Critique: ‘Dallas’ Episode 192 — ‘The Family Ewing’

Barbara Bel Geddes, Dallas, Family Ewing, Miss Ellie Ewing Farlow

Good grief

“The Family Ewing,” the first episode of “Dallas’s” ninth season, chronicles the immediate aftermath of Bobby’s death. Miss Ellie, sad but sturdy, tries to plan the funeral while holding her family together — a task complicated by J.R.’s anger, Sue Ellen’s drinking and lingering questions about why Bobby and Pam were together when he was killed. The pace is slower than usual, but this is one of the episode’s strengths. The show is giving the audience time to let the loss of Bobby sink in, allowing us to grieve alongside the characters. It’s another example of how “Dallas” makes us feel part of the world it creates.

Like “Swan Song,” the episode that kills off Patrick Duffy’s character, “The Family Ewing” offers a collection of scenes that became classics: John Ross comforting J.R. on the night Bobby dies; Pam trying to explain to Christopher why he’ll never see his daddy again; Ellie staking out Bobby’s burial plot near the tree house that Jock built him when he was a boy; the funeral itself, which culminates with J.R. gazing at Bobby’s casket, shedding a single tear and lamenting that he never told his brother how much he loved him. These moments were later wiped away by Pam’s dream, but that doesn’t make them any less moving now than when this episode debuted 30 years ago.

“The Family Ewing” isn’t altogether sentimental, of course. The first act gives us J.R.’s devastating takedown of Sue Ellen when she comes home, blissfully unaware that there’s been a death in the family. “You’re never around when anybody needs you. … All you ever think about is yourself,” he says. J.R. lashes out again when he runs into Ray and Gary, who has arrived from “Knots Landing” to attend the funeral. “I had one brother, and he’s dead. Nobody can ever replace him — least of all you two,” J.R. says. Both scenes are the “Dallas” equivalent of highway rubbernecking: We know Sue Ellen, Ray and Gary are all in for it, yet we dare not look away.

Significant Mother

Barbara Bel Geddes, Clayton Farlow, Dallas, Family Ewing, Howard Keel, Miss Ellie Ewing Farlow

Splendor in the grass

J.R.’s dark turn in this episode recalls the character’s earliest days, before he became a twinkly-eyed villain. Larry Hagman is unnervingly good, although my favorite performance here belongs to Barbara Bel Geddes, who returns to “Dallas” after a yearlong absence and reminds us all how much she’s been missed. Bel Geddes is so natural, I forget I’m watching an actress playing a role. Watch the scene where Clayton speaks to Ellie at the tree house. She talks fondly about raising Bobby, offering a soft chuckle when she remembers how he and Gary used to spend “hours and hours” in the tree house “doing I don’t know what.” (Hearing that line, it isn’t hard to imagine the Ewing brothers as kids, is it?) Moments later, after Clayton has mounted his horse to ride home, Ellie stands in the grass and begins to sob. You can feel her pain.

Ellie’s resiliency is equally touching. Consider the scene where she comes out of her bedroom and encounters Sue Ellen, who expresses her guilt about missing Bobby’s farewell. Ellie urges her daughter-in-law to deal with her drinking problem, which prompts Sue Ellen to insist she isn’t an alcoholic. This is when Bel Geddes puts her hands on Linda Gray’s shoulders, looks into her eyes and says, “Oh, Sue Ellen. Yes, you are.” Can you imagine Donna Reed delivering this line? As much as I appreciated Reed’s work on “Dallas” during the previous season, it’s thrilling to see Bel Geddes reclaim her role with such a stirring performance. When Mama takes the stick and jams it into the spot where she wants Bobby buried, it might as well be Bel Geddes marking her territory and reminding the world that “Dallas” is her show as much as anyone’s.

Exit Camelot

Dallas, Family Ewing, Pam Ewing, Victoria Principal

Widow theory

“The Family Ewing” isn’t without its share of curiosities. Was there no better way to end Dusty and Sue Ellen’s bar confrontation than by having him punch her in the face? And how does a single strike to the chin manage to render her unconscious? Also, when Gary calls Southfork, are you surprised that he doesn’t recognize Clayton’s voice? I always figured “Dallas” wanted us to believe Gary spoke to his family regularly, even if we didn’t see the conversations on screen. I guess that’s not the case. (Ted Shackelford’s character isn’t altogether out of the loop, though: He seems to know who Katherine Wentworth is, wondering how the fugitive villainess got to Dallas.) I also find it amusing that when the Ewings return home from the hospital at the beginning of the episode, the producers don’t even bother to put Ellie in a dress similar to the one Reed wore in her final scene in “Swan Song.” Even the colors are different.

This is the only choice by costume designer Travilla that deserves to be second-guessed, however. All the other outfits in this episode hit the mark — especially at the funeral, where Sue Ellen is dressed in a dark Valentino blouse and skirt (she’ll ruin both when she goes on a bender in the next episode) and Pam wears a black pillbox hat. I’ve always believed the latter was a conscious attempt to draw a parallel between Pam and Jackie Kennedy, a real-life heroine who cradled a dying husband in her arms. The comparison might raise eyebrows now, but when I think back to watching this episode as a kid, it really did feel like another Camelot had ended.

