Dallas Parallels: Masterpieces

Dallas, Jim Davis, Jock Ewing, J.R. Ewing, Larry Hagman

The deaths of Jock and J.R. Ewing produced some of the saddest moments in “Dallas” history. From a creative standpoint, the two deaths also stand as high watermarks for the franchise, although I’m sure everyone involved — the people behind the scenes, the performers in front of the camera, the fans watching at home — wish neither storyline had been necessary.

The original “Dallas” wrote Jock out of the show when Jim Davis died of cancer in 1981; TNT’s sequel show killed off J.R. when Larry Hagman, also a cancer victim, died in 2012. Wisely, neither series considered recasting the roles, choosing instead to honor Davis and Hagman by incorporating their deaths into the storylines.

The old show laid the groundwork for Jock’s departure by having the government recruit him off-screen for a trade mission to “South America” to help an unidentified country develop its oil industry. (Foreign locales on the 1980s “Dallas” are almost always vague.) For several episodes, the Ewings are shown talking to Jock on the phone or receiving letters from him — until the 1982 Southfork barbecue, when Miss Ellie receives the fateful call informing her that Jock’s helicopter has crashed in the jungle. J.R., Bobby and Ray go to the crash site hoping to find Jock, but the only thing they bring home is his lion’s head medallion, which Bobby discovers at the bottom of the lake where the chopper went down.

After Hagman’s death, TNT’s “Dallas” sent J.R. to Abu Dhabi, where he was said to be negotiating oil leases for Ewing Energies, the family’s newest business. The producers then recycled recent footage and dialogue from Hagman to create a scene in which J.R. makes a final phone call to John Ross. After expressing his pride in the younger man and telling him that he’s his son “from tip to tail,” J.R. looks stunned as two gunshots ring out. The next time we see John Ross, he’s with Bobby, Sue Ellen and Christopher aboard a Ewing helicopter as it flies to Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, where the police say they’ve found J.R.’s dead body in a faded hotel room. The Ewings refuse to believe the evidence until they go to the morgue and confirm the sad truth: J.R. is gone.

The parallels are clear: Jock and J.R. both die away from home, and both of their families race to foreign terrain, hoping against hope that the men are still alive. The way the Ewings handle the deaths are also similar: When Jock dies, J.R. slips into a depression, leaving Bobby to play the role of the supportive younger sibling; it’s not unlike John Ross’s funk at J.R.’s memorial service and funeral, where Christopher offers his older cousin much-needed moral support. Meanwhile, Sue Ellen’s tearful eulogy at J.R.’s gravesite evokes memories of Miss Ellie’s moving tribute to Jock at the first Oil Baron’s Ball held after his death.

There are also similarities between Jock’s will and the scheme that J.R leaves his family to execute after his death. Both are essentially war plans: Jock’s will pits J.R. and Bobby against each other in a battle to determine which man is best suited to run Ewing Oil, while J.R.’s “masterpiece” is a blueprint to defend the family’s empire from Cliff Barnes’s latest attack. Despite the differences, both storylines end with a similar twist: It turns out the war plans are really peace plans.

In the classic episode “Check and Mate,” as the contest for Ewing Oil concludes, Jock’s friend Punk Anderson reads a letter in which the Ewing patriarch reveals the contest wasn’t really about determining which brother is a superior businessman; the goal was to show the men that they need each other. “If you just took the same energy you use to fight each other and went to work side by side, there’d be no limit to what you’d be able to accomplish in the future,” Jock wrote.

Thirty years later, in the TNT episode “Legacies,” Bobby reads J.R.’s last letter, which reveals the true purpose of his masterpiece was to end the Ewings’ long-running battle with the Barneses — a fight J.R. helped perpetuate. “The feud Digger Barnes started with our family caused more heartbreak than either of us has time to recount. Well, I guess you do have the time. Use it. Put an end to this feud, once and for all,” J.R. wrote.

There’s something poignant about the idea that J.R., “Dallas’s” ultimate warrior, died while trying to bring peace to his family. And what lengths he went to! It turned out he was dying of cancer and arranged for his loyal private eye Bum to shoot him so his “murder” could be pinned on Cliff. Some “Dallas” fans have questioned J.R.’s tactics — will framing Cliff really end the Barnes-Ewing feud? — but is it any less logical than Jock’s attempt to make his sons get along by pitting them against each other? “Dallas” purists also see J.R.’s sacrifice as an example of TNT’s historical revisionism — he lived like a villain but died a hero — but I like the idea that Hagman’s character “grew” in old age and became more willing to put his family’s needs above his own.

