No matter how many times I see the “Dallas” characters come together during a medical crisis, it never seems to lose its dramatic punch. In “The Ewing Connection,” John Ross’s appendicitis produces one chills-inducing scene after another: Miss Ellie rushing upstairs after hearing the little boy screaming in pain, Ray bursting through the emergency room doors carrying the child’s limp body, J.R. dropping everything at the office when he receives the call informing him his son is sick. These moments underscore the ties that bind this family, reminding us that despite all their bickering, the Ewings genuinely care about each other.
John Ross’s illness also provides “Dallas” with an opportunity send Sue Ellen on what will become one of her final benders. Linda Gray’s character demonstrates surprising strength throughout the eighth season, continually resisting the urge to drink as her marriage unravels for the umpteenth time. “The Ewing Connection” even takes a few moments to celebrate Sue Ellen’s success in the scene where she attends group therapy and tearfully describes how she stayed on the wagon despite another nasty spat with J.R. Gray’s performance during the therapy scene is beautiful and moving, allowing us to feel proud of Sue Ellen not only for staying sober, but also for having the courage to share the experience with a roomful of strangers. This is what makes the episode’s ending so heartbreaking. After J.R. lashes out at her because she wasn’t with John Ross when he got sick, Sue Ellen picks up a glass of bourbon, tentatively brings it to her lips and finally gulps it down.
Sue Ellen’s downfall raises a few questions that aren’t easily answered. First, is J.R. right when he says she should have stayed home with John Ross? The script has the child’s illness play out gradually. He begins complaining about having a stomachache at breakfast, so Sue Ellen says he should stay home from school. Later, John Ross tells her he’s feeling better, so she decides to not take him to the doctor, saying he can spend the rest of the day in bed. She also points out that Miss Ellie will be around if he needs anything. Sue Ellen then goes to her group and returns home that evening toting a couple of shopping bags, explaining that she decided to buy herself a few things after her therapy session. This is when J.R. tells her John Ross’s appendix almost ruptured, calls her an unfit mother and storms off, leaving her alone to drink. Is J.R. unnecessarily cruel? Yes, but does he have a point about her parental judgment? Or is it unfair to blame Sue Ellen for something she couldn’t control?
This brings us to another point that’s open to interpretation. When Sue Ellen arrives home, J.R. is fixing a drink in the living room. He breaks the news about John Ross as only he can (“While you were out seeking help for your psyche and boosting the economy of the more fashionable boutiques of Dallas, your son was being rushed into surgery”) and she tries to defend herself, saying John Ross seemed fine when she left. The spouses move from the living room to the foyer, and as he calls her “a totally unfit mother,” he sets down the drink and marches upstairs. The question is: Why doesn’t J.R. take his drink with him? Does he leave it behind because he’s too angry to think straight? Or does he set down the glass, hoping Sue Ellen will drink it? Did he pour it for her in the first place? Is J.R. hoping she’ll relapse so he can divorce her, gain custody of John Ross and be free to pursue Mandy Winger?
Besides Sue Ellen’s relapse, “The Ewing Connection” includes two other moments of consequence: Donna learns she’s pregnant (Susan Howard does a nice job conveying her character’s mixed emotions in this scene), and J.R. and Bobby sign over 10 percent of Ewing Oil to their newly discovered cousin Jack in exchange for his promise to prove Cliff and Jamie have no ownership claim on the company. This is another example of one of my least favorite “Dallas” tropes from the later years, when the characters exchange stakes in this multi-billion-dollar company the way kids once traded baseball cards in schoolyards. Mercifully, Bobby persuades J.R. that the two of them should each give up 5 percent instead of asking the other shareholders (Miss Ellie, Gary and Ray) to sacrifice a portion of their shares. It doesn’t make much sense, but at least the math is easy to follow.
Finally, “The Ewing Connection” gives us two reunions, beginning with Lucy and Mitch’s appropriately awkward dinner in Atlanta. The characters make meaningless small talk, although one line of dialogue feels weightier now than it did when this episode debuted three decades ago. Lucy asks Mitch about his mother and sister; Mitch responds both are doing fine, which doesn’t tell the whole story, at least where Afton is concerned. Given what we now know about Audrey Landers’ character’s timeline, she was probably getting ready to give birth to her secret daughter Pamela Rebecca Cooper around this time. Maybe Mitch decides not to tell Lucy because he’s afraid she’ll go home and blab the news to everyone, which actually seems pretty likely when you stop and think about it.
The more meaningful reunion comes when Bobby and Pam spend an evening reminiscing about their marriage, sealing the conversation with a brief kiss. The producers wisely keep Priscilla Beaulieu Presley out of this episode, giving Bobby and Pam the room they need to begin finding their way back to each other. The kiss also foreshadows the characters’ reconciliation in the eighth-season finale, “Swan Song.” In fact, there’s a lot about “The Ewing Connection” that reminds me of that episode. The scene where J.R. rushes out of the room after receiving the call about John Ross is similar to the “Swan Song” moment in which J.R. gets the call that Bobby’s been hurt, and Howard Keel seems to sport the same shirt and jacket in both episodes. Likewise, when Sue Ellen comes home with her shopping bags, it’s not unlike the ninth-season scene in which she strolls into the living room, blissfully unaware that Bobby has died.
I know, I know. I’m getting ahead of myself again. What can I say? If “The Ewing Connection” is a trial run for “Swan Song,” then I’m more ready than ever to see the real thing.
‘THE EWING CONNECTION’
Season 8, Episode 27
Airdate: April 19, 1985
Audience: 17.9 million homes, ranking 5th in the weekly ratings
Writer: Arthur Bernard Lewis
Director: Nick Havinga
Synopsis: J.R. and Bobby reluctantly agree to give Jack 10 percent of Ewing Oil in exchange for information to squash Cliff’s lawsuit. Sue Ellen falls off the wagon after John Ross is rushed to the hospital with appendicitis. Bobby and Pam kiss. Donna learns she’s pregnant. Lucy meets Mitch in Atlanta. The police track down Andre Schumann, the assassin who likely murdered Naldo.
Cast: Roseanna Christensen (Teresa), Patrick Duffy (Bobby Ewing), Eric Farlow (Christopher Ewing), Paul Gleason (Lieutenant Lee Spaulding), 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), Shalane McCall (Charlie Wade), Leigh McCloskey (Dr. Mitch Cooper), George O. Petrie (Harv Smithfield), Nicholas Pryor (Nathan Billings), Victoria Principal (Pam Ewing), Dack Rambo (Jack Ewing), Donna Reed (Miss Ellie Farlow), Sherril Lynn Rettino (Jackie Dugan), Barry Sattels (Greg Rupp), Charlene Tilton (Lucy Ewing), John Zaremba (Dr. Harlan Danvers)