Season 6 is the one where Val's newborn twins are stolen, an event that impacts most of the core characters, but none, heaven knows, more than Valene Clements Ewing herself. And although there's a lot more than just "Val's babies" to the season -- it juggles at least as many characters and plotlines as Season 5, and probably a few more -- nothing else really and truly pays off. Some of the story-lines, in fact, go off the rails so badly, they're jettisoned early in Season 7.
But through it all, there's Joan Van Ark, in an acting showcase unmatched in the series' fourteen seasons. Oh, other actors have seasons that play to their strengths, as well as to their characters' (Michele Lee and Ted Shackelford in Season 3, Kevin Dobson and Donna Mills in Season 5, Teri Austin in Season 10, Kathleen Noone in Season 14), but there's nothing quite like the tour-de-force that Van Ark offers up in Season 6, as Valene -- struggling to accept an explanation she knows in her heart is false -- develops a dissociative disorder, becomes convinced that she's Verna Ellers (the lead character in her latest novel) and takes off for Tennessee.
She turns into a "fictional character" that she herself created? If you described that plot to anyone who hadn't actually seen it unfold as it did in 1984 (particularly someone familiar with the tropes of soap opera), they'd presume it was played as camp, or at least with a wink to the audience. Typically on soaps, if a character develops a split personality, or discovers they have a twin, it's designed to let the actor spread their wings: to gift them a character somehow wilder and weirder than the one they're already playing. (Standard '80s soap examples: Jeanne Cooper on The Young and the Restless, Morgan Fairchild on Falcon Crest. Or, of course, a few years later on Knots, Van Ark's own maniacal turn as the victim of a "brain virus.") But on Knots Landing, once Valene slips into Verna's shoes, she's not amplified; she's simplified. Gone are the neuroses and fears brought on by two decades of battling the Ewings, the disillusion of being abandoned by her own mother, the fury at her husband's betrayal. The years stripped away, Valene emerges calmer, happier, seemingly younger. She calls herself Verna, but you sense you're being given a glimpse into the past, when Valene herself was still full of hope and promise. It's exhilarating, and it's heartbreaking -- and it's the furthest thing from camp. What gives the middle block of Season 6 such complexity is that Verna Ellers is more content than any version of Valene we've seen in six seasons -- yet she needs to come home, doesn't she? She needs to be "cured."
Season 5 had been one of those miraculous seasons where pretty much everything went right. Amusingly, when I reached out to headwriter Richard Gollance to speak with him about Season 6, his first words to me were "Why aren't you writing up Season 5?" (I explained that I was, in fact, writing up all the Knots seasons, and saving the best -- Season 5 -- for last.) He knew that Season 5 was a triumph, and that Season 6 didn't measure up. But if it doesn't measure up, it still benefits from all the groundwork laid a year earlier. Season 5 begins with two couples with enormous chemistry and story potential -- Gary Ewing and Abby Cunningham, and Mack and Karen MacKenzie -- and through the course of the season, adds two more: Greg Sumner and Laura Avery, and Valene Ewing and Ben Gibson. Going into Season 6, you've got these eight people perfectly positioned, and you want to keep them in place for at least one more year. So where do you mine the drama? The story-lines that worked in Season 5 can't be easily duplicated. So the writers settle on one great idea and run with it: what if Abby steals Val's babies?
It's almost pointless to discuss the other Season 6 story-lines, because everything is positioned around the saga of Valene's twins. In fact, some of the oddities and inadequacies of the season occur because everything is timed around their delivery, and there's an awful lot of apparatus that needs to be put in place before they arrive. Abby, who'd been kidnapped at the end of Season 5, has to be rescued and reunited with her husband Gary. (He'd thrown her off his ranch the previous season, and threatened divorce.) Once they're reconciled, he has to hand her control of Ben Gibson's cable station so that she can, in time, read his private correspondence, discover that Gary is the father of Val's twins, and then see to it (deliberately, as originally planned, or unwittingly, as ultimately filmed) that those babies never come home to Seaview Circle. (And what's more, Abby's D.C. lobbyist -- who's taking care of all the details -- has to arrange for his doctor colleague to sub for Valene's obstetrician, then get involved in something so nefarious that it costs him his life, so that he's not around to shield Abby once everything goes down.)