Besides, not all revisionism is a bad thing. Remember the painting of J.R. that Bobby, Sue Ellen and John Ross hung in the Ewing Energies office at the end of the second season? The portrait, which is seen above, seemed destined to become TNT’s version of the old show’s painting of Jock, except many “Dallas” fans instantly despised the impressionistic style that production designer Richard Berg used to render J.R. Well, good news: For Season 3, Berg has produced a better, more realistic version — one that’s much more befitting a hero.

 

‘Look at Each Other as Family’

Dallas, Check and Mate, Morgan Woodard, Punk Anderson

Daddy’s decree

In “Check and Mate,” a seventh-season “Dallas” episode, Punk (Morgan Woodward) reads aloud Jock’s letter as J.R. (Larry Hagman), Bobby (Patrick Duffy) and Harv (George O. Petrie) listen.

PUNK: “Bobby, J.R.: By the time you hear these words, a year will have passed since I died. Now I know you two never had been able to work together, but in throwing you against each other as I decided to do, I will have been able to prove a point. I’m convinced that the fight for Ewing Oil will bring out the best in both of you and that when you add up your two halves of the company, you’ll find that together, you’ll have taken Ewing Oil to the heights of success and profitability. Boys, if nothing else, this battle should teach you to respect one another as businessmen and as adversaries. I don’t care which of you ends up with the higher profit number. I truly don’t. My deepest wish is that, at the end of this year, you two will have learned that you’re far better off together than apart and if you just took the same energy you use to fight each other and went to work side by side, there’d be no limit to what you’d be able to accomplish in the future. Sons, that was the purpose of your contest. Not to make one of you a winner and the other a loser. It was to make you look at each other as family. I know that’s what your mom would want, and that’s what I want too. J.R., Bobby, do it without me. For your mama’s sake and mine, put your arms around each other and work that company like brothers.”

 

‘Put an End to this Feud’

Bobby Ewing, Dallas, Legacies, Patrick Duffy, TNT

Brother’s behest

In “Legacies,” a second-season “Dallas” episode, Bobby (Patrick Duffy) reads aloud J.R.’s letter as John Ross (Josh Henderson), Christopher (Jesse Metcalfe) and Bum (Kevin Page) listen.

BOBBY: “Bobby, Doctors say I’ve only got a few days left. Damn cancer. I should have told you earlier, but you know how I detest pity. The feud Digger Barnes started with our family caused more heartbreak than either of us has time to recount. Well, I guess you do have the time. Use it. Put an end to this feud, once and for all. I had Bum steal Cliff’s gun. That malignant little troll Barnes comes to Mexico every year for a Marlin fishing competition. I’m going to damn well stay alive long enough to be here when he arrives. Carlos del Sol will smooth out the rough edges in Mexico for you. And talk to Bum. He’s the final and most important piece of the puzzle. And the best friend I didn’t deserve to have. So remember the time that you got grounded for ‘borrowing’ Daddy’s favorite shotgun? You swore up and down it wasn’t you but Daddy said there was no point in lying because he found those extra shells in your room. Well, we both know it was me who planted those shells. Now it’s time to play that card again. I can …. [Bobby breaks down, and Christopher finishes reading the letter.]

CHRISTOPHER: “I can never make up for all the terrible, hurtful things I did to you, Bobby. And I have no excuses either one of us will believe. But I hope in the quiet place in your heart, where the truth lives, that my jealousy, as powerful as it was, was nothing compared to my love for you. Goodbye, baby brother. I guess I’ll be duck hunting with Daddy. I’ll tell him I was the one who borrowed his gun.”

How do you feel about Jock and J.R.’s peace plans? Share your comments below and read more “Dallas Parallels.”

Dallas Scene of the Day: ‘You and Me Together. Brothers.’

Bobby Ewing, Check and Mate, J.R. Ewing, Larry Hagman, Patrick Duffy

Daddy wins

In “Check and Mate,” a seventh-season “Dallas” episode, J.R. (Larry Hagman), Bobby (Patrick Duffy), Punk (Morgan Woodward) and Harv (George O. Petrie) are in Harv’s office, listening as Gerber (John Hostetter), the auditor, announces the results of the Ewing Oil contest.

GERBER: All right, that takes care of the breakdown on a section-by-section basis.

J.R.: Now let’s hear the totals.

