“Check and Mate” brings J.R. and Bobby’s contest for control of Ewing Oil to a satisfying but somewhat silly conclusion. In the final scene, the brothers learn J.R. boosted the company’s profits by $40 million, making him the clear-cut winner. With his victory clenched, J.R. announces he’s reneging on his earlier promise to split the company with Bobby, even if Bobby comes up short. Suddenly, Bobby receives some last-minute news: He just made a killing on his Canadian drilling deal, making him the contest’s winner. J.R. wants to go back to their original power-sharing deal — and of course Bobby agrees. Would we expect anything less from this show?
Indeed, this is another example of “Dallas’s” rather fanciful approach to big business. J.R. and Bobby receive the contest results while meeting with lawyer Harv Smithfield on the last day of the competition. Legally, shouldn’t this meeting have taken place the following day, when all the profits could have been counted? Also, in the previous episode, Bobby’s Canadian partner Thornton McLeish still hadn’t struck oil; now we learn Bobby and McLeish not only hit big, they managed to sell their shares to some bigger oil companies. Talk about a fast sale!
But even if this scene stretches credulity, it remains one of the best corporate showdowns from a series that practically invented them. Bobby’s 11th-hour victory is surprising and dramatic; I usually don’t like to see J.R. get beat, but when Bobby does it, I let it slide. Besides, Larry Hagman gets to show a lot of range here — unabashed smugness when J.R. thinks he’s won, muted humility when he realizes he’s lost — and that’s always fun to watch. (I also appreciate how the sequence includes one last letter from Jock, whose explanation that the true purpose of the contest was to bring his sons together makes the storyline feel like Jock’s version of J.R.’s master plan from the TNT series. Or maybe it’s the other way around.)
The lasting consequences of J.R. and Bobby’s fight yields mixed feelings too. There’s no doubt the battle has changed Bobby, who compromised his integrity in his quest for power and ended up losing his wife and son along the way. Bobby is now a damaged man, and Patrick Duffy does a nice job imbuing his character with a sad, soulful weariness. I wish we could say something similar about J.R. After the Southfork fire, J.R. had an attack of conscience and agreed to jointly run Ewing Oil with Bobby, regardless of which brother won the competition. He changed his mind pretty quickly and spent the episodes before “Check and Mate” secretly plotting to stab Bobby in the back when the final results were announced. No one wants to see J.R. turn into a good guy, but wouldn’t it have been more interesting to watch him wrestle with breaking his promise to Bobby? It would have revealed a new depth to J.R.’s character and made the yearlong battle for Ewing Oil, one of “Dallas’s” milestone moments, feel even more meaningful.
Even with these slight shortcomings, “Check and Mate” remains the seventh season’s strongest hour yet. With J.R. and Bobby’s war ending, the show shifts its attention to two supporting characters: Ray and Donna, whose marriage is rocked after Ray is arrested for Mickey’s mercy killing. (This makes Mickey one of the last casualties in the war for Ewing Oil, along with Rebecca Wentworth and Walt Driscoll.) Did Ray pull the plug? Or was it Lil, the only other person in the room at the time? Steve Kanaly is a portrait of quiet resolve as Ray goes through this episode refusing to discuss what happened in the moments before Mickey’s death. The silence is frustrating, but it’s also perfectly in keeping with the character of Ray, a laconic cowboy if ever there was one. Whether Ray pulled the plug himself or he’s simply taking the fall to protect Lil, we wouldn’t expect him to talk about it.
Even if Ray doesn’t have much to say, Kanaly still manages to give the audience a sense of Ray’s inner torment. In “Check and Mate’s” moving next-to-last scene, he sits at the patio table outside his home and asks the deeply depressed Lil for permission to bury Mickey at Southfork. Kanaly’s delivery breaks my heart, but as I watched this scene I remembered Ray and Jock’s memorable conversation at that very table in “The Fourth Son,” when the old man told Ray he was his son. It’s a subtle but poignant reminder of how Ray tried to take Mickey under his arm, the way Jock did with Ray, and how Ray’s efforts ultimately fell short. On the other hand, whether Ray killed his cousin himself or he’s just protecting Lil, is he not exhibiting a Jock-like sense of duty and honor?
Like Kanaly, Susan Howard also makes the most of her time in the spotlight. She has two terrific moments in “Check and Mate.” In the first act, Donna speaks to Ray in jail after his arrest; the glass partition separating the couple feels like a stand-in for the bigger barrier, which is Ray’s willingness to open up about the circumstances surrounding Mickey’s death. Donna seems to believe Ray disconnected Mickey’s life-support system, and Howard makes her character’s disappointment palpable. “Nobody has the right to play God,” she says with signature breathiness. Donna’s reaction makes sense, given the character’s strong moralistic bent. It’s another example of how well “Check and Mate” scriptwriter David Paulsen knows these characters.
Howard’s second great moment comes at the beginning of the third act, when Donna rides out to a Southfork pasture to confront Ray about his lack of willingness to defend himself. She reminds her husband that his only duty wasn’t to ease Mickey’s suffering; Ray also has an obligation to his marriage. Once again, Paulsen gives Howard a great line, and she delivers it beautifully: “You’re what I wanted all my life. You may not think your life is worth saving, but I sure as hell do.” With this single line, Paulsen manages to encapsulate Donna’s entire history with Ray, including her affair with him during her marriage to Sam Culver and when she rescued Ray from depression after Jock’s death.
The other great performance in “Check and Mate” comes from Charlene Tilton, who is moving and believable in the scene where Ray comes home from jail and is greeted by the Lucy, who in her grief-stricken rage beats on his chest and cries, “You murdered him!” It’s another example of how Tilton, when given good material, is a terrific actress. I also have to hand it once again to Howard, who allows the scene to end on a graceful note. “For God’s sake,” Donna says as she tries to comfort Lucy. “Don’t you know that it’s tearing him apart too?”
Like all great “Dallas” episodes, the details in “Check and Mate” are also worth paying attention to. Toward the end of the scene where Sue Ellen offers to throw a barbecue for Peter and his fellow camp counselors, Linda Gray touches Christopher Atkins’ shoulder; right at that moment, composer Bruce Broughton brings a few piano keys into the background score to ensure the audience doesn’t miss the significance of the gesture. Moments later, when Peter runs back into the building to retrieve John Ross, watch how Atkins bounds up the stairs. Peter is still a boy himself, isn’t he?
Elsewhere, director Leonard Katzman also gives us a great shot during the scene where Cliff approaches Sly as she leaves Ewing Oil for her lunch break. Debbie Rennard stands with her back to the building, facing Ken Kercheval, whose face is reflected in the façade. It’s a clever way to get both performers’ faces in the frame, but is it not also a symbol of how Cliff is increasingly reflecting the underhanded sensibilities of the enemy who works there?