Critique: ‘Dallas’ Episode 151 — ‘When the Bough Breaks’

Dallas, Linda Gray, Sue Ellen Ewing, When the Bough Breaks

The goodbye girl

“When the Bough Breaks” marks another turning point in the life of Sue Ellen Ewing. In the episode’s final scene, Peter tells Sue Ellen how sorry he is about her recent miscarriage; he believes he was the unborn child’s father, and he had hoped they could raise it together. When Sue Ellen hears this, she’s horrified. She suddenly realizes how naïve Peter is — and how wrong she was to begin a relationship with him. After declaring their affair over, she begins to walk away, and then she stops, looks back at him and says, “Oh, I know the pain you must be going through right now because I’ve been there. But it passes. It always does. You just stay out of my life.”

The scene brings back memories of the second-season classic “For Love or Money,” when Cliff dumps Sue Ellen because he’s afraid their affair will hurt his political career, although I suspect that’s not the comparison Leonard Katzman had in mind when he wrote “When the Bough Breaks.” My guess is Katzman wanted the audience to see Sue Ellen’s breakup with Peter as another example of how she’s becoming more like J.R. This is one of the underlying themes of “Dallas’s” seventh season, going back to “The Oil Baron’s Ball,” when Sue Ellen treats J.R. like a sexual plaything. Now she’s walking away from a disillusioned young lover, just like J.R. did with Julie, Kristin, Afton and so many others.

Sue Ellen’s emulation of her husband becomes a source of professional success during “Dallas’s” later seasons, but in these seventh-season episodes, it’s fascinating to watch her mimic him in a quest for personal empowerment. Of course, the “old” Sue Ellen is still present too. In “When the Bough Breaks,” her snobbish tendencies are on display when Peter suggests they could have raised the child together; looking around his tiny apartment, she says, “You expect me to leave Southfork, J.R., for you? To raise a child and live here?” It’s also worth pointing out that unlike J.R., who dumps his mistresses when he tires of them, Sue Ellen leaves Peter because she believes it’s what’s best for him. Indeed, her parting words to him reflect both her sense of compassion (“I’ve been there”) and her cynicism (“It passes; it always does”).

As clever as Katzman’s writing is, what impresses me most about this scene is how Linda Gray fills in the blanks in his script. For example, Sue Ellen breaks up with Peter when she realizes how misguided he is, but Katzman never gives her a line to this effect. So how do we know what Sue Ellen is feeling? Because Gray conveys it through her eyes, which widen with the sad realization that she’s led this young man astray. It’s a subtle moment, demonstrating why Gray is such a great actress.

I wish I could say something similar about Gray’s co-star. Christopher Atkins is an appealing performer, and he’s quietly effective in scenes like the one where Peter visits Sue Ellen in the hospital and kisses her while she sleeps. But anytime the script calls for Atkins and Gray to profess their love for each other, I’m reminded how badly miscast he is. It’s not just that Atkins looks too young; he acts too young. In the breakup scene, when he discovers Sue Ellen and J.R. still sleep together on occasion, he breaks into a full-fledged pout. Moments later, Sue Ellen tells him, “Peter, I have very strong feelings for you.” I can’t help but think: Why?

“When the Bough Breaks” includes two more scenes I like. In the first, Cliff persuades Pam to join him in the offshore oil auction by appealing to her sense of family. “The main reason I dislike the Ewings so much is because they’ve always been this big family that stood together … and all we ever had was each other,” he says. This is a revealing moment. I’ve always believed that a lot of Cliff’s hatred is rooted in jealousy. The man who was abandoned by his mother as a child doesn’t long for the Ewings’ power and possessions as much as he longs for the close bond they share. In the episode’s other great scene, J.R. takes Marilee to dinner and tries to plant seeds of doubt in her mind about her partnership with Cliff. Larry Hagman is as sly as ever, but don’t overlook Fern Fitzgerald, who has the tougher task. She must signal to the audience that J.R. has rattled her character without letting J.R. himself know. She does it nicely.

