At the start of the season, it's producer Peter Dunne, headwriter Diana Gould and story editor Richard Gollance breaking story: all of them holdovers from the previous season, and as good a creative team as Knots ever assembled. Their assurance is formidable; within five episodes, Knots is fully transformed. The season premiere speedily wraps up one of the ongoing plots from Season 4, Gary's arrest for the murder of rising singer Ciji Dunne; by episode's end, Gary is set free, and the reinvention of Knots can continue in double time. First the mean income is adjusted up: in episode 2, Gary purchases a multi-million dollar ranch; in episode 3, Abby moves into a split-level office overlooking the marina. In episode 4, the backdrop is expanded with the introduction of Assemblyman Gregory Sumner, making a run for the U.S. Senate. And finally, in episode 5, the show's genius for taking relatable story-lines and putting a high-powered spin on them is unveiled, as Val's mama Lilimae runs over Ciji's killer Chip, amid slow-motion mayhem.
By episode 6, you're witness to a new Knots, one arrived at seemingly without growing pains. (The growing pains were dispensed of in Season 4.) Season 5 has an operatic sweep that carries you along from one emotional high to the next. Its confident tone encourages you to luxuriate in every genius move, every spot-on performance, every piercing exchange: to marvel at the narrative sleights of hand, while admiring how firmly character-driven they remain. The season barely gives you a chance to catch your breath, but you're grateful to be left gasping for air week after week. Let's just make our way through some of its glories, shall we?
Everyone is used so effectively, right from the start. It's the largest cast shake-up in the series' history, but you barely notice. You don't miss Jim Houghton and Kim Lankford at all. You don't miss John Pleshette, although -- initially, at least -- Richard is referenced constantly. And Bill Devane won't turn up for a few episodes, but Doug Sheehan is there, and you take to him instantly. The season opener, "The People vs. Gary Ewing," is a one-off, a quick conclusion to the previous season's big cliffhanger, but it's pretty much flawless, and in addition to achieving its major goal -- getting Gary out of the slammer -- it completes the reinvention of Valene begun the previous season. Under the mostly new writing team in Season 4, Valene was one of two principals who had never quite come into focus. She'd begun Season 4 with newfound independence, the best-selling author who became more assured with each passing week, but when the creative team realized midseason that that limited her interactions with the rest of the cast, they softly rebooted her into someone whose chief characteristic was an inability to let go of her ex-husband. Whatever kind of happiness came Valene's way, she couldn't seem to embrace it -- not if Gary needed saving. It felt like a course correction destined to dead-end the character in a state of inertia and, in all likelihood, misery, but the addition of Doug Sheehan to the cast (as reporter Ben Gibson) instantly puts your fears to rest.
Ben is introduced as if he's always been part of the Knots landscape. He's at the courthouse, seemingly a spectator, during Gary's trial. When reporters hound Valene, he's the one to rescue her, and having made a favorable first impression, he poses as an avid jogger in order to get to know her better, and manages a chance meeting along the beach (where else?). Of course Ben -- who doesn't jog at all -- can't keep up the pretense, and twists his ankle, and it falls to Val to help him back to his beach house, where we see instant chemistry between the characters and the actors. As Valene takes an interest in this dashing stranger -- marveling at all the objects he's collected during his travels -- we're aware that we haven't seen her this carefree and open to adventure in all her years on the cul-de-sac. She lets down her guard -- something that's never come easy to Val. Ben talks about how -- after a lifetime spent traveling -- he's ready to settle down, and she teases him, insisting that's a good thing, because his swollen ankle is going to slow him down for a bit. As she moves in closer to examine it, there's undeniable attraction between them, and surprised, unnerved, she fumbles her way to the door. But before she goes, he asks, "Mrs. Ewing, may I pick you up about 7 o'clock?" And she agrees and hurries off, but not before turning back and casting a smile in his direction.
It's the start of a fairy-tale romance -- about the sweetest and most appealing in Knots' fourteen-year history -- but it's not without its stumbling blocks, as it should be. Because in no time flat, Valene discovers that Ben is a reporter -- that he wasn't forthcoming about his occupation, because he feared (accurately, as it turns out) that she'd presume he was just after a story -- and she unloads on him: "I am sick and tired of people lying to me, and I have gotten to the point where I won't tolerate it. I know now what I'm worth, and I'm not gonna throw it away on someone like you." And of course, they do reconcile, and quickly, because Ben is sincere in his intentions -- Doug Sheehan practically oozes sincerity -- but in having her momentarily stand up to him, the writers give us the best Valene imaginable. Yes, she's still prey to the naked emotionalism and tremulousness that she developed late in Season 4, but restored are the spirit and spunk of Season 3, and the self-worth that evolved as she toured the country with Capricorn Crude. Valene feels renewed and reinvigorated -- and make no mistake: it's Ben who's brought her back to life.
As Val's world brightens, Karen's comes crashing down, as Diana has driven off with a fugitive and possible murderer. Some of Karen's outbursts are a bit much -- especially the ones directed at Laura; it takes the actress and the writers a few episodes to figure out just how far they can take the character. But these are mere moments that seem off-kilter -- everything else is wonderful. The fact that Michele Lee chooses to instantly crumble once Diana leaves town affords her some marvelous acting opportunities. It's not a slow descent; she just falls apart, and it's clear that it's too much loss in too short a time. It's less than two years since Sid's death, and some of her inflections are eerily reminiscent of her period of mourning in Season 3: "Val, talk to me. Just tell me anything to keep my mind off myself." She sounds haunted by grief.
"Michele Lee wasn't afraid of [her character] being at unlikable at times," recalls Richard Gollance, who was kind enough to speak with me while I was preparing this entry. "Peter [Dunne] told me this. When it came to this story-line, she said, 'I'm not afraid of losing the audience at any one moment, because I'll get them back in the end.' That's unusual in Hollywood, where so often, actors want the audience to love them every second." What's equally remarkable is how the writers don't give Lee a chance to lose the audience -- they ensure that Karen's friends and family are always there to ground her. In the first episode, Karen and Lilimae are alone, and Karen is obsessing; you fear she's going to get belligerent and unkind, much as Lilimae herself will in Season 7, but Lilimae distracts her with the tale of how she ran away at age 14, and manages to talk her down. In the following episode, Val and Karen are at Karen's kitchen table, and Val is reminding her that she can't fall apart -- that when Diana comes home, she's going to need her mother more than ever. Valene is, as ever, blessed with a country girl's common sense, and Karen takes it to heart. And an episode later, it's Eric's turn for some tough love. As Karen packs to leave town, to hunt for Diana, he accuses her (rightly) of acting like she's the only one who's hurting. And she realizes how much she's wounded him by ignoring his own pain, and they hug. However dark Karen's mood gets, however self-absorbed her responses, the writers keep redeeming her histrionics by giving her these warm scenes with other cast members. They give her a chance to regain her composure. And in doing so, they see to it that our own connection to Karen never vanishes.
