The final scene in “If at First You Don’t Succeed” is another example of how music helps tell the stories on “Dallas.” As Bobby sleeps in his hospital bed, Katherine enters the room, fills a syringe with poison and prepares to inject him. This is supposed to be the moment the audience realizes Katherine fired the gunshots that landed Bobby in the hospital in the first place, although I suspect most viewers who saw this episode in 1984 had long since figured that out. The revelation is gripping nonetheless, thanks mostly to composer Richard Lewis Warren, whose music conveys emotion in ways images alone cannot.
Consider how much work Warren’s score does here. The scene requires Morgan Brittany to enter the room, walk to the nightstand, set down her purse, retrieve the syringe, fill it with poison, squirt a little (an especially nice touch) and stare menacingly at Patrick Duffy. All of this takes a little less than a minute, which is longer than it sounds when you consider there’s no dialogue and we don’t see Katherine’s face until the last few seconds. Nevertheless, Warren’s visceral score — the whirring strings, the escalating keys — makes the scene positively Hitchcockian. The music holds our attention, every step of the way. Of course, don’t overlook Brittany, who has never looked more sinister. Also, during the freeze frame, notice how Philip Capice’s credit moves from its usual spot in the center of the screen to the lower third, as if Katherine has willed the show’s executive producer out of her way.
This climactic moment aside, the “Who Shot Bobby?” mystery turns out to be much less interesting than it seemed three decades ago. The storyline’s truest bright spot is the way it reignites Pam’s spark, giving Victoria Principal some of her best material since “Dallas’s” first two seasons. For example, when “If at First You Don’t Succeed” begins, Pam confronts J.R. outside the Ewing Oil building and accuses him of trying to frame Cliff for the shooting. It’s one of J.R. and Pam’s great clashes, especially when she vows to join Cliff’s side in the Barnes/Ewing feud. “I’m not going to rest until all our family scores are settled,” she says, leaving J.R. looking more than a little unnerved. Later, when Sue Ellen visits Pam at home and tries to defend her husband, Pam is aghast — and she doesn’t hesitate to show it. Sue Ellen becomes equally indignant and suggests it might be time for the Barneses and the Ewings to go their separate ways, prompting Pam to snap, “Then why don’t you start, Sue Ellen, by leaving here right now?”
Too bad Donna’s storyline doesn’t hold up as well. I like how the writers have Bobby name Donna his proxy at Ewing Oil, if only because it’s good to see a “Dallas” woman in a position of authority for a change. Unfortunately, Donna comes off as a bit of a nag when dealing with J.R. at the office. She does give him this episode’s most memorable line, though, when she wonders how Cliff’s arrest is affecting Pam. J.R.’s memorable response — “I don’t give a damn about Pam” — is one of those times you know exactly what he’s going to say before it rolls off his tongue. A nicer moment comes when Clayton visits the Krebbs’ home to say goodbye to Ray and Donna before leaving to join Miss Ellie on their honeymoon in Greece. Before Clayton climbs into his Rolls Royce to head to the airport, Donna tells him she loves him, and he says it back to her. I don’t know if this exchange was scripted or if Susan Howard and Howard Keel ad-libbed it, but I’m glad it’s here.
“If at First You Don’t Succeed” is also notable because it brings Deborah Shelton to “Dallas” as Mandy Winger, who arrives as Cliff’s love interest but ends up becoming J.R.’s longest-running mistress. This episode also marks the first appearance of Cliff’s painting of himself, an ideal accessory for Ken Kercheval’s self-centered character, along with the icky scene where J.R. seduces sweaty Sue Ellen in the Southfork exercise room. (Couldn’t these two find another spot in that big house to get it on?) Also, notice that when Katherine hears the radio bulletin that Cliff has been cleared in Bobby’s shooting, the newscaster (“John Shaw”) is the same one who announces Bobby’s shooting in this season’s first episode and his death during the season finale. Additionally, there are quite a few nods to “Dallas’s” past, including the scene where Sue Ellen tells Jenna about Dusty’s paralysis, a storyline from the fourth and fifth seasons, and Lucy’s visit to the Hot Biscuit, the roadside diner where Valene worked during the second season.
Scenes like these do more than reward the memories of longtime viewers. They also make “Dallas” seem like something more than a television show, as if the series has become its own little world. Aren’t you glad we get to inhabit it too?
‘IF AT FIRST YOU DON’T SUCCEED’
Season 8, Episode 3
Airdate: October 12, 1984
Audience: 24 million homes, ranking 7th in the weekly ratings
Writer: David Paulsen
Director: Leonard Katzman
Synopsis: Cliff is cleared in Bobby’s shooting when mystery woman Mandy Winger comes forward and reveals he spent the night with her. Bobby considers having risky surgery to restore his eyesight, upsetting Jenna. J.R. seduces Sue Ellen, who defends his actions to Clayton, Donna and Pam. Lucy is offered a waitressing job at a diner where Valene once worked. While Bobby sleeps, Katherine sneaks into his room and prepares to inject him with poison.
Cast: Norman Bennett (Al), Morgan Brittany (Katherine Wentworth), James L. Brown (Detective Harry McSween), Roseanna Christiansen (Teresa), Patrick Duffy (Bobby 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), Bill Morey (Leo Wakefield), Joanna Miles (Martha Randolph), George O. Petrie (Harv Smithfield), Priscilla Beaulieu Presley (Jenna Wade), Victoria Principal (Pam Ewing), Donna Reed (Miss Ellie Farlow), Debbie Rennard (Sly), Sherril Lynn Rettino (Jackie Dugan), Marina Rice (Angela), Mitchell Ryan (Captain Merwin Fogerty), Deborah Shelton (Mandy Winger), Charlene Tilton (Lucy Ewing)