What could be unholier than an alliance between J.R. Ewing and Cliff Barnes? In “Déjà Vu,” the sworn enemies agree to work together to keep Bobby and Pam apart. The scene where J.R. and Cliff meet in a dive bar and toast their partnership is one of the episode’s highlights, and not just because it’s one of the few times in “Dallas” history that Larry Hagman and Ken Kercheval are civil to each other on screen. The scene also demonstrates how their characters are beginning to change, if not grow. In an era when many of the show’s creative risks don’t pay off, here’s one that works.
“Déjà Vu” begins with the Ewings reeling after Jenna leaves Bobby at the altar on their wedding day. After the guests are sent home, J.R. and Bobby head to Ewing Oil and pull out all the stops to determine why she ran away — even ordering their secretaries to report to the office on a Saturday to help track down the runaway bride. (Why weren’t the secretaries invited to the wedding?) Later, J.R. receives a mysterious phone call from someone who wants to get together to discuss the situation. We don’t learn the caller’s identity until J.R. shows up in the bar and takes a seat across from Cliff, who tells him now that Bobby is free, he’s afraid he’ll reunite with Pam. J.R. agrees he and Cliff should do everything they can to stop such a reconciliation from taking place. “Maybe this is the one time a Ewing and a Barnes ought to work together,” J.R. says.
It’s fun to watch Hagman and Kercheval clink beer glasses, although this scene has more going for it than the novelty factor. For starters, the exchange shows how much Cliff has changed. Think about it: He’s the character in control here. Cliff calls the meeting, sets the time and location, and suggests the alliance with J.R. Since the eighth season began, we’ve seen Cliff become smarter and more successful, and now we know he can scheme with the best of them. J.R. has changed too: There was a time he wouldn’t have given his archenemy the time of day, but here he treats Cliff as an equal. (J.R. has always been more willing to join forces with Pam, who he probably considers a worthier adversary.) Some fans want Cliff always to lose and J.R. always to win, but I admire “Dallas’s” willingness to allow the characters to evolve. Besides, it’s not like they won’t slide back into their familiar roles eventually.
The title “Déjà Vu” points to Bobby’s backstory — Jenna also left him at the altar when the characters were younger — although I’m more interested in another blast from the past: the return of the terrific Sarah Cunningham as Maggie, the woman who raised Cliff and Pam. In the storyline, Cliff and Mandy visit Maggie to see what she knows about Jamie Ewing’s claim that Jock, Jason and Digger were equal partners in Ewing Oil. After Cliff arrives on her doorstep and pulls out some photos of Christopher, she invites him and Mandy into the backyard to discuss what’s really on his mind. “If I know my brother’s son, he didn’t drive three hours to Marshall on a Saturday just to show me baby pictures,” she says. That line alone makes me wish “Dallas” had used Cunningham more frequently. The actress is so natural and believable; the show would have benefitted from her homespun charm.
“Déjà Vu” also features James Cromwell’s first appearance as Gerald Kane, the pilot who approaches Pam with the bombshell news that he flew Mark Graison to a clinic in the Caribbean to seek a cure for his disease. Cromwell, who later received an Oscar nomination for his role as the farmer in “Babe,” is quite good in his scene with Victoria Principal. At the end of the episode, we learn Kane is secretly working for J.R. — a neat twist that probably would have been even more surprising if it had come later, once Cromwell’s character was more established. I wonder why the show exposed his connection to J.R. so soon?
Other “Déjà Vu” highlights include the scene where Ray assures Bobby that Jenna loves him — in a few years, Ray will be doubting Jenna’s love for him once they begin a relationship — as well as a nice moment when Maggie’s lawyer visits Cliff and suggests Digger must have been a gentleman. Cliff beams, reminding us that he sees his father differently than most of the other characters on this show. I also like the scene where Sue Ellen receives the call from J.R. informing her that Jenna has skipped town. After Sue Ellen hangs up, Miss Ellie and Donna eagerly ask her what J.R. said. As the music swells, Linda Gray keeps her back to Donna Reed and Susan Howard, looks into the distance and solemnly intones, “He said to send the guests home. The wedding is off.” It’s the kind of dramatic delivery that only occurs on soap operas, which is what makes it so wonderful.
This scene also leads to my biggest gripe with “Déjà Vu.” Once word reaches the Ewings that the wedding has been canceled, Ray volunteers to send the guests home, and Ellie agrees. It’s another example of how Ellie is being written differently since the show recast the role with Reed. Having Ellie defer to Ray makes her seem uncharacteristically delicate. This is a woman who once stared down an angry mob at a Ewing Barbecue, after all. Giving Reed the line where the guests are sent home might seem like a small thing, but it would have given her an opportunity to show some of the mettle we’ve come to expect from our beloved Mama.
Season 8, Episode 13
Airdate: December 21, 1984
Audience: 19.5 million homes, ranking 4th in the weekly ratings
Writer: David Paulsen
Director: Leonard Katzman
Synopsis: Naldo blackmails Jenna into remarrying him by threatening to keep her from Charlie, whom he sends to Italy. Pam is approached by a pilot who claims he flew Mark to the Caribbean, but she doesn’t realize the man works for J.R. Cliff searches Digger’s old legal papers, hoping to find a copy of Jamie’s document.
Cast: Burke Byrnes (Pete Adams), James Cromwell (Gerald Kane), Sarah Cunningham (Maggie Monahan), Patrick Duffy (Bobby Ewing), Linda Gray (Sue Ellen Ewing), Larry Hagman (J.R. Ewing), Jenilee Harrison (Jamie Ewing), Susan Howard (Donna Krebbs), Steve Kanaly (Ray Krebbs), Howard Keel (Clayton Farlow), Ken Kercheval (Cliff Barnes), Fredric Lehne (Eddie Cronin), Shalane McCall (Charlie Wade), Daniel Pilon (Renaldo Marchetta), Priscilla Beaulieu Presley (Jenna Wade), Victoria Principal (Pam Ewing), Donna Reed (Miss Ellie Farlow), Sherril Lynn Rettino (Jackie Dugan), Deborah Shelton (Mandy Winger), Danone Simpson (Kendall), Charlene Tilton (Lucy Ewing), Deborah Tranelli (Phyllis)