And that's going to take a while. Eight episodes, to be precise. And while there are some key events that need to happen during those weeks (Sumner's election to the U.S. Senate, Lotus Point's grand opening), that's still a lot of time to kill, and several characters are going to have to tread water until Val goes into labor. The Season 5 cliffhanger, as Gollance notes, "had torn apart the world that we had created" -- and that included three of the four couples. And although the writers had every intention of reuniting them, one of the ways they stretch the early portion of Season 6 is by keeping them apart as long as possible. Not Gary and Abby, because their reconciliation is required to further Val's story-line. But Mack and Karen, and Val and Ben -- they can wait a little longer. So the writers stall a bit. They give Ben a fellow newshound, P.K. Kelly, whose sole assignment seems to be to get Ben into bed. (She's so relentless in her pursuit of him, you can't tell if she's trying to seduce him or just wear him down.) And they pair Mack with Sumner's estranged wife Jane. The scenes between Ben and P.K. are filler; the ones between Mack and Jane are more than that -- they're awful. Millie Perkins was ideally cast in Season 5; she was the woman fighting for Greg that you didn't root for. The writers were forging a romance between Greg and Laura, so they needed someone who paled next to Constance McCashin, and mousy Millie Perkins fit the bill. She was a character we were primed to dislike, so pairing Perkins with Kevin Dobson, however briefly, feels misjudged. There's no chemistry between them, and the writers undo one of the most appealing aspects of Mack's backstory: that Karen was the first woman he truly loved -- because now we're told that Mack was once secretly in love with Jane (back when she was dating Greg). Their scenes together are awkward and uncomfortable, as Jane giggles that, after all these years, "we find ourselves acting like lovers," and admits that, when they're on the phone together, she's as jittery as a schoolgirl with a crush -- and all this from a character who was designed to be disposable.
That's not to say there are no good scenes early on. In the first episode, Karen awakens in the hospital after surgery (she was shot in the Season 5 cliffhanger), and although it's the sort of situation you've seen a thousand times before, Lee's acting choices are so sharp and specific -- as she navigates Karen's confusion, pain and terror -- that it feels fresh. And there's a great exchange when Sumner comes to visit her, knowing how much he's to blame for what's happened, but adopting, as always, the platitudes of a politician; he explains his presence, "I don't want to see anyone else get hurt," and Karen, who's dying and has no more patience for bullshit, answers, "Is there anyone left?" (For once, Greg can't seem to keep the politician's mask in place.) The introduction of Alec Baldwin -- as Lilimae's never-before-mentioned son Joshua -- is handled well, and aside from the scenes between him and Julie Harris (flawless), there's good chemistry between him and Lisa Hartman, with whom it's clear he's being paired. The reunion of Gary and Abby -- and the script's justification for him giving their marriage another chance, after he'd been so hellbent on ending it a few months earlier -- is dealt with effectively, laying their relationship bare in a few sentences. (Gary: "I love you. I don't trust you." Abby: "What a love affair. But I do love you." Gary: "God help me.") And there's a funny moment when Joshua meets Abby at the Lotus Point opening, and Abby -- always on her best behavior around a good-looking man -- plays the gracious host, and as she walks away, Joshua murmurs approvingly to Cathy, "She seems nice" -- and Hartman deadpans disbelief to the imaginary studio audience.
But still, the first five episodes feel scrappier than just about anything in the previous season. They're written by free-lancers, and they feel like episodes written by free-lancers. The next four, the remainder of the first block, are written in turn by story editor Joyce Keener, producer Peter Dunne, executive story editor Joel Feigenbaum and headwriter Gollance -- and they're splendid. In part, it's because they contain all the meaty material. It's at the end of episode 5 that Abby stumbles upon Ben's letter and realizes Gary is the father of Val's twins. And then the season truly gets underway: everything up to that point has been preamble. From there it's one great scene after another: Joshua serving as the catalyst for reuniting Val and Ben; Abby (of all people) serving as the catalyst for reuniting Karen and Mack. Valene, her labor induced early, heading to the delivery room and, soon after hearing her newborns cry, being told that they were stillborn. And Abby's mysterious phone call about "the babies in question." Soon it's Thanksgiving, and Valene, home from the hospital, is reluctant to join everyone at the MacKenzies. Gary goes to fetch her, and when they make their entrance, she clings to Gary's arm as if they're still a couple, and apologizes: "I'm sorry, Gary and I are a little late again, as usual." And the camera jumps from one reaction shot to the next, as each character wonders, "Has she lost her mind?"
The next episode, the start of the second block, begins on a sandy dune, and in runs Valene, in a white top, empire-waist orange skirt and matching suspenders. She's flying a blue kite, and seems as blissful as she did that day five years earlier when she first waded into the Pacific Ocean. We hear Gary's voice: "Let it go." She drops the kite, and he appears, his pastel polo shirt matching her skirt; they converse in shorthand, a couple in perfect tandem. "What?" "Let it go." "Why?" "I want to kiss you." She melts into his arms, and they drop to a blanket on the sand, kissing -- until a familiar voice calls out: "Val! Hi!" Abby appears, a mirror image of Val (minus the suspenders -- of course). "I think you've got something that's mine." Abby's unusually pleasant, but isn't Abby always at her most pleasant when she's getting what she wants? Gary asks her, "Is it time?" And Abby nods, leaving Gary, stolid and spineless, to offers his apologies to Val: "I'm sorry, I guess I got a little carried away." Valene watches in confusion as Gary and Abby scamper off. And then she awakens in her bed on Seaview Circle, crying. It's been three years, but it always comes back to that moment, doesn't it? The moment Abby showed up and took Gary from her. The moment something precious was stolen. The loss of Gary and the loss of their babies are seemingly unrelated, but to Val, they've already become inseparable.
