“Swan Song” is a masterpiece. This is the best “Dallas” episode ever made because it dares to set aside so many of the show’s conventions — wheeling, dealing, double-crossing — to focus on what matters most: the characters and their relationships. Mostly, “Swan Song” tells the story of Bobby and Pam’s long-awaited reunion, which is cut short when he sacrifices his life to save hers. It’s pure soap opera, yet the performances from Patrick Duffy, Victoria Principal and the other actors are so heartfelt, every emotion rings true. Even though it’s 30 years later, and even though Bobby’s death later turned out to be a dream, “Swan Song” still moves me.
Like “A House Divided,” the 1980 segment that kicked off the “Who Shot J.R.?” phenomenon, “Swan Song” deserves to be remembered as a watershed moment for “Dallas.” Not only was this supposed to be Duffy’s final appearance as Bobby, it also was intended as the last hurrah for producer Leonard Katzman, who wrote and directed the episode before departing to run his own show on another network. Both men eventually returned to Southfork, which would have been unthinkable when the cameras were rolling on this episode in March 1985. (I examine the backstage drama in a companion post, “‘Swan Song: Making a ‘Dallas’ Classic.”) Watching it today, you get the impression everyone involved wanted to send Duffy and Katzman off on a high note. Did they ever.
More than anything, “Swan Song” is remembered for two scenes: Bobby pushing Pam out of the path of the speeding car and his deathbed farewell to his family. Neither sequence would pack as much punch if weren’t for two earlier, quieter moments. First, Pam summons Bobby to her home to discuss their future. The couple has been divorced for years, and now he’s engaged to Jenna Wade, one of the show’s other long-suffering heroines. Bobby tells Pam he still loves her, but she says it will destroy Jenna if he doesn’t go through with the wedding. “As much as I love you, you have to marry her,” Pam says. It’s a line straight out of a Douglas Sirk movie, but it’s crucial to our understanding of Principal’s character — and Duffy’s, for that matter. Bobby and Pam have always been willing to sacrifice their own happiness to spare the feelings of others. That’s what makes them perfect for each other.
Later, Bobby returns to Pam’s home and tells her he’s decided it would be wrong to marry one woman when he’s in love with another. This is something the audience has known for a long time, but “Dallas” fans are always one step ahead of the characters in matters of the heart. Finally, Bobby asks the question Pam — and the audience — has longed to hear: “Will you … marry me … again?” Duffy delivers the line with a sweet, almost nervous enthusiasm, while Principal responds by simultaneously bursting into tears and laughter. The characters kiss, and she elegantly reaches behind her head to turn off the lamp. It’s “Swan Song’s” most romantic moment — until Katzman kills the mood by cutting to the scene outside, where the mysterious driver who’s been following Bobby silently pounds her fists onto the steering wheel.
End of the road
“Swan Song’s” climactic action sequence begins the morning after Bobby’s proposal. A landscaper arrives at Pam’s house and parks his vehicle next to Bobby’s (this will be important later), while inside, the happy couple are beginning to plan their future together. After carrying little Christopher downstairs to breakfast — eggs and toast, not that you need to be reminded — Pam walks Bobby outside. She tells him how bad she feels for Jenna. He reassures her they’re doing the right thing, kisses her goodbye and walks to his car. In the distance, the stalker starts her ignition. Through her windshield we see Pam run over to give Bobby one more kiss, and then the stalker’s car begins moving. The motion slows, our hearts race. Bobby spots the speeding car and shouts Pam’s name. As she turns, he pushes her out of the way, allowing the vehicle to strike him. He rolls over the hood, the roof, the trunk. When he finally hits pavement, we hear the thud.
What happens next is seared into the memories of “Dallas” fans. Pam — dressed in that beautiful white sweater and pants — crawls to Bobby, turns him over and rests his bloodied head on her lap. It’s not unlike Jackie Kennedy cradling her husband in the moments after his assassination. Our point of view switches to the stalker’s car, which has slammed into the landscaper’s truck. He rushes over, reaches inside and pulls off the woman’s blonde wig, which turns her head toward the camera. Katherine Wentworth’s eyes — lifeless, yet still crazed — stare back at us. We then return to Bobby and Pam, who emits a guttural scream. In my behind-the-scenes post, Duffy says the sound she produced made his ears ring. I believe it. Principal has ceased being an actress at this moment. She is Pam Ewing, clutching the hand of the man she loves as he lay dying.
If “Swan Song” had ended here, we’d still remember it as a great hour of television. But “Dallas” doesn’t let us off the hook that easily. The episode now shows us the characters finding out what’s happened to Bobby. Cliff is standing in his living room, arguing with his new wife Jamie and her brother Jack, when a radio bulletin announces the “bizarre turn of events” that’s caused Bobby to be rushed to the hospital. (This is the same radio voice that announced Bobby’s shooting at the beginning of this season, by the way.) When the newsman says the incident occurred at the home of “Mr. Ewing’s ex-wife,” Ken Kercheval closes his eyes and winces. The announcer may be puzzled by what’s happened, but Cliff knows.
Across town, J.R. is awakening in the home of his mistress, Mandy Winger. He’s decided to spend the day with her, so he calls Ewing Oil to let the secretaries know he won’t be coming into work. At the office, Phyllis is hunched over her desk, sobbing. Sly answers the phone and tells J.R. that everyone has been trying to reach him. He asks why she’s upset, but we don’t get to hear Deborah Rennard’s character break the news. Instead, Katzman holds the camera on Larry Hagman as J.R.’s face falls. In the background, we hear a few solemn notes of the “Dallas” theme. “It’s Bobby,” J.R. says as he puts down the phone, grabs his hat and rushes out the door.
