Dallas: Season 5, Episodes 1 – 10
Posted by therebelprince on October 2, 2010
Well, the news has broken that Dallas‘ final season is to be released on DVD in January so in honour of that, I thought I’d step back and pick up where I left off, examining the first 10 episodes of Dallas‘ fifth season.
For the producers of Dallas, no time was more glorious than this moment. They’d managed to follow up TV’s biggest cliffhanger with a commercially-successful season of television, and had been able to build up a complex web of relationships amongst their characters. By this point – with one character living permanently off the ranch, and others in similarly non-formula positions – the series had broken free of any mould, and was able to stretch out storylines that could last a year or even longer (as we’ll see with Jock’s will). The only dark point was the tragic death of Jim Davis, which had occurred just as the fourth season finished airing.
In a move that I suspect would be unheard of today, the producers decide to leave Jock alive and offscreen for half ther season, so we’ll deal with the creative fallout from his death next time. For now, suffice it to say that Jock’s absence allows the Ewing family rivalries to really explode, and they do right from the start – with JR using every weapon in his arsenal to retrieve his infant son, currently living with his mother, who is herself in hiding at the Southern Cross Ranch. (Sentences with far too many clauses are the inevitable folly of writing reviews on this show.) The slow separation of Ellie from her delusions about JR is set in motion here but the fact that JR’s dirty deeds are a ploy to get his own son back somewhat tempers her. Ellie’s rationalising of JR’s deeds is one of those plot contrivances necessary on a show such as this. She can’t always be ignorant, or the character becomes an idiot. But her defiant belief that he is headstrong like his father, and that his manipulations don’t cause personal pain intentionally, keeps Ellie and JR at peace. Still, on occasion her mild scolding of him for a serious crime can come off as ridiculously tame.
And indeed, JR’s biggest crime here – stockpiling millions of barrels of oil to bankrupt Clayton Farlow until he retrieves baby John Ross – are crimes that JR himself rationalises. With Jock gone, interestingly, JR seems to lose much interest in honouring his parents. Ellie doesn’t count in quite the same way. John Ross will soon be JR’s only tie to humanity, and the series makes pains to emphasise that here. This storyline also gives us one of those iconic scenes: JR and the crippled Dusty have a showdown at the Cotton Bowl, with JR arriving by helicopter. The confrontation brings to the fore the matter of Dusty’s impotence – a topic surely still close to the bone (heh) on television in 1981 – and remind us that, despite Sue Ellen’s true love of the cowboy, she has always resembled her dead sister: power-hungry since childhood, in spite of her growing maturity.
Wonderfully, the storyline is still not resolved at the ten-episode mark. There are times – as we’ll see even this season – when Dallas‘ languid storytelling pace can be its own downfall. But in situations such as these, the pace is in no means a ratings tease. They becomes less ‘story arcs’ and more about the present situation of the character. In years to come, Sue Ellen will spend entire seasons away from Southfork. Beautiful stuff.
Things come to a head for JR when this storyline evolves into something new: stuck now with the 5 million stockpiled barrels, JR is brought down when oil prices lurch sharply downward. To cap it off, Jock sends a legal document from South America – where he is assisting local governments with developing oil production – which divides up shares in Ewing Oil amongst the family. JR only has 20 percent, and his family – Ellie, Bobby, Gary and Ray – refuse to sell their shares to him. Only John Ross’ 10 shares give our antihero hope, but – would you believe it? – these only default to JR if the boy is living at the Ranch. Ah, fate.
But that’s for another time. The other storylines simmer along at their own pace. The Kristin-in-the-pool cliffhanger is rounded up perfunctorily, with the revelation that she was drunk never questioned. Instead, it serves as the catalyst for Bobby to head to California and indulge in some early ’80s investigation: a lot of fights resolved with one karate chop, and police who are quick to hand over the investigation to a playboy from out of town. At the end of the day, Bobby ends up with Kristin’s baby son Christopher, whose father he fears is JR. But on returning home – would you believe it? – Pamela spies him first. Her deranged state (she has spent these ten episodes standing on ledges and worrying about her infertility) leads her to claim Christopher as her own. And thus another Ewing dynasty is born.
