Critique: ‘Dallas’ Episode 118 — ‘The Reckoning’

Dallas, Barbara Bel Geddes, Miss Ellie Ewing, Reckoning

Ewings divide!

Few moments on “Dallas” stir as many emotions for me as Miss Ellie’s testimony at the end of “The Reckoning.” Ellie, who is trying to overturn Jock’s will because it’s dividing her family, reads aloud one of the last letters he sent her before his death in South America. The words are sad and sentimental, written at a time when Jock was ill and missing his wife. When she’s finished, Ellie’s lawyer Brooks Oliver asks if she believes the letter shows Jock lacked mental competence at the end of his life. The Ewing matriarch tries to avoid answering the question, but Brooks persists. Ellie swallows hard. “If that’s the legal term you need to break the will,” she says, “then yes, Jock was not mentally competent.”

Does Ellie genuinely believe this? Scriptwriter Will Lorin keeps things ambiguous, which helps lend this scene its power. On the one hand, we learn from Jock’s letter that he was under the weather when he wrote the codicil that established the divisive contest for Ewing Oil. On the other hand, sick or not, pitting J.R. and Bobby against each other feels very much like something Jock would do. Is Ellie deluding herself when she declares otherwise? This wouldn’t be the first time she’s put on blinders where her late husband is concerned. Or could it be that Ellie is so desperate to end her sons’ rivalry that she’s willing to publicly question Jock’s mental competence, even though she knows deep down that he wasn’t delusional? Either way, I feel sorry for Mama at this moment.

Regardless of Ellie’s motivation, Barbara Bel Geddes does a nice job conveying her character’s torment. The actress uses her trademark halting delivery during the testimony, which works well because it suggests Ellie isn’t sure if she’s doing the right thing. Bel Geddes also allows her tears to flow freely, demonstrating again that she’s one of “Dallas’s” best criers. The testimony is also poignant because the letter that Ellie reads makes Jock seem more human than we usually think of him. He writes about getting older, using an expression — “I’m really feeling the years” — that sounds like something a man from Jock’s generation would say. You have to go back to “Dallas’s” ninth episode, “Bypass,” to see the character acknowledge his own mortality with such candor.

More than anything, this scene seems to offer a tribute to the courage that Jim Davis brought to his final days in the spring of 1981. Jock’s letter conjures images of him soldiering on through the jungle, just as Davis persevered when he continued to film scenes for “Dallas” despite the terrible toll cancer was taking on his body. Back then, the producers didn’t write Davis’s illness into the script because they wanted to give the dying actor hope that he would recover and be able to continue playing his character. Now, seeing Ellie read Jock’s letter in “The Reckoning,” it’s almost as if Bel Geddes is finally giving voice to her late co-star’s grit and determination. It’s quite touching.

This episode also shows us how Bobby is becoming more like J.R. as their battle for Ewing Oil rages. After learning that Gary and Ray would lose most of their inheritance if Jock’s will is overturned, Bobby tries to use the information to manipulate Pam into persuading Ellie to drop her legal challenge. Pam thinks Bobby’s suggestion is ridiculous and lets him know it. “Oh, Bobby, you know your mother. Never in a million years would she hurt Gary or Ray,” Pam says. Bobby can only sigh in exasperation.

“The Reckoning” also shows us a different side of Sue Ellen. She’s played the role of J.R.’s supportive spouse throughout his fight with Bobby, but twice in this episode she demonstrates some independence. In the first instance, while J.R. and Sue Ellen are alone in their bedroom, he muses how it would be good for him if Pam had a fling with Mark Graison, thus creating a distraction for Bobby. Sue Ellen is mortified. “J.R., I don’t want anything bad happening to Bobby and Pam’s marriage,” she declares. (Foreshadowing alert: Sue Ellen then adds, “Can you imagine if somebody did that to you and I?”) Later, during the courthouse sequence, J.R. stands in the hallway with Bobby and Sue Ellen and points out Pam and Miss Ellie, standing a few feet away. “Well, I see your little wife over there, giving aid and comfort to the opposition,” J.R. huffs. Sue Ellen’s response: “Opposition? J.R., that’s your mother.”

