Critique: ‘Dallas’ Episode 193 — ‘Rock Bottom’

Dallas, Linda Gray, Rock Bottom, Sue Ellen Ewing

Bottom’s up

“Dallas” fans will always remember Sue Ellen drinking with the bag lady and winos at the end of “Rock Bottom.” Like J.R.’s shooting and Bobby’s “death,” this is a scene that sticks with us for the right reasons. Step back and consider what happens here. A beautiful and wealthy woman, dressed in soiled designer clothing, is standing on skid row, guzzling a bottle of cheap wine. It has all the makings of something funny, or worse, campy. But it’s not. This is a moment of pure heartbreak, especially when you watch the whole episode and see how masterfully Linda Gray portrays Sue Ellen’s slow, steady, sad downfall.

“Rock Bottom” begins with Sue Ellen returning to Southfork to be with her grief-stricken in-laws after Bobby’s funeral. Before she makes it to the front door, though, J.R. tells her no one wants to see her. (“You’re just a bad memory that doesn’t know when to go away.”) This is what triggers her devastating bender. She goes to a cocktail lounge, where the bartender cuts her off and a not-so-good-Samaritan steals her purse and car. Next, she winds up in an alley, where she meets the bag lady and runs away when the woman offers her a sip of her booze. Before we know it, Sue Ellen is waking up in a third-rate motel and realizing the strange man who lured her there has stolen her ring. Holding an empty vodka bottle, she catches a glimpse of herself in the mirror. “J.R.’s right. They’re all right,” she cries. “You are disgusting. I hate you!” Finally, she goes back to the alley. Once again, the bag lady offers her a sip. This time, Sue Ellen doesn’t refuse.

Through it all, Gray strikes each note perfectly. The script gives her surprisingly little dialogue, but she needs no words. Gray has always done much of her acting with her eyes, a skill that serves her especially well here. They telegraph Sue Ellen’s confusion when the creep takes off with her car, her fear when she’s harassed by a couple of lowlifes on skid row, her desperation when she begins gulping from the bag lady’s bottle. Gray’s eyes also register Sue Ellen’s shock when she realizes her ring is missing, which is a crucial moment in the episode. Throughout “Rock Bottom,” director Michael Preece cleverly uses Sue Ellen’s clothing and jewelry as a metaphor for her unraveling. First she loses her hat, then her blouse becomes torn and untucked. Finally, the ring disappears — and with it, so does Sue Ellen’s identity.

When I watched “Rock Bottom” with my family as a kid, I can remember my mom saying Sue Ellen’s decline seemed unbelievable. Surely a woman this rich and classy would never wind up on skid row. Perhaps it did seem outlandish 30 years ago, but I’m not sure that’s true today. We all know stories about young people from “good” families whose lives are wrecked by the horrors of addiction. Why couldn’t it happen to someone like Sue Ellen? Even if her situation is exaggerated, you have to admire Gray’s ability to make the emotions feel real. This performance seems even more impressive after reading Gray’s memoirs, “The Road to Happiness is Always Under Construction,” in which she recalls how much she enjoyed taking Sue Ellen into the gutter. “We had a ball in that alley,” she writes. Isn’t it amazing that something so dramatic for the audience was fun for the cast and crew to film?

Nothing else in “Rock Bottom” matches the power of Sue Ellen’s storyline, but there are many other good scenes. George O. Petrie, such a comforting figure as Harv Smithfield, does a nice job reading Bobby’s letter during the opening of the will. I also like the scene where Jack tries to befriend Charlie — now that Patrick Duffy is gone, you can see Dack Rambo’s character pivoting to the role of resident hero — as well as the scene where Donna tells Jenna she’s pregnant. Susan Howard makes her character seem both excited and nervous, while Priscilla Beaulieu Presley gets to be the voice of wisdom as Jenna counsels Donna on the joys of motherhood.

“Rock Bottom” also gives us the scene of Pam almost crashing her car on the highway — foreshadowing the fiery accident that will mark Victoria Principal’s exit from “Dallas” two seasons from now — along with a fun nod to the past: Desmond Dhooge, who plays Digger’s fellow barfly Harvey in “Digger’s Daughter,” reprises the role here, except now the character is one of the winos Sue Ellen meets in the alley. The other notable casting is Lou Diamond Phillips as a thug who harasses Sue Ellen on the sidewalk. This is one of Phillips’ first roles and he does a fine job, although the other ruffian — played by Sami Chester — gets the best line when he touches one Sue Ellen’s shoulder pads and says, “She looks like a Dallas Cowboy!”

This is the kind of line I probably missed in 1985. It makes me glad I now get to watch the show on DVD with the closed-captioning turned on — one more example of how Dallas” gets better with age.