“When the Bough Breaks” includes a few head scratchers too. The doctor who treats Sue Ellen after her miscarriage is quiet a blabbermouth: Not only does she announce Sue Ellen’s miscarriage to everyone in the waiting room, she also suggests there’s nothing keeping J.R. and his wife from trying again to have another child. So much for doctor-patient confidentiality. I also roll my eyes when Bobby once again presses Jenna to tell him if he’s Charlie’s biological father and she once again refuses to discuss the subject. Can someone explain Jenna’s rationale? If Bobby’s father, doesn’t he have a right to know? If he’s not, why does she refuse to put his mind at ease?

More than ever, I want Bobby to dump wishy-washy Jenna and patch things up with Pam. Maybe that’s the point?

Grade: B


Christopher Atkins, Dallas, Linda Gray, Peter Richards, Sue Ellen Ewing, When the Bough Breaks

Death to smoochy


Season 7, Episode 20

Airdate: February 17, 1984

Audience: 22 million homes, ranking 1st in the weekly ratings

Writer: Leonard Katzman

Director: Nick Havinga

Synopsis: Sue Ellen comes home from the hospital and breaks up with Peter. While J.R. tries to undermine Marilee and Cliff’s partnership, Cliff persuades Pam to join him in the offshore oil auction. In Malibu, Katherine meets Naldo, who tells her the identity of Charlie’s father. Clayton rejects Bobby’s invitation to do business with Ewing Oil. Ray and Donna continue snooping into Edgar’s past.

Cast: Christopher Atkins (Peter Richards), John Beck (Mark Graison), Barbara Bel Geddes (Miss Ellie Ewing), Morgan Brittany, Anne Gee Byrd (Dr. Jeffries), Roseanna Christiansen (Teresa), Pat Colbért (Dora Mae), Glenn Corbett (Paul Morgan), Patrick Duffy (Bobby Ewing), Fern Fitzgerald (Marilee stone), Linda Gray (Sue Ellen Ewing), Larry Hagman (J.R. Ewing), Susan Howard (Donna Krebbs), Steve Kanaly (Ray Krebbs), Sherril Lynn Katzman (Jackie Dugan), Howard Keel (Clayton Farlow), Ken Kercheval (Cliff Barnes), Anne Lucas (Cassie), Shalane McCall (Charlie Wade), Daniel Pilon (Renaldo Marchetta), Priscilla Beaulieu Presley (Jenna Wade), Victoria Principal (Pam Ewing), Donegan Smith (Earl Johnson), Charlene Tilton (Lucy Ewing)

“When the Bough Breaks” is available on DVD and at and iTunes. Watch the episode and share your comments below.

Critique: ‘Dallas’ Episode 145 — ‘Peter’s Principles’

Christopher Atkins, Dallas, Peter Richards, Peter's Principles

What principles?

Since I began re-watching “Dallas’s” seventh season for the first time in years, I’ve been surprised by how interesting I find Sue Ellen’s affair with college student Peter Richards. I used to dismiss their romance as hopelessly gimmicky — J.R.’s wife chases a younger man! — but now that I’m older and hopefully a little wiser, the relationship makes perfect sense. I can see how Sue Ellen might turn to a man like Peter to regain her confidence after all those years of being mistreated by J.R. Or at least that’s how I felt before “Peter’s Principles.” This is the episode where Sue Ellen and Peter sleep together for the first time, but instead of illuminating the reasons these characters are attracted to each other, the love scene reveals the storyline’s flaws. It turns out there are quite a few.

When “Peter’s Principles” begins, Sue Ellen is worried because the Ewings haven’t heard from Peter in several days. She suspects he is upset because she recently told him their flirtation can’t continue, so she contacts one of his classmates and learns Peter has dropped out of school. When Sue Ellen finally tracks down Peter, he doesn’t want to speak to her, but she doesn’t give up on him. She goes to his apartment the next day and urges him not to abandon his studies. Peter tells Sue Ellen that if he can’t have her, college no longer matters to him. She hesitates for a moment, then says, “If I were with you, if we saw each other, would you go back to the university?” Peter’s response: “Yes, it would all be completely different then.” Before you know it, Sue Ellen is kissing Peter as he lays her down on the bed.

Groan. Until this scene, which is the last one in “Peter’s Principles,” I liked how Arthur Bernard Lewis’s script depicted Sue Ellen as a woman with determination and purpose. She works hard to find Peter and persuade him to go back to school, displaying the kind of gumption we haven’t seen from her since “The Oil Baron’s Ball,” the episode where she treats J.R. like a sexual plaything. By the end of “Peter’s Principles,” though, Sue Ellen has reverted back to her old habit of allowing men to dominate her. When she asks Peter if he’ll go back to school if she starts a relationship with him, what does she expect him to say? Sue Ellen doesn’t just allow Peter to pull her strings; she puts the controls in his hand.

