Critique: ‘Dallas’ Episode 54 – ‘A House Divided’

Dallas, House Divided, J.R. Ewing, Larry Hagman, Who Shot J.R.?

The divider

One school night in 1988, when I should’ve been asleep, I stumbled across a late-night cable showing of “A House Divided,” the third-season “Dallas” finale that famously ends with J.R. getting shot. This was probably the first time I’d seen the episode since 1980, so I was overjoyed. I recorded the rerun on the living room VCR and watched the cassette so many times in the years that followed, the tape eventually warped.

Today, I know “A House Divided” the way other people know “Star Wars.” I have memorized virtually every line from every scene, and I’ve been known to go around the house reciting them for my own amusement, if no one else’s.

It was crooked!

I’d have done the same thing, Bobby. The same thing.

You’re a drunk and an unfit mother, and I honestly think you’ve lost your reason.

My memories of “A House Divided,” together with the weight of its pop culture significance, have always made me think this is one of “Dallas’s” greatest entries. I’m pretty sure it really is among the show’s finest hours, although I’m also the first to admit it’s hard to sweep aside my nostalgia and judge it simply as a “Dallas” episode.

Whether or not it’s one of the best, “A House Divided” is certainly unique. The producers famously constructed the story in reverse: First, they came up with the idea of having J.R. get shot and then they worked backwards, establishing the suspects and their motives along the way.

The result is an episode with a furious rhythm. The action begins with the frenzied press conference in J.R.’s office at the top of the hour and never lets up, propelled not just by scriptwriter Rena Down’s narrative, but also by Bruce Broughton’s driving score.

Hagman’s Zenith

Dallas, House Divided, J.R. Ewing, Larry Hagman, Who Shot J.R.?

Oh, the humanity!

The actors keep things zipping along, too. Among the regular cast, no one delivers more than Larry Hagman, whose portrayal of J.R. reaches its gleefully villainous zenith in “A House Divided.”

Given all the despicable things J.R. does in this episode, I used to feel guilty cheering him on – until I realized I’m not rooting for the character as much as I am the actor who plays him. Hagman is full of zest in “A House Divided” – and he’s never looked trimmer and sexier – yet the actor never allows his performance to devolve into camp or self-awareness.

Consider the scene where J.R. enters the Southfork dining room and finds Miss Ellie in tears because Bobby, fed up with his older brother’s schemes, has finally fled the ranch. “Mama, I don’t want Bobby to leave. You know that,” he says. The sincerity in Hagman’s voice lets us know J.R. means it.

Director Irving J. Moore probably deserves credit for humanizing J.R., too. When the character is waiting for Harry McSween to bring Alan Beam to his office, we see him alone at his desk, shrouded in darkness and holding the framed picture of Sue Ellen he keeps nearby. This fleeting moment invites the audience to wonder what J.R. is thinking. Does he regret the way he’s treated her?

J.R. looks at the picture again in the final scene, right before the unseen assailant enters the office and shoots him. I don’t know if Hagman picked up the frame on his own or if Moore instructed him to do it, but it’s a clever touch. In those seconds before the gun is fired, having him look at the photograph of Sue Ellen reminds us that J.R. is a husband, a father, a man. Yes, he’s also a bastard, but he doesn’t deserve what’s about to happen to him.

Great Performances

Dallas, House Divided, Linda Gray, Sue Ellen Ewing, Who Shot J.R.?

Those eyes

Patrick Duffy is also impressive in “A House Divided,” particularly in the scene where a frustrated Bobby bids farewell to Ellie. In the episode’s DVD commentary, Duffy credits Barbara Bel Geddes with making his performance better in this sequence, and while she is indeed wonderful, he needn’t be so modest. Duffy has always brought a lot of heart to his role, and in this scene, he gives as good as he gets. As his eyes redden, her sobs intensify. Both actors play off each other really well.