Grade: A

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Dallas, Desmond Dhooge, Rock Bottom

Gang’s all here

‘ROCK BOTTOM’

Season 9, Episode 2

Airdate: September 27, 1985

Audience: 20.5 million homes, ranking 7th in the weekly ratings

Writer: Joel J. Feigenbaum

Director: Michael Preece

Synopsis: Sue Ellen goes on a devastating bender. Bobby’s will leaves his share of Ewing Oil to Christopher and appoints Pam administrator, unnerving J.R. Cliff tries to rally the cartel against J.R. Charlie rebuffs Jack’s attempt to befriend her.

Cast: Barbara Bel Geddes (Miss Ellie Farlow), Sami Chester (Thug), Desmond Dhooge (Harvey), Fern Fitzgerald (Marilee Stone), Linda Gray (Sue Ellen Ewing), Larry Hagman (J.R. Ewing), Lou Hancock (Bag lady), Jenilee Harrison (Jamie Ewing), Susan Howard (Donna Krebbs), Steve Kanaly (Ray Krebbs), Howard Keel (Clayton Farlow), Ken Kercheval (Cliff Barnes), Jaren Martin (Dusty Farlow), Shalane McCall (Charlie Wade), George O. Petrie (Harv Smithfield), Lou Diamond Phillips (Thug), Priscilla Beaulieu Presley (Jenna Wade), Victoria Principal (Pam Ewing), Dack Rambo (Jack Ewing), Deborah Shelton (Mandy Winger), Paul Sorensen (Andy Bradley), Don Starr (Jordan Lee)

“Rock Bottom” is available on DVD and at Amazon and iTunes. Watch the episode and share your comments below.

The Dal-List: 19 Reasons to Love ‘Dallas’s’ Ninth Season

Barbara Bel Geddes, Clayton Farlow, Dallas, Howard Keel, Miss Ellie Ewing Farlow

Dream on

Dallas Decoder will soon begin critiquing the original show’s ninth season, which aired from 1985 to 1986. Here are 19 reasons to love it.

Barbara Bel Geddes, Dallas, Miss Ellie Ewing Farlow

True blue

19. Mama returns. We never needed her more.

Dallas, J.R. Ewing, Larry Hagman

Mourning in America

18. J.R. says goodbye. Does anyone do the single tear thing better than Larry Hagman?

Dallas, Linda Gray, Sue Ellen Ewing

Blitzed

17. Sue Ellen relapses. Linda Gray’s tour de force.

Dallas, Linda Gray, Sue Ellen Ewing

Blonde

16. Sue Ellen recovers. The most satisfying storyline in “Dallas” history?

Dallas, Linda Gray, Lou Diamond Phillps, Sue Ellen Ewing

Welcome to the jungle

15. La Bamba shows up. Arriba y arriba!

Bibi Besche, Dallas

Genesis of the matter

14. And so does Dr. Carol Marcus. Can she analyze or can’t she?

Dallas, Russell Johnson

Coconuts

13. The Professor’s here too. But where was he when Julie Grey needed him?

Dallas, Pam Ewing, Victoria Principal

The widow Ewing

12. Pam’s speech. Chills!

Dallas, Linda Gray, Sue Ellen Ewing

Wake up, darlin’

11. Sue Ellen’s nightmare. A dream-within-a-dream. Meta!

Dallas, Jenna Wade, Priscilla Beaulieu Presley

Post-Bobby Stress Syndrome

10. Jenna’s flashback. Hyper-meta!

Dack Rambo, Dallas

Ewing genes

9. Dack’s rambo. Talk about an Alaskan pipeline.

Dallas, Deborah Shelton, Mandy Winger

Super bowl

8. Mandy’s flush. Oh, honey. That’s not how you clean jewelry.

Dallas, Pam Ewing, Victoria Principal

Bag it, J.R.

7. “Phyllis, I’d like a cup of tea — a cup of herbal tea.” But hold the eggs and toast, please.

Cliff Barnes, John Beck, Ken Kercheval, Marc Singer, Mark Graison, Matt Cantrell, Dallas, Pam Ewing, Victoria Principal

Dorothy and friends

6. South America. Pam, Cliff, Mark and Matt search for emeralds. It’s “Dallas’s” version of “The Wizard Oz.”

Dallas, Just Desserts, Linda Gray

Direct hit

5. “Just Desserts.” Victory!

Angelica Nero, Barbara Carrera, Dallas

“L” word

4. This hat. Even Katherine wouldn’t dare.

Dallas, J.R. Ewing, Larry Hagman

Cock of the walk

3. This mask. Who feathered J.R.?

Dallas, J.R. Ewing, Larry Hagman

Next: The world!

2. Total control of Ewing Oil. Who has the heart to tell him it’s just a dream?

Bobby Ewing, Dallas, Patrick Duffy

Rub-a-dub-dub

1. Bobby’s back! His chest and arms too!

Why do you love “Dallas’s” ninth season? Share your comments below and read more “Dal-Lists.”

Dallas Styles: 7 Iconic Looks from Sue Ellen Ewing

Dallas, Linda Gray, Revelations, Sue Ellen Ewing, TNT

She’s got the look

Sue Ellen WeekIn true “Dallas” style, Dallas Decoder’s recent Sue Ellen Week ended with a bit of a cliffhanger. Here at last is the final chapter, in which the wonderful Linda Gray joins me to discuss seven iconic looks she wore as Sue Ellen Ewing.