It's deliberate and it's fitting that we begin the episode inside Valene's head; that's where we'll spend most of the second block. The previous episode had left us with the possibility that Val had reverted back to the days when she and Gary were married. But the writers instantly course-correct. That would be too pat, too neat; they have something bolder in mind. Ben offers to take her for a drive, and they wind up on a cliff overlooking the ocean. He feels awful that he wasn't there in the delivery room: things might have gone differently. But she knows better: "Nothing would have stopped them from taking my babies from me. Just like it was with Lucy -- took her away from me too." There's a cold wind blowing, but the real chill is in Van Ark's voice. For Val, it's no different from J.R. and his boys stealing Lucy away all those years ago: "I wasn't fit to be her mother. I was just poor white trash from Tennessee." Ben tries to separate the two incidents; he reminds her that what happened with the twins was no one's fault: it was a premature birth -- there were complications. But she's unyielding: "That's what they say."
Gollance remarked to me that one of the challenges of writing Val was that she was always "the victim" -- and how do you keep that fresh? (He's partially wrong, of course, because Val only becomes a perpetual victim in the soft reboot of her character midway through Season 4.) But the brilliance of this particular story-line is that it uses Val's knowledge of how she's been victimized. Unlike most soap characters, who forget the last crisis once they're caught up in the next (because otherwise it would seem absurd that so much drama keeps happening to one person), victimization becomes part of Val's make-up -- and she knows it. (You're not paranoid if they're really out to get you.) Valene sees herself -- accepts herself -- as someone who's consistently persecuted. And thus, whereas another woman -- upon being told her babies were stillborn, even if she heard them cry -- might presume she was mistaken, and accept the doctor's diagnosis, Val has come to expect duplicity and deceit: to have everything she loves stolen from her. Not merely to lose everything, but to have it actively taken. If you're Val and you lose your twins in childbirth, the most likely scenario is "they took my babies away." And once you realize that, but can't verbalize it to your friends and family without inviting skepticism and resistance, how do you handle it? How do you accept it and process it?
It's enough to drive you crazy. Val's breakdown doesn't seem arbitrary or fanciful: the sort of thing that happens to soap characters when the writers are straining for story-line. It seems tied to her backstory; it's part of her make-up. Since she and Gary remarried, it's felt like one cruel, intentional blow after another -- yet she's quick to remember that it wasn't always like that. She opens up to Karen about how she and Gary met, when she was 15 and working as a waitress just outside Fort Worth, and we understand intuitively that what she's feeling is that that's the last time she was genuinely happy: meeting Gary and hoping to share a life with him, before Lucy was stolen. As played by Van Ark, Val's breakdown eschews the histrionics common to TV drama. She's paranoid, embittered, delusional, suspicious -- but there are no fits of rage or hysteria. She's just shutting down, and shutting people out. And that night, overwhelmed by her isolation, Val packs a suitcase, sneaks out of the house and boards a bus bound for Nevada.
The following evening, alone in her hotel room, Valene stands before the mirror. She's done blaming the Ewings, or questioning the doctor's diagnosis: she turns her rage inwards, verbalizing her self-loathing, assaulting her own physicality: "How could anybody love you? How could anybody want you? Flat as a board. Arms skinny and scrawny." And in the next scene she decides to fix herself, so she applies lipstick -- too much -- and rouges her cheeks and perms her hair and stuffs her bra with tissues -- and transforms herself into Abby. Abby, for whom everything comes so easy. ("I think you've got something that's mine, Val.") Abby, whom no man can resist. ("I'm not saying we're having an affair, and I'm not saying we're not. I am saying I can have him anytime I want him.") Abby, who's no one's victim. It's a scene everyone remembers -- "Valene Ewing, you're gonna get yourself a man" -- and Van Ark is so marvelous in her uninhibited role-playing (even echoing Abby's most famous line, when she taunts a women at a bar, "I could have your husband anytime I want") that you don't fully register that if that's where the writers are heading, towards a raunchier, more garish Valene, it's a horrible mistake. (It will be just that -- a horrible mistake -- when Lechowick and Latham go there in Season 12.) But it's not where they're going at all; it's a marvelous misdirect -- it's the best possible bluff.