While Val comes to life, and Karen goes to pieces, the plot is speeding along. By episode 2, Gary's put a bid on a working ranch. (He actually moves Abby and her kids onto the ranch -- and they're all lounging by the pool -- before he's even signed the final papers. The writers have no time to waste.) And in that same episode, the first time we see Diana in the new season, she's already learning from a news report that Chip is, in fact, a wanted fugitive named Tony Fenice, and a murder suspect to boot. And she suddenly understands why Chip has been so insistent that they stay on the move, that she not reach out to her family, or pay by credit cards (that could be traced). There are precious few scenes of Chip and Diana, happy travelers; just as the writers assuage our pre-season jitters that Gary's incarceration is going to outstay its welcome, the show doesn't get bogged down in Chip and Diana's road trip -- or in the "who killed Ciji" mystery. At the end of episode 2, Chip announces, "I killed Ciji so we could be together." As much as Chip seemed the likely culprit, you really don't see the confession coming so soon. But the mystery is a holdover from Season 4; let's wrap it up and move on.
The saga of Chip and Diana on the road only goes on for two episodes, but it's perfectly plotted and pitched. It creates palpable tension that ripples through the series without ever overwhelming it; because Diana is only tied to one family, it allows everyone else -- Gary, Abby, Laura, Val -- to get weekly updates, then get on with their lives. (It doesn't feel strange when the other characters aren't talking about them, as it does when Karen goes missing in Season 8, and for weeks on end, because the other stories need to move along, her closest friends barely seem to give her a second thought.)
Michael Sabatino is so good at conning Diana, and the con only gets more convincing once he confesses to her about "accidentally" killing Ciji. (As he explains it, the murder was actually an expression of his devotion to Diana.) And as terrific as Claudia Lonow is when she first learns Chip's identity, and plots to get away, she's even better once he comes clean. As Diana continues to drive further from Knots Landing, getting deeper into danger, a dozen emotions rush across her face, and you see her weighing the evidence, balancing the conflicting signals she's getting from her heart and her head. When the used car they purchased breaks down, Chip collapses to the ground and starts to sob. (The writers actually manage to humanize Chip after he confesses, no small feat; the scripting is so strong, and the actor so compelling, that you realize in hindsight that had they wanted to, they could have easily revealed Ciji's death to be the accident that Chip claimed it to be, and kept him around as a regular.) And Diana comforts him, reminding him -- as he's been impressing upon her for half a season -- that they're meant to be together. Ultimately, on the back roads of Oklahoma, Diana turns into the driving force, and the one motivating him. Just as she did when her mother was widowed, she becomes the strong one -- she rises to the occasion. (It seems fully consistent with their history and her backstory.) At the end of the episode, as Chip is being led away, a reporter asks "Miss Fairgate, were you ever in any danger?", and she's quick to correct him, with proud defiance: "It's not Miss Fairgate. It's Mrs. Tony Fenice." Karen's there to witness it, and it's a great little cliffhanger.
Back in Knots Landing, the writers are tending to Gary and Abby -- and to Laura, who could have been left plotless when Richard left town. In episode 3, Gary asks Laura to come work for Gary Ewing Enterprises, because Abby will be running things, and he needs someone on the inside. She wonders why he stays with Abby, and he answers, "I love her." She starts to ask the obvious question -- "then why do you need someone on the inside?" -- and he interrupts, "Hey, I love her, I didn't say I trust her." It's the same assessment of their relationship (and what, in Gary's mind, makes it worth holding onto) that he'll offer up early in Season 6, when the writers once more need to reestablish Gary and Abby as a viable couple. And now, just as the first two episodes had taken pains to give us a Valene worth rooting for, and to establish her and Ben as a couple worth investing in, the writers give Abby and Gary the same treatment. Abby, like Val, had never come into focus in Season 4. In Season 3, when she went after Gary, it was tied to the show's best MacGuffin: a plan to power automobiles with methanol, to find an environmentally-friendly form of fuel -- and make a tidy profit while they were at it. Their plan was noble, and Abby clearly invested more than her pocketbook: she invested her heart. In Season 4, Abby is reduced to the awful woman who goes around undermining Gary behind his back and abusing their friends' trust. She doesn't get any projects that fire her imagination or intelligence -- she's left having to make do with Gary's interests: Ciji's career, Richard's restaurant. The writers lose track of her rootability factor. Season 5 is quick to get Abby back on track, to give her outlets that energize her. And what a difference it makes. By episode 3, she's procured office space for Gary Ewing Enterprises, and as she gives her lawyer Jim Westmont the tour, she's simultaneously giving it to us as well. As Westmont, Clayton Landey proves an invaluable audience surrogate in Season 5; as he stares at Abby with those admiring eyes, impressed by her head for business and her gift for self-preservation, we find ourselves equally admiring.
Abby's office is dazzling. Of course it is: that's the very point of it. It's not just supposed to dazzle colleagues and potential partners; it's supposed to dazzle us. When Abby shows Jim around, you're impressed enough when she opens the shutters to a view of the marina and backs up to reveal the conference room -- but once she heads up the curved staircase, and there's a whole separate apartment for those nights when she has to work late, you're overwhelmed. And here's Abby's pitch, when Jim asks how she justifies making all these investments behind Gary's back (having siphoned off a significant portion of his inheritance while he was in jail and she had his power of attorney): "Gary has taken a sudden interest in the business. I believe he's bent on wasting his fortune. I want to prevent him from doing that, for his own good." And God bless Abby, even though it's a con and a seduction, you understand that a part of her believes it herself -- and what's more, is that such a terrible thing? Sure, she's robbing her husband blind, but I mean, look at that view! The creative team sees to it that you're just as seduced by the money and power as Abby is. When she walks out of the room, and Jim gives her one of those "what a woman" sighs, you willingly succumb to it all.
Even Gary gives her his blessing: "This office means the same to you as my ranch does to me, doesn't it? I'm glad you got it." You see that he's delighted for her -- you remember the chemistry between them, and how and why the relationship works. You recall why, despite yourself, you probably rooted for them at the end of Season 3 -- or at least were as torn as Gary was. Abby has office space to die for; Gary is ensconced on a ranch the size of Cleveland. The transformation of Knots is nearly complete.
