Critique: ‘Dallas’ Episode 106 — ‘Billion Dollar Question’

Billion Dollas Question, Charlene Tilton, Dallas, Lucy Cooper, Pam Ewing, Victoria Principal

Sob sisters

“Billion Dollar Question” is dominated by the Ewings’ squabbling over whether to have Jock declared legally dead, but I find the subplot about Lucy’s abortion much more interesting. “Dallas” handles her situation with a good deal of sensitivity and care, making this one of those times when the show seems to want to make its audience think, not just entertain them. It’s nicely done.

In the preceding episodes, Lucy learns she’s pregnant after being raped by her stalker, Roger Larson, and tells Pam she’s decided to have an abortion. At the beginning of “Billion Dollar Question,” Lucy’s doctor warns her some women have “tremendous psychological problems” after having the procedure, but Lucy is adamant that she wants to terminate the pregnancy. “I was raped. How could I be a good mother if every time I looked at the baby, it reminded me of that?” she asks. Lucy also rejects the idea of putting the child up for adoption, telling the doctor: “If I don’t get this over and behind me, I think I may just go out of my mind.”

Later in “Billion Dollar Question,” Pam visits Lucy at Dallas Memorial Hospital, where Lucy is anxiously waiting to have the procedure done. When Lucy asks Pam what she would do if she were in a similar situation, Pam recalls her own struggle to have children, adding that she isn’t sure how she would respond if she became pregnant after a rape. “Pam, don’t hate me for this,” Lucy says. Pam’s response: “Hate you? I could never hate you, no matter what. I love you.” The next time we see the two women, the abortion is over and Lucy is crying in her hospital bed as Pam strokes her hair. “I don’t know if I did the right thing or not,” Lucy says.

Arthur Bernard Lewis’s script doesn’t really take a side on the abortion debate, allowing the audience to decide for itself if Lucy made the best decision. It’s worth noting that Pam, “Dallas’s” original moral compass, shows compassion toward Lucy, even if she doesn’t necessarily agree with her decision. Pam also respects Lucy’s privacy — to a point. She breaks her niece’s confidence when she tells Bobby that Lucy had an abortion, but when Bobby suggests Miss Ellie should know too, Pam responds: “I don’t think we should be the ones to tell her. That’s something Lucy’s got to work out for herself.”

Charlene Tilton and Victoria Principal both deliver nice performances throughout this episode, although not everything about the storyline holds up. At times, Lewis’s script gets bogged down in the sexism that pervades this era of “Dallas.” When Pam asks the doctor if Lucy is emotionally prepared for an abortion, he responds, “I’ve always felt it’s very difficult for a man to make a proper judgment in a case like this. Very difficult.” Later, as Lucy is getting ready to leave the hospital, she tells Pam the doctor has assured her she’ll be able to have a baby one day. “And I will want one, when I find the right man,” Lucy says. Other lines sounds like they come straight from a medical encyclopedia: There are numerous references to the procedure being a “therapeutic abortion,” for example.

Of course, this attention to detail isn’t an altogether bad thing. When I recently watched “Billion Dollar Question” for the first time in years, I found it odd that Lucy had the abortion at Dallas Memorial and not a clinic — until I did some research and discovered some hospitals do, in fact, perform the procedure. Lucy refers to this when she tells Pam, “I should have just gone to a clinic. Everything takes so long here. … I’ve heard of women going in, a few hours later they go home. It’s over.”

I know a lot of  fans watch “Dallas” for escapism, but the producers deserve credit for their willingness to tackle a topic that, in some respects, remains taboo on television. Bea Arthur’s character famously had TV’s first abortion in a 1972 episode of “Maude,” but there aren’t many other examples from ’70s and ’80s television. Yet when histories of abortion in prime time are written, Lucy’s is almost always omitted. Did her procedure generate less controversy because it was the result of a rape? Does she get overlooked because “Dallas” is a soap opera?

Besides Lucy’s storyline, “Billion Dollar Question” is also distinguished by J.R. and Holly’s scenes aboard her yacht, which showcase the playful chemistry between Larry Hagman and Lois Chiles, as well as a nifty bird’s eye shot of J.R. tooling along the highway in his Mercedes. I also like Barbara Bel Geddes’ scene with Hagman, when Miss Ellie tells J.R. that his father never played dirty when he was president of Ewing Oil. J.R.’s response: “Mama, you don’t know the half of what Daddy did when he was running that company.” For once, I get the feeling he isn’t exaggerating.

