Critique: ‘Dallas’ Episode 129 — ‘Things Ain’t Goin’ Too Good at Southfork’

Dallas, Linda Gray, Sue Ellen Ewing, Things Ain't Goin' Too Good at Southfork

The bottom

Linda Gray always hits her marks on “Dallas,” but she’s especially effective when Sue Ellen is hitting the bottle. Unlike so many other actors who go overboard playing drunks, Gray is precise: never too slurry, never too silly, never too sullen. She gets it right, every time. Because her performances are so convincing, the audience never loses sight of Sue Ellen’s humanity, ensuring she remains a sympathetic character. This is a creative achievement, but it’s something else too: Given “Dallas’s” popularity, I’m convinced Gray has contributed to our understanding of alcoholism as a disease. I often refer to Sue Ellen as a heroine, but when you think about it, the same thing can be said of Linda Gray.

I offer these observations because Gray’s heartbreaking depiction of Sue Ellen’s fall from the wagon in “Things Ain’t Goin’ Too Good at Southfork” is one of the milestone moments in the life of the character. The episode opens where the previous one left off, with Sue Ellen spying J.R. in bed with Holly Harwood. Sue Ellen flees to a cocktail lounge, where she takes her first drink since the end of the third season. And then she has another, and then another. Sue Ellen drinks so much that the bar manager cuts her off, which sends her running into the arms of Clayton, who gently rejects her advances but allows her to spend the night in his hotel room. The next morning, Sue Ellen is embarrassed and promises Clayton she won’t drink again. Yet before he knows it, she has emptied one of his vodka bottles. Eventually, Ellie retrieves her troubled daughter-in-law and brings her home to Southfork, where Sue Ellen is once again full of regret. “Miss Ellie, I just want you to know that I never meant to hurt you,” she says.

The more Sue Ellen drinks in this episode, the more her spirit deteriorates. She goes from giggly in the bar to flirty in Clayton’s hotel room to depressed at Southfork. Her pattern with alcohol — relapse, recovery, repeat — mimics the rhythms of her marriage, which is an endless series of rifts and reconciliations. Listen to what Sue Ellen tells Clayton in this episode while she’s nursing her hangover. “I believed him,” she says, referring to J.R. “He promised me there would be no games, and no other women. And I did believe him until last night. I saw him with my very own eyes, and all those vows and promises didn’t mean anything.” This dialogue reminds us that alcohol isn’t Sue Ellen’s only addiction; she’s powerless where J.R. is concerned too.

On the Rocks

Dallas, J.R. Ewing, Larry Hagman, Things Ain't Goin' Too Good at Southfork

Caught

As we watch Sue Ellen’s spiral in this episode, we know she’s eventually going to have to come face to face with J.R. It’s the moment we dread and anticipate at once. Scriptwriter Leonard Katzman wisely saves the confrontation for the next-to-last scene, when J.R. arrives home and finds Sue Ellen drinking in the living room. By this point, the booze has lost its numbing properties. She lets J.R. have it (“You bastard!”) and tells him she knows he slept with Holly. J.R. tries to deny he cheated, believing his wife only saw his car parked outside of Holly’s house. Soon, he realizes Sue Ellen knows the ugly truth. Her rage turns to tears, and when J.R. tries to comfort her, she tosses her drink in his face, grabs his car keys and rushes out of the room.

This is a short scene, lasting less than two minutes, but it tells us so much about the characters, as well as the actors who play them. When the scene begins, we want Sue Ellen to give J.R. hell, and Gray doesn’t disappoint. Her voice is full of incredulity and also clarity, even as she slurs her words. But then her voice cracks, and we realize Sue Ellen is in too much pain for this to be a moment of triumph. Seeing Gray go from wrathful to weepy is one of the episode’s most moving moments. Larry Hagman is impressive too, of course. J.R. is stunned to discover Sue Ellen knows he cheated with Holly, but listen closely to the inflection in his voice when he says, “Sue Ellen, don’t fly off the handle. I can explain all of this.” It’s always hard to know what J.R. is really thinking at a given moment, but in this instance, Hagman makes me the believe his character isn’t trying to save his own skin as much as he’s trying to shield Sue Ellen from more pain. J.R.’s love for his wife is clear, even if his respect for their marriage isn’t.

Collision Course

Barbara Bel Geddes, Dallas, Miss Ellie Ewing, Things Ain't Goin' Too Good at Southfork

No saving the day this time

“Things Ain’t Goin’ Too Good at Southfork” is a whimsical title for an episode that’s anything but. The director is Gunnar Hellström, who also helmed the third-season classic “Ellie Saves the Day,” another dark hour in Ewing family history. In that chapter, J.R.’s business dealings brought the family to the brink of financial disaster. This time around, the fallout from his scheming is personal. J.R.’s own marriage suffers, and so do the relationships of most of the show’s other couples.