GERBER: All right. These totals are accurate to the close of business yesterday. Mr. Bobby Ewing has improved the assets he was initially given by the sum of $24,160,000.

J.R.: Well, that’s a pretty good year’s work, Bobby.

PUNK: And Mr. J.R. Ewing?

GERBER: J.R. Ewing has improved the assets he was given by the sum of $40,220,000.

J.R. chuckles, throws up his hands.

PUNK: Well, now, that’s a fair margin. J.R.’s clearly the winner.

HARV: Yes. Congratulations, J.R.

J.R.: Thank you, Harv. Thank you.

PUNK: Now, boys. What about this letter?

HARV: Well, it pleases me to say that even before they knew about the letter, the boys had already agreed to split the company, no matter who won the contest.

PUNK: That’s what Bobby said, and then J.R. confirmed that yesterday. Right, J.R.?

J.R.: [Rises from his seat, goes to the bar] Well, yes. There’s some truth in the idea that were going to share the company —

PUNK: J.R.!

J.R.: But that was in the aftermath of what happened at Southfork. It was very special circumstances. [Fixing himself a drink] Both Bobby and I were, oh, highly emotional at the time.

HARV: [Answering the buzzing intercom] What is it, Janet? I told you I didn’t want to be interrupted.

JANET: There’s a gentleman out here who says it’s urgent he talk to Bobby Ewing.

BOBBY: Would you ask him to come in, please, Harv? [Rises from his seat, goes to the door]

J.R.: Could that wait, Bob?

BOBBY: No, it can’t, J.R. [Bobby opens the door and shakes the hand of his visitor: Thornton (Kenneth Kimmins).] Thornton.

THORNTON: I got here as fast as I could.

BOBBY: You had me a little worried. Everybody, I’d like you to meet Thornton McLeish. He’s my partner in those Canadian frozen fields that I was involved with. [Punk, Harv, Gerber and Thornton exchange hellos.] I asked Thornton to come down here because I — well, Thornton, why don’t you explain it to them?

THORNTON: When Bobby invested with us, we were sure our fields would come in — and come in big. What we couldn’t tell was when they’d come in. And that was crucial to Bobby because of this contest he had with his brother. Hello, J.R. [J.R. nods] Things looked pretty grim there for awhile, but Bobby not only stuck it out, he was instrumental in persuading another company—Barnes-Wentworth—to provide us with a special drill that would solve some of the problems we had.

J.R.: Well, I assume there’s a point to all this?

THORNTON: Oh, I’m sorry, J.R. I’ll cut it short. I just want to give Bobby his check for $26 million. [Reaches into his jacket pocket, pulls out a check and hands it to Bobby]

PUNK: Twenty-six million!

THORNTON: It’s his share of the profits in the Canadian fields. The drill bit worked. The test well came in gushing and we just sold out to the majors. That was the original deal. [Bobby smiles.]

PUNK: Well, this means that you win the contest, Bobby.

J.R.: The hell it does. The contest is over. The winner’s been declared.

BOBBY: Harv, correct me if I’m wrong, but I believe the contest doesn’t officially close until the end of business today.

HARV: [Smiles] That’s right.

BOBBY: So I still have time to enter this check into my books. [Harv nods. Bobby hands the check to Gerber.] Mr. Gerber.

PUNK: Congratulations, Bobby. [They shake hands.]

HARV: Good work, Bobby. Good work.

J.R.: [Chuckling] Well, I’ll be damned. I’ve never been a sore loser. [Slaps Bobby on the back] Congratulations on your win, Bobby. Not that it makes any difference. I mean, we had decided to be partners, right? Huh?

BOBBY: Punk, if you don’t mind, I’d like to keep Daddy’s letter for myself.

PUNK: You betcha. [Hands him the letter]

J.R.: Bob, you’ve never gone back on a deal. We are partners, right? Just the way Daddy wanted it.

PUNK: [To Bobby] Jock would be proud of you.

BOBBY: [Pauses] Yeah, J.R. It’s going to be just like Daddy wanted.

PUNK: Good boy.

J.R.: [Chuckles, slaps him on the back again] Good, good. That’s just fine. Now, Harv, since there’s no loose threads hanging around, why don’t you draw up some papers, make this legal. We’ll be in tomorrow, to sign them. Get rid of the old business and on with the new. Now, Bob, like I said, just the way Daddy wanted it, you and me together. Brothers.

J.R. puts his arm around Bobby and smiles. Bobby doesn’t.