Grade: B


Billion Dollas Question, Dallas, Holly Harwood, J.R. Ewing, Larry Hagman, Lois Chiles

Das boots


Season 6, Episode 3

Airdate: October 15, 1982

Audience: 17.2 million homes, ranking 12th in the weekly ratings

Writer: Arthur Bernard Lewis

Director: Michael Preece

Synopsis: J.R. pressures Miss Ellie to have Jock declared legally dead but she tells him she needs more time. Holly rejects J.R.’s offer to mix business with pleasure and questions his advice to buy a refinery. Lucy has an abortion. Cliff accepts Marilee’s job offer. Ray learns Amos has died. Clayton tells Sue Ellen that Dusty is planning a visit to the Southern Cross.

Cast: Tyler Banks (John Ross Ewing), Barbara Bel Geddes (Miss Ellie Ewing), Lois Chiles (Holly Harwood), Roseanna Christiansen (Teresa), Patrick Duffy (Bobby Ewing), Fern Fitzgerald (Marilee Stone), Linda Gray (Sue Ellen Ewing), Larry Hagman (J.R. Ewing), Alice Hirson (Mavis Anderson), Susan Howard (Donna Krebbs), Steve Kanaly (Ray Krebbs), Howard Keel (Clayton Farlow), Ken Kercheval (Cliff Barnes), Audrey Landers (Afton Cooper), Dennis Lipscomb (Nelson Harding), Frank Marth (Dr. Grovner), George O. Petrie (Harv Smithfield), Priscilla Pointer (Rebecca Wentworth), Victoria Principal (Pam Ewing), Kate Reid (Lil Trotter), Charlene Tilton (Lucy Cooper)

“Billion Dollar Question” is available on DVD and at and iTunes. Watch the episode and share your comments below.

The Dallas Decoder Interview: Howard Lakin

Howard Lakin

Howard Lakin penned several “Dallas” episodes as a freelancer in the early 1980s, then returned to the series as a writer and producer for its final three seasons. To my delight, he agreed to share his memories of working on the show, as well as his thoughts on the TNT revival.

You wrote some of my favorite “Dallas” episodes, beginning with “The Fourth Son,” the one where Ray discovers Jock is his father. What do you remember about making it?

Not too much, honestly. But my own dad was adopted so I’m sure I was able to find plenty of emotional traction in the Jock-Ray relationship. And I think that also might have been a factor later on when I got to plot the J.R.-Vanessa Beaumont-James Beaumont illegitimate son story.

That’s interesting. Did that happen a lot – your drawing on your own family experiences when writing for the Ewings?

In some of the subtle details, maybe. But not in any real core way.

How did it feel when you’d see “Written by Howard Lakin” appear on screen?

Funny to think back on it. But I was in my 20s during my first three-year stint as a freelance writer for “Dallas” and most of my close friends were not TV watchers. Even my wife wasn’t much of a TV watcher so it was kind of hard to muster up a feeling of self-importance when I saw my name onscreen! Although secretly … yeah, it was cool.

J.R. (Larry Hagman) in “Sunrise, Sunset”

Did you have favorite characters to write for?

Don’t know why this came to mind, but I remember this one scene I wrote for J.R. where he had to walk into a swimming pool fully clothed in order to cut a deal. [“Sunrise, Sunset” during Season 13 – Ed.] But when I saw the dailies, Larry Hagman had ad-libbed a kind of Texas strip tease before getting wet. Off came his hat slowly, off came his watch slowly, out came his wallet, almost seductively. Larry Hagman gave J.R. such character nuance that writing J.R. was fun; whatever I brought to the table, Larry made it better. That said, I also especially enjoyed writing Sue Ellen. Her long character trajectory was one of the most engaging to work on.

Any favorite “Dallas” episodes?

“Wedding Bell Blues” always pops into my head. It was the first “Dallas” episode I both wrote and produced and it marked a change for the show. “Dallas’s” ratings were being impacted by fresh new competition in the late 1980s. These new shows had a much faster pace and a lot more flash. [Producers] Len Katzman and Art Lewis both wanted to keep the show moving forward so it was agreed we’d try to change with the times. “Wedding Bell Blues” was the first step in the process. I guess the feeling at the time was that if we were going to grow old, it wasn’t going to be a rocking chair thing. We were going to take some chances and go down fighting.

J.R. and Cally (Hagman, Cathy Podewell) in “Wedding Bell Blues”

I love “Wedding Bell Blues”! That’s the episode where a storm strands everyone at Southfork on the night of J.R. and Cally’s wedding. It’s probably one of the most light-hearted “Dallas” episodes.

Larry Hagman directed the episode and really had fun with it.

