“Junior, it’s time you learned the art of subtlety. .. . . Because the lack of it turns competitors into enemies and enemies into fanatics.”
–John Ross “Jock” Ewing I
That advice from Jock Ewing to Larry Hagman’s J.R. in the pilot episode of Dallas, “Digger’s Daughter,” which aired April 2, 1978, could very easily establish the theme of the series. While the original intention was Romeo and Juliet in the oil and cattle industries, Hagman’s portrayal of J.R. was so compelling that he became the break-out character and gradually the “main character,” the only series regular to be in all fourteen seasons (Ken Kercheval’s Cliff Barnes not being an official “regular” till the third or fourth).
In that sense, the recently retired Jock’s advice to his son served as a fitting theme. In fourteen years, “Junior” never did learn “subtlety” in the way his father meant. He kept making the same mistakes of hubris over and over, till the point that, in series finale “Conundrum,” he had lost just about everything due to making too many enemies.
Every villain is the hero of his own story, but that works many ways. Hagman was successful by playing JR comically and by portraying him as thinking himself the hero, doing everything he did for his family’s own good.
Meanwhile, J.R. and Bobby’s sons, John Ross and Christopher, were often portrayed worrying their grandmother. Miss Ellie would often express worry that they were too much like their Daddies, and that the family was doomed to another generation of feuding. However, while in their play John Ross would sometimes cheat Christopher, in general John Ross was the “good boy,” and Christopher was the one creating mischief. JR often worried that his son lacked the competitive edge to take up the legacy of his name. Indeed, when his illegitimate firstborn James Richard Beaumont shows up in later years, JR lifts his usual contempt for “half breeds” to welcome a son who is a bit more interested in following in his footsteps.
James (and the grandson he fathered, who would be in his 20’s now) have not even been mentioned, but that tension is still at work in the character of John Ross as portrayed by Josh Henderson on the new series. He isn’t in appearance or demeanor as “gentle” as Omri Katz’s portrayal of the character-there’s something very hard about him. In recent weeks, he finally seems to be hitting his stride, but it’s been hard to sympathize with him as a character.
When the new show started 2 years ago, ignoring the two movies from the late 90s, it picks up almost like the beginning of Season 15. JR is in a mental hospital recovering from an unspecified breakdown. A fictional Facebook “timeline” suggests stories to fill the gap, but it could easily be picking up as if JR has been in the looney bin since he shot the mirror in 1991.
The Ewings are, largely, has-beens. John Ross and Christopher each start the series trying to rebuild their family’s legacy. While Christopher and Bobby have a standing relationship, John Ross and J.R. are estranged. He wants to earn his father’s respect. In the second season, J.R.’s death saddles John Ross with the legacy he was given in his name.
This season, the character seems to have come into his stride. While he is still far more serious and dour than his father, we see him more as the “hero of his own story.” We also see him not so much as the “villain who thinks he’s the good guy,” but as the reluctant villain. More like Roger Thorpe than J.R. Ewing, he’s constantly struggling with the desire to *not* be what everyone expects him to be. I can truly see in him the need for Grace, the thought that he doesn’t really want to be this way and would welcome an “out”, that maybe with a slight shift in priorities, and truly establishing a relationship with Christ, he could be a better person.
The episode featured the introduction of yet another family, and another international connection: a vaguely defined Arab Sheikh who had a previous agreement with JR. John Ross nearly loses the deal by failing to demonstrate “subtlety,” and then wins an alliance by showing it.
Meanwhile, we see an alliance of various competitors-turned-enemies and enemies-turned-fanatics due to the arrogance of both Jock Ewing’s namesakes, including the return of the McKay’s (with George Kennedy still living, perhaps at least a cameo by Carter McKay himself will come down the line).
It’s nice that they’re giving the character a slightly different angle rather than making him a straight-up copy of his father.