Besides undermining Linda Gray’s character, the scene suggests “Dallas” is chickening out on the entire storyline. For a show dominated by alpha males, Sue Ellen and Peter’s relationship has been refreshingly different. The last time “Dallas” depicted a May/December romance, an aging man (Jock Ewing) became involved with a younger woman (Julie Grey). This time around, the gender roles are reversed: Sue Ellen, who is in her 40s, flirts with Peter, who is in his 20s. But instead of showing her going to bed with him merely to fulfill her own sexual desires, Lewis’s script tries to cast Sue Ellen’s choice as some kind of noble sacrifice. She essentially tells Peter, “OK, I’ll have sex with you if you promise to go back to school and study hard.” Why can’t Sue Ellen have a carefree fling like the men on this show?

I suppose all of this can be viewed as another example of Sue Ellen’s self-delusion. Maybe she can’t bring herself to admit her attraction to Peter, so she fools herself into believing she’s merely providing him with the incentive he needs to get an education. But then what are we to make of the fact that we never see these characters in bed together? In the final shot, as Peter moves Sue Ellen onto the bed, the screen goes black and the closing credits flash, making this one of the few times “Dallas” skips its traditional freeze frame. It’s as if the producers can’t quite bring themselves to showing this relationship being consummated.

Then again: Maybe we’ve seen enough. Leonard Katzman, “Dallas’s” executive producer, once called this storyline the show’s “biggest mistake” because Christopher Atkins looked too young to play Peter. It’s not fair to lay the blame at Atkins’ feet, although the actor was too boyish to be believable as Sue Ellen’s lover. Don’t get me wrong: Atkins is a good actor who does a nice job conveying his character’s awkward transition into adulthood. Peter can be charming one minute and petulant the next, just like a lot of real-life college students. Atkins’ youthfulness also works well in his scenes with Larry Hagman, where Peter is the fair-haired Luke Skywalker to J.R.’s black-hearted Darth Vader. But whenever the script calls for Peter and Sue Ellen to share a romantic moment, I can’t help but wish he looked a little older.

But even if Sue Ellen and Peter’s love scene in “Peter’s Principles” worked better, it still wouldn’t be the most provocative moment in this episode. No, that distinction belongs to the wonderful exchange where Miss Ellie admits to Donna that she’s nervous about marrying Clayton because she hasn’t “been” with a man since Jock died. This conversation, which takes place while Ellie and Donna are exercising in the Southfork fitness room, lets us know Ellie remains a sexual creature. This would be a progressive idea for television to address today, so I can only imagine how extraordinary it must have seemed 30 years ago. Both actors are quite good here: Barbara Bel Geddes conveys Ellie’s quiet anxiety without sacrificing the character’s dignity, while Susan Howard’s gentle responses signal Donna’s respect for the Ewing matriarch. I especially like when Ellie says that she and Clayton “never had any real physical contact … beyond a kiss and a hug,” and Donna responds, “Yes, ma’am. I understand.” This is exactly how I would expect Donna to treat a woman like Ellie.

“Peter’s Principles” also shows Clayton confiding in Ray his own unease about marrying Ellie and moving onto “another man’s ranch and into another man’s house.” This marks the beginning of Clayton and Ray’s friendship, a relationship that makes a lot of sense given the outsider status both men occupy in the family Ewing. I also like the “Peter’s Principles” scene where Bobby and Pam have dinner because it makes them seem like two mature people who have remained friends despite the fact they are ex-spouses. This exchange is also useful because it helps the audience understand how much risk is involved in Cliff’s offshore oil venture, which is one of the major subplots in the coming episodes. As Bobby explains to Pam, it can cost as much as $300,000 to tow a rig to a drilling site, $40,000 a day to rent the rig and $20,000 a day to operate it. These numbers boggle my mind today; imagine how big they must have seemed three decades ago.