Were there times you’d see one of your scenes after it was filmed and think, “Wow, that’s not how I envisioned it when I wrote it?”

Not really, not that I can remember. More credit to Len Katzman. He was that rare exec producer who came up the hard way, sweeping out sound stages as a teenager – I think I have that right – followed by decades of hands-on experience. He had a great grasp not just of his own job but he really understood the intricacies and elements of everyone else’s job. And in an industry that is known for “creative conflict,” he had a calming influence, it seemed, on everyone. This translated into a “no surprises” kind of show when it came time to look at the rough cut.

What was it like to work on “Dallas” toward the end of its run? It seems like a lot of fans are critical of the final years. What’s your response?

Instead of focusing on negatives, because in a weird way that just tarnishes the show’s overall reputation, I’d love to hear about some upbeat takeaways from the show’s later episodes now that 20-plus years have passed. What was fun, what made folks feel, what do they still remember with fondness, you know? After 20 years, it might be time to look back and re-visit the good stuff. Personally, having experienced both the glory years and the do-not-go-gentle-into-that-good-night years, I prefer the latter. CBS, Lorimar and Elvis had left the building. Len had won the right to bring the ship home all on his own and in terms of working conditions, it had the most relaxed vibe of any show I ever worked on.

Don and Sue Ellen (Ian McShane, Linda Gray) in “The Serpent’s Tooth”

Do you have a favorite storyline from those final years of the show? Something you think worked really well?

Off the top of my head, I think …well, I don’t know if these were the story lines that worked best but I really enjoyed crafting the three romances which featured Bobby-April, J.R.-Vanessa, and especially Sue Ellen and Don Lockwood because I was determined that Sue Ellen should have a powerful, positive walk-off ending. I really enjoyed Ian McShane. He was fun to work with and a cool dude – aside from being an awesome actor. Gayle Hunnicutt was a class act and a nice person to boot. And Sheree Wilson did a good job with the long romantic build-up and payoff in Paris with Patrick Duffy.

If the show had been renewed for a 15th season, do you have any idea what storylines you might have pursued? Any idea how the cliffhanger with J.R.’s “suicide” attempt would have been resolved?

I don’t remember any discussion of “what if” so I can’t help you there. If we had known there was going to be a 15th season, I doubt very much that the suicide storyline would have been used at all.

You’ve talked in past interviews about how every “Dallas” character reflected some facet of Leonard Katzman’s personality. Can you talk a little more about that?

It’s just my opinion. But here’s an example: Art Lewis and I would sit with Len for endless hours in his dark office, windows shut, stuffy as hell, hashing out stories. I would have mock arguments with Art, each of us taking the story choices in different directions. Len would just listen. More argument, Len would just listen. Ideas, ideas, how a character should react, what would Bobby do, whatever, then at some point Len would literally swivel in his chair so we couldn’t see his face – this could last for five seconds or two minutes. Then he’d swivel back and give us a satisfied smile and let us know which of our many ideas were correct according to the grid through which he saw the whole arc of the show. It was like he could slip into the skin of each character.

Any thoughts on what Mr. Katzman might make of the new TNT series? And what do you think of the show?

I definitely like the new show. It’s really remarkable how it remains true to the spirit and mythology of the original and yet adds all this new good stuff. Can’t speak for Len Katzman but I know he’d be very pleased with its success.

John Ross (Tyler Banks) in “Head of the Family”

It’s funny: One of the first episodes you wrote, “Head of the Family,” ends with little John Ross sitting in Jock’s chair at the head of the Southfork dinner table. It kind of predicts the whole TNT series!

Damn, I totally forgot about that.

You’re now a rare book dealer. How did that come about?

Showbiz, especially episodic work, is so adrenaline-driven that I really needed ways to chill. Before I got my MFA degree at UCLA film school, I got a degree in lit from Antioch College. Charles Dickens, Jane Austen, Thomas Hardy – read everything they wrote. Decided to collect their first editions. Built such a good collection that eventually it morphed into Lakin & Marley Rare Books here in San Francisco.

You just published a novel. What can you tell us about it?

It’s brand new, called “California Noir.” You can buy it on Amazon or ask for it at your local bookshop. It’s an emotional thriller, equal parts suspense and romance. Don’t want to do any spoilers so, in classic TV shorthand, think of it as “Dallas” meets “Casablanca,” a film noir novel that’s just as much a love story as it is a mystery to be solved.

Getting back to “Dallas:” The series has now spanned several decades. What do you think is the secret of its enduring appeal?