Grade: A+

_______________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

Dallas, Family Ewing, John Ross Ewing, J.R. Ewing, Larry Hagman, Omri Katz

Mourning son

‘THE FAMILY EWING’

Season 9, Episode 1

Airdate: September 27, 1985

Audience: 20.5 million homes, ranking 7th in the weekly ratings

Writer: Leonard Katzman

Director: Nick Havinga

Synopsis: The Ewings bury Bobby. Dusty tries to help Sue Ellen, whose drinking problem worsens. Ray and Donna reconcile. Pam doesn’t tell Miss Ellie that she and Bobby were planning to get together before he was killed.

Cast: Barbara Bel Geddes (Miss Ellie Farlow), Dolores Cantu (Doris), Linda Gray (Sue Ellen Ewing), Larry Hagman (J.R. Ewing), Joshua Harris (Christopher 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), Jared Martin (Dusty Farlow), Shalane McCall (Charlie Wade), George O. Petrie (Harv Smithfield), Priscilla Beaulieu Presley (Jenna Wade), Victoria Principal (Pam Ewing), Dack Rambo (Jack Ewing), Ted Shackelford (Gary Ewing), Deborah Tranelli (Phyllis), John Zaremba (Dr. Harlan Danvers)

“The Family Ewing” is available on DVD and at Amazon and iTunes. Watch the episode and share your comments below.

Comments

  1. What I like is the fact that B.J. Ewing, President, Ewing Oil Co. offered up Daddy Jock a backup office with his nameplate at the tree house whenever his father or Brother J.R. were too busy to run things from the main Ewing Oil Company Limited offices in downtown Dallas!

  2. When I watch this episode, I think of missed opportunities. Loved the episode, but once again as in Swan Song, Lucy and Mitch should have been there. For Lucy to miss her Uncle’s funeral, as well as an opportunity for some Lucy/Gary drama, was completely foolish on the producers part. Couldn’t they just keep Charlene around a little longer for these incredibly critical episodes?

    The bigger mistake however was not having Abby Ewing attend this family funeral/reunion with Gary. Think of the confrontation she could have had with J.R. over the way he treated Gary, the bonding moment she could have had with Miss Ellie, the amazing opportunity to have Abby, Pam, Jenna, Sue-Ellen, and Donna all in the same scene together at the funeral. Maybe even Val could have shown up unexpectedly to pay her respects to Pam and Miss Ellie and show Gary and Lucy she was still there for them. That would have been an all time classic right up there with the Oil Barrons Ball ladies room cat fight with Pam, Sue-Ellen, Jenna, Katherine, and Afton from a few seasons earlier.

  3. Loved this episode, it might be my favorite overall. The emotional turmoil feels real, so much more natural than usual “soapy” feelings and events. Everybody is mourning, and everybody is doing it in different ways. Nicely written and played. Whereas last season had hardly any emotional impact on the characters or the viewer, something just has happened that really makes everybody wonder how they would act in this situation. J.R. is lashing out, mama is sobbing secretly so she can still be a rock for her family. All good stuff. Honestly, I didn’t miss Bobby at all this season. The first half of the season was so nicely feasting from his death, I had a great time.

    It is very interesting how the show has changed visually from last season. When Miss Ellie was played by Nancy Reagan she was all proper and even glammed up. Now that she is played by Barbara Bush you are going to see her exercising and re-potting plants for at least 10 straight episodes. Bel Geddes’ main job seems to be demonstrating that the show is literally more grounded now.

    I wonder why everything is blue this season. Was that a symbol for something? Or is that just one minor aspect of doing everything different to appear fresh and new? Was blue the color of the fashion season that year?

    Little nit-picking about Jenna: She seems so well right now, seems to be dealing with Bobby’s death quite nicely, giving Donna advise about life in general. Next to Miss Ellie she seems to be the one who is dealing the best. It’ll make her detour to crazy land in the second half of the season so much more forced and unreal.

    • Q-Less, these are great observations. Your references to Nancy Reagan and Barbara Bush are terrific. And yes: Jenna seems to be taking Bobby’s really well right now. I’ve always suspected her breakdown later in the season was a last-minute storytelling twist.

  4. This episode was so sad and it also made you feel apart of the family the way it drawed you in the mourning of Bobby. VP was good in the scene where she is crying and blames herself for the death of the man she loves. It seems strange not seeing Bobby but it a comfort later on to find out this was all a dream. Great critique Chris.

  5. Chris, I have been reading your critiques for a long time now, and they are so good. I do, however, want to add a couple of comments on #192. Having spent the summer of 1985 feeling the post-“Swan Song” trauma and considering how I expected the characters to respond to Bobby’s death in the season premiere, I was a little surprised at how the episode was written. With Pam at the center of the emotion we all felt in Swan Song, I fully expected her to provide the continuity as we transitioned to “The Family Ewing” episode. Instead, few strong scenes were written for Pam in this episode, while Barbara Bel Geddes’ superb performance turned out to be the emotional centerpiece. For me, that was an unexpected shift in the storyline perspective. VP’s grief-stricken opening scene with Cliff and Jamie whetted my appetite for more, but her remaining scenes were so eclipsed by the material written for Miss Ellie and JR that I felt unfulfilled by the aftermath of the love story tragedy – both then and now.

  6. It’s strange, then and even now, I find this episode completely devoid of emotion and quite an emotional let down after the last gut-wrenching episode that came before. Even VP didn’t hit the mark here but her scene with the new Christopher was sweet. A change of head for him and a return of a familiar face with Miss Ellie mercifully being Miss Ellie again. This episode was very much about re-establishing BBG in her role :O)

  7. The dream season of “Dallas” is, for me, the show at its most eighties. It’s pop show television and I loved it.

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