“A House Divided’s” other standout is Linda Gray, who is mesmerizing during Sue Ellen’s big confrontation with J.R. in the dining room, where she calls him out for his misdeeds in front of Jock and Ellie. Notice how Sue Ellen’s expression changes during the course of the sequence, shifting from disgust at J.R.’s behavior to fear when he threatens to put her back in the sanitarium. Over the years, more than one “Dallas” observer has suggested Gray acts with her eyes. In this scene, that’s really true.

Gray has another moment I absolutely love. In the scene where Sue Ellen and J.R. fight in their bedroom, she gets swept up in her own fury and asks him “which slut” he plans to spend the night with. The instant she says this, Gray’s lips part and her angry expression melts, as if the harsh words have jolted the onetime Miss Texas into reality. How did her perfect marriage come to this?

The guest stars in “A House Divided” are terrific, too. I especially like Dennis Patrick, whose indignation is palpable in the scene where Vaughn Leland demands restitution from J.R., and Ann Nelson, who plays the little old lady Pam encounters during her visit to Corpus Christi. Down, the scriptwriter, gives Nelson some charmingly homespun dialogue (“She was pregnant. Big with it she was!”), and the actress delivers every line beautifully.

Great Scenes

Bobby Ewing, Dallas, House Divided, Pam Ewing, Victoria Principal, Who Shot J.R.?

Purple rage

I’ve given J.R. and Sue Ellen’s dining room encounter today’s “Scene of the Day” honors, but truthfully, almost any sequence from this episode qualifies. “A House Divided” is one great moment after another.

Every scene has a memorable line, too. Bobby declares he’s leaving Southfork by telling Pam, “I’ve put up with all the wheeling and dealing and backstabbing that I’m going to.” After Kristin vows to kill J.R., Alan tells her to “take a number. There are a few of us ahead of you.” When Sue Ellen asks J.R. which slut he plans to spend the night with, he responds, “What difference does it make? Whoever it is has got to be more interesting than the slut I’m looking at right now.”

“A House Divided” isn’t perfect, of course. The press conference that opens the episode isn’t very credible, especially since the reporter’s last question (“Did Ewing Oil invest all of its capital in those leases and does nationalization mean the end of the Ewing empire?”) really should have been the first.

Also, as good as J.R. and Sue Ellen’s dining room confrontation is, I can’t help but notice Hagman delivers J.R.’s menacing threat (“The sooner we have you put away in that sanitarium, the better off you’re going to be.”) while holding a slice of bacon.

Surprise, Surprise

Dallas, House Divided, J.R. Ewing, Larry Hagman, Who Shot J.R.?

Down, but not out

For me, part of the fun of watching “A House Divided” today is wondering what it must have been like to see this episode when CBS aired it for the first time in 1980. I was 6 at the time and already a “Dallas” fan, so I probably was among the millions of people who watched that broadcast, although I have no memory of it.

Modern audiences likely assume J.R.’s shooting was a surprise, but CBS actually gave away the episode’s pivotal final scene in promos leading up to the broadcast. What a shame. Imagine how shocking the cliffhanger would have been if CBS hadn’t spoiled it.

Then again, when you think about it, the shooting itself really isn’t all that important. What matters is all the great drama that comes before those bullets are fired. In the end, the most surprising thing about “A House Divided” isn’t that J.R. gets gunned down, it’s how entertaining this episode remains, even when you have the whole thing memorized.

Grade: A+

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Dallas, House Divided, J.R. Ewing, Larry Hagman, Who Shot J.R.?

Mr. Big Shot

‘A HOUSE DIVIDED’

Season 3, Episode 25

Airdate: March 21, 1980

Audience: 24.9 million homes, ranking 1st in the weekly ratings

Writer: Rena Down

Director: Irving J. Moore

Synopsis: The Asian oil fiasco bankrupts Vaughn Leland. Pam finds no evidence her mother is dead. J.R. shuts down Ewing 23 after learning Cliff is entitled to a share of the proceeds. Bobby and Pam, disgusted with J.R.’s tactics, leave Southfork. Sue Ellen, Cliff, Kristin, Alan and Vaughn vow to stop J.R., who is shot twice by an unseen assailant.