Live long enough and you can end up literally watching hundreds and hundreds of television series, many absolutely brilliant, most the usual re-mix or formula. “Dallas” is much more saga than series. Its narrative is expansive, and larger than life and convoluted in a good way. From my point of view, what makes it endure is also what makes it iconic. I mean, despite its oversized Texas storytelling, anti-heroic bluster and Dickensian cast of characters, there is still so much to care about on a human level and a whole lot of universality in how it deals with complex family love, family business and family conflict. That’s my take on it anyway.

Share your comments below and read more interviews from Dallas Decoder.

Critique: ‘Dallas’ Episode 76 – ‘Full Circle’

Look Mom, no grudges

Look Mom, no grudges

The famous scene from “Full Circle” – when Cliff tearfully offers his estranged mother a bowl of licorice, her favorite candy – is one of my earliest “Dallas” memories. I was 7 when this episode debuted, and I remember watching it and feeling sorry for Cliff. All these years later, the moment still moves me.

Ken Kercheval has called Cliff and Rebecca’s reconciliation his favorite “Dallas” scene, and it’s easy to see why he likes it. Kercheval is always fascinating to watch, but during the course of this four-and-a-half-minute sequence, he’s called upon to convey a whole spectrum of emotion: from nervousness to rage to mercy. The actor hits every note with precision.

The most impressive part of Kercheval’s performance might be how he seems to avoid looking at Priscilla Pointer. When I interviewed Kercheval in the summer, he talked about another of his favorite scenes – this one with Barbara Bel Geddes – and mentioned how helpful it is for actors to maintain eye contact so they can take “cues” from each other. Kercheval doesn’t appear to do that with Pointer during the “licorice scene.” This probably made the performance more challenging, but it lends the scene power. Seeing how difficult it is for Cliff to look Rebecca in the eye helps us realize how hard it is for him to face the truth about her shortcomings.

Michael Preece’s direction here is terrific – I especially like how he has Kercheval jump to his feet when Cliff calls out Rebecca’s sins – as well as Bruce Broughton’s lush score, which swells when mother and son finally embrace.

Then there’s Arthur Bernard Lewis’s clever dialogue. At the end of the scene, Lewis could have given Kercheval a straightforward line to signal Cliff’s last-minute change of heart – something like, “Wait, Mom, don’t go” – but instead, Lewis has Cliff offer her the licorice. Why? I think the line achieves two things: Having Cliff refer to candy – something so closely associated with childhood – reminds us how long it’s been since he last saw Rebecca. More importantly, the licorice symbolizes how Cliff in many ways is still the wounded little boy whose mother abandoned him.

If any other character was given a line like this (imagine J.R. or Bobby saying it), it might seem childish, but with Cliff, it’s flat-out moving. Cliff is the most revenge-prone character in “Dallas” history, yet for once in his life, he’s willing to set aside his animus. This is a moment of genuine growth for Cliff.

I also love the “Full Circle” sequence where Preece’s camera follows Mary Crosby’s legs as Kristin marches across a hotel lobby to Bruce Broughton’s jaunty score. This is a fun scene, but it’s also a little prophetic: The confidence in Crosby’s stride makes her look buoyant – and as we now know, this won’t be the last time we see Kristin float.

Grade: A


Walk to remember

Walk to remember


Season 4, Episode 22

Airdate: April 17, 1981

Audience: 24.4 million homes, ranking 1st in the weekly ratings

Writer: Arthur Bernard Lewis

Director: Michael Preece

Synopsis: Cliff forgives Rebecca and presents Bobby’s committee with evidence linking J.R. to the counter-revolution in Asia. Kristin returns and extorts money from Jordan Lee, who believes he is the father of her newborn son. Sue Ellen runs into Dusty, who is learning to walk again. Pam is devastated to learn she cannot bear children. Lucy leaves Mitch.

Cast: Tyler Banks (John Ross Ewing), Barbara Bel Geddes (Miss Ellie Ewing), Ellen Bry (Jean), Gerald Castillo (Luis Hernandez), Mary Crosby (Kristin Shepard), Patrick Duffy (Senator Bobby Ewing), Susan Flannery (Leslie Stewart), Meg Gallagher (Louella), Linda Gray (Sue Ellen Ewing), Larry Hagman (J.R. Ewing), John Hart (Senator Carson), David Healy (Senator Harbin), Susan Howard (Donna Krebbs), Steve Kanaly (Ray Krebbs), Sherril Lynn Katzman (Jackie), Ken Kercheval (Cliff Barnes), Jared Martin (Dusty Farlow), Leigh McCloskey (Mitch Cooper), Priscilla Pointer (Rebecca Wentworth), Victoria Principal (Pam Ewing), John Randolph (Lincoln Hargrove), William Smithers (Jeremy Wendell), Don Starr (Jordan Lee), Christopher Stone (Dave Stratton), Charlene Tilton (Lucy Cooper), Jay Varela (Senator Arvilla), Joseph Warren (Senator Dickson), Morgan Woodward (Punk Anderson)

“Full Circle” is available on DVD and at and iTunes. Watch the episode and share your comments below.