But first, the addition of Gregory Sumner, an old pal of Mack's from their time together on Wall Street. It's a smashing introduction, written by Gollance, where we hear everyone talking about Sumner, then watch them buzzing around him, before space clears to reveal the man himself. (Gollance says he always referred to it "the Hello, Dolly! number, because there was that whole buildup of 'Sumner, Sumner, Sumner, Sumner -- heeeeere's Sumner!'" Because William Devane was a well-regarded actor, but hardly a household name, the splashy intro characterizes him as someone worth watching; when the next set of writers attempt much the same effect with Ava Gardner, the actress's fame overwhelms the moment, and it feels like a star entrance, not a character introduction.) Sumner is conceived with care. When J.R. Ewing (unseen, as he works best on the show) sends Abby to Sumner's campaign headquarters with a bribe, Sumner promptly tears it up. (Abby isn't offended. She sees it as a challenge; she likes what she sees.) But just because Sumner isn't an easy mark for oil tycoons doesn't mean he's squeaky clean, either. Ben makes it clear that there's something odd about Sumner's emergence onto the national stage. He spent years in the state legislature as an uncompromising idealist who couldn't raise a nickel; now a much more upscale audience than he usually attracts is embracing his run, and his campaign seems flush with cash. Why? The show is careful to play fair in how it characterizes Sumner, the man and the candidate. It doesn't resort to the cliché-ridden trope of making him a "mystery man"; it simply reminds us that in politics, as in Knots Landing, things are rarely as simple as they seem.
Chip and Diana's return home in episode 4 ups the drama ten-fold, as now other principals can be folded into their story-line. Early on, Lilimae goes to visit Chip in jail, still anxious to believe in his innocence. Even if he was involved in Ciji's death, surely there were extenuating circumstances. He's opened up to her, she reminds him; she understands him better than the others. She recalls a story Chip told her about his troubled childhood, about how his mother went to the grocery store one night when he was a boy and abandoned him. And he starts laughing -- and not just at the absurdity of the story; he thinks Lilimae's appeal is a ploy, that she's been sent there to get him to confess. And hearing the tone of his voice, and dumbstruck by his response, she realizes he's guilty. Later in the episode, Diana blurts out to her mother that Chip confessed, but killed Ciji for her; she means it as a defense of his actions, but Karen hears it only as an admission of guilt, and takes it right to the authorities. Diana, outraged and betrayed, seeks refuge at her Aunt Abby's. And when Mack comes to see her, to talk some sense into her, her stubborn refusal to listen unleashes the DA in him; as if trying to intimidate a suspect, he corners her like an animal: screaming at her, defending Karen. It's not quite like anything you've seen the show do up to this point; Mack, who has been so level-headed and supportive for four episodes, loses it. It's not just angry, it's primal: "Why do you have to blame her for everything, huh? What is it with you? Answer me!" Abby warns him to back off: "You see what happens?" Yes, this is what happens when the cast and creative team are cooking on all burners.
And then, in the following episode, it culminates in the big set-piece that everyone remembers: Lilimae driving to the police station, to see Chip being released for lack of evidence, and losing control. She's agonizing over the role she played in welcoming him to the cul-de-sac -- blaming herself for how lives have been disrupted and relationships damaged: "There's gotta be justice. Who's gonna make sure he pays?" As Chip waves to reporters, relishing his newfound freedom, Lilimae slams down the accelerator pedal and runs him over. And creator David Jacobs, handling both writing and directing chores, unspools the final moments in slow motion, as Diana wails to get to her husband, and reporters and police swarm around Chip's battered body. Karen jumps out of the car mouthing "Oh my God," then -- in a horrified moment of understanding -- glances back at Lilimae, who drops her head to the steering wheel, guilty but unrepentant.
Episode 6, Gould's "...And Never Brought to Mind," begins with Lilimae confessing ("I only did what needed to be done"), and it's here -- in the various ways that characters hear about the "accident" -- that you realize the transformation of Knots is complete. Mack is with Greg -- mulling over an offer to head up a newly-created crime commission -- when he gets a call from Karen; Laura, now a staple at the ranch, informs her boss Gary; Ben and Val are bonding over how hard writing is -- especially when you're on a deadline -- when he's paged about the story. And meanwhile, deliciously oblivious, Abby and Jim are looking at her monthly nut and discussing how important it is that she gets married within the week, before Gary's inheritance comes due, so that -- in the event of a divorce -- she can share in community property. (We're treated, too, to another striking turn by Lonow, where the detective asks Diana if she has any family she wants to call, and there's a pause before she replies "no." She doesn't overplay it, she just recognizes that she's alone in this, and moves on.) And then the best: we join a scene already in progress, where Laura is telling Abby about Lilimae, and Abby quips, "I've always known that beneath that batty little old lady exterior, there beat the heart of a killer." But Laura isn't in the mood for jokes: "Chip might die. Diana is with him now." Well, maybe one joke: "And Gary's with Val." And she smirks ever so slightly.
The dynamics between the characters are stunning -- perhaps unmatched by any other point in the series' history. All the characters are evolving, relationships are in flux, and the interplay feels fresh and exciting and unpredictable. And we're not done with Laura and Abby -- not by a long shot. Abby's been left an inheritance by her uncle: a fourplex on the coast near Lotus Point, which she owns jointly with Karen, and Abby -- like the writers -- sees potential for development. We're only six episodes in, and Lotus Point comes into play. The season is advancing at a breakneck pace, but you don't realize it, because the character beats are so strong and sustained. As the episodes fly by, you come to appreciate it as the rare season where the story-lines seem self-generating; the characters are so rich, they create their own drama: Abby through her desire for advancement and self-fulfillment; Mack with his obsession with justice at any cost; Greg, so hungry for power that he lets his ambition get the better of him; and Val, desperate to move on but unable to let go of the past. Gary, through his eternal efforts to redeem himself, and Laura, overly anxious to reinvent herself. At the end of the day, it's the characters who are driving the action. You feel the sense of exhilaration that results from such rapidly moving story-lines, without any sense of disorientation. The plots are always in motion, sometimes breathlessly so, but no one gets undermined, or worse, consumed by them.
And thus, there's even time for Karen, who's growing increasingly monomaniacal, to spring back to life in a scene with Greg -- their first real interaction on the show. After pressing her to convince Mack to take the job with the crime commission, he asks about Gary Ewing, who gave him a healthy donation at a recent fundraiser. Her response: "Gary? Oh, he's all right – he doesn't mean any harm. It's only that in his wake, people lose their jobs, their marriages and their lives. And he always feels guilty, but it's never his fault." (That's Gary in a nutshell, as it will continue to be in this upcoming season.) Her advice: "Take the money and run." As for Abby, she cautions him, "Well, let me put it this way: if you were stranded in the desert with no food or water for three days, and you came upon Abby Cunningham with a picnic basket, keep going."
