Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Dallas: “A House Divided”

Season 3, Episode 25
Original Airdate: March 21, 1980
Writer: Rena Down
Director: Irving J. Moore
Executive Producers: Philip Capice, Lee Rich
Cast: Larry Hagman, Patrick Duffy, Linda Gray

The first thing to note about “Dallas” is how big it is. Those opening credits, with the sprawling theme music and helicopter shots of the city and South Fork, present the viewer with an introduction to the biggest poker table in the world. Everything is up for grabs – all you have to do is want it enough and not be afraid to get a little blood on your hands. It feels like a big-budget movie, not an episode of television.

It’s a shame that the series is remembered today more for its cuckoo-for-Cocoa-Puffs stunts more than its excellent storytelling. I came to this series after becoming a fan of the fantastic sequel show, which underlines that a good soap opera does not have to be done with camp or over-the-top slap-fights. In many ways, it’s more difficult to write a good, character-based soap than many other genres – here, all the drama must come from within while still allowing the characters to grow, mature and revert.

“A House Divided” presents us with the most memorable season-ending cliffhanger of all time: Who shot J.R.? J.R. (Larry Hagman) is ultimate villain – viewers loved to hate him just as much as “Dallas’” characters simply hated him.  The episode opens with J.R. having pulled off the neat hat-trick of managing to save his company from going belly up while systematically bankrupting almost every other oil baron in Dallas. I’m not exaggerating by writing that the first ten minutes of the episode involve character after character entering J.R.’s office, threatening him and then leaving just in time for the next character to come in and start screaming.

But then again it isn’t like his home life is going much better. He’s attempting to get his alcoholic wife Sue Ellen (Linda Gray) institutionalized. I’m not an expert on the mythology of the show, but I have a feeling J.R. probably drove his wife to the bottle, and I can’t really blame her. His mistress is trying to backstab him. Even his dear ‘ole Mama Miss Ellie (Barbara Bel Geddes) is cross with him after J.R. manages to drive Bobby (Patrick Duffy) away from Southfork. Sure, Miss Ellie seems soft on the surface, but anyone who watches “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” knows she is not one to be trifled with.

And let’s not forget the reason Bobby decided to leave Southfork. Ewing rival Cliff Barnes (a wonderfully oily -- sorry for the pun -- Ken Kercheval) has found legal documentation that he is entitled to half the profits from a hugely profitable oil field. J.R.’s response to the news? He immediately shuts down the wells and refuses to turn them back on. Sure, this screws him out of millions in profits, but he wins, so whatever. When Bobby finds out, he’s livid, and responds by wanting to get himself and his wife as far away from J.R. as possible.

Sure, you can see the machinations of the plot twisting in every scene of the episode, but that does not mean the writing is not inspired. The episode (and the series as a whole) is all about those machinations, and it feels like a more fanciful version of “Dune,” with oil substituted for the spice. And yes, that was sarcasm. J.R. seems to have the ability to be completely emotionless about his shady dealings, snaking back and forth whichever way he needs to, damn the consequences for everyone around him. He appears to think that everyone capable of decency is really “weak.” He never seems to ask a question, only make statements that he treats as facts, no matter how insane they are. In other words, he’s a monster. In an odd way, it becomes fitting that an act of emotional rage is what brings him to a halt (albeit only for a little while).

As terrible as J.R. is, I can see why he became so beloved: He’s the only one on the show unafraid to crack a smile. Everyone else on “Dallas” has their emotions cranked up to an 11 at all times, but J.R. spends at least as much time coming up with wisecracks as he does plotting the downfall of [Insert Character Here].

Take this line, said to his mistress:
“It takes brains to know when to be scared, honey, and since that’s something in short supply around here, I’m gonna help you. Now is the time to be scared.”
Or this exchange with his wife:
Sue Ellen: “Tell me, J.R., what slut are you going to stay with tonight?”J.R.: “What difference does it make? Whoever it is has got to be more interesting than the slut I’m looking at right now.”
The aforementioned scene where Bobby lets Miss Ellie know that he’s going to leave is surprisingly poignant, a reminder that sometimes morality and honesty can be just as engaging and powerful as villainy. Duffy is excellent in the loud and emotional scene, and it proves why his character is such a great foil for J.R.

The dynamic of the series at this point seemed to be a great triangle of power between Bobby, who represented good, J.R., who represented evil, and their father Jock (Jim Davis), who was the pendulum that swung between the two. That triangle is echoed on the new show in a similar way, with Cliff Barnes’ family representing evil, Bobby’s family representing good and J.R.’s brood representing the pendulum.

Yes, there’s one or two “I’ll kill you for this, J.R.!” too many peppered into the episode, but I’m surprised it holds up as well as it does today. When you hear so many times how campy and over-the-top these ‘80s soaps were, then see those shoulder pads, then watch this compilation video, you begin to believe that they were horrible. And yet “A House Divided” is tightly scripted, the characters are memorable and that cliffhanger still packs a punch. And did I mention that theme song? Wow.

“A House Divided” is available on DVD and iTunes. The “Dallas” sequel series is on TNT Mondays at 9 p.m.

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