Critique: ‘Dallas’ Episode 75 – ‘New Beginnings’

War and remembrance

War and remembrance

Sometimes “Dallas” is more than entertaining – it’s damn near magical. This happens when everything that goes into making the show – the writing, the acting, the music and so on – comes together in ways that are so pitch-perfect, you can’t help but feel you’re witnessing something special. The final scene in “New Beginnings” is one of these moments.

It begins when J.R. comes home late and finds Sue Ellen asleep in John Ross’s darkened nursery, having dozed off while rocking him. She awakens and helps J.R. put the boy in his crib, and then the couple moves into their bedroom, where they reminisce about their courtship.

The exchange that follows is extraordinary. J.R. and Sue Ellen spend much of their lives at war with each other, but in this scene we finally see them take off their armor, which director Irving J. Moore symbolizes by putting Linda Gray in a bathrobe and having Larry Hagman remove his suit jacket and necktie as they deliver their dialogue.

The conversation itself, written by Arthur Bernard Lewis, paints a lovely picture of what J.R. and Sue Ellen were like when their love was new. With Richard Lewis Warren’s soft piano music playing in the background, we listen to J.R. describe seeing Sue Ellen for the first time, during the Miss Texas beauty pageant, and we envision how poised she must have looked on that stage. We then hear Sue Ellen recall how “frightened” she was when J.R. brought her to Southfork to meet Jock and Miss Ellie, and we imagine a sweeter, shyer Sue Ellen walking into that big house on the arm of a younger, beaming J.R.

Lewis’s dialogue is also poetic in the way it captures the unique qualities Hagman and Gray bring to their roles. Here’s how Sue Ellen remembers J.R.’s eyes: “They always seemed to be hiding secrets. Things you knew about the world that no one else knew.” And here’s how he recalls her beauty pageant performance: “All those pretty young girls were prancing around and trying to look sexy. And then, there you were, Sue Ellen. Not trying to do anything. Just looking more sexy than any of them. And you had something else. You looked like a lady.” Have better descriptions of these characters ever been written?

It’s also worth considering the context in which J.R. and Sue Ellen’s conversation takes place. Earlier in “New Beginnings,” J.R. visits Leslie’s apartment, where he vows to end his marriage so he can make Leslie his new wife. “I’m filing against Sue Ellen,” he says. Do hearing the words aloud prompt the nostalgic wave that engulfs J.R. at the end of the episode?

And what is Sue Ellen’s frame of mind at the end of “New Beginnings”? In the episode’s first act, Clint’s wife Alisha tells Sue Ellen she is willing to share her husband if that’s what it takes to hold onto him. The conversation leads a guilty Sue Ellen to break up with Clint, but does Alisha’s devotion also inspire Sue Ellen to give her own marriage another chance?

This is what makes the final moments of “New Beginnings” so heartbreaking. Just when it seems like J.R. and Sue Ellen are about to reignite their old spark, the phone rings. She answers and after hearing the voice on the other end, we see her face fall and her posture stiffen. “It’s Kristin, calling from California,” Sue Ellen announces somberly. “She just gave birth to a baby boy. You have another son.”

What a punch to the gut! The words remind us that the past doesn’t just hold memories for J.R. and Sue Ellen to cherish – it also holds mistakes that will haunt them forever.

Grade: A


Wake-up call

Wake-up call


Season 4, Episode 21

Airdate: April 10, 1981

Audience: 23.3 million homes, ranking 1st in the weekly ratings

Writer: Arthur Bernard Lewis

Director: Irving J. Moore

Synopsis: Jock and Miss Ellie depart for a second honeymoon. Sue Ellen ends her affair with Clint after his wife confronts her. Jeremy vows revenge when J.R. backs out of his promise to sell him Ewing Oil. Cliff sleeps with Afton and pumps her for information about J.R. Kristin calls Sue Ellen and tells her she’s given birth to J.R.’s son.