That tell-it-like-it-is side of Karen is never lost in these first dozen episodes. In fact, it's that very side of her that gets her into trouble. As flattering as it is to be the one folks turn to for advice, it's also exhausting. Later that episode, when Lilimae runs off and Val can't find her, she rushes over to Mack and Karen's, looking for help. And Karen has had enough: "I just can't take it anymore, Mack. I'm sorry, I just can't take one more thing." She's looking down, both wounded and angry. Val apologizes for the intrusion, but Karen walks away: "I'm sorry: I just have nothing left." And then in her next scene, despite having "nothing left," Karen is off to the hospital, to try to scream some sense into Diana, and as ever, to make things worse. What's brilliant about Karen's story-line in Season 5 is that every step of the way, she has the opportunity to get inside Diana's head, to truly understand what she's going through, and make some small gesture that would convince her daughter that she's on her side. But Karen can't do that; she can't give credence to -- or validate -- a point of view that runs so counter to her own. ("My daughter can't be in love with a man like that!") And as a result, she keeps inadvertently, aggressively pushing Diana away. And all of it -- the woman who can so easily, wickedly pass judgment on her neighbors, who can ignore her best friend when she comes calling because her own issues seem so much more important, and who can alienate her daughter by refusing to even consider seeing things from her perspective -- is absolutely consistent with the character of Karen Fairgate MacKenzie. Ultimately, this story-line has come to be remembered as being about Karen's prescription drug addiction, but it's so much more than that. The first eight or nine episodes are simply the story of Karen being Karen -- the woman so determinedly right that she pushes away the people who mean the most to her. And that righteous isolation is what makes her easy prey to get hooked on pills.
Meanwhile, Lilimae has ended up at the ranch, looking for Diana, still hell-bent on getting Chip to see reason -- and Gary feels obligated to drive her home. Abby is adamant: "If you go, I'm not gonna be here when you get back." And when Gary does bring Lilimae back to the cul-de-sac, he and Val discover that, since they've finalized their divorce, they can finally move past the hurt and guilt and anger, and just be there for each other. She sinks into his chest, desperately in need of some familiar comfort; he kisses her on the forehead, then they melt into an embrace. And when Gary returns to his ranch the next morning, it turns out Abby hasn't left yet; she has one last warning before she goes: "You're gonna have to make a choice." She said it in Season 3, and she said it again in Season 4, and good for her, she's tired of saying it: "There comes a time when you have to cut the cord -- it's really too bad you can't do it, because I can." She walks out, and you're proud of her for taking a stand. Taking up temporary accommodations in her office suite, Abby realizes she might lose it all, and you don't want her to. Donna Mills plays it beautifully, invoking your sympathy. She seems genuinely hurt by what transpired, just as she was when Gary called it off in "China Dolls." (Besides, it's a little hard to hate Abby at this point, when Karen is being so monstrous towards everyone she knows, and Val is lying to Ben, pushing him away because she's fantasizing about a reconciliation with Gary.)
So what exactly happened between Val and Gary? Well, according to Gary -- or at least as Laura repeats it back to him -- they found themselves merely "staying up half the night talking." Notably, the show doesn't tease a Gary-Val reunion; in the next set of previews, we see Gary and Abby getting married. (Gary and Abby split and reconcile mere days before his inheritance comes due; again, that's how tight the timeline is, how quickly events are unfolding.) Far from seeming like a potential reconciliation, this turns out to be another case of Val and Gary getting their signals crossed, and one more example of why their marriages never worked. Val is still so vulnerable to Gary that she's willing to cast off the new man who's made her so happy, while Gary remains so focused on making amends that he's putting his own needs ahead of hers. The truth is, Gary has no intention of rebuilding a life with Val. And in a shrewd piece of scripting, it's Laura, not Abby, who convinces him to let go; she knows that as long as Gary hangs around, Val will never move on.
We're only seven episodes into the season now -- my God, how much has happened. And now the writers start to fold Steve Shaw into the story-lines. Eric shows up at the hospital, where Diana is keeping vigil. They talk about their late father, Sid, and the reasons he died: his willingness to put his own life in jeopardy to see that justice was done. Eric, more than anyone, can see things clearly: "If he knew that you were protecting a murderer, that your silence was letting him go free…" He convinces her to give evidence against Chip by referencing their shared past. Whatever plot points the writers need to finesse in Season 5, whatever changes of direction they need to justify, they always find a character-based way of doing it. (In another ten episodes, Eric will become the catalyst for Diana to renew communication with her mother.) In some ways, Diana's still the confused teenager she was in Season 1. Whatever contortions of plotting she's had to endure along the way -- mostly in Seasons 2 and 4, when she had to be contrary to generate story -- she's come full circle now. Chip had a speech earlier in the season where he referenced the first time he saw Diana. She was mowing the lawn, and he thought how beautiful she was -- not traditionally beautiful, he's quick to admit, but some mix of awkwardness and accessibility that made her stand out. And that's in fact how Diana has seen herself since Season 1 -- as the gangly girl who didn't quite fit in. But Chip made her feel special. Even as he lies there in a coma, she confesses to him, "I feel so lucky you love me." Diana sticking by Chip doesn't feel plot-dictated, a device to drive away her mother and get her hooked on pills. It stems from Diana's low self-esteem, and her gratitude that someone like Chip took an interest in her. (When Diana ultimately confesses to the police about Chip's "accident," her face awash in tears, it's probably Lonow's best work of the season. Mack is listening from the next room, and watching her, he too can't suppress a tear.)
And the episode ends, of course, with that memorable montage that intercuts between Gary and Abby getting married and Val committing Lilimae to a private sanitarium. In 1983, you felt like the show had climbed to new heights of irony and poignancy. (And humor: as Gary and Abby recite their vows, there's Laura rolling her eyes, putting no stock in marriage anymore -- this one in particular.) As Gary and Abby exchange rings, Val is about to leave her mama at the sanitarium, and with Lilimae at the window looking away, hurt and confused, Val calls to her, "Mama, I love you" -- and it's heartbreaking. In the fifth episode of Season 1, Val had voiced the same sentiment, and it had felt unearned. Now, man, is it earned.
Throughout the previous four episodes, Julie Harris has done remarkable work -- arguably her finest on Knots, and that's saying something. It's not just the emotions she runs through, flawlessly; it's the multiple emotions she juggles, effortlessly: her desperation to absolve Chip of guilt so she can absolve herself; her mix of confusion and resolve after she runs him over; the feelings of terror and betrayal when Val decides to commit her to a psychiatric facility. If you'd never had the chance to see five-time Tony Award winner Julie Harris on the stage, to understand what all the fuss was about -- well, now you understood. And what makes the plotline especially effective is that it never comes off as "a story for Julie Harris." Occasionally, during her tenure on the series, you could hear the writers' wheels spinning: "What can we give Julie Harris this season?" -- as in, "what if we give her a long-lost son?" or "what if she screams him off a rooftop?" This story-line is an outgrowth of everything Lilimae went through in Season 4, once she's digested Chip's true identity, reconsidered his motives, and realized how her trust has been abused. And once Val is tasked with deciding how best to ensure that her mother stays out of prison, it digs deep into their relationship, too. Over the past three seasons, Lilimae has come to regret being an absentee mother, and in her mind, she's done her best to make amends -- but now she can't help but see Val's decision to institutionalize her as payback for her years of neglect. There's so much contributing to Lilimae's behavior in this string of episodes -- guilt, embarrassment, shame, rage, age, instability -- and Harris's peerless performance captures it all.
