy wears an off-the-shoulder dress that looks more appropriate for a night on the town, while Katherine sports a runway-ready turban. Then again, what do I know? If Sue Ellen can wear a turban to the movies, who says Katherine can’t wear one to the hospital?
Season 8, Episode 2
Airdate: October 5, 1984
Audience: 24.7 million homes, ranking 1st in the weekly ratings
Writer: Arthur Bernard Lewis
Director: Nick Havinga
Synopsis: Sly tells Cliff that J.R. doesn’t know she’s working with him. Sue Ellen feels drawn to a newly vulnerable J.R., who orchestrates Cliff’s arrest for Bobby’s shooting. After Pam tells Bobby that Katherine forged the letter that broke them up, Jenna tells Pam to stay away from him. Bobby asks Donna to fill in for him at Ewing Oil.
Cast: Morgan Brittany (Katherine Wentworth), Pat Colbért (Dora Mae), Patrick Duffy (Bobby Ewing), Eric Farlow (Christopher Ewing), Jenny Gago (Nurse), Gerald Gordon (Dr. Carter), Linda Gray (Sue Ellen Ewing), Larry Hagman (J.R. Ewing), Susan Howard (Donna Krebbs), Steve Kanaly (Ray Krebbs), Howard Keel (Clayton Farlow), Omri Katz (John Ross Ewing), Ken Kercheval (Cliff Barnes), Shalane McCall (Charlie Wade), Dennis Patrick (Vaughn Leland), Priscilla Beaulieu Presley (Jenna Wade), Victoria Principal (Pam Ewing), Debbie Rennard (Sly), Marina Rice (Angela), Mitchell Ryan (Captain Merwin Fogerty), Danone Simpson (Kendall), Paul Sorensen (Andy Bradley), Don Starr (Jordan Lee), Deborah Tranelli (Phyllis), Charlene Tilton (Lucy Ewing)