Cast: Tyler Banks (John Ross Ewing), Barbara Bel Geddes (Miss Ellie Ewing), Stephanie Braxton (Alisha Ogden), Jim Davis (Jock Ewing), Richard Derr (Howard), Patrick Duffy (Senator Bobby Ewing), Susan Flannery (Leslie Stewart), Meg Gallagher (Louella), Linda Gray (Sue Ellen Ewing), Larry Hagman (J.R. Ewing), Susan Howard (Donna Culver Krebbs), Steve Kanaly (Ray Krebbs), Sherril Lynn Katzman (Jackie), Ken Kercheval (Cliff Barnes), Audrey Landers (Afton Cooper), Monte Markham (Clint Ogden), Leigh McCloskey (Mitch Cooper), Priscilla Pointer (Rebecca Wentworth), Victoria Principal (Pam Ewing), William Smithers (Jeremy Wendell), Craig Stevens (Greg Stewart), Christopher Stone (Dave Stratton), Charlene Tilton (Lucy Cooper), Morgan Woodward (Punk Anderson)

“New Beginnings” is available on DVD and at and iTunes. Watch the episode and share your comments below.

Critique: ‘Dallas’ Episode 41 – ‘Ellie Saves the Day’

Barbara Bel Geddes, Dallas, Ellie Saves the Day, Miss Ellie Ewing


“Ellie Saves the Day” is essential viewing for anyone who loves “Dallas” and its mythology. The story brings the Ewings to the brink of financial ruin, and their darkest hour turns out to be one of the show’s finest. This is a great episode.

The plot of is straightforward – the Ewings discover J.R. has secretly mortgaged Southfork, and they must scramble to raise the money to pay the banks – but the subtext is rich. There are allusions to the consequences of codependence and parallels to the real-life economic morass of the 1970s. These themes prove resilient.

In many ways, “Ellie Saves the Day” is the flip side of “The Kristin Affair,” which aired six weeks earlier in the fall of 1979. “The Kristin Affair” is also a classic episode, but it is relatively breezy, while “Ellie Saves the Day” is moodier, broodier and ultimately, more satisfying.

‘I Never Taught Him When to Stop’

Dallas, Ellie Saves the Day, J.R. Ewing, Larry Hagman


“Ellie Saves the Day” opens with J.R. panicked because he has hasn’t struck oil in Asia and the deadline to pay the Southfork mortgage is looming. The crisis leaves him gloomy and full of self-pity. “I’ll write you a nice reference,” he tells Kristin.

Seeing J.R. this way invites us to consider the roots of his greed. To say the character is power hungry tells only half the tale. J.R. really craves Jock’s respect, and he believes boosting Ewing Oil’s size and stature is the only way to earn it. For J.R., power is a means to an end.

Unfortunately, J.R. becomes addicted to his own ambition. In “The Kristin Affair,” he gets drunk with dreams of making Ewing Oil “the biggest, most powerful independent in Texas” and mortgages Southfork to finance his overseas drilling venture. It’s a risky scheme, and when it finally unravels in “Ellie Saves the Day,” it’s not unlike watching a drunkard coming off a bender. This idea is reinforced by the five o’clock shadow that shows up on Larry Hagman’s face in the third act.

Make no mistake: J.R. is as compulsive as Sue Ellen. She is an alcoholic, but he is powerless over his own ego, and just as the Ewings indulge her, they also enable him. Jock alludes to this in “Ellie Saves the Day” when he discovers the mortgage scheme and tells Bobby, “I trained J.R. and taught him everything he knows. Gave him the fever for big business. But I never taught him when to stop.”

‘Sweat and Hope and Dreams’

Bobby Ewing, Dallas, Ellie Saves the Day, Jim Davis, Jock Ewing, Patrick Duffy


This is just one achingly poignant scene in an episode full of them. In another, Bobby finds Jock sitting alone on the Southfork patio in the dark of night. Bobby sees his father is worried and tells him he can “start over” if Ewing Oil collapses, but Jock waves him off. “Not enough time left for me to do that,” Jock says, and as we watch his silvery hair catch the moonlight, we know he’s probably right.

Jock is nothing if not realistic. “It’s not the oil business that I’m worried about,” he tells Bobby. “There’s just no way that you can build another Southfork. Not in six lifetimes.”

Bobby, true to his nature, doesn’t give up. He implores his father to persuade the banks to extend their loan. “We’ll try, Bobby. We’ll try,” Jock responds. “But this feels like the end of 40 years of sweat and hopes and dreams.”

Jim Davis and Patrick Duffy’s performances in this scene are beautiful, and so is the dialogue. “Ellie Saves the Day” was written by Arthur Bernard Lewis, perhaps “Dallas’s” best scriptwriter, and David Michael Jacobs, who apparently is not the same person as “Dallas” creator David Jacobs. Regardless, Lewis and this second David Jacobs demonstrate they understand better than most what makes “Dallas” tick.