There's not a character in Season 5 who doesn't feel well-served, and more to the point, whose actions -- however surprising -- don't seem to stem from their backstory. "Poor long-suffering Laura," as Scooter once characterized her, has had enough by Season 5. She gave Richard chance after chance, and he squandered them all. Selflessness got her nowhere. So when she discovers that Abby has created a subsidiary of Gary Ewing Enterprises called Apolune (formed with secret funds diverted without his knowledge), precisely to greenlight projects of which Gary wouldn't approve, Laura is willing to stay silent -- for the right price. It's not what you expect of Laura, given her actions over the first four seasons, but given how those actions have panned out, you appreciate her new position. She lays it out for Abby: "Gary's got his millions; you'll get yours, if you haven't already. Karen's husband died, and she's happily remarried. Val's husband left her; she's got a best-seller, a new boyfriend, more money than she's ever had before. Well, my husband left me, too, and the little I've got is 5% of Lotus Point. I think I'm entitled to that small piece of the pie, don't you?"
By the time we're a third of the way into Season 5, a "small piece of the pie" means millions (Gary, we're told, is now "a millionaire a hundred times over"), and Laura feels comfortable demanding it. And given what far less altruistic characters are amassing -- and given all that Laura has endured -- we want her to have what's due her. And we like her new assertiveness. After being under Richard's thumb for four seasons, it's a relief to see Laura so proactive. She's everywhere in Season 5, quick-witted and all-seeing: tricking Jim Westmont into revealing more than he should; catching Gary grooming Cathy to be like Ciji; walking in on a post-coital Greg and Abby and instantly sizing up the situation. She even arranges to see Greg herself at one point (once the writers have decided to explore a potential pairing), pretending that she's interested in some beachfront property and needs a variance -- but really looking to ferret out more information about Apolune, to further insinuate herself. Constance McCashin seems unleashed and exhilarated in Season 5. It's a new take on Laura, yet you never question it. You understand full well how she got there. (And you also understand, late in the season, when she crumbles, why it's a posture she can't maintain.)
A scene from episode 8 -- written by Gollance -- reveals a creative process at once caring, collaborative and intuitive. "The episode [Joel Feigenbaum's first Knots script] was running short, and we needed another scene. I think we were five days into production -- we had seven days of production for each episode -- so that meant the scene had to be determined by where we were in the shooting schedule, and the next day we were at the cul-de-sac. So a group of us figured out, it's a scene between Ben and Val, after they've visited Lilimae at the sanitarium. The script was going to be shot the next day, and the scene was going to be messengered to the actors at their homes. I had an hour to write it. And the basic idea was 'every family has something.' It was Ben's way of comforting Val. Well, the only scene that came to mind -- because I had so little time -- was my Aunt Sarah's nervous breakdown. And she had one of my favorite nervous breakdowns of all time: she gathered the furniture in the middle of the living room of their house, and tried to set it on fire. So that's what I gave Ben to tell Val. I made it his father, when he was in high school, and he came home from school one day to find his father trying set the furniture on fire." The result is one of the dearest scenes of the season, in which Ben dredges up a painful memory to provide Val with a little solace; it's a revelation about Ben's past (of which we know little) that serves to deepen their relationship. Watching, you can't imagine the season without it. In Season 5, even the most hastily assembled scenes are eloquent and moving; the creative team understands these characters so well that there's always the opportunity to dig just a little deeper.
Peter Dunne pens episode 9, "Money Talks," and like all his scripts, it's lovely. (A lot of Dunne's lines, like Dianne Messina's later in the series' run, play like poetry.) Chip has escaped his hospital captivity, and when Diana expresses regret about her confession, and her fear that Chip might blame her and never return, Abby reassures her, "He's not running from what you did. He's running from what he did." Again, they've nailed Abby this season. She's not all about the machinations. There's a warm and decent person there, and Season 5 keeps tapping into it. Olivia, in episode 5, had expressed concern that Abby was letting Diana stay at the ranch merely to lord it over Karen, but Dunne wants us to see both sides to Abby. Yes, she can enjoy lording it over Karen -- but she can also care deeply about her niece. About Sid's child. You love Abby here (this is easily Donna Mills' best season, and it's barely gotten started), and you love her, too, when Karen barges into her office a few scenes later, threatening her if anything happens to Diana on her watch, and Abby loses her cool and her patience and her ability to temper her remarks: "Stay out of my office and stay out of my life, because I don't like you." Good for you, Abby. And once again, Dunne ensures that you never get fed up with Karen's melodramatic outbursts -- because right after haranguing Abby, she's sitting calmly on the beach with Val, giving her sound advice about "going for it" with Ben. Despite everything going on in Karen's life, and despite her precipitous decline, we see constant glimpses of the woman we know well, of the wisdom she's amassed, and of the positive effect she can have on everyone around her.
Meanwhile, in an exceptionally bold bit of plotting, Abby starts sleeping with Sumner mere days after she marries Gary. And as with her playing fast-and-loose with Gary's funds, you don't question it, or judge her for it. (Hell, by that point, her husband is stalking a Ciji lookalike. What's good for the gander...) The chemistry between the actors and the characters is there, and Sumner has a new kind of power that she needs. And as the story develops, the writers continue to (re)humanize Abby, after struggling with her so in Season 4. As the self-billed Man for the Eighties, Greg is on a tight schedule (his interest in Abby is about enjoying some uncomplicated downtime); the pressures of campaigning -- and the vagaries of political life -- require him to cancel on her with alarming regularity. There's something wonderful about seeing Abby infatuated with someone, and being constantly stood up. (It's how she made Gary feel in "China Dolls," but turned back on her, and spread across a half-dozen episodes.) That sort of frustration is new to her, and looks good on her. Not that Greg has Abby under his thumb; she wants him to use his political clout to obtain a variance for her, so she can start building at Lotus Point, and ignoring all his own rules about doling out quid pro quo favors, he does. He does, of course, because it's Abby. Men break all their own rules where Abby is concerned.
"Money Talks" also brings the sudden appearance of Greg's daughter Mary Frances (winningly played by Danielle Brisebois), and we get to glimpse Greg when he's not being the poker-faced politician. Mary Frances, who could have come off like an unnecessary distraction in Season 5 (given how well the principals are being used, and how busy they're being kept), becomes crucial to our understanding and appreciation of Sumner. What they have together is lovely: combative, yes, but also caring and playful. And the addition of Mary Frances to the cast -- and Karen adopting her as a surrogate for Diana -- pays enormous dividends when she and Eric are paired. Mary Frances and Eric are delightful together, her intrigued but resolutely independent, him smitten and dressing to impress. (It's Eric mooning over Ginger in Season 1 all over again.) As with so much of Season 5, there are clever bits of symmetry in the way the story unfolds. Early on, she tracks her dad to Abby's offices, where she finds Abby brandishing the missing sock Greg had been hunting for, after their latest bout of lovemaking. Mary Frances instantly judges her father, and despite his protestations that she's misinterpreted what she's seen, rushes off in anger. But later, he walks in on her and Eric kissing, and she's left to defend herself with the same excuse: "It wasn't what it seemed."