There’s also a lot of humor in “Peter’s Principles,” beginning with J.R.’s quips about Clayon’s son (“Dusty or Steve or what the hell ever that rodeo rider calls himself nowadays”) and Ray’s wife (“You sure married a winner”). I also like when Clayton announces he’s taking Ellie to see a revival of “Camelot” — a sly reference to one of Howard Keel’s famous stage roles. Other funny moments are unintentional: The exterior shot of Peter’s apartment is the same one used for Mitch Cooper’s residence during the fourth season; look closely and you’ll even see Mitch’s Mustang parked near the curb. Also, as much as I love Ellie and Donna’s scene in the fitness room, I can’t help but notice that despite all of Howard’s huffing and puffing while doing her character’s leg lifts, there’s no weight on the bar.

Poor Donna. Perhaps she would benefit from some professional training at Pam’s aerobics studio. Come to think of it, whatever became of that place?

Grade: B


Dallas, Peter's Principles, Philip Capice

Fade to black


Season 7, Episode 14

Airdate: January 6, 1984

Audience: 21.3 million homes, ranking 1st in the weekly ratings

Writer: Arthur Bernard Lewis

Director: Patrick Duffy

Synopsis: Sue Ellen learns Peter has dropped out of school but persuades him to return by sleeping with him. J.R. continues digging for dirt on Clayton and confirms a dark secret about Edgar. Clayton and Ellie harbor private reservations about marrying each other. Marilee expresses interest in joining Cliff’s offshore oil venture and comes between him and Afton. Bobby and Pam have dinner, upsetting Jenna and Mark.

Cast: Christopher Atkins (Peter Richards), John Beck (Mark Graison), Barbara Bel Geddes (Miss Ellie Ewing), Martin E. Brooks (Edgar Randolph), James L. Brown (Detective Harry McSween), Pat Colbért (Dora Mae), Roseanna Christiansen (Teresa), Patrick Duffy (Bobby Ewing), Al Dunlap  (decorator), Fern Fitzgerald (Marilee Stone), David Gale (Melvin), Linda Gray (Sue Ellen Ewing), Larry Hagman (J.R. Ewing), Susan Howard (Donna Krebbs), Steve Kanaly (Ray Krebbs), Omri Katz (John Ross Ewing), Sherril Lynn Katzman (Jackie), Howard Keel (Clayton Farlow), Ken Kercheval (Cliff Barnes), Audrey Landers (Afton Cooper), Anne Lucas (Cassie), Lee Montgomery (Jerry Hunter), Louis R. Plante (Robert)Priscilla Beaulieu Presley (Jenna Wade), Victoria Principal (Pam Ewing), Julie Ronnie (student), Don Starr (Jordan Lee), Charlene Tilton (Lucy Ewing)

“Peter’s Principles” is available on DVD and at and iTunes. Watch the episode and share your comments below.

Dallas Scene of the Day: ‘… Some Kind of Stud Service’

Dallas, Larry Hagman, Oil Baron's Ball, J.R. Ewing

Tables turned

In “The Oil Baron’s Ball,” a seventh-season “Dallas” episode, J.R. and Sue Ellen (Larry Hagman, Linda Gray) are in bed, surrounded by darkness.

J.R.: Where you going?

SUE ELLEN: [Sits up, turns on the lamp] Back to my room.

J.R.: Back to your room? [Rests his head on his hand] After tonight, we’ll be sleeping together.

SUE ELLEN: What makes you think that?

J.R.: [Smiles] The way you came in here. You wanted me as much as I ever wanted you.

SUE ELLEN: Well, that’s only partially true.

J.R.: Well, all our problems are over.

SUE ELLEN: Not quite. You see, J.R., I have no desire to live with you. Now, granted, from time to time, I may need you. And if and when that happens, then I’ll be back. [Smiles] But that’s all. That’s as close to being married as we will ever be. [Pulls her negligee straps onto her shoulders, stands and walks toward the door]

J.R.: I’ll be damned if you can come in here and use me like some kind of stud service.

SUE ELLEN: [Turns to face him] What other possible use would I have for you? Good night. [Pulls the door closed behind her]

Critique: ‘Dallas’ Episode 139 — ‘The Oil Baron’s Ball’

Dallas, Linda Gray, OIl Baron's Ball, Sue Ellen Ewing

Open door policy

J.R. and Sue Ellen’s relationship takes a lot of twists over the years, but nothing fascinates me more than when she starts emulating him. It begins during Linda Gray’s final seasons on the original “Dallas,” when Sue Ellen becomes a wheeler-dealer in business, and it continues on TNT’s sequel series, when we see her reach into J.R.’s bag of tricks to defeat enemies like Governor McConaughey. In “The Oil Baron’s Ball,” Sue Ellen’s transformation into J.R.’s protégé is still a few years away, but this episode nonetheless offers a glimpse of where Gray’s character is headed. By the end of the hour, we see just how much Sue Ellen is learning at the feet of the master.