A final thought: “The Reckoning” is the first of two “Dallas” episodes helmed by Bill Duke, who would go on to become one of television’s most prolific directors. (Duke, a great character actor, also plays the sharecropper whom Jock befriends in “Dallas: The Early Years.”) “The Reckoning” is one of Duke’s first directing gigs, and his gifts are evident. Besides eliciting wonderful performances from Bel Geddes and the rest of the cast, Duke does two things during the courtroom scenes that I love. First, as each character testifies, we see the bailiff cross off that person’s name from the witness list. Duke also shows us periodic close-ups of the court reporter’s fingers as she rhythmically punches the keys of her typewriter. These are small touches, but they add so much to my enjoyment of these scenes.

I also like how Duke ends this episode with a shot of Ellie emerging from the courtroom after the judge rules against her. The other Ewings follow her lead, evoking memories of the freeze frame from “Bypass,” when everyone coalesced around the wheelchair-bound Jock as he departed the hospital. One difference: In the earlier shot, all the Ewings face forward. Now they’re all headed in different directions, a family together but no longer united.

Grade: A

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Dallas, Reckoning

The ‘D’ list

‘THE RECKONING’

Season 6, Episode 15

Airdate: January 14, 1983

Audience: 22.1 million homes, ranking 4th in the weekly ratings

Writer: Will Lorin

Director: Bill Duke

Synopsis: A judge rejects Miss Ellie’s attempt to overturn Jock’s will. J.R. tells Mark that Pam is interested in him. Rebecca urges Cliff to lay off the Ewings for awhile. Donna fails again to persuade her fellow commissioners to rescind J.R.’s variance. The cartel weighs whether to uncap the Wellington property or buy out Bobby’s share.

Cast: John Beck (Mark Graison), Barbara Bel Geddes (Miss Ellie Ewing), Fred Carney (Judge Howard Mantee), Roseanna Christiansen (Teresa), Patrick Duffy (Bobby Ewing), Fern Fitzgerald (Marilee Stone), Tom Fuccello (Senator Dave Culver), Linda Gray (Sue Ellen Ewing), Laurence Haddon (Franklin Horner), Larry Hagman (J.R. Ewing), Susan Howard (Donna Krebbs), Steve Kanaly (Ray Krebbs), James Karen (Elton Lawrence), Howard Keel (Clayton Farlow), Ken Kercheval (Cliff Barnes), Audrey Landers (Afton Cooper), Julio Medina (Henry Figueroa), Donald Moffat (Brooks Oliver), George O. Petrie (Harv Smithfield), Priscilla Pointer (Rebecca Wentworth), Victoria Principal (Pam Ewing), Arlen Dean Snyder (George Hicks), Paul Sorensen (Andy Bradley), Don Starr (Jordan Lee), Charlene Tilton (Lucy Ewing), Morgan Woodward (Punk Anderson)

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

Critique: ‘Dallas’ Episode 113 — ‘The Wedding’

Dallas, Cliff Barnes, J.R. Ewing, Ken Kercheval, Larry Hagman, Linda Gray, Sue Ellen Ewing, Wedding

What is she thinking?

“The Wedding” is a strong episode with a silly ending. In the final scene, J.R. and Sue Ellen stand under a big tent in the Southfork driveway, where a minister is conducting their second marriage ceremony. He asks “if there be any man” who can say why the couple shouldn’t be remarried. Cliff, who is seated in the audience, suddenly springs to his feet. The camera zooms in on Ken Kercheval, the music swells and Philip Capice’s closing credit flashes onto the screen. That’s it.

This is less of a cliffhanger than a pause. Since there was no doubt in 1982 that J.R. and Sue Ellen were indeed going to be remarried, I wonder: What about this scene was supposed to be suspenseful? How big of a jackass Cliff would make of himself when the story resumed the following week? Indeed, most of what everyone remembers about J.R. and Sue Ellen’s second trip to the altar — her dance with Cliff, J.R. and Cliff’s fistfight, the scene where half the actors wind up in the Southfork swimming pool — happens in the follow-up segment, “Post Nuptial.” Couldn’t the “Dallas” producers have put some of that good stuff in “The Wedding”?