As we head towards the midseason mark, there are a half-dozen stories operating at full throttle. Mack has bullishly steered his crime commission appointment in an unexpected direction, going after white collar corruption, and one consortium in particular: The Wolfbridge Group, "some of the city's most respected businessmen and attorneys," who "use mob tactics to wipe out the competition, because they're in bed with the mob." It turns out they're the major funders of Greg's senatorial run. (That's where the money is coming from.) Yet that coincidence never feels contrived. The writers ease into it; they drop their clues cagily and carefully, and it's four or five episodes before we put all the pieces together: that Mark St. Claire, Sumner's biggest benefactor, runs Wolfbridge, the consortium Mack is hell-bent on taking down. (And Sumner is left trying to keep Mack from getting wise, and -- with St. Claire breathing down his neck -- to redirect his investigation.) Mack, through the course of the series, will be saddled with many crusades. To understand why the Wolfbridge story works and those don't is to truly appreciate the brilliance of the construction here. It's not just about Mack going after bad guys -- that's a plotline that, in and of itself, holds no interest (see Okmin Industries in Season 11). Mack going after bad guys in Season 5 is merely the set-up for the shattering developments to come, a series of emotional payoffs that ultimately make his mission personal: the shocking betrayal by an old friend, a wrongful accusation that casts aspersions on his character, a pummeling from some Wolfbridge thugs (designed as a deterrent), and finally, the threat of disbarment. Mack's crusade brings his own world crashing down -- and Kevin Dobson is equally adept at portraying both the determination and the devastation; as Gollance puts it, "He was a tough guy who could cry."
Karen, meanwhile, is growing dependent on escandine, which her doctor prescribed to ease the (literal) pain in her neck. Gollance remembers, "We got the idea from a number of articles and news stories on television about people becoming addicted to valium. It was meant to be valium, but for legal reasons, we couldn't say valium, so it became [a made-up drug] escandine. So that was the origin of it, but there was a lot of discussion, when we were putting the season together, about the very notion of giving Karen a drug problem, because she was the so-called moral center of the show. Diana [Gould] was a little nervous about it, because she remembered Dennis Weaver did a show in which he was addicted to cocaine [it was 1983's Cocaine: One Man's Seduction], and after that, every time she would see Weaver acting in something, she would think, 'I know what you do....' Which, when you think about it, is sort of like my grandmother who never watched a Bette Davis movie for years because she saw Jezebel and was convinced that Bette Davis was a horrible person -- but of course, that's not what Diana meant. Her concern was that Karen's addiction might taint the way the audience saw her character, that she'd always be seen as 'the one who had had the pill problems,' and cease to be useful as a moral center. And David [Jacobs] had his own concerns. He identified with Karen a lot, and wanted her to have a moment where she just says, 'That's it. I'm not doing it anymore' -- and flushes the drugs down the toilet, and that's the end of the story. But Peter and Diana and I felt that would have been dishonest. There were a lot of fights about the addiction story, but they were all good fights. There are good fights and there are bad fights, and a good fight is one that makes the show better. Season 5 was all good fights. Ultimately, everyone agreed that we needed to see the story through to its proper conclusion."
As Karen begins to rely on her daily dosage of escandine, her friends and family start to observe her odd, absentminded behavior. Karen insists she's merely tired -- but she knows the truth. After a conversation with Val, who expresses concerns about the pills Karen's taking (they're the same ones she'd seen her mother sedated with when she went to visit her at the sanitarium), she determines to give them up. But at the end of the day, she can't stop: what Karen doesn't understand is that she's not merely using the pills to help her get through the pain -- she's using them to help her get through the day. And that means she's hooked. In episode 12, the camera pulls back while Karen is in bed, to show -- very subtly, unremarked upon -- that there are now two pill bottles on Karen's nightstand. Critically, we're left as clueless as Mack or Val about the extent of Karen's addiction; as the writers script it, Karen shields us from her condition as willfully as she does her friends and family -- and that means that when the story-line comes to a head, a few episodes later, we're blindsided. Newly admitted to a chemical dependency unit, Karen reaches into her purse and pulls out a half-dozen bottles of pills, and enumerates the reasons she's taking each one. ("The fanateen makes me too sleepy when I take it during the day. And the zanathian upsets my stomach so I have to take the muscle relaxer.") We had no idea she was in so deep; it's a brilliant move by the writers, making us as oblivious as her loved ones, and like them, so shocked that it happened under our watch.
And Ben and Val's relationship -- despite her admission that she started seeing Gary again, momentarily -- is in full bloom, simply because they both know a good thing when they see it. Ben and Val's romance is exquisitely told, and Joan Van Ark commits to it completely; watching her and Sheehan interact, you feel you've never seen her character so happy. And so admirable, the way she's trying so desperately to break old habits and reinvent herself. As for Ben, he's woven effortlessly into the texture of the show: making him a reporter pays huge dividends. At Val and Ben's first dinner with Mack and Karen, Ben questions Greg's motives in creating the crime commission, and Mack takes umbrage: this very natural bone of contention creates a great character beat, then -- in the best Knots tradition -- gets absorbed into the dinner-table conversation. Ben isn't merely defined as "Val's new beau" -- far from it. His mind is never far from his job, and that allows a lot of exposition to be dished out during domestic scenes. As he and Val head to the MacKenzie's for a BBQ, he's postulating what accounts for Greg's sudden interest in crime prevention ("he's always based his campaign on environmental causes and social programs") and wondering what's caused him to flip-flop on key issues -- but Valene interrupts, insistent that he leave his work at the office and try to fit in with her friends. But the key information has been neatly, tidily dropped. (And Mack and Ben do bond, and not simply because they're on the same series, but because they need each other. Ben wants more information about the crime commission; Mack wants him to help leak a story about The Wolfbridge Group.)
Abby, meanwhile, has decided to develop the Lotus Point shoreline, which to her is just twenty acres of beachfront property waiting to be turned into profit. Just a few months into the season, she's fast-tracked the project so successfully that she's ready for her first big meeting with potential partners and investors. And she nails it. It's not just Jim who's impressed; even Laura concedes, "You handled everyone beautifully." Abby discovers that she has as much prowess in the boardroom as in the bedroom, and it's exhilarating. We're so gratified to see a woman succeed in a male-dominated world -- and not by guile, but by drive, intelligence and an innate head for business -- that we urge her on. (The last time Abby's business prowess made her this irresistible was when she pulled off the bluff that clinched the methanol deal in "Acts of Love," nearly two years earlier.) Is she destroying the environment? Probably. Is she duping her husband? Certainly. But she's admirable nonetheless. We cheer for her to succeed -- we root for Lotus Point.