Gollance himself wrote this particular episode, "Distant Locations." I have long laid claim to Richard Gollance being the single best writer on the series, and after talking with him, I would double down on that opinion. Everything with him sprang from character. (Tellingly, he says he was always the one in meetings asking, "But what is the scene about?" -- meaning, there always had to be something subtextual that the actors could play.) "I though it was very important that the characters had dimensions that were recognizably human," he notes. "My philosophy was that you start with bigger-than-life stories, and then you write them for the most part naturalistically." No one had quite the flair for language and the gift for making everything character-driven that Gollance did, and he's the rare writer whose work on the series got stronger the longer he hung around: once he'd lived with the characters a while, he could dig even deeper, and take more risks. (His final four scripts are the Season 5 cliffhanger, "Negotiations"; the Season 6 Thanksgiving episode, "We Gather Together; "Distant Locations"; and the final chapter in Val's recovery, which I'll address in detail later, "Rough Edges." He penned ten episodes in just over two years, but those four alone would secure his status as the series' finest scribe.) Because his stories all stemmed from character, it's fitting that when the writers were breaking down Val's breakdown, he booked a session with a therapist to make sure he was doing it justice. "I asked him: what's the process when someone goes through a dissociative personality disorder? What are the steps along the way? And I remember one of the things he said was, 'It's usually not a clean journey from Point A to Point B -- they'll try different things along the way.' And from that came 'she becomes Abby' -- at least on some level. She tries out Abby -- not consciously, of course -- to gain mastery over her life, and over what's happened."
But of course, Val isn't Abby -- she can assume her swagger, but she lacks Abby's finesse, and the evening ends with a thrashing from the woman she taunted. "She's humiliated," Gollance notes, "so her mind goes, 'OK, Abby doesn't work.'" So Valene reinvents herself anew. And thus, in a classic Knots ploy, the writers briefly go where soaps traditionally go -- here, the leading lady develop a split personality, and in no time flat, the lady is a tramp -- and then they go somewhere else entirely. The next morning, in one of Van Ark's favorite scenes, she wipes off the rouge and the lipstick and the eyeliner: she realizes that's not the life that's going to make her happy, or shield her from the pain. What is? We're not told. But as the make-up comes off, so do the years fall away. The worry lines vanish. The neuroses dissolve. And it's as Verna Ellers -- fresh, unspoiled Verna Ellers -- that she boards the next bus bound for Shula, Tennessee, where she takes a waitress job: one, we suspect, not unlike the kind Val was working when she was 15.
It's tempting to focus solely on Valene's time in Shula, because it's the most assured and daring part of the season. But there's plenty else happening back in Knots Landing. Left unresolved from the first block is a bullet fragment lodged in Karen's spine. Karen had been told, in the first few episodes of the season, that if she left the hospital without having additional surgery, her chances of survival would basically drop to zero. She leaves nonetheless, and when paralysis starts to set in a half-dozen episodes later, the writers remain firm in their diagnosis, one we know is unrealistic. We don't believe for a second that Karen is going to die midseason; Gary already "died" the previous season, and we fell for that one. Fool us once, right? So what is the point of Karen's story-line? Gollance's initial impulse was -- like all his Knots stories -- a character-based one: not merely someone dealing with a bullet fragment in their spine, but someone dealing with the fact that their time is limited, and asking, what do I want to do with that time? How do I want to be remembered? Gollance's inspiration was the 1952 Akira Kurosawa film Ikiru, about a terminally-ill bureaucrat and his quest to find meaning in his life. Gollance recalls, "That what I wanted to do with Karen. I thought it was a rich idea, and since she had the bullet in her, I thought it could be a very moving story-line." But although something of Gollance's original plan survives in Karen's commitment to completing Lotus Point, and leaving it as her legacy, the idea was ultimately discarded, as the powers-that-be "didn't want to have [something that dark] hover over her for too long." But without the emotional underpinnings that Gollance hoped to bring to it, Karen's story-line ends up flirting with that soap cliché: the life-threatening condition that you know won't be life-threatening.
And given that, the great thing about the episode devoted to Karen's second round of surgery (written by Peter Dunne) is that even as the doctors continue to wail that Karen might not make it, Dunne admits -- almost from the start -- that he's giving us precisely what we want: a tidy resolution, so we can move on. Karen is facing death, but the mood of the episode isn't grim: on the contrary, there's playfulness (Joshua and Cathy chasing each other around the house with a can of shaving cream), suspense (Abby spotting Sumner and Galveston in Sumner's limo, and trying to glean the connection), romance (Verna and her beau Parker taking things to the next level), action (Mack in a high-speed car chase), and dirty dealings (Abby's private investigator threatening blackmail). Karen's surgery is pretty much the least of it, and in fact, a lot of her beats are played for comedy, as when Mack sets her wheelchair careening down the hospital hallway, or when Karen tries to steer it herself and keeps bumping into walls. (There are only a few scenes that feel overbaked: when Karen comes to Lotus Point to say goodbye to her colleagues, and delivers one of those "I think I'll miss you most of all, Scarecrow" speeches to Gary -- and later, when she arrives at the hospital in a gaudy blue dress with matching cape, a real Travilla travesty, and she might as well be Norma Desmond announcing, "I'm ready for my surgery.") But otherwise, it's an exquisite episode that shouldn't be. (Hospital episodes are typically static and dire.) It's exactly what happened the last time Dunne scripted an episode (the arrival of Joshua's father, which also could have gotten downbeat and dour, but didn't), and you realize once again how invaluable his voice and his guiding hand have been. It's his final Knots script.
