“Mothers” brings back Patricia Shepard, who visits Southfork and is stunned to discover her daughter Sue Ellen is being treated for alcoholism. Patricia’s arrival allows “Dallas” to delve into Sue Ellen’s past, drawing a connection between her troubled childhood and the addiction that now overwhelms her. The episode also examines the prickly relationship between Miss Ellie and Patricia, two women who are united by the marriage of their children but who otherwise have very little in common. It all adds up to another hour that allows the women of Southfork to step into the spotlight. Just think: It took only nine seasons for them to get there.
This is an episode with many interesting moments, beginning with Sue Ellen’s visit to Dr. Gibson, a therapist at the sanitarium where she’s receiving treatment. Linda Gray’s dialogue reveals new information about her character — we learn Sue Ellen’s father was an alcoholic too — epitomizing new producer Peter Dunne’s determination to dig deeper into familiar figures like Sue Ellen Ewing. The Gibson character also is put to good use. She’s full of insight, refusing to allow Sue Ellen to blame other people for her problems. “It doesn’t matter whose fault it is. What matters is where you go from here,” Gibson says. The good doctor is played by Bibi Besch, a wonderful character actress who makes everything she appears in better. What a shame this is Gibson’s only “Dallas” appearance while Dr. Ellby — Sue Ellen’s creepy, glass-eyed therapist during the early seasons — logged 19 (!) episodes.
The scenes involving Ellie and Patricia reveal a lot too. Here are two women who couldn’t be more different. Earthy Ellie allows her children to make their own decisions — sometimes to a fault. In this episode, she wisely tells Ray he must make up his own mind about whether or not to sell his shares of Ewing Oil to Jeremy Wendell, but she also says nothing when J.R. causes a scene at breakfast, complaining about how his family is selling him out to Wendell. Contrast this with that master meddler, the status-obsessed Patricia. She pries J.R. for information about his marital life — even getting him to admit he’s had affairs (notably, she gives him a pass for this) — and later visits Sue Ellen and vows to “straighten out” her daughter’s marriage. When Sue Ellen points out that she’s always run third to J.R.’s work and his mistresses, Patricia snaps, “I didn’t raise my daughters to run third. I raised winners.” This lady is like Jock Ewing in a skirt, is she not?
Patricia and Ellie’s direct interaction tells us a lot too. Note how warmly Ellie greets Patricia when she arrives at Southfork. Only after Patricia has exited the scene do we learn the truth: “That woman’s never been anything but trouble,” Ellie tells Clayton. Mama is nothing if not a gracious hostess. It’s also worth noting that Patricia acts like she has no idea her daughter has a drinking problem, even though the Shepard matriarch’s most recent visit to the ranch came during the third season, right after Sue Ellen’s previous sanitarium stay. Perhaps this is an oversight on behalf of Dunne and the rest of the writing team, but it seems just as likely Patricia is suffering a classic case of denial. Consider what happens at the end of “Mothers,” when Patricia lashes out at Ellie. While Mama is talking about how Sue Ellen needs to learn to deal with her problems on her own, Patricia is focused on fixing her daughter’s marriage. Patricia simply has her own set of priorities.
There’s a lot more to like about “Mothers,” including the opening scene, when J.R. urges the Oil Baron’s Ball organizers to honor Bobby with the Oilman of the Year Award, as well as the final shot, when Mama overhears J.R. lamenting how he failed to keep the family business together. This episode also plants the seeds for storylines that will take on greater significance later in the season: Clayton takes a call from an associate who reports bad business news, Mark hires his friend Dr. Jerry Kenderson to run his research clinic, and Jack is followed by someone who keeps snapping photos of him. Does the stalker work for J.R.? Jeremy? Someone else? We won’t find out for several episodes, and even though the resolution ends up being disappointing, you can’t deny the mystery gets off to an intriguing start.
Mostly, though, “Mothers” belongs to the women, especially Barbara Bel Geddes and Martha Scott. Both actresses are class acts, and it’s fun to watch them go toe to toe with performances that are nuanced, subtle and above all, believable. These are the kinds of mature roles we rarely see on television today. Make no mistake: If Ellie and Patricia were characters on a contemporary soap opera like “Empire” or “Scandal,” they’d probably be reduced to trading cheap quips and dirty looks. Then again, what are the chances either of those shows would give meaningful roles to a couple of veteran actresses like Barbara Bel Geddes and Martha Scott?
Season 9, Episode 6
Airdate: October 25, 1985
Audience: 19.5 million homes, ranking 8th in the weekly ratings
Writer: Hollace White and Stephanie Garman
Director: Michael Preece
Synopsis: Patricia Shepard, Sue Ellen’s mother, arrives and vows to repair her daughter’s marriage. Pam and Miss Ellie each decide to sell their shares of Ewing Oil to Wendell, but Ellie gets cold feet when she realizes it will devastate J.R. Mandy leaves town. Mark decides to fund a medical research institute and asks Jerry to run it.
Cast: John Beck (Mark Graison), Barbara Bel Geddes (Miss Ellie Farlow), Linda Gray (Sue Ellen Ewing), Bibi Besch (Dr. Gibson), Donald Craig (Oil baron), Tony Garcia (Raoul), Larry Hagman (J.R. Ewing), Joshua Harris (Christopher Ewing), Jenilee Harrison (Jamie Ewing Barnes), Susan Howard (Donna Krebbs), Barry Jenner (Dr. Jerry Kenderson), Steve Kanaly (Ray Krebbs), Omri Katz (John Ross Ewing), Howard Keel (Clayton Farlow), Ken Kercheval (Cliff Barnes), Hal Landon (Oil baron), Jared Martin (Dusty Farlow), Shalane McCall (Charlie Wade), Priscilla Beaulieu Presley (Jenna Wade), Victoria Principal (Pam Ewing), Karen Radcliffe (Barbara), Dack Rambo (Jack Ewing), Carol Sanchez (Angela), Martha Scott (Patricia Shepard), William Smithers (Jeremy Wendell)