And Gary has his own agenda: a few weeks earlier, while he and Abby were on their honeymoon, a young woman turned up (serving them room service) who was a dead ringer for Ciji. He's tracked her down, befriended her, and hired her on as a ranch hand. The coincidence of someone happening into Gary's life who looks like Ciji is preposterous, of course -- but there's something fanciful and appealing about it too, and it all ties back to Gary's eternal efforts to redeem himself. How perfect is it that in the same episode in which he tells Laura that all he wants to do with Val is "to make amends," a Ciji lookalike shows up; he can't do it with Val, but maybe he can with Ciji. (The universe has a sense of humor.) And once you get past the insane improbability of their initial encounter, you see the writers striving to give Cathy a clear identity and backstory. One of her first questions to Gary is "did Ray send you?" -- and we don't even find out who Ray is for a half-dozen episodes, but it sends the message early on that whoever this woman is, she's not to be confused with Ciji. As with Sumner, we'll find out more about her when the writers are ready.
Laura's the first one to stumble upon Gary's new protégé, and she's suitably appalled when she catches Cathy in the Ciji-inspired outfit that Gary purchased her, mouthing away to Lisa Hartman's Letterock. "Well, what a scene," she announces. "That's quite a vision -- like something out of a wax museum." Laura loved Ciji -- to her, this is inexplicable and unacceptable. "How do you justify this to yourself?" she demands of Gary. (Wonderfully, it's not his wife he has to answer to; it's Laura.) And he's got his ready-made response, and it's not unreasonable: "I want another chance -- not to make up for Ciji's death, because I can't do that. But to make me feel like I can help somebody without her winding up dead. Is that so awful? Is that so crazy?" (Tellingly, Laura leaves the questions hanging. She's not going to give him the satisfaction of a response.) Laura gets the dramatic reaction; Abby gets the funny one, the one that lets the audience in on the joke: this story is unlikely in the extreme, but Lisa Hartman is back -- just go with it. She stumbles upon Gary and Cathy together, and he introduces her as someone whom he's hired to "work with the horses." "Lucky horses," Abby smiles, her words gracious but her eyes widening in disbelief, flashing Gary a look that says, "You have flipped your lid." Laura takes the matter seriously, reacting within the reality of the situation; Abby just thinks the whole thing is bonkers -- however we're inclined to take this story-line, the writers have us covered. And Cathy has her own justification for letting Gary turn her into a dead girl. "Nobody's ever taken care of me before," she informs Laura. "No one's ever offered me a job like this, or put a roof over my head. Until now I've been nobody; Gary makes me feel like somebody." Cathy's looking for a fresh start, and maybe her fresh start is Ciji. Cathy doesn't know what she wants to do with her life, or who she is. Ciji never doubted it. The promise of identity, the lure of certainty, is potent.
Diana, meanwhile, has her own response to Cathy, one derived from character, and therefore unique to her: "All I know is if I looked like someone as hateful as Ciji, I wouldn't go around flaunting it." The culmination of Chip and Diana's saga is a masterstroke. Chip has been hiding out at the ranch, where the police have set up surveillance; he and Diana hatch a plan to escape, timing it to avoid any run-ins with the law. The episode leads you to think the police are finally going to catch up with Chip; there are multiple close calls. Chip is concealed under a bridge when two detectives walk across it. One of them drops his pen, which lands mere feet from Chip; he starts to recover it -- but the other officer tells him to leave it. Later on, Chip is hiding in the barn, and one of the officers starts to approach -- but he's called away. You keep thinking Chip's luck will run out -- that the police will close in on him, as indeed they do on Diana -- but in the end it's Cathy who proves his undoing, when she enters the barn and causes a startled Chip to stumble backwards ("Ciji?!?" he cries, dumbstruck) and impale himself on a pitchfork. Ciji -- symbolically at least -- has her revenge.
Sabatino has been sensational throughout this story-line. The legend behind Ciji's "return" in Knots Landing Season 5 is that the writers felt they had a goldmine in Lisa Hartman, that part of the ratings climb in Season 4 was attributable to her. The audience demanded her, and the show needed her. But the show doesn't miss Hartman at all; the first seven episodes get along just fine without her. But Sabatino's another matter. The show has no trouble going on without her, but it takes a little while to get its bearings without him. Once Chip morphed from likable rogue to smirking villain, he gave the show an undercurrent of suspense, a dependable pulse, that you find yourself missing. It may only have been a traditional "catch the villain" sort of suspense, but it had proven very useful in balancing the more slow-burning interpersonal stories.
And so, the three episodes after Chip's death feel less cohesive and dynamic than what came before them. There's some rebuilding to be done, and some awkwardness in design and execution. Episode 12 is Chip's funeral, and brings aboard Cassie Yates as his sister; Yates's performance seems pitched wrong, a little too presentational, more in the style of Dallas than Knots. Episode 13 introduces Sumner's wife Jane (she's something of a nag), and her backstory feels muddled. Just how well does she know Mack? Greg introduces her to the MacKenzies, and Mack replies, "It's nice to see you again." But then she tells Greg, thank you for introducing me to the MacKenzies, not thank you for introducing me to Mack's wife -- and there is a difference. (By Season 6, there'll be a retcon, and Mack and Jane will have known each other for decades, and had mutual crushes when they were younger.) And Episode 14 is the season's weak link. It's Gould's last script -- she'd depart within a few weeks to create the soap Berrenger's, leaving Gollance with increased responsibilities. (He'll be officially promoted to headwriter the following season. Joel Feigenbaum comes aboard as Story Editor with episode 9, and stays through the end of Season 6.) It's the only episode where the contrivances stand out, mostly because the rest of the season has scrupulously avoided them. Val has discovered she's pregnant, and cautions Lilimae not to tell anyone -- so you just know she's going to run right to Ben, which she does. Gary and Cathy are looking to purchase a horse, and drive upstate to meet the owner, who -- presuming they're a couple -- insists they stay the night, and they're forced to commit to the ruse and share a bed. And although Lee is superb in a scene where Karen is charged with giving a speech to introduce Sumner, and can barely get through a sentence without stumbling, is it really believable that her friends and family would even let her try to give that speech, given what they've seen her going through the last several weeks? Even the storyline of Laura trying to get the last couple who live at Lotus Point, the Marcuses, to sell their residence (though it will pay off in the following episode) is not particularly interesting at this time.