Cast: Barbara Bel Geddes (Miss Ellie Ewing), Kale Brown (reporter), Christopher Coffey (Professor Greg Forrester), Jeff Cooper (Dr. Simon Elby), Mary Crosby (Kristin Shepard), Jim Davis (Jock Ewing), Patrick Duffy (Bobby Ewing), Meg Gallagher (Louella), Linda Gray (Sue Ellen Ewing), Larry Hagman (J.R. Ewing), John Hart (Dr. David Rogers), Ron Hayes (Hank Johnson), Susan Keller (reporter), Ken Kercheval (Cliff Barnes), Jeanna Michaels (Connie), Ann Nelson (woman), Dennis Patrick (Vaughn Leland), Randolph Powell (Alan Beam), Victoria Principal (Pam Ewing), Don Starr (Jordan Lee), Charlene Tilton (Lucy Ewing)

“A House Divided” is available on DVD and at Amazon.com and iTunes. Watch the episode and share your comments below.

Critique: ‘Knots Landing’ Episode 6 – ‘Home is For Healing’

Charlene Tilton, Dallas, Gary Ewing, Home is For Healing, Joan Van Ark, Knots Landing, Lucy Ewing, Ted Shackelford, Valene Ewing

Three if by sea

In “Home is For Healing,” Lucy finally discovers her parents have remarried and moved to Southern California. The moment of truth occurs off-screen, which is a bit unexpected since “Dallas” and “Knots Landing” each spent so long laying the groundwork for what was shaping up to be a Big Reveal.

But no matter. “Home is For Healing” is still a solid episode, thanks mostly to Rena Down’s script, which casts Gary, Valene and Lucy as a broken family that wants to put itself back together but can’t figure out how to do it.

I especially like Lucy in this setting. Her role here – the heiress trying to adjust to life in the ’burbs – is more interesting than what was happening with her at the time on “Dallas,” where Lucy was romancing Alan Beam just to spite J.R.

Charlene Tilton strikes the perfect balance in “Home is For Healing,” making us see Lucy as a young woman who still carries around the heart her parents broke when she was a little girl. Tilton makes Lucy seem vulnerable without being childish. It’s a great performance.

“Home is For Healing” also gets a big lift from Ted Shackelford, who brings brings a lot of heart to the scene where Gary owns up to his failures as a father.

This happens at the end of the episode, when Gary interrupts Val and Lucy’s stroll along the beach. In the midst of Gary’s big speech, he becomes tongue-tied and bows his head, as if he can’t find the words to convey his guilt and regret. In the episode’s DVD commentary, Shackelford laughs at this moment and says he paused because he couldn’t remember his next line. Whatever the reason, it works well because it makes us sympathetic toward Gary and eager to forgive him for his mistakes.

I also love when Lucy agrees to spend the rest of the week in Knots Landing and Gary invites her to run with him and Val in the ocean. Lucy is sweetly reticent – this North Texas landlubber fears the water will be too cold – but Gary doesn’t relent. “Come on, honey,” he says.

We know what Gary is really asking is for his daughter to give him and Val another chance to be parents, which is why it’s so moving when Lucy finally takes his hand and the three of them go frolicking through the surf. It’s a lovely ending to a lovely hour of television.

Grade: A

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Charlene Tilton, Constance McCashin, Dallas, Home is For Healing, Knots Landing, Laura Avery, Lucy Ewing

Hi, neighbor

‘HOME IS FOR HEALING’

“Knots Landing” Season 1, Episode 6

Airdate: January 31, 1980

Audience: 15.5 million homes, ranking 38th in the weekly ratings

Writer: Rena Down

Director: Roger Young

Synopsis: When Lucy learns Gary and Val have remarried, Val persuades her to come to Knots Landing for a visit. Lucy and Val grow close, but Gary struggles to connect with his daughter. She decides to go home and Val agrees to accompany her, but Gary persuades Lucy to stay for the rest of the week.