Ray and Lucy remain in plot limbo. Both serve their stated function in the plot – Ray as Southfork muscle and Lucy for the witty zingers – but both seem to be exercises in missed opportunities. Since Lucy is a typical heiress, she is only allowed to be involved in relationship plots, and here the writers have settled on Mitch as the protagonist. Leigh McCloskey is a talented actor and does his best with the material, but it seems as if Mitch’s blatant moral code – a marked difference from his sister and mother – prevents them from trying anything interesting. A wealthy couple try to sponsor Mitch. Is this a plot to show him being corrupted, you ask? No, they’re actually a truly compassionate wealthy couple who help burn victims. And with the Lucy/Mitch relationship moving at a snail’s pace, we’re stuck with a whole lot of scenes about nothing. Ray and Donna end up in an even worse situation. Susan Howard is one of the strongest performers in the cast, and it’s a crime that Donna is so ill-used here. She imbues every scene with such heart, and it’s nice to see a logical progression of her character as she pens a biography of her adored late husband, but it’ll be years before Donna’s own moral code is applied as an antagonist for JR. (And even then it’ll be chronically underutilised.)
Next time, we’ll consider how Jock’s passing – for all the behind-the-scenes tragedy – kick-started the series’ mythology. For now, though, it’s the Barnes family who move up in the world. Cliff and Pam’s mother Rebecca is back in town and wealthier than they could have imagined. The character development of Cliff – from the layabout lawyer of season one – has been wonderfully understated. Now, all of a sudden, his plot takes off and we find a wealthy Cliff who retains his old habits: his frugalness, his obsession with Chinese food, his petty vengeances. It’s the first true hint that the Ewing/Barnes feud could actually amount to something, and comes into play when Cliff joins the prominent oil cartel and seeks to bring down JR after learning of the massive loan involved in the stockpiled oil.
Lingering amongst all of this plot are a number of small moments that give this season a bit of a boost over the previous one. Part of this is to do with continuity – with so many secondary characters, relationships become better-defined, such as when JR’s new secretary Sylvia “Sly” Lovegren is the daughter of an old friend of his crooked detective Harry McSween. And part of it is certainly the writing and the performances, which are probably at their strongest here. Some of the new cast members – Susan Howard, Howard Keel and Priscilla Pointer primarily – are effortlessly watchable. Keel’s performance as lonely oilman Clayton Farlow is particularly delightful, and it’s a pity that he won’t be given as much to do once he joins the main cast in a couple of years time. It’s easy enoughto say that Dallas taped into a desire for wealth and glamour that captivated ’80s America. But beyond this, Dallas – like all of the ’80s soap operas but moreso – opened up a world. The astounding amount of secondary characters, and the series’ rich backstory (which stretches back to the Depression, but really much further) allow this world to be so real. It’s a world where even waitresses and secretaries have names, and appear regularly. There’s a passion here from the writers and the cast that runs deep, and it’ll get us through the next few high-quality seasons.
* We meet Rebecca’s daughter Katherine Wentworth (Morgan Brittany), whose amazing doll-like face would make her one of the show’s most enjoyable villains. She’ll run the gamut of ludicrous storylines before her time is up, but for now Katherine remains a staunchly ambiguous figure, a card up the writers’ sleeves for the future.
* Afton Cooper leaves JR once and for all here, and returns full-time to Cliff. I’m a big Afton supporter, so I’ll have to find some time for that in the next few seasons, but she does get some good scenes here – chiding Mitch for his honour-over-love actions particularly.
* Bobby is given some pretty standard action stuff throughout, but it must have been a welcome change for Patrick Duffy. Duffy knew that Bobby needed to be a white knight, but was already tiring of the character and wasn’t planning to stay on beyond season six. We’ll see how that plays out down the road, but I must admit I didn’t know Duffy’s feelings when I watched the early seasons for the first time, and I always enjoyed Bobby’s character. It was Pamela who was the wet blanket in the early years, as far as I’m concerned.