Critique: ‘Dallas’ Episode 137 — ‘Check and Mate’

Bobby Ewing, Check and Mate, Dallas, J.R. Ewing, Larry Hagman, Patrick Duffy

Endgame

“Check and Mate” brings J.R. and Bobby’s contest for control of Ewing Oil to a satisfying but somewhat silly conclusion. In the final scene, the brothers learn J.R. boosted the company’s profits by $40 million, making him the clear-cut winner. With his victory clenched, J.R. announces he’s reneging on his earlier promise to split the company with Bobby, even if Bobby comes up short. Suddenly, Bobby receives some last-minute news: He just made a killing on his Canadian drilling deal, making him the contest’s winner. J.R. wants to go back to their original power-sharing deal — and of course Bobby agrees. Would we expect anything less from this show?

Indeed, this is another example of “Dallas’s” rather fanciful approach to big business. J.R. and Bobby receive the contest results while meeting with lawyer Harv Smithfield on the last day of the competition. Legally, shouldn’t this meeting have taken place the following day, when all the profits could have been counted? Also, in the previous episode, Bobby’s Canadian partner Thornton McLeish still hadn’t struck oil; now we learn Bobby and McLeish not only hit big, they managed to sell their shares to some bigger oil companies. Talk about a fast sale!

But even if this scene stretches credulity, it remains one of the best corporate showdowns from a series that practically invented them. Bobby’s 11th-hour victory is surprising and dramatic; I usually don’t like to see J.R. get beat, but when Bobby does it, I let it slide. Besides, Larry Hagman gets to show a lot of range here — unabashed smugness when J.R. thinks he’s won, muted humility when he realizes he’s lost — and that’s always fun to watch. (I also appreciate how the sequence includes one last letter from Jock, whose explanation that the true purpose of the contest was to bring his sons together makes the storyline feel like Jock’s version of J.R.’s master plan from the TNT series. Or maybe it’s the other way around.)

The lasting consequences of J.R. and Bobby’s fight yields mixed feelings too. There’s no doubt the battle has changed Bobby, who compromised his integrity in his quest for power and ended up losing his wife and son along the way. Bobby is now a damaged man, and Patrick Duffy does a nice job imbuing his character with a sad, soulful weariness. I wish we could say something similar about J.R. After the Southfork fire, J.R. had an attack of conscience and agreed to jointly run Ewing Oil with Bobby, regardless of which brother won the competition. He changed his mind pretty quickly and spent the episodes before “Check and Mate” secretly plotting to stab Bobby in the back when the final results were announced. No one wants to see J.R. turn into a good guy, but wouldn’t it have been more interesting to watch him wrestle with breaking his promise to Bobby? It would have revealed a new depth to J.R.’s character and made the yearlong battle for Ewing Oil, one of “Dallas’s” milestone moments, feel even more meaningful.

Even with these slight shortcomings, “Check and Mate” remains the seventh season’s strongest hour yet. With J.R. and Bobby’s war ending, the show shifts its attention to two supporting characters: Ray and Donna, whose marriage is rocked after Ray is arrested for Mickey’s mercy killing. (This makes Mickey one of the last casualties in the war for Ewing Oil, along with Rebecca Wentworth and Walt Driscoll.) Did Ray pull the plug? Or was it Lil, the only other person in the room at the time? Steve Kanaly is a portrait of quiet resolve as Ray goes through this episode refusing to discuss what happened in the moments before Mickey’s death. The silence is frustrating, but it’s also perfectly in keeping with the character of Ray, a laconic cowboy if ever there was one. Whether Ray pulled the plug himself or he’s simply taking the fall to protect Lil, we wouldn’t expect him to talk about it.

Even if Ray doesn’t have much to say, Kanaly still manages to give the audience a sense of Ray’s inner torment. In “Check and Mate’s” moving next-to-last scene, he sits at the patio table outside his home and asks the deeply depressed Lil for permission to bury Mickey at Southfork. Kanaly’s delivery breaks my heart, but as I watched this scene I remembered Ray and Jock’s memorable conversation at that very table in “The Fourth Son,” when the old man told Ray he was his son. It’s a subtle but poignant reminder of how Ray tried to take Mickey under his arm, the way Jock did with Ray, and how Ray’s efforts ultimately fell short. On the other hand, whether Ray killed his cousin himself or he’s just protecting Lil, is he not exhibiting a Jock-like sense of duty and honor?