While Val is serving customers in Shula, and Karen is dealing with her bullet fragment, Abby is trying to ensure that whatever happened to Val's babies, she's in no way implicated. You admire Abby: you admire her determination to track down answers, and you admire her resolve to cover her tracks once she realizes that that's not going to happen. The danger with Abby in Season 6 is that events are spiraling out of control, but she can't seem at the mercy of them. (That was never a good look on Donna Mills, and in fact, Gollance recalls that that was one of Mills' directives: "It was very important to her that Abby never be a victim.") But the scripting is shrewd: as much as she has to fret about -- the disappearance of Valene's babies, her inability to find Scott Easton, the needling and the threats from Paul Galveston -- Abby sees to it that she always lands on her feet. Paul Galveston, the most formidable combatant Abby's faced in five years (the only one who'd dare call her "cookie"), doesn't diminish her; he gives her a bigger obstacle to overcome. And overcome she does, in a scene that I mentioned to Gollance was straight out of The Little Foxes. ("An homage to The Little Foxes," Gollance was quick to correct me, laughing.) Abby and Galveston are alone at his ranch when he gets one of his headaches that have been plaguing him for months. He begs her to call his doctor, but she laughs: "Are you kidding?" And when he pleads with her to bring him his medicine, she scoffs, "Get it yourself, cookie" -- and leaves. (She doesn't know it at the time, but just like Regina Hubbard Giddens, she's left him to die.)
"There was a line of dialogue in the Season 5 cliffhanger," Gollance recalls, "and when Donna Mills saw it, she told me it was very much the key to her character. It was during the fight with Ted in the hotel room, where he's blasting her for everything she's done that season, and she says, 'I didn't think of it as lying. I never thought of it that way.' And for Donna, that was the core of the character." But Gollance had his own ideas. "I said to her, 'I think of Abby as a control freak who, in her need to control, inadvertently causes things to fall apart around her -- which ultimately keeps her from getting what she wants.' That's how I came to see the character over time. I didn't walk into the show with that, but as I continued with it, that's how I came to view her. And Donna liked that: it fit with her own take on the character, and it gave her something to play." And indeed, that's just what you see Mills playing, brilliantly, in Season 6. Early in the second block, the writers -- anxious to establish why Abby, once she finds Val in Shula, would choose to leave her there, and keep her whereabouts a secret -- have Paul Galveston taunt her about how close Gary is to his ex-wife, and the threat that Val poses to her marriage. But it's unnecessary motivation. Later that night, when she instructs her private eye to close the case on Verna Ellers, Mills tells us everything we need to know with just one look: Abby leaves Val in Shula because Abby likes being in control. But her decision to keep that information to herself -- and to use it to her advantage -- just makes it that much harder for her when the truth comes out.
Season 5 was about Abby building an empire; Season 6 is about ensuring that it doesn't collapse. In Season 5, Abby dismissed the people she deceived as necessary collateral damage; there was no resolve to hurt them, and if it happened, she "never thought of it that way." But in Season 6, she's doing damage control, and although each step of the way, she could make her life easier by being honest and coming clean, that would mean ceding power -- and Abby can't do that.
That said, although Paul Galveston proves an effective foil for Abby, he's a problematic character. He works his flattery on Gary a bit too easily. "You've got vision and power, that's all it takes," he tells him, and later, "You've got brains and guts." Although we understand that Gary sees Galveston as the mentor he never had, and that Galveston is taking shrewd advantage of Gary's obsessive need to prove himself, the fact that everyone can see through his "community of the future" except Gary feels a little plot-driven. Gary's gullible, but is he dense? Karen realizes early on that "there's got to be something wrong," given the low price that Galveston is offering for his land. She sees it, Abby sees it; even Ben, who's only peripherally involved, comes to recognize that Empire Valley is being used as a cover for something bigger. Why doesn't Gary see it? (Answer: because there'd be no story if he did.) But was there ever a season quite so aware of its failings, and how to overcome them -- or so astute at reading its audience? Just as Karen's surgery was scripted without the usual "life-or-death" theatrics, our potential resistance to Paul Galveston -- and his easy manipulation of Gary -- is assuaged three episodes into his run, when we're let onto the fact that he's living on borrowed time. So we don't fret about his running roughshod over the core characters; we know he'll be gone soon. We don't even fret when Mack's investigation into Galveston Industries, which consumes him for nearly twenty episodes, hits a dead end because the head of the company dies before Mack can bring him to justice. The writers told us Galveston's days were numbered, so we don't follow the investigation expecting Galveston to be tried and convicted; we settle for enjoying how many of the core characters -- Gary, Abby, Karen, Ben, Greg, Laura -- are caught up in it. And ultimately, of course, Galveston's function isn't to build a community of the future, or to provide a new target for Mack; it's to keep William Devane on the show, and in that sense, it's shrewd and successful.