Of course, even if the final scene is underwhelming, you have to appreciate the lavishness of J.R. and Sue Ellen’s ceremony. At this point during “Dallas’s” run, Southfork had hosted only one other wedding: Lucy and Mitch’s, which was shot on the show’s Hollywood soundstage. J.R. and Sue Ellen’s nuptials were filmed at the “real” ranch. This makes their event look and feel like an honest-to-goodness outdoor affair, with real blue skies and actual wind blowing through the actors’ hair. When it comes to Southfork, there’s no substitution for the real thing.

“The Wedding” also reminds us how much TV weddings have changed over the years. Director Leonard Katzman shows us every step of Sue Ellen’s walk down the aisle and allows us to hear all the vows recited by the minister (who, by the way, is played by Parley Baer, the veteran character actor who portrayed the hard-of-hearing man J.R. encounters in the “Knots Landing” episode “A Family Matter”). Three decades later, when Christopher and Pamela Rebecca were married in the first episode of TNT’s “Dallas,” their ceremony was depicted in a musical montage set to an Adele song. There was no need to hear the wedding march or the vows because at this point, TV audiences have been “trained” to understand how weddings work.

Besides the ending, my only other gripe with “The Wedding” is the lack of attention paid to Sue Ellen. Here’s a woman who is about to remarry a man who has caused her tremendous pain, yet we never see her question if she’s doing the right thing or reflect on what she learned during the season-and-a-half she spent away from him. Don’t get me wrong: “Dallas” makes a smart decision by reuniting these characters, who are always more entertaining together than they are apart. I just wish Will Lorin’s script had given us a clearer understanding of what’s going on inside Sue Ellen’s head. Then again, maybe she isn’t sure either.

Besides, Miss Ellie and Clayton are the real star attraction of “The Wedding.” He comes to Southfork to escort Sue Ellen down the aisle but winds up spending most of his time with Ellie. Their scenes together showcase the warm rapport between Barbara Bel Geddes and Howard Keel and make it clear to the audience how well-suited their characters are for each other: Clayton laments never having a large family, while Ellie confides her fear that J.R. and Bobby’s contest will tear the Ewings apart. The only moment that rings false occurs when Ellie tells Clayton how much he reminds her of Jock. If you ask me, Keel was an ideal replacement for Jim Davis because their characters were so different. Whereas Jock was rough around the edges, Clayton was a refined gentleman. And yet isn’t it impressive how easily Clayton slides into Jock’s place? By the end of the hour, Clayton is stepping between J.R. and Bobby to keep them from scuffling during a rowdy Southfork cocktail hour and standing at Ellie’s side as she greets the wedding guests. These are things Jock once did, but Clayton handles them well.

Other highlights of “The Wedding” include Lucy’s encounter in the Southfork kitchen with Mickey, where the ranch’s resident rebels take an instant dislike to each other. (Except not really. Like Ellie and Clayton, it’s pretty clear Lucy and Mickey are destined for romance.) I also like J.R.’s visit to Holly, where he recommends she sell one of her company’s divisions to Petro State. Notice that Lorin doesn’t feel obligated to remind us what Petro State is; the “Dallas” producers trust the audience to remember J.R. set up this dummy corporation a few episodes ago. And even though Cliff’s big move at the end of “The Wedding” isn’t all that dramatic, I can’t help but enjoy the scene where J.R. invites his nemesis to the ceremony. Yes, it’s a cruel thing for J.R. to do, but how can you not love seeing the delicious smile Larry Hagman flashes when he encourages Cliff to come watch him marry the woman who dumped him?

The other actor to watch in “The Wedding:” the bearded extra who pops up throughout this episode. He first appears as a patron in the restaurant where Punk summons J.R. for a drink. Later, when Bobby, Pam, Ray and Donna head to the nightclub, we see the bearded man boogeying on the dance floor. Finally, he plays one of the guests at J.R. and Sue Ellen’s wedding. (In the image above, you can see the man’s face behind Sue Ellen’s right shoulder.) Forget whether or not Cliff is going to disrupt the wedding; the real cliffhanger is: Who is this bearded man, and why is he stalking the Ewings?