Cast: Robert Brian Berger (Charlie), Tricia Boyer (Jill), Joseph Butcher (Terry), Breck Costin (Curt), James Houghton (Kenny Ward), Kim Lankford (Ginger Ward), Michele Lee (Karen Fairgate), Claudia Lonow (Diana Fairgate), Constance McCashin (Laura Avery), Christopher Murray (Les), Don Murray (Sid Fairgate), John Pleshette (Richard Avery), Ted Shackelford (Gary Ewing), Charlene Tilton (Lucy Ewing), Louise Vallance (Sylvie), Joan Van Ark (Valene Ewing)

“Home is For Healing” is available on DVD. Watch the episode and share your comments below.

Critique: ‘Dallas’ Episode 36 – ‘The Lost Child’

Bobby Ewing, Dallas, Lost Child, Luke Middens, Ronnie Scribner

Surrogates

“Dallas” is sometimes thought of as a “man’s show” not just because of its rugged western motif, but also because the Ewing women so often take a backseat to their male counterparts. Consider “The Lost Child,” in which Pam suffers a miscarriage but the tragedy is seen mostly through Bobby’s eyes.

To pull this off, scriptwriter Rena Down has Bobby befriend Luke, the young son of ranch hand Bo Middens. When Bo is bitten by a rattlesnake and hospitalized, Bobby allows eager cowboy-in-training Luke to fill in for his “pa.” Bobby and Luke bond while working together, especially after Luke tells him how he never has a chance to grow close to people because he and his widower father are always on the move.

Patrick Duffy displays an effortless, big brotherly charm in his scenes with guest star Ronnie Scribner, who is believable as sensitive Luke. At times, Bobby and Luke’s relationship feels a bit too “Little House on the Prairie” for “Dallas,” but their sentimental conversations help establish Bobby’s paternal instincts.

Ultimately, this is what makes “The Lost Child” one of the cleverest entries in “Dallas’s” third season. If Luke didn’t exist, we wouldn’t know how loving Bobby is with children – and Pam’s miscarriage might not resonate with the audience as much as it does.

In a way, Luke serves the same function as baby John. At the beginning of the third season, when Sue Ellen brings home her newborn son, Pam bonds with the baby instantly, establishing her parental bona fides. The difference between these two plot devices is John is a newborn and Luke is an adolescent, so his relationship with Bobby feels more substantial.

In “The Lost Child’s” final scene, Luke tells Bobby he is moving to Montana with Bo, who has recovered from his snakebite. Bobby’s farewell scene with the boy is touching, mainly because we know Bobby isn’t saying goodbye to Luke as much as he’s saying goodbye to his dream of becoming a father.

Grade: B

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Bobby Ewing, Dallas, Lost Child, Pam Ewing, Victoria Principal

Love and miscarriage

‘THE LOST CHILD’

Season 3, Episode 7

Airdate: November 2, 1979

Audience: 19.8 million homes, ranking 5th in the weekly ratings

Writer: Rena Down

Director: Irving J. Moore

Synopsis: After Pam suffers a miscarriage, she tells Bobby about her genetic disease and declares she mustn’t become pregnant again. Bobby befriends the young son of a ranch hand and is sad when the boy and his father move away. Cliff tells Digger he is baby John’s father. Sue Ellen begins seeing Dr. Simon Elby, a psychiatrist.

Cast: Barbara Bel Geddes (Miss Ellie Ewing), Jeff Cooper (Dr. Simon Elby), Mary Crosby (Kristin Shepard), Jim Davis (Jock Ewing), Patrick Duffy (Bobby Ewing), Med Flory (Cal McBride), Linda Gray (Sue Ellen Ewing), Larry Hagman (J.R. Ewing), Steve Kanaly (Ray Krebbs), Ken Kercheval (Cliff Barnes), Jeanna Michaels (Connie), Randolph Powell (Alan Beam), Victoria Principal (Pam Ewing), Ronnie Scribner (Luke Middens), Charlene Tilton (Lucy Ewing), Keenan Wynn (Digger Barnes)

“The Lost Child” is available on DVD and at Amazon.com and iTunes. Watch the episode and share your comments below.