The story of "Karen's final days" never really gets told; the Paul Galveston plotline has its excesses and its failings. But through it all, there's Val in Shula, single-handedly elevating the middle block of the season. Stop to think, for a moment, what a radical plotline this is. Typically on soaps, the goal is to devise plots that embrace as many of the core characters as possible; Val's story-line effectively isolates her from the rest of the principal cast. And it sets her on what's as much an internal journey as a surface journey, secure that the actress will pour her soul into the story-line -- which she does. Van Ark, in wiping away the last twenty years of Valene's life, doesn't play Verna as an adolescent, but she infuses her with qualities common to teenage girls: she's both shy and flirtatious, quick to pass judgment and quicker still to forgive. Even though she's committed to Parker, she'll still make eyes at every handsome guy who passes by -- including Gary, when he makes his way to Shula. (He's stunned that she doesn't remember him, and she teases, "I wouldn't forget a face like yours, sweetie.") Her Southern accent as thick as the gravy she's ladling out, Verna is irrepressible and irresistible. As she bonds with her boss and his wife, and charms and chides her customers, and finds herself falling for a new beau, she seems fully realized in just a few episodes. (And although Shula is a small Southern town, it never becomes Smalltown USA; the writers are careful not to satirize it or sanitize it. It's simply a world where life hasn't yet gotten complicated, where laws may be broken but traditions are upheld, and where people still take the time to get to know each other, as you imagine they have for centuries: archetypal rather than stereotypical.)
But when Gary turns up, and Verna gets a momentary glimpse of the life she left behind, all of Val's terror resurfaces. (Verna instantly ages twenty years; it's an astounding piece of acting.) Gary's presence in Shula unnerves her. On the eve of her wedding, as she dons her gown and admires herself in the mirror, she has a vision of Gary appearing behind her. Gently, they waltz -- her in her wedding dress, him in tails -- to a music-box accompaniment. (Even in Shula, Val can't get out of her own head.) Ultimately, she comes to realize that, as painful as that part of her past might be, she needs to return to it, to figure out what went wrong. Valene may not be strong enough to face her problems, but Verna is. And once she returns, it's Abby, of all people, who proves the voice of reason. As ever, the writers understand these characters so well, they're able to utilize them in unexpected ways: here, by having Abby, the only character who doesn't care about Val, see her most clearly, and realize that as long as Gary keeps rescuing her, she'll never learn to rely on others -- or on herself. And even as Gary struggles with Abby's diagnosis, he empathizes with Val's confusion: "Our trouble," he confesses to Val, "is that we always lived in our past, when you were 15 and I was 17. It was so good then that we tried to recapture it, and we couldn't." And once Val is able to stop romanticizing the past, she can begin to heal.
But first, one last marvelous misdirect. The final episode of the second block, "Rough Edges," begins back in Verna's apartment in Shula. Verna enters, puts away the groceries, arranges some flowers and calls her boss to tell her she'll be late for her shift. We fear that Val is regressing: perhaps her dreams are drawing her back to Shula. But no: we hear Val start to narrate the scene as it plays out, and we realize she's reliving her time in Shula for her therapist, to help jumpstart her memory. The first image of the second block (Val on the dunes, with that kite soaring behind her) had been a dream masquerading as a memory; this one turns out to be a memory masquerading as a dream. The bookending is inspired. It's as if the whole middle set of episodes has taken place inside Val's head -- which of course, in a way, it has.
"Rough Edges," Richard Gollance's last Knots script, is one of the great ones. Valene discovers that regaining her memories is, in some ways, as painful as the events that led to her breakdown; she's forced to relive parts of her life that she's happily buried, and it's as if she's experiencing them for the first time. Val's mental collapse had been largely free from histrionics; it's here, as the memories start to return, that she lashes out in pain. "How do you think I like having a mother who's a tramp?" she screams at Lilimae, as incidents from her childhood resurface. But she realizes the only way to make peace with her memories is to talk them out, and focusing first on her relationship with her mother, she relates one of Gollance's most charming creations: a story of Val, as a girl, being put on a bus by her Aunt Edna, so she could go see her mama working as an assistant to a magician, Alfonso the Great. "I remember the theatre smelled old and dirty, and it was mostly empty. When I went backstage to see her, she was in this terrible flurry. She had to run across town and audition an act of her own. She didn't invite me along -- she didn't even ask me to stick around so that we could talk later. I was just in the way. So I took the next bus back to Aunt Edna, and I lied about the wonderful time I'd had."