The first act includes a terrific scene where Pam, who has left Bobby because she feels he’s too preoccupied with defeating J.R., confronts her husband about his relationship with her sister Katherine. Bobby says Katherine is nothing more than a friend — and then he asks Pam if she can say the same thing about her relationship with Mark Graison. It’s a damning moment for Pam, who admits she is confused about her feelings toward Mark, but it’s a great moment for Bobby, whose righteousness feels absolutely justified when he calls out his wife’s hypocrisy. (To that end: Does anyone do marital indignation better than Patrick Duffy?)

Later, Ellie is understandably rattled when she shows up at Clayton’s hotel room and finds Sue Ellen there, drunk and wearing nothing more than one of Clayton’s dress shirts. Barbara Bel Geddes does a beautiful job conveying Ellie’s quiet dismay here, but the actress is at her best a few moments later when Ellie gives Sue Ellen a much-needed dose of tough love. “Sue Ellen, now you listen to me,” Bel Geddes says, grabbing Gray by the arms and glaring at her. “Get into bed and sleep. Try to sober up. And then we’re taking you home!”

By the end of this episode, the war for Ewing Oil touches Lucy and Mickey’s lives too. The young lovers are grilling hamburgers on the Southfork patio and playfully planning their future when Sue Ellen staggers out of the house after her fight with J.R. She climbs behind the wheel of his Mercedes and begins to drive away, prompting Lucy to order Mickey to stop Sue Ellen before she hurts someone. Mickey hops into the passenger seat and pleads with Sue Ellen to pull over. She refuses, and as the Mercedes exits the Southfork driveway, another car strikes the vehicle, flipping it on its side. Freeze frame, roll credits — and if you’re watching this scene on DVD, try to resist the temptation to flip over the disc and immediately begin watching the next episode.

Wrecked

Charlene Tilton, Dallas, Lucy Ewing, Mickey Trotter, Things Ain't Goin' Too Good at Southfork, Timothy Patrick Murphy

What future?

Sue Ellen and Mickey’s accident puts a dramatic punctuation mark on “Things Ain’t Goin’ Too Good at Southfork,” even as it demonstrates the limits of ’80s era television production. When the car begins to roll, a chain attached to the vehicle can be seen on the underside. I assume the chain played some role in creating the stunt, and even though it probably wasn’t noticeable on analog TVs three decades ago, it’s as clear as day when I watch this episode today. Similarly, the car accident is shot from a wide angle so we never get a close-up of Sue Ellen and Mickey inside the Mercedes — except for a the moment of impact, when we catch a glimpse of the stuntmen sitting in for Gray and Timothy Patrick Murphy.

But these are quibbles. The car wreck remains about as fitting an ending as I can imagine. It perfectly encapsulates how the Ewings’ world is beginning to crash down around them. And when you stop and think about it, the whole episode is the “Dallas” equivalent of rubbernecking: No matter how much misery the Ewings experience during the course of this hour, we can’t bring ourselves to look away.

Grade: A+

_______________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

Dallas, Things Ain't Goin' Too Good at Southfork

The upside of down

‘THINGS AIN’T GOIN’ TOO GOOD AT SOUTHFORK’

Season 6, Episode 26

Airdate: April 15, 1983

Audience: 20 million homes, ranking 3rd in the weekly ratings

Writer: Leonard Katzman

Director: Gunnar Hellström

Synopsis: Sue Ellen resumes drinking and seeks comfort from Clayton, which drives a wedge between him and Miss Ellie. Later, Mickey tries to stop Sue Ellen from driving drunk, but their vehicle is involved in a serious accident. Pam returns home, where Katherine denies being interested in Bobby. Cliff pressures Pam to side with him in the fight over the Tundra Torque.

Cast: Barbara Bel Geddes (Miss Ellie Ewing), Morgan Brittany (Katherine Wentworth), Delores Cantú (Doris), Lois Chiles (Holly Harwood), Roseanna Christiansen (Teresa), Patrick Dollaghan (bartender), Patrick Duffy (Bobby Ewing), Eric Farlow (Christopher Ewing), Linda Gray (Sue Ellen Ewing), Larry Hagman (J.R. Ewing), Susan Howard (Donna Krebbs), Steve Kanaly (Ray Krebbs), Howard Keel (Clayton Farlow), Ken Kercheval (Cliff Barnes), Kenneth Kimmins (Thornton McLeish), Audrey Landers (Afton Cooper), Timothy Patrick Murphy (Mickey Trotter), Victoria Principal (Pam Ewing), Kate Reid (Lil Trotter), Debbie Rennard (Sly), Charlene Tilton (Lucy Ewing), Deborah Tranelli (Phyllis)

“Things Ain’t Goin’ Too Good at Southfork” is available on DVD and at Amazon.com 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

Savior

“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

Sinner

“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

Humbled

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

Capped

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

Giant

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

Thinker

‘ELLIE SAVES THE DAY’

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 Amazon.com and iTunes. Watch the episode and share your comments below.