“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.
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.
“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.
‘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)