And from there, the memories come flooding back. (Van Ark has hit a lot of breathless highs in the last ten episodes, but this montage of her recounting story after story, as she comes to terms with her past, might boast her most virtuosic performance.) And when her session is over, she leaves her therapist's office, and Ben is waiting for her. At the start of the second block, as Ben and Val sat on a blanket overlooking the ocean, she had stared off, and he was terrified for her, because he couldn't reach her. Now she lets him know, obliquely, that her memories of him have returned ("Is it still the red food and the green food?" she asks, referring to the proper feeding of his beach-house orchids), and it feels like an event: one every bit as momentous as Karen being shot, or Abby kidnapped, or Gary "murdered." In great part because of Gollance's guiding hand, no season has been more adept at making character beats feel like events.
Sadly, Valene returns to us just as others depart. Peter Dunne had left the show near the end of the second block (he was offered the chance to run Dallas the following season); Richard Gollance leaves after "Rough Edges." And although Joel Feigenbaum and Joyce Keener stay till the end of the season, there's a noticeable shift in the style of the story-telling. "Rough Edges" had ended with Val's realization that a part of her life was being returned to her. The following episode begins with Ben driving Val to a stretch of Empire Valley that interests him. As they look around, Val cuts her hand on a chain-link fence, and they rush her to the local hospital for stitches. And there Ben gets an earful about how Galveston Industries has poisoned the town's water supply. And we get an earful of plot.
In the final block, characters are too often subordinated to story-line, and plot points that had been deliberately vague or agreeably ambiguous become heavy-handed. Joshua, who'd been growing darker, turns loathsome: bullying Cathy, undermining Ben, preying on Val. (He even starts to deliberately sabotage Val's recovery.) The writers keep telling us, via Lilimae, that "deep down Joshua is still the same sweet boy," but we see no evidence. Cathy, too, keeps excusing the worst of his behavior, much of it directed towards her, by insisting, "He's not really like that." She talks about how he used to be, a mere twenty episodes earlier, and says those good qualities are still there somewhere, but we don't have any reason to think that, and realistically, neither does she.
And the Empire Valley story becomes ludicrous: both the scale of the project itself and Gary's unwavering obliviousness. It turns out Galveston's planned community is indeed a front -- for an underground communications center "that will have the ability to process and manipulate electronic information on a global scale." (Amusingly, when I mentioned the underground Empire Valley complex to Gollance, who didn't keep up with the show once he left, he responded with surprise, "Wait! You mean underground [as in secret] or underground [as in below ground]?" I replied, "Both," and described what the "planned community" ultimately became, and he had only three words: "Oh, my God.") And even though Karen latches onto the truth in episode 21, and Abby figures it out in episode 22, it takes Gary another twenty episodes to come to his senses. In fact, he's led even further astray than he was in the middle block. Madison Mason joins the cast as a foreign diplomat prone to impressing people with his vocabulary ("superciliousness does not become you"), who gains Gary's trust by revealing exactly what Empire Valley is, but insisting that the men running it are working outside the boundaries of the government -- and that he needs Gary to go undercover and report back. And so Gary, for the final block of the season, basically believes he's a spy. (The name is Ewing -- Gary Ewing.) By the end of the season, he's become so paranoid, he's convinced he's being followed and that his phone has been tapped. (A sign of how bad this particular aspect of the Empire Valley story is: it's not just abandoned after Season 6, it's undone; once Season 7 begins, Gary is back to believing he's creating "a community of the future.")
Other misguided plot points? Well, we're informed that Paul Galveston bought Sumner the election; it's not a character observation, it's stated as fact, and it's misjudged: after we spent an entire season immersed in Sumner's campaign, what a letdown to learn the whole thing was rigged. Sumner is suddenly making decisions -- big decisions -- without consulting Laura, including the one to relinquish his Senate seat. In the first two-thirds of the season, he'd discussed everything with Laura (she felt well cared for, story-wise, because his decisions became theirs). Now, when the stakes are highest, he shuts Laura out; she doesn't hear from him for days, and when she comes to his hotel room, she finds security guards packing up her stuff. (And then he wonders why she's upset.) It's drama for drama's sake, as is his mother Ruth taking an instant dislike to Laura; it feels manufactured to ensure the couple break up by season's end (as they do). And after a trio of episodes showing Val regaining her memory and her strength, we discover she's falling apart again. Why have Val regress? It seems a betrayal of all the time we've invested in her recovery. Did the writers think that unless the twins were needed to help Val regain her sanity, they wouldn't be worth searching for? That somehow, a hunt for stolen babies wouldn't seem as "important" if they weren't crucial to a character's well-being?