Grade: A

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Barbara Bel Geddes, Clayton Farlow, Dallas, Miss Ellie Ewing, Wedding

Golden couple

‘THE WEDDING’

Season 6, Episode 10

Airdate: December 3, 1982

Audience: 23.6 million homes, ranking 1st in the weekly ratings

Writer: Will Lorin

Director: Leonard Katzman

Synopsis: Clayton visits Southfork and spends time with Miss Ellie, which hurts Rebecca. At J.R.’s behest, Holly prepares to sell part of her company, unaware the buyer is J.R.’s dummy corporation. Dave persuades Donna to join the new Texas Energy Commission. Lucy and Mickey meet and instantly dislike each other. At J.R. and Sue Ellen’s wedding, when the minister asks for objections, Cliff rises.

Cast: Parley Baer (minister), Tyler Banks (John Ross Ewing), Barbara Bel Geddes (Miss Ellie Ewing), Lois Chiles (Holly Harwood), Patrick Duffy (Bobby Ewing), Tom Fuccello (Senator Dave Culver), Linda Gray (Sue Ellen Ewing), Larry Hagman (J.R. Ewing), Alice Hirson (Mavis Anderson), Susan Howard (Donna Krebbs), Steve Kanaly (Ray Krebbs), Howard Keel (Clayton Farlow), Ken Kercheval (Cliff Barnes), Audrey Landers (Afton Cooper), Doug McGrath (Gentry), Timothy Patrick Murphy (Mickey Trotter), Priscilla Pointer (Rebecca Wentworth), Victoria Principal (Pam Ewing), Danone Simpson (Kendall), Don Starr (Jordan Lee), Charlene Tilton (Lucy Ewing), Deborah Tranelli (Phyllis), Ray Wise (Blair Sullivan), Morgan Woodward (Punk Anderson)

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

Critique: ‘Dallas’ Episode 102 – ‘Acceptance’

The emperor's clothes

The emperor’s clothes

The scene everyone remembers from “Acceptance” is the one where the grieving Miss Ellie goes on a rampage in the Southfork kitchen, smashing every dish in sight before tearfully collapsing onto the floor. This is a big, dramatic moment and it never fails to give me chills, but it’s not the only great performance we get from Barbara Bel Geddes in this episode. The quiet moments that come before Ellie’s breakdown are just as moving. They deserve to be remembered too.

More than anything, “Acceptance” is about the journey Ellie takes before she comes to terms with Jock’s death. It begins when Ray visits Ellie on another rainy night at Southfork and suggests she forgive Donna for wanting to write an unflattering book about Jock. Steve Kanaly’s monologue consists of more than 350 words, and he delivers every one beautifully. I also love how Bel Geddes holds her own against Kanaly, even though she is almost completely silent. The look on Bel Geddes’ face tells us everything we need to know. Ellie isn’t really mad at Donna. She’s angry because the husband she loved has died and left her alone.

Virtually every scene that follows demonstrates how Bel Geddes can say more with a smile or a furrowed brow than most actors can with a script full of dialogue. Watch how her expression changes in the scene where Punk invites Ellie to accompany him and Mavis to the Oil Barons Ball. Bel Geddes is so sweet in the way Ellie politely declines Punk’s invitation, but once he tells her about the plan to introduce a memorial scholarship in Jock’s name, her expression shifts to shock, hurt and sadness, all within a matter of seconds. How does she do that?

The poignant moments keep coming. A pensive Ellie strolls around the Southfork grounds, recalling the walk she takes in the classic “Ellie Saves the Day.” She visits the stables and lovingly strokes Blazer, Jock’s horse. “You miss him too, don’t you?” she says. And the biggest heartbreaker of all: when Ellie stands in Jock’s bedroom closet and gently touches his clothes. (In a nice touch, the producers appear to have stocked this set with pieces from Jim Davis’s “Dallas” wardrobe, including the powder blue suit he memorably sported in “Runaway” and the white-dotted bathrobe he wore during the third season.)