This is one of the most powerful moments in the episode. Much credit goes to Hagman, whose reaction is flawless, and composer Lance Rubin, who was smart enough to use the theme music to signal the gravity of the situation. But don’t overlook Deborah Tranelli, the actress who plays Phyllis. More than anyone else in this episode, she serves as a stand-in for the audience. Bobby was Phyllis’s boss, but she also knew him the way we do — as a friend. Phyllis’s tears are ours. Without saying a word, Tranelli delivers one of “Swan Song’s” most haunting performances.
Death is but a dream
The deathbed farewell is a familiar trope in drama, but the “Dallas” cast infuses Bobby’s goodbye with heart and grace. This was a company of actors who cared about each other and their work, and in this scene, it shows. Steve Kanaly’s sobbing is touching, and so is the single tear that streams down Hagman’s face. This also is one of Donna Reed’s best performances as Miss Ellie. Yes, Bobby’s death would have been even more memorable if it had featured Barbara Bel Geddes, but Reed looks believably stricken. Of course, nothing gets me like the moment Bobby’s monitor flat lines, jolting Pam. I don’t know if Principal did this instinctively or if she was following Katzman’s direction, but seeing Pam almost jump out of her skin makes the shock of Bobby’s death palpable. I also love what Principal does next, throwing back her head in quiet agony. It’s an exquisite performance.
Perhaps no one rises to the occasion, though, quite like Duffy. It would have been easy to overplay a scene like this, as we’ve all seen actors in other movies and TV shows do. But Duffy strikes every note perfectly, from his groggy greeting upon waking up (“Hey, Ray”) to the break in voice when he addresses Ellie (“Oh, Mama, I’m sorry”). Duffy brings to bear all the years he spent creating this character; if Bobby’s death feels like the loss of a real person, it’s because of the actor playing him. It’s also worth noting how smartly Katzman wrote this scene. He injects a little mystery into the exchange by having Bobby declare, “All that wasted time. We should have been married.” Is he speaking to Pam or Jenna? It seems clear now, but I can remember debating this with my mom in 1985. On the other hand, when Bobby says, “Be good to each other. Be a family,” do we have any doubt which Ewing that line is directed toward?
Never the same
There’s much more to love about “Swan Song.” This episode also gives us one of the great bedroom fights between J.R. and Sue Ellen (“Joan of Arc would have been a drunk if she had been married to you”); another touching moment from Kanaly when Ray pleads with his estranged wife Donna to come back to him; and Lucy’s sentimental farewell to the Ewings after remarrying Mitch. “I’m going to miss you all. I’ll never be the same again,” she says. I have no doubt the line describes Charlene Tilton’s own sentiments as much as it does her character’s. (Although this was Tilton’s swan song too, she eventually returned, like Duffy and Katzman.)
And yet “Swan Song” isn’t flawless, is it? During the proposal scene, the shadows on Duffy’s face are distracting, Katherine’s wig and her tomato juice throwing scene are undeniably campy, and there’s at least one glaring continuity error: On the morning of the accident, we see Bobby putting on brown boots — but when he’s run over in the driveway a few minutes later, he’s wearing black shoes. The show also gives away quite a bit of the plot in the pre-credits roll, although I suppose that doesn’t matter now that we know how the story ends. Some fans also gripe that “Dallas” was foolish to kill off Bobby in the first place since Duffy ended up returning, but I admire the boldness of his death. Killing major characters is common on television today, but it didn’t happen so much in the 1980s. And let’s face it: “Dallas” handles Bobby’s demise much better than it did Jock’s, which dragged on far too long.
Does it matter that the most memorable parts of “Swan Song” later turned out to be one character’s dream? Not really. Yes, Bobby’s death has gone down in television history with an asterisk next to it, but that doesn’t diminish the quality of the production and the amount of heart that went into honoring the character by giving him a meaningful sendoff. It brings to mind something I learned reading comic books as a kid: So what if this is an imaginary story. Aren’t they all?
Season 8, Episode 30
Airdate: May 17, 1985
Audience: 23.3 million homes, ranking 1st in the weekly ratings
Writer and Director: Leonard Katzman
Synopsis: Sue Ellen asks Dusty to help her get sober. Donna tells Ray she’s pregnant. Cliff contemplates ending his marriage to Jamie. Lucy and Mitch are remarried. Bobby proposes to Pam and she accepts, but a vengeful Katherine mows him down in the driveway. At the hospital, Bobby bids farewell to his family before dying.
Cast: Mary Armstrong (Louise), Morgan Brittany (Katherine Wentworth), Roseanna Christensen (Teresa), Pat Colbert (Dora Mae), Patrick Duffy (Bobby Ewing), Walker Edmiston (Parson Carson), Eric Farlow (Christopher Ewing), Linda Gray (Sue Ellen Ewing), Larry Hagman (J.R. Ewing), Jenilee Harrison (Jamie Barnes), Susan Howard (Donna Krebbs), Steve Kanaly (Ray Krebbs), Omri Katz (John Ross Ewing), Howard Keel (Clayton Farlow), Ken Kercheval (Cliff Barnes), Jared Martin (Dusty Farlow), Shalane McCall (Charlie Wade), Leigh McCloskey (Dr. Mitch Cooper), Priscilla Beaulieu Presley (Jenna Wade), Victoria Principal (Pam Ewing), Dack Rambo (Jack Ewing), Donna Reed (Miss Ellie Farlow), Debbie Rennard (Sly), Deborah Shelton (Mandy Winger), Charlene Tilton (Lucy Ewing), Deborah Tranelli (Phyllis), David White (Mark)