And despite all the publicity her appearance brings the show, Ava Gardner doesn't do it any favors. Paul Galveston had seemed more of a plot device than a character, but Howard Duff essayed his role with modesty. You never felt a Hollywood star was gracing the set with his presence. The same can't be said for Gardner. And, it should be noted, it doesn't seem to be as much her fault as it is the reverence with which she's treated. Her first appearance, when she literally steps out of the shadows, is a bit much, and by the time a row of dark-suited businessmen is lined up to welcome her into a scene, like some MGM production number, it's become much too much. (She, of course, is in white, and bejeweled.) Ruth is prone to suggesting they attend parties because "we'll make a great entrance," and her attitude seems to prompt Travilla, who up to that point had costumed the women with a modicum of restraint, to kick it into high gear, as he blinds us with one monstrosity after another. There's a dinner party at the Galveston ranch, with Laura, Karen and Ruth riotously overdressed (including Karen in gold lamé), and as your eyes take in the wide brim hats and full-length mink stoles and footlong shoulder pads, you're aware that any point to the scene has been lost, and that all it seems to be about is a celebration of wealth and ostentatiousness. Squint and you have no idea which nighttime soap you're watching; is it Dynasty? Knots is losing its identity, an issue that will be compounded the following season.
These are flaws that hobble the final third of the season, and they're not insignificant. And it's difficult to say why the style of story-telling changes. (I mentioned the issue to Gollance, and he didn't have any clues, not having kept up with the series after he left.) The loss of Peter Dunne and Richard Gollance only explains so much; Joel Feigenbaum and Joyce Keener were still there, and they were both fine writers, schooled in the Dunne-Gollance aesthetic. It's hard to imagine that incoming producer Lawrence Kasha came in with strong ideas in terms of a new "direction" for the show, and creator David Jacobs was mostly off doing Berrenger's that season. But co-executive producer Michael Filerman, who'd been absent during Season 5 (launching Emerald Point N.A.S.) was most assuredly around, and it's always worth remembering that Ann Marcus, never one to mince words (and a reliable witness), characterized him as someone "whose main talent was to tear apart a story once it was written." Is the final block of Knots Landing Season 6 a mark of where Filerman might have taken the show, left unchecked? (He certainly doesn't do Falcon Crest any favors when he takes as active showrunner in Season 8.)
The final block of Season 6 is a disappointment, but by no means a disgrace. It's buoyed -- as is the whole season -- by the continuing saga of Val's twins, and ultimately, by the ongoing hunt for them, which becomes a fine story for Karen: exactly the kind of moral mission at which the character excels. (And it yields a particularly good scene where Karen inadvertently belittles her son Eric -- as she'll do often during the show's run -- by being so wrapped up in her own issues, she ignores his.) And even when the characters are subordinated to the plot, they remain vivid. There are any number of underwhelming story-lines in Season 6, but you don't find yourself focusing on them, because even when the story arcs disappoint, the character beats -- from moment to moment -- are never less than inviting, and often engrossing. And even as the plotting starts to overwhelm the characters in the final third of the season, you'll have marvelous scenes like the one in Val's kitchen in Keener's "The Deluge," where Val is brainstorming her next book for Ben, as Lilimae busies herself at the stove -- and in walk Joshua and Cathy with Chinese take-out. And as Joshua and Cathy squabble about the kind of material she should sing on his show, Lilimae -- recalling that her mama's favorite hymn was "Rock of Ages" -- launches into an impromptu refrain, which Ben, full-throated, then takes up. And suddenly the kitchen is awash in a cacophony of sound that seems, like so many of the best Knots moments, carefully sculpted yet utterly spontaneous. And although you can't make out the individual voices, you recognize that the scene is less about that than it is the warm feeling of family, and the embracing sense of community. Knots' welcoming spirit will be lost early in the following season, but Season 6 fairly bursts with it. Despite its issues, it's a hard season to resist.
Want more Knots? Check out my posts on Season 1, which establishes the characters and struggles to set the tone; Season 2, which pretty much mucks up everything; Season 3, in which the show finally masters the challenges inherent in its premise; Season 4, a shrewd and ultimately successful reinvention; Season 5, the show's annus mirabilis; Season 7, in which Dallas scribe David Paulsen, newly installed as headwriter, shows an astonishing lack of affinity for the characters; Season 8, in which the characters return, but the plotting goes haywire; Season 9, in which the show once again gets back to basics, after a couple unrecognizable years; Season 10, the year the ratings rose; Season 11, in which the show jumps the tracks -- then jumps back; Season 12, a shot of pure adrenaline that soon fades; Season 13, an epic fail, and an epic save; and Season 14, in which Ann Marcus, who'd guided the series during a critical time in its history, gives it a glorious send-off.