In “Those Eyes,” the Ewings finally take off their blinders where Sue Ellen’s drinking is concerned. She lands in a detox ward at the beginning of the episode, and one by one, Miss Ellie, J.R. and the people who love her most come to realize how destructive her alcoholism has become. Sue Ellen realizes this too, although she remains powerless over her addiction. In a chilling scene, when Dusty visits her in the hospital, Sue Ellen begs him for a drink. “Oh, God, no, darling,” he says, explaining that more booze would kill her. Clutching his hands, she looks into his eyes and whispers, “Kill me.”
This is a moment of reckoning for Sue Ellen, and for “Dallas” itself. Too often, the writers have used Sue Ellen’s alcoholism as a crutch to lean on whenever the show needed something to complicate the character’s life. Witness Sue Ellen’s third-season relapse, which seemed to occur primarily so she’d have a reason to not remember her whereabouts during J.R.’s shooting. Now, in the ninth season, Sue Ellen’s drinking is no longer an afterthought — it’s one of the main storylines. By showing the character trembling her way through withdrawals, we have a better sense of what it means for her to be an addict. It’s much more meaningful than merely seeing her passed out in her bedroom next to an empty vodka bottle.
No one seems to appreciate this opportunity more than Linda Gray, whose performance here is nothing less than a tour de force. “Those Eyes” was filmed in an era when television actresses were eagerly shedding their glamorous wardrobes to demonstrate their acting bona fides — think of TV movie queens like Farrah Fawcett in “The Burning Bed” and Raquel Welch in “Right to Die” — but Gray goes further than any of her peers. She looks positively wasted in “Those Eyes,” wearing little makeup and allowing every hair to fall out of place. True to the episode’s title, Gray also uses her famously expressive eyes to draw the audience into her character’s fear and confusion, although nothing touches me more than the moment Dusty arrives at the hospital and Sue Ellen shields her face. It’s such a childlike gesture; as soon as I see it, my heart breaks.
Interestingly, Gray appears in just three scenes in this episode, which means we mostly see Sue Ellen’s descent through the eyes of the other Ewings. It begins when Miss Ellie bravely enters the detox ward and is horrified to discover the Jane Doe in bed No. 13 is her daughter-in-law. In the next scene, Ellie declares she wants to take Sue Ellen home — a typical reaction for the Ewings, who always believe they can handle problems on their own. The doctor forcefully explains that no one — not even the Ewing matriarch — is powerful enough to cure addiction. Later, Ellie tells J.R. he must help his wife. This isn’t unlike a scene that occurred between J.R. and his mother at the end of the second season, except the conversation in “Those Eyes” has an air of finality to it, as if the Ewings are taking her problem more seriously.
“Those Eyes” is one of the first “Dallas” scripts from Peter Dunne, a “Knots Landing” veteran who briefly replaced Leonard Katzman as the show’s behind-the-scenes creative force. The episode is a good example of the darker, more realistic tone Dunne brings to the ninth season. Think about it: One year before this episode aired, the Ewings were “coping” with Bobby’s post-shooting blindness, which miraculously cleared up after a few episodes. Sue Ellen’s struggle in “Those Eyes” feels a lot more grounded by comparison, don’t you think? Sure, there are still plenty of soapy moments, including J.R. and Dusty’s memorable fistfight at Sue Ellen’s bedside, and the camp factor isn’t muted completely. (How else to explain the screaming woman that Sue Ellen encounters on the floor of the jail cell?) For the most part, though, “Dallas” seems a little smarter now.
Dunne’s touch also can be felt in other areas of “Those Eyes,” including the scene where J.R. sweetly helps John Ross with his necktie and the subplot about Ray and Donna deciding to build a bigger house. The latter feels like another metaphor: Steve Kanaly and Susan Howard’s characters are growing as people, so why shouldn’t they have a bigger place to call home? I also like how this episode shows Ray and Jack becoming friends; as much as I love Patrick Duffy, Dack Rambo is doing a nice job filling some of blank spaces created by Bobby’s departure. Heck, I even find myself applauding Jenna’s decision in this episode to stick around Southfork. Maybe it’s because Priscilla Beaulieu Presley’s short bob makes her look more stylish than ever — or maybe it’s because the character no longer feels like a distraction now that one half of the Bobby/Pam coupling is gone — but “Those Eyes” actually makes Jenna seem tolerable.
If you find this revelation surprising, imagine how I feel. But what can I say? They don’t call this the dream season for nothing.
Season 9, Episode 3
Airdate: October 4, 1985
Audience: 20.4 million homes, ranking 3rd in the weekly ratings
Writer: Peter Dunne
Director: Nick Havinga
Synopsis: After the police find Sue Ellen, Miss Ellie persuades J.R. to commit her to a sanitarium. J.R. and Jeremy each set their sights on Christopher’s share of Ewing Oil. Ray and Donna begin planning to build a bigger home. Jenna decides to stay at Southfork.
Cast: Barbara Bel Geddes (Miss Ellie Farlow), Fern Fitzgerald (Marilee Stone), Tony Garcia (Raoul), Linda Gray (Sue Ellen Ewing), Laurence Haddon (Franklin Horner), Larry Hagman (J.R. Ewing), Joshua Harris (Christopher Ewing), Jenilee Harrison (Jamie Barnes), Susan Howard (Donna Krebbs), Harlan Jordan (Sheriff Baldwin), 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), Gary Moody (Doctor), George O. Petrie (Harv Smithfield), Priscilla Beaulieu Presley (Jenna Wade), Victoria Principal (Pam Ewing), Dack Rambo (Jack Ewing), Debbie Rennard (Sly), Sherril Lynn Rettino (Jackie), Deborah Shelton (Mandy Winger), William Smithers (Jeremy Wendell), Don Starr (Jordan Lee), Norma Young (Sanitarium manager)