“Dallas” fans will always remember Sue Ellen drinking with the bag lady and winos at the end of “Rock Bottom.” Like J.R.’s shooting and Bobby’s “death,” this is a scene that sticks with us for the right reasons. Step back and consider what happens here. A beautiful and wealthy woman, dressed in soiled designer clothing, is standing on skid row, guzzling a bottle of cheap wine. It has all the makings of something funny, or worse, campy. But it’s not. This is a moment of pure heartbreak, especially when you watch the whole episode and see how masterfully Linda Gray portrays Sue Ellen’s slow, steady, sad downfall.
“Rock Bottom” begins with Sue Ellen returning to Southfork to be with her grief-stricken in-laws after Bobby’s funeral. Before she makes it to the front door, though, J.R. tells her no one wants to see her. (“You’re just a bad memory that doesn’t know when to go away.”) This is what triggers her devastating bender. She goes to a cocktail lounge, where the bartender cuts her off and a not-so-good-Samaritan steals her purse and car. Next, she winds up in an alley, where she meets the bag lady and runs away when the woman offers her a sip of her booze. Before we know it, Sue Ellen is waking up in a third-rate motel and realizing the strange man who lured her there has stolen her ring. Holding an empty vodka bottle, she catches a glimpse of herself in the mirror. “J.R.’s right. They’re all right,” she cries. “You are disgusting. I hate you!” Finally, she goes back to the alley. Once again, the bag lady offers her a sip. This time, Sue Ellen doesn’t refuse.
Through it all, Gray strikes each note perfectly. The script gives her surprisingly little dialogue, but she needs no words. Gray has always done much of her acting with her eyes, a skill that serves her especially well here. They telegraph Sue Ellen’s confusion when the creep takes off with her car, her fear when she’s harassed by a couple of lowlifes on skid row, her desperation when she begins gulping from the bag lady’s bottle. Gray’s eyes also register Sue Ellen’s shock when she realizes her ring is missing, which is a crucial moment in the episode. Throughout “Rock Bottom,” director Michael Preece cleverly uses Sue Ellen’s clothing and jewelry as a metaphor for her unraveling. First she loses her hat, then her blouse becomes torn and untucked. Finally, the ring disappears — and with it, so does Sue Ellen’s identity.
When I watched “Rock Bottom” with my family as a kid, I can remember my mom saying Sue Ellen’s decline seemed unbelievable. Surely a woman this rich and classy would never wind up on skid row. Perhaps it did seem outlandish 30 years ago, but I’m not sure that’s true today. We all know stories about young people from “good” families whose lives are wrecked by the horrors of addiction. Why couldn’t it happen to someone like Sue Ellen? Even if her situation is exaggerated, you have to admire Gray’s ability to make the emotions feel real. This performance seems even more impressive after reading Gray’s memoirs, “The Road to Happiness is Always Under Construction,” in which she recalls how much she enjoyed taking Sue Ellen into the gutter. “We had a ball in that alley,” she writes. Isn’t it amazing that something so dramatic for the audience was fun for the cast and crew to film?
Nothing else in “Rock Bottom” matches the power of Sue Ellen’s storyline, but there are many other good scenes. George O. Petrie, such a comforting figure as Harv Smithfield, does a nice job reading Bobby’s letter during the opening of the will. I also like the scene where Jack tries to befriend Charlie — now that Patrick Duffy is gone, you can see Dack Rambo’s character pivoting to the role of resident hero — as well as the scene where Donna tells Jenna she’s pregnant. Susan Howard makes her character seem both excited and nervous, while Priscilla Beaulieu Presley gets to be the voice of wisdom as Jenna counsels Donna on the joys of motherhood.
“Rock Bottom” also gives us the scene of Pam almost crashing her car on the highway — foreshadowing the fiery accident that will mark Victoria Principal’s exit from “Dallas” two seasons from now — along with a fun nod to the past: Desmond Dhooge, who plays Digger’s fellow barfly Harvey in “Digger’s Daughter,” reprises the role here, except now the character is one of the winos Sue Ellen meets in the alley. The other notable casting is Lou Diamond Phillips as a thug who harasses Sue Ellen on the sidewalk. This is one of Phillips’ first roles and he does a fine job, although the other ruffian — played by Sami Chester — gets the best line when he touches one Sue Ellen’s shoulder pads and says, “She looks like a Dallas Cowboy!”
This is the kind of line I probably missed in 1985. It makes me glad I now get to watch the show on DVD with the closed-captioning turned on — one more example of how Dallas” gets better with age.
Season 9, Episode 2
Airdate: September 27, 1985
Audience: 20.5 million homes, ranking 7th in the weekly ratings
Writer: Joel J. Feigenbaum
Director: Michael Preece
Synopsis: Sue Ellen goes on a devastating bender. Bobby’s will leaves his share of Ewing Oil to Christopher and appoints Pam administrator, unnerving J.R. Cliff tries to rally the cartel against J.R. Charlie rebuffs Jack’s attempt to befriend her.
Cast: Barbara Bel Geddes (Miss Ellie Farlow), Sami Chester (Thug), Desmond Dhooge (Harvey), Fern Fitzgerald (Marilee Stone), Linda Gray (Sue Ellen Ewing), Larry Hagman (J.R. Ewing), Lou Hancock (Bag lady), Jenilee Harrison (Jamie Ewing), Susan Howard (Donna Krebbs), Steve Kanaly (Ray Krebbs), Howard Keel (Clayton Farlow), Ken Kercheval (Cliff Barnes), Jaren Martin (Dusty Farlow), Shalane McCall (Charlie Wade), George O. Petrie (Harv Smithfield), Lou Diamond Phillips (Thug), Priscilla Beaulieu Presley (Jenna Wade), Victoria Principal (Pam Ewing), Dack Rambo (Jack Ewing), Deborah Shelton (Mandy Winger), Paul Sorensen (Andy Bradley), Don Starr (Jordan Lee)