Gunnar Hellström’s direction during Jock and Bobby’s conversation is also inspired. It is intensely quiet, with the faint sound of crickets in the background and a 17-second, longer-than-it-seems pause at the beginning of the scene.  Hellström shrouds Davis and Duffy in blackness, making them look a bit like actors in a stage play. This is fitting, given how Jock and Bobby’s conversation – with all those references to the passage of time, respect and failed dreams – feels like something out of “Death of a Salesman.”

Hellström concludes the scene by slowly pulling back the camera, leaving us with a wide shot of Jock and Bobby, dressed in their pajamas and brooding over what the next day might bring. Never before have these big men seemed humbler.

‘It’s Time That Southfork Repaid Those Debts’

Barbara Bel Geddes, Dallas, Ellie Saves the Day, Miss Ellie Ewing


The somber tone of “Ellie Saves the Day” reflected the national mood in 1979, when gas shortages and the Three Mile Island meltdown were seen as signs of American decline. For some people in today’s audiences, these themes will still resonate.

Jock’s “six lifetimes” line also reminds us the collapse of Ewing Oil and the foreclosure of Southfork wouldn’t be equal losses. These twin institutions define “Dallas” and its characters, but the ranch is by far the more precious of the two. It’s no accident Miss Ellie, “Dallas’s” moral center, personifies Southfork, while the corrupt J.R. embodies the company. (It’s also no surprise the virtues of drilling on Southfork will again be debated during TNT’s new “Dallas” series.)

From this vantage point, “Ellie Saves the Day” resembles a parable about the inequities in American capitalism and conservationism. In the real world, we rush to relax our environmental standards when the economy suffers – even President Obama has weakened clean-air rules – just as Ellie decides to bail out Ewing Oil by lifting the generations-old embargo against drilling on the ranch.

As she tells Jock at the end of this episode, “Forty years ago, Ewing Oil paid off the mortgage on Southfork – and saved it. Now I think it’s time that Southfork repaid those debts.”

‘I May Never Forgive You for This, J.R.’

Barbara Bel Geddes, Dallas, Ellie Saves the Day, Miss Ellie Ewing


Barbara Bel Geddes’ performance in “Ellie Saves the Day” might be her best during the series. She delivers her lines with her trademark quiet conviction, but I also love the way she carries herself. Bel Geddes might be small, but her grace makes her a giant.

This is best illustrated in the final scene, when Miss Ellie refuses to use Vaughn Leland’s pen to sign away the mineral rights to her family’s land. If we saw another actress do this, it might make Ellie seem petty. When Bel Geddes does it, it’s a moment of triumph.

Of course, this scene also exposes the just-below-the-surface flawed logic in “Ellie Saves the Day.”

To make the storyline work, the producers fiddle with the show’s continuity: When “Dallas” begins, Ewing Oil and Southfork seem to operate independently of each other, but at the beginning of the third season, they suddenly are referred to as subsidiaries of “Ewing Enterprises,” a parent company that is rarely mentioned again after this season. From this perspective, the Ewings kind of get what they deserve. Who in their right mind makes the family home dependent on the family business?

Another quibble: In the episode’s closing moments, when Ellie is leaving the Ewing Oil office, she glances at her eldest son and says, “I may never forgive you for this, J.R.” Bel Geddes’ face isn’t shown when she delivers the line, which sounds like it was dubbed in after the scene was filmed. I don’t know why the people who made “Ellie Saves the Day” felt the line was needed. Imagine if Ellie had simply turned to J.R. and cut him a withering look. Her silence would have been more unsettling than anything she might have said.

Regardless, the fact Ellie is unmerciful toward J.R. is telling. It lets us know she may be able to save Southfork and Ewing Oil, but she knows she can’t save her son’s soul. He’s too far gone for that.

Grade: A+


Barbara Bel Geddes, Dallas, Ellie Saves the Day, Miss Ellie Ewing, Ray Krebbs, Steve Kanaly



Season 3, Episode 12

Airdate: November 30, 1979

Audience: 18.5 million homes, ranking 13th in the weekly ratings

Writers: David Michael Jacobs and Arthur Bernard Lewis

Director: Gunnar Hellström

Synopsis: The Ewings learn J.R. mortgaged Southfork to finance his Asian deal. To stave off foreclosure, Miss Ellie decides to allow Ewing Oil to drill on the ranch.