Of course, as good as Bel Geddes is, she gets plenty of support from director Michael Preece, who always brings out the best in the “Dallas” cast, and Will Lorin, whose script is full of details that ring true. My favorite of these moments comes in the second act, when Lucy enters Ellie’s bedroom to announce Punk’s arrival. “Tell him I’ll be right there. Offer him a drink,” Ellie says. Offer him a drink. It’s a small line, but it tells us so much about Ellie’s devotion to keeping up appearances, even when she’s in mourning. This is exactly what we expect a woman of Ellie’s generation and stature to tell her granddaughter when company arrives.

Ellie’s struggle reaches its crescendo when she has her breakdown in the kitchen. The sequence begins with the Ewings gathered in the Southfork dining room. As the other characters chatter (listen closely and you’ll hear J.R. and Pam being cordial to each other), Preece slowly zooms in on Ellie’s face as she notices Jock’s empty chair at the other end of the table. Quickly and quietly, she excuses herself and goes into the kitchen, where she orders Teresa to leave. Suddenly, Ellie is overcome with emotion and begins smashing the dishes.

When I interviewed the wonderful Michael Preece last month, he told me Bel Geddes didn’t want to do multiple takes because the material was so gut-wrenching. When you watch the scene, you can tell the actress is taking care to hit her marks. In hindsight, her sense of caution works well. Yes, Ellie is a woman exploding with grief, but she’s also someone whose instinct is to always remain composed. Of course she’d hesitate a little before knocking over a stack of plates.

(Watching this scene, I’m also reminded of a famous sequence from the 1970s sitcom “Good Times,” when Esther Rolle’s Florida Evans, another matriarch in mourning, slams a glass punchbowl onto her kitchen floor. The dialogue is similar too. Florida: “Damn, damn, damn!” Ellie: “Damn you, Jock!”)

In “Acceptance’s” final scene, Ellie visits the Krebbses and gives Donna’s book her blessing. It brings to mind the final moments in the fourth-season episode “Ewing vs. Ewing,” when Ellie stands in Ray and Donna’s living room and asks Jock to forgive her for almost destroying their marriage. That scene, one of the last times Bel Geddes and Davis appeared together, ends with their characters declaring their love for each other. This time around, the moment of satisfaction comes when Ellie finally acknowledges that her husband is dead. “I know that Jock’s not coming back, but I have my memories of him,” she says. “And my memories are forever.”

So are great performances like this.

Grade: A

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Forever

Forever

‘ACCEPTANCE’

Season 5, Episode 25

Airdate: April 2, 1982

Audience: 29.1 million homes, ranking 2nd in the weekly ratings

Writer: Will Lorin

Director: Michael Preece

Synopsis: Miss Ellie accepts Jock’s death and gives Donna’s book her blessing. Afton tries to comfort Cliff after Rebecca fires him. J.R. romances Sue Ellen. Bobby helps the police catch Farraday’s killers. Mitch moves to Atlanta.

Cast: Tyler Banks (John Ross Ewing), Barbara Bel Geddes (Miss Ellie Ewing), Patrick Duffy (Bobby Ewing), Phyllis Flax (Mrs. Chambers), Jonathan Goldsmith (Joe Smith), Linda Gray (Sue Ellen Ewing), Larry Hagman (J.R. Ewing), Susan Howard (Donna Krebbs), Bob Hoy (Detective Howard), Steve Kanaly (Ray Krebbs), Ken Kercheval (Cliff Barnes), Audrey Landers (Afton Cooper), Leigh McCloskey (Dr. Mitch Cooper), Priscilla Pointer (Rebecca Wentworth), Victoria Principal (Pam Ewing), Debbie Rennard (Sly), Tom Stern (Detective White), Charlene Tilton (Lucy Cooper), Morgan Woodward (Punk Anderson), H.M. Wynant (Ed Chapman)

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