 

Dallas, Linda Gray, Sue Ellen Ewing, Who Done It?, Who Shot J.R.?

1. The Black and White Dress (1980)

Chris: This is the dress Sue Ellen wore when she was arrested for shooting J.R., and to me, it’s her most iconic look of all. Only Sue Ellen Ewing could make “prison stripes” look this fashionable.

Linda: That dress was an accident. We didn’t know that it was going to be the dress she would eventually wear to jail! I thought it was a little too “on the nose,” but as you said, it ended up being an iconic look that the fans just loved.

 

Dallas, Dusty Farlow, Jared Martin, Linda Gray, Lover Come Back, Sue Ellen Ewing

2. The Fur Coat (1981)

Chris: Here’s the coat Sue Ellen wears when she discovers Dusty Farlow is still alive. I remember watching this scene when I was a kid and thinking you were the most glamorous woman I’d ever seen.

Linda: I loved that coat and it was perfect for the scene. Soft and feminine. Remember, that was the 80’s and there was not a focus on not wearing fur as it is now. I don’t wear fur … but Sue Ellen would!

 

Changing of the Guard, Dallas, Goodbye Cliff Barnes, J.R. Ewing, Larry Hagman, Linda Gray, Sue Ellen Ewing

3. The Short Hair (1982)

Chris: When the 1981-82 season ends, Sue Ellen is at Cliff’s hospital bedside and your hair is long and flowing onto your shoulders. The 1982-83 season opens later that day with Sue Ellen leaving the hospital — and suddenly your hair is short!

Linda: I loved the haircut. I remember clearly going to [hairstylist] José Eber and telling him that I was tired of clips in my hair, ponytails and the hair constantly sticking to my lip gloss. He said, “Dahling, let’s create a new look!” He did. I loved it … and the producers hated it. Oops! Thank God all the fashion people loved it and we received several awards from hair magazines and fashion magazines as being one of the best coiffeurs in the 80’s!

 

Dallas, Dusty Farlow, Family Ewing, Jared Martin, J.R. Ewing, Larry Hagman, Linda Gray, Rock Bottom, Sue Ellen Ewing

4. The Funeral Outfit (1985)

Chris: When Bobby’s funeral begins, Sue Ellen looks amazing in that hat, but by the end of the day, she’s come unraveled — literally and figuratively. She even loses that rock she wears on her finger.

Linda: Well, yes! She does look glamorous in that Valentino outfit, but as you said, she quickly unravels! It broke my heart when they literally tore the skirt I was wearing for the scene. They actually had to buy two Valentino skirts so it broke my heart that they had to ruin one! That show was when I first met Lou Diamond Phillips. He played one of the pimps on the street as Sue Ellen was walking aimlessly around having lost her ring!

 

Dallas, Linda Gray, Martha Scott, Pam Ewing, Patricia Shepard, Sue Ellen Ewing, Victoria Principal

5. The Oil Baron’s Ball Gown (1985)

Chris: This is my favorite Sue Ellen gown from the mid-1980’s, when Travilla was the show’s costume designer. You look amazing.

Linda: I loved Bill Travilla. He used to come into my dressing room and sit early in the morning and tell me wonderful stories of the glamorous women of Hollywood that he used to dress. Of course, we all remember the famous shot of Marilyn Monroe in that amazing white halter dress — which he designed — of her standing over the street grate. Talk about iconic. He knew how to dress the female body. He was a genius and designed clothes for the actors that suited their characters and their body type.

 

Dallas, Linda Gray, Sue Ellen Ewing

6. The Executive Look (1986)

Chris: This is one of Sue Ellen’s first outfits when she becomes a business executive. I love that sassy expression.

Linda: I remember it clearly. I like that sassy expression too. It’s so funny because in all of these pictures I can “feel” the fabric! I remember the contrasting patterns being a bit bold back then but we were always trying to push the envelope a bit — or a lot — to give the audience an idea to play more with their wardrobe and become a little more creative.

 

Dallas, Ewings Unite, Gary Ewing, Linda Gray, Sue Ellen Ewing, Ted Shackelford, TNT

7. Black and White Redux (2013)

Chris: To me, this outfit demonstrates the genius of Rachel Sage Kunin, the new show’s costumer designer. She manages to update Sue Ellen’s look while staying true to the character’s traditions.

Linda: I am honored and so happy to be working with Rachel. She gets it! She is creative, talented, knows her fabric and has gotten every single character dressed perfectly for their role. The other thing that people don’t know is that she dresses everyone on the show. Usually they have a woman wardrobe woman and a person for the men. It’s the first show that I have ever worked on where there is only one person — and I’m so glad that it’s Rachel.

Share your thoughts on Sue Ellen’s looks in the comments section below and read more “Dallas Styles.”