Gray has three notable scenes in this episode. In the first, Sue Ellen is strolling through a park when she notices all the happy young couples surrounding her. Eventually, she comes across a group of attractive, shirtless men playing football and stops to watch. Writer-director Leonard Katzman shows the game in slow motion, allowing the camera to linger on the players. There’s no doubt what this scene is supposed to represent: Sue Ellen’s sexual desires, which have gone unfulfilled since she moved out of J.R.’s bedroom several episodes earlier. By today’s standards, the football scene seems a little campy — especially when all those half-naked, straight-from-the-80s hunks start falling all over each other — but it also strikes me as surprisingly progressive. Here’s “Dallas,” easily one of the era’s most chauvinistic TV shows, taking a moment to acknowledge that women don’t exist solely to please men; they have needs of their own. How can you not admire that?

As soon as the football scene ends, Katzman cuts to Southfork that night, where J.R. is reading in bed. Suddenly, the door opens, revealing Sue Ellen’s silhouette. “Do you want something?” he asks. She strides into the room, flings the door closed behind her and climbs onto the bed. “Yes, I want something,” she says, taking the book out of J.R.’s hand and kissing him aggressively as the screen fades to black. The next time we see the couple, Sue Ellen is turning on the bedside lamp as a beaming J.R. watches from under the covers. When she tells him she’s going back to her room, he’s confused. Sue Ellen explains: “You see, J.R., I have no desire to live with you. Now, granted, from time to time, I may need you. And if and when that happens, then I’ll be back. But that’s all. That’s as close to being married as we will ever be.” J.R. is furious and accuses her of treating him like “some kind of stud service.” Her response: “What other possible use would I have for you?”

This is a terrific scene for a lot of reasons, beginning with Gray’s playfully sultry delivery. It’s a moment of triumph for Sue Ellen — and Gray savors every second of it. Indeed, consider how far her character has come: In “Spy in the House,” “Dallas’s” third episode, a sexually neglected Sue Ellen buys a negligee, hoping to get J.R.’s attention; when he calls it “cheap” and walks out on her, she collapses in tears. Sue Ellen soon begins turning to other men, but “The Oil Baron’s Ball” marks the first time we see her take charge of her sexual relationship with J.R. It puts her on the same page as Pam, who is the original “Dallas’s” most sexually liberated woman (occasionally incurring her own husband’s wrath). Perhaps more anything, J.R. and Sue Ellen’s bedroom scene is an exercise in poetic justice: The man who has treated countless mistresses as sexual playthings now gets a taste of his own medicine — and from his wife, no less.

Sue Ellen’s most J.R.-like moment in “The Oil Baron’s Ball” is yet to come. In the third act, our newly empowered heroine visits Windsor Meadow and sends John Ross to summon Peter, the camp counselor to whom she finds herself increasingly attracted. Sue Ellen asks Peter to escort Lucy to this year’s Oil Baron’s Ball, although it’s pretty obvious that Sue Ellen really wants Peter for herself, not for her niece. Peter is reluctant to accept — the young man harbors a secret crush on Sue Ellen and has never even met Lucy — but every time he comes up with an excuse to not go, Sue Ellen is one step ahead of him. When Peter tells her that he would feel out of place at the ball, she responds there’s no place he wouldn’t fit in perfectly. When he says he doesn’t own a dark suit, Sue Ellen reveals she has already arranged for him to visit J.R.’s tailor to be fitted for a tuxedo, compliments of her. Peter has no choice but to say yes, demonstrating once again how much she has learned from her husband. Sue Ellen has always had a manipulative streak, but her use of charm, confidence and gifts to bend Peter’s will comes straight from J.R.’s playbook.

