In “Winds of War,” J.R. insists he’s been faithful when Sue Ellen accuses him of cheating. He’s lying, of course, but why? Is he trying to spare his wife’s feelings, or is he trying to spare himself the embarrassment of another marital implosion? Does he want Sue Ellen to stay at Southfork because he fears she’ll take John Ross with her if she leaves, or does he want her there because he loves her? And what about Sue Ellen? Why does her husband’s fidelity matter to her? Is she in love with him, or is she merely dependent upon him? Does she want him, or does she need him?
None of the answers are clear, not that I’m complaining. Part of “Dallas’s” appeal lies in trying to figure out the mysteries of J.R. and Sue Ellen’s marriage, which will always be the show’s most fascinating relationship. But even when the motivations aren’t readily apparent, we can still see how these two characters are changing. Consider the “Winds of War” scene that ends with Sue Ellen tearfully ordering a double vodka at the Oil Baron’s Club. (“Just bring it, Cassie!”) We expect her to be drunk the next time we see her, since this is how she’s always coped with J.R.’s cheating. Yet in a surprising twist, Sue Ellen comes home sober, explaining to her husband that she stared at the drink for an hour before deciding he wasn’t worth a relapse.
We see changes in J.R. too. When Linda Gray delivers the line about not taking the drink, Larry Hagman’s eyes widen and he smiles slightly — as if J.R. is surprised, and perhaps more than a little proud, that his wife kept her demons in check. As the scene continues, Sue Ellen declares that she isn’t going to leave Southfork. “I have earned the right to be here,” she says. This feels like a moment of triumph for the character and an early glimpse of the grit she’ll display in later seasons. But it’s also an example of how J.R. still has power over her. Despite everything, she still can’t bring herself to leave him. Even when she can say no to booze, she can’t say no to him.
“Winds of War” is written and directed by Leonard Katzman, who sprinkles J.R. and Sue Ellen’s scenes with nods to other memorable moments in their marriage. In their confrontation at the end of the episode, Hagman is dressed in the same blue robe and pajamas that he wore at the beginning of the season, when J.R. won Sue Ellen back after being on the outs with her for more than a year. Also in the “Winds of War” scene, she tells him, “Don’t you ever explain anything to me again.” This recalls one of her memorable lines from their great clash two years earlier, when she chided him as “a terrific explainer.” You can even find allusions to J.R. and Sue Ellen in scenes that don’t feature them. When Bobby goes to Los Angeles and meets Veronica, the girlfriend of villainous Naldo Marchetta, he asks why she stayed with him despite his abusive tendencies. “I loved him,” she says. If a similar question was put to Sue Ellen, would her answer be any different?
Other “Winds of War” highlights include the final scene, when Cliff persuades Jamie to fight the Ewings for control of their company. Ken Kercheval delivers an urgent, heartfelt speech about how Cliff and Jamie owe it to their daddies to take back what Jock stole from them — and then when she agrees (“Let’s do it!”), he flashes a magnificently malevolent grin. Cliff has learned a thing or two from his nemesis, hasn’t he? Speaking of J.R.: I like his lie to Sue Ellen that the woman he was spotted kissing, Serena, is merely the daughter of “Congressman Hooker” (no stretch there, huh?), as well as Lucy and Eddie’s visit to Harv Smithfield’s office to formalize their real estate partnership. There’s unexpected warmth in George O. Petrie and Charlene Tilton’s exchanges. You get the impression Harv cares about Lucy and doesn’t want to see her get hurt. It’s the kind of small detail “Dallas” does so well.
Donna Reed supplies “Winds of War” with its other nice surprise. At the beginning of the episode, Miss Ellie becomes angry when she learns J.R. has kicked Jamie off Southfork. “Why, J.R.? What brought this on?” Ellie shouts. It’s the first time Reed has raised her voice since arriving on “Dallas” — and the first time she’s displayed Mama’s old fire. I like another scene between Reed and Howard Keel even more. Ellie and Clayton are dining at the Oil Baron’s Club, where she is fretting over Jamie’s future. Clayton encourages her not to make her niece’s problems her own. Ellie sits back in her chair, chuckles softly and realizes he’s right. It ends up being a rare example of two “Dallas” characters coping with their problems through laughter. The exchange also demonstrates Reed’s rapport with Keel, which feels genuinely affectionate.
At the end of this scene, Clayton asks Ellie if she’s ever considered running away from home. Reed smiles again and says, “A lot. But I think I’ll stay around and see how it all turns out.” For the first time, I wish she had been given that chance.
‘WINDS OF WAR’
Season 8, Episode 16
Airdate: January 11, 1985
Audience: 23.6 million homes, ranking 1st in the weekly ratings
Writer and Director: Leonard Katzman
Synopsis: After Sue Ellen’s friendship with Jamie collapses, she moves out of J.R.’s bedroom. Jamie leaves Southfork and agrees to join forces with Cliff to fight for control of Ewing Oil. Bobby finds Charlie in California. Lucy and Eddie form a business partnership.
Cast: Patrick Duffy (Bobby Ewing), Stephen Elliott (Scotty Demarest), Eric Farlow (Christopher Ewing), Linda Gray (Sue Ellen Ewing), Larry Hagman (J.R. Ewing), Jenilee Harrison (Jamie Ewing), Susan Howard (Donna Krebbs), Steve Kanaly (Ray Krebbs), Omri Katz (John Ross Ewing), Howard Keel (Clayton Farlow), Ken Kercheval (Cliff Barnes), Fredric Lehne (Eddie Cronin), Shalane McCall (Charlie Wade), George O. Petrie (Harv Smithfield), 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), Gail Strickland (Veronica Robinson), Charlene Tilton (Lucy Ewing)