Like Kanaly, Susan Howard also makes the most of her time in the spotlight. She has two terrific moments in “Check and Mate.” In the first act, Donna speaks to Ray in jail after his arrest; the glass partition separating the couple feels like a stand-in for the bigger barrier, which is Ray’s willingness to open up about the circumstances surrounding Mickey’s death. Donna seems to believe Ray disconnected Mickey’s life-support system, and Howard makes her character’s disappointment palpable. “Nobody has the right to play God,” she says with signature breathiness. Donna’s reaction makes sense, given the character’s strong moralistic bent. It’s another example of how well “Check and Mate” scriptwriter David Paulsen knows these characters.

Howard’s second great moment comes at the beginning of the third act, when Donna rides out to a Southfork pasture to confront Ray about his lack of willingness to defend himself. She reminds her husband that his only duty wasn’t to ease Mickey’s suffering; Ray also has an obligation to his marriage. Once again, Paulsen gives Howard a great line, and she delivers it beautifully: “You’re what I wanted all my life. You may not think your life is worth saving, but I sure as hell do.” With this single line, Paulsen manages to encapsulate Donna’s entire history with Ray, including her affair with him during her marriage to Sam Culver and when she rescued Ray from depression after Jock’s death.

The other great performance in “Check and Mate” comes from Charlene Tilton, who is moving and believable in the scene where Ray comes home from jail and is greeted by the Lucy, who in her grief-stricken rage beats on his chest and cries, “You murdered him!” It’s another example of how Tilton, when given good material, is a terrific actress. I also have to hand it once again to Howard, who allows the scene to end on a graceful note. “For God’s sake,” Donna says as she tries to comfort Lucy. “Don’t you know that it’s tearing him apart too?”

Like all great “Dallas” episodes, the details in “Check and Mate” are also worth paying attention to. Toward the end of the scene where Sue Ellen offers to throw a barbecue for Peter and his fellow camp counselors, Linda Gray touches Christopher Atkins’ shoulder; right at that moment, composer Bruce Broughton brings a few piano keys into the background score to ensure the audience doesn’t miss the significance of the gesture. Moments later, when Peter runs back into the building to retrieve John Ross, watch how Atkins bounds up the stairs. Peter is still a boy himself, isn’t he?

Elsewhere, director Leonard Katzman also gives us a great shot during the scene where Cliff approaches Sly as she leaves Ewing Oil for her lunch break. Debbie Rennard stands with her back to the building, facing Ken Kercheval, whose face is reflected in the façade. It’s a clever way to get both performers’ faces in the frame, but is it not also a symbol of how Cliff is increasingly reflecting the underhanded sensibilities of the enemy who works there?

Grade: A

_______________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

Cliff Barnes, Dallas, Debbie Rennard, Ken Kercheval, Sly Lovegren

Two-faced

‘CHECK AND MATE’

Season 7, Episode 6

Airdate: November 4, 1983

Audience: 22.5 million homes, ranking 1st in the weekly ratings

Writer: David Paulsen

Director: Leonard Katzman

Synopsis: The contest for Ewing Oil ends with Bobby the winner, but he agrees to share the company with J.R. When Ray is arrested in Mickey’s death, Donna hires Paul Morgan to represent him, while Lil slips into a deep depression. Pam goes to work with Cliff, who uses inside information from Sly to steal a big deal out from under J.R. Bobby tells Holly can never date her.

Cast: Dan Ammerman (Neil), Christopher Atkins (Peter Richards), John Beck (Mark Graison), Morgan Brittany (Katherine Wentworth), Lois Chiles (Holly Harwood), Roseanna Christiansen (Teresa), Jack Collins (Russell Slater), Glenn Corbett (Paul Morgan), Patrick Duffy (Bobby Ewing), Eric Farlow (Christopher Ewing), Linda Gray (Sue Ellen Ewing), Larry Hagman (J.R. Ewing), John Hostetter (Gerber), Susan Howard (Donna Krebbs), Steve Kanaly (Ray Krebbs), Omri Katz (John Ross Ewing), Howard Keel (Clayton Farlow), Ken Kercheval (Cliff Barnes), Kenneth Kimmins (Thorton McLeish), Audrey Landers (Afton Cooper), George O. Petrie (Harv Smithfield), Victoria Principal (Pam Ewing), Kate Reid (Lil Trotter), Debbie Rennard (Sly), Bill Thurman (Allen Murphy), Charlene Tilton (Lucy Ewing), Morgan Woodward (Punk Anderson)

“Check and Mate” is available on DVD and at Amazon.com and iTunes. Watch the episode and share your comments below.