Cast: Barbara Bel Geddes (Miss Ellie Ewing), Mary Crosby (Kristin Shepard), Jim Davis (Jock Ewing), Patrick Duffy (Bobby Ewing), Linda Gray (Sue Ellen Ewing), Larry Hagman (J.R. Ewing), Steve Kanaly (Ray Krebbs), Ken Kercheval (Cliff Barnes), Jeanna Michaels (Connie), Dennis Patrick (Vaughn Leland), Randolph Powell (Alan Beam), Victoria Principal (Pam Ewing), Don Starr (Jordan Lee), Charlene Tilton (Lucy Ewing), Jimmy Weldon (Sy Stevens)

“Ellie Saves the Day” is available on DVD and at and iTunes. Watch the episode and share your comments below.

Critique: ‘Dallas’ Episode 17 – ‘Fallen Idol’

Bobby Ewing, Dallas, Fallen Idol, Guzzler Bennett, Richard Kelton

Guzzler rising

“Fallen Idol” arrives halfway during “Dallas’s” second season, and while we know the characters pretty well at this point, this episode demonstrates how they still manage to surprise us.

One of the best moments comes during the third act, when J.R.’s underhanded cronies Jeb Ames and Willie Joe Garr show up at his office to complain about Bobby’s plan to build a shopping center on Southfork. Their gripe: Bobby’s project will be constructed on Section 40, the oil-soaked tract where J.R., Jeb and Willie Joe secretly plan to drill when Jock dies.

“If you don’t stop Bobby, I’ll stop him,” Jeb snarls to J.R.

“What’s that supposed to mean?” J.R. asks.

“You know damn well what it means.”

And then: Pow!

J.R pops Jeb in the mouth, sending the creep staggering backwards.

“Don’t you ever threaten my brother,” J.R. says. “Or any other Ewing.”

Seeing J.R. knock the sneer off Jeb’s face reveals a side to him we haven’t seen before. It’s nice to know he cares about someone other than himself.

In another unexpected twist, J.R. invites Pam to lunch to enlist her help in stopping Bobby from doing business with Guzzler Bennett, a shady pal from Bobby’s college football days.

It’s fun to see J.R. turn to Pam, one of his greatest adversaries, for help. My favorite part: When a skeptical Pam asks J.R. how she is supposed to persuade Bobby to drop his construction project, J.R. responds, “You’re a very clever woman, Pam. You’ll think of something.” Delicious.

Scriptwriter Arthur Bernard Lewis saves “Fallen Idol’s” best moment for the end, when we learn Bobby has known all along about Guzzler’s troubled past but is willing to go along with the construction project anyway.

Of all the twists in “Fallen Idol,” this is the niftiest. We realize Bobby is smarter than he seemed, but we’re also relieved to know he wasn’t going to turn his back on a friend in need. It’s an unexpected discovery, yet it’s also perfectly in keeping with what we know about our hero.

“Fallen Idol’s” other high point: Miss Ellie’s soliloquy near the end of the episode, when Bobby tries to justify his construction project by telling her the shopping center will be built on “land we never use.”

“Does everything have to be used?” Ellie responds. “Can’t some things just be? Stay the way they’ve always been? Do we have to change everything we touch? Does it really make things better that way?”

Unlike “Fallen Idol’s” many surprises, solemn, stare-off-into-space speeches like this are exactly what we’ve come to expect from Miss Ellie.

Would we want it any other way?

Grade: B


Barbara Bel Geddes, Bobby Ewing, Dallas, Fallen Idol, Miss Ellie Ewing, Patrick Duffy

Mall in the family


Season 2, Episode 12

Airdate: December 3, 1978

Audience: 16.3 million homes, ranking 23rd in the weekly ratings

Writer: Arthur Bernard Lewis

Director: Vincent McEveety

Synopsis: Bobby brings a partner into his construction business: Guzzler Bennett, his old college chum. Miss Ellie reluctantly gives them permission to build a shopping center on Southfork but Guzzler turns out to be a fraud and leaves Dallas.

Cast: John Ashton (Willie Joe Garr), Barbara Bel Geddes (Miss Ellie Ewing), Nancy Bleier (Connie), Jim Davis (Jock Ewing), Patrick Duffy (Bobby Ewing), Meg Gallagher (Louella), Linda Gray (Sue Ellen Ewing), Larry Hagman (J.R. Ewing), Richard Kelton (Guzzler Bennett), John Petlock (Dan Marsh), Victoria Principal (Pam Ewing), Charlene Tilton (Lucy Ewing), Sandy Ward (Jeb Ames)

“Fallen Idol” is available on DVD and at and iTunes. Watch the episode and share your comments below.