The rest of “The Oil Baron’s Ball” is a mix of heavy drama and light moments. The episode picks up where the previous hour left off, with Lil taking the stand in Ray’s trial and revealing he did indeed pull the plug on Mickey, but only because she couldn’t bring herself to do it. This is a fake-out worthy of TNT’s “Dallas” (admit it: you thought Lil was the culprit), and Kate Reid does a nice job delivering her character’s monologue. The most moving moment, though, comes when Donna tells Ray that even though she believes he had no right to take Mickey’s life, she doesn’t want him to go prison for it. I love this scene because Susan Howard is so good in it — she makes me feel very ounce of Donna’s anguish — and also because it clearly spells out the character’s dilemma of reconciling her personal beliefs with her desire to stand by her husband.

Still, I can’t help but think this conversation between Ray and Donna should have occurred at the beginning of the “who killed Mickey?” mystery, not at the end. For that matter, I also wish this storyline should had been wrapped up in the previous episode, “Ray’s Trial.” No sooner has the judge handed down Ray’s sentence — parole, not jail (naturally) — then Ray and Donna are dancing at the glittery ball. It’s odd to see these characters move on so quickly. Likewise, we never see Lil bid farewell to the Krebbses; after the verdict is announced, Reid simply vanishes from “Dallas” (although she does pop up again briefly a few years later). After the trial, wouldn’t it have been nice to see Ray, Donna, Lil and Lucy visit Mickey’s grave? Besides giving the audience a sense of closure, it would have served as a nice bookend to the memorable Amos Krebbs’s funeral scene a year earlier, when the Trotters were introduced.

Even if the juxtaposition between the courtroom and the ball is jarring, I must admit: The latter scenes are awfully fun. Ken Kercheval somehow manages to make Cliff seem both humbled and overbearing in the instant when the character is named oilman of the year, and the clash between the Ewing and Barnes/Wentworth women in the powder room is delicious. Above all, I love the bon mots J.R. drops during the course of the ball. When Pam arrives and drops by the Ewing table, J.R. delights in re-introducing her to Bobby’s date, Jenna Wade. Bobby tells him to cut it out, but J.R. can’t help himself. “Well, for those who don’t have a program, I’m just going to have to announce the names of all the players, aren’t I?” he says. Larry Hagman’s smile is even more mischievous than usual.

Later, when J.R. sees how uncomfortable Bobby, Pam and Jenna are around each other, he declares this is going to be “one of the great nights of my life.” Leave it to Sue Ellen to put him in his place. “Nothing brings out the best in you like other peoples’ unhappiness,” she says. The line makes me think: Perhaps J.R. has a thing or two to learn from her too.

Grade: B


Dallas, Donna Krebbs, Oil Baron's Ball, Ray Krebbs, Steve Kanaly, Susan Howard

At last


Season 7, Episode 8

Airdate: November 18, 1983

Audience: 23 million homes, ranking 2nd in the weekly ratings

Writer and Director: Leonard Katzman

Synopsis: After Lil testifies that Ray pulled the plug on Mickey at her request, Ray is found guilty but given parole. Sue Ellen treats J.R. like a sexual plaything and persuades Peter to escort Lucy to the Oil Baron’s Ball. At the ball, Pam and Jenna clash and Cliff is named oilman of the year.

Cast: Charles Aidman (Judge Emmett Brocks), Christopher Atkins (Peter Richards), John Beck (Mark Graison), Morgan Brittany (Katherine Wentworth), Delores Cantú (Doris), Roseanna Christiansen (Teresa), Glenn Corbett (Paul Morgan), Patrick Duffy (Bobby Ewing), Linda Gray (Sue Ellen Ewing), Larry Hagman (J.R. Ewing), Susan Howard (Donna Krebbs), Richard Jaeckel (Assistant District Attorney Percy Meredith), Steve Kanaly (Ray Krebbs), Omri Katz (John Ross Ewing), Ken Kercheval (Cliff Barnes), Audrey Landers (Afton Cooper), Timothy Patrick Murphy (Mickey Trotter), Priscilla Presley (Jenna Wade), Victoria Principal (Pam Ewing), Kate Reid (Lil Trotter), Debbie Rennard (Sly), Charlene Tilton (Lucy Ewing), Deborah Tranelli (Phyllis), Debi Sue Voorhees (Caroline), Morgan Woodward (Punk Anderson)

“The Oil Baron’s Ball” is available on DVD and at and iTunes. Watch the episode and share your comments below.