But episode 13 debuts two huge story-lines that help shape the rest of the season: Val's discovery that she's pregnant, and the audience's discovery that Cathy has been on Abby's payroll for months. One is a sudden brainstorm that feels like a careful piece of plotting; the other is a careful piece of plotting that feels like a mistake.
The writers had no plans for Val to get pregnant when she and Gary fell into each others' arms in episode 6. In fact, Gollance recalls with amusement that when Ted Shackelford first saw the script, "he was concerned. He loved acting with Joan; he said once it's like opening night on Broadway, every scene you do with her" -- but he felt there was more mileage left in his relationship with Abby, and didn't want to see it derailed yet. "So I assured him that he just slept over, but they did not have sex. And he was relieved, and there were no problems after that. But on any show, of course, you have a bible, but if you get a better idea at any point in the season, you run with it. At some point, three or four episodes later, we came up with the idea of Val being pregnant, and Gary is the father. But that would have meant that they had sex when he slept over. And I kept waiting for Ted to come to me and say, 'You told me...' But he never did. I think he recognized that it was good story material." And of course, it didn't impact his character at all -- not for another two seasons. (In retrospect, it's astounding to think that Gary fathering Val's children was a sudden, last-minute inspiration, given that "the saga of Val's twins" will ultimately drive and impact story-lines for another six seasons. But just as this particular creative team had an unerring instinct for developing plot through character, they also had an intuitive understanding of which short-term incidents would lend themselves to long-term stories.)
On the other hand, I've always presumed that Abby hiring Cathy was an idea that came to the writers late in the game, after Cathy's early episodes had been shot; they decided that instead of Cathy's appearance being a wild coincidence, it would have more logic and purpose if it were a strategy of Abby's. But no, Gollance assured me, it was always the intent for "Ciji's return" to be a plot engineered by Abby. And I've never liked it. Gollance admits it's "so cruel of Abby to exploit [Gary's memories of Ciji]," and for me, it crosses a line. I don't mind when Abby uses Gary's money to set up her own company, one devoted to projects about which she feels passionate. But hiring a Ciji lookalike specifically to keep her husband so occupied that he won't notice her duplicitous business dealings -- and what's more, to ultimately use against him (as a sign of his impaired judgment) should she get caught -- is calculated and premeditated in a different kind of way. It's playing dirty, and feels more like J.R. than Abby Ewing. (I don't like that sort of manipulation any better in Season 10, when she plants cocaine at Lotus Point in order to buy out her partners, once she's discovered oil there.) Abby's enthusiasm for her business enterprises is contagious; you wish you had her drive, her smarts and her confidence. But playing mind games with your fiancé to keep him distracted -- and possibly use against him in court -- feels evil, not wicked. It runs counter to Abby's insistence, later in the season, that she never thought of her actions as hurting people. And it certainly betrays the notion that she loves Gary.
And all that said, the writers and Donna Mills so redeem Abby by season's end -- asserting more than ever her resilience and her love for Gary -- that the story-line doesn't do her any lasting damage. But still, it plays awkwardly. When Cathy complains about Diana's attitude and wants her kicked off the ranch, and Abby asserts, "I need Diana as a witness," you cringe. Suddenly everyone's a prop to her, including the niece she purports to love so much. And she's arming herself with an alibi (in case she's caught) that involves demeaning Gary in public -- but the Abby you love wouldn't expect to get caught: she doesn't see herself doing anything all that awful. "You go back to the ranch," she advises Cathy, "and you be a better Ciji than Ciji ever was." It's clever, but I'm not sure it's wise. (And I never buy that what ultimately trips up Abby is not accounting for Cathy's early appearance on the Gary Ewing Enterprises payroll, when Gary does his audit. It seems meant to be ironic -- that Abby is so busy looking at the big picture, the millions spent on Lotus Point, that she forgets about the mere thousands spent on Cathy -- but this is a pretty significant detail for her and Jim to overlook, even after the audit, when Gary comes to Abby asking her to look into Cathy's past.)
But although the episode where the Abby-Cathy connection comes into focus has its ups and downs, it's a Gollance script, and perhaps the first one where you feel his signature style emerge: it's filled with stunning exchanges. Light ones, as when Lilimae reads Val's new manuscript, Nashville Junction, dedicated to her, and tells her it's the first time anyone's written anything for her since she worked for Alfonso the Great. (It's the first mention of Alfonso, whom Gollance will resuscitate at a crucial moment in Season 6. She even recalls the song he composed for her: "There never was a girl like Lili, Lili with the bright gold hair.") Heartbreaking ones, as when Val heads over to Karen's, to have a heart-to-heart about her pregnancy, but Karen, ice-cold, interrupts: "Have you met Jane Sumner? She's very nice." Her face is blank, and Val sees it, and it stuns her. (It stuns us too.) Gollance recalls, "There were certain story conventions. Almost every episode had a Val and Karen 'friendship scene,' which was basically the two of them talking." But here, their friendship scene doesn't even get off the ground, because Karen is just not there. Val launches instead into an impassioned speech about what it was like watching Gary when he was drinking, and how it breaks her heart to watch Karen going through the same thing with pills, knowing there's nothing she can do but stand by and tell her she loves her. And all Karen can respond is, "Please leave me alone" -- in a voice that's low and empty.
And finally, a powerful scene where Mack has his own turn trying to get through to Karen. Through the first dozen episodes, Kevin Dobson has been doing exemplary work (in what will become, as with Mills and Harris, his strongest season), as Mack sees Karen pushing him away, and has no idea if he's supposed to push back. With no experience to draw from, he doesn't understand if these are the concessions you're expected to make once you're married -- or if, in fact, there's something wrong: with her, or with them. So when he sees the woman he loves start to vanish before his eyes, he reaches out to her in the only way he knows how. He opens up about his own parents' marriage; they were together 48 years and hated each other's guts, but they stuck it out: "If they can do it when they hated each other, it should be easy for us. It's easy to love someone when everything is going smoothly. It's the rough times when you realize how much you love someone -- the times when you want to run away and you don't, because that's the person that you really want to be with, no matter what. You come back to me. Come back to me, Karen." He grabs onto her and holds her, and she holds onto him and sobs, filled with shame and gratitude and despair. And yet, as moved as you are, you see what a sad waste it is: Mack has no more idea how to handle Karen's pill problem than he did her obsession with Diana. His understanding of addiction is as limited as his understanding of married life -- and at that moment, it's clear that as much as they both want to see her recover, neither has a clue how to make it happen.
After three slightly uneven episodes, the season climbs back on track triumphantly in the final three scenes of episode 14, and it never derails again. Mack holds a closed press conference, announcing that incriminating evidence against The Wolfbridge Group is being sent to the district attorney. And in the next scene, Mark St. Claire shows up at Abby's office and announces that The Wolfbridge Group will be partnering with her on the Lotus Point development: "We have a wide range of services to offer. We can finance your project through one of our banks. We can build it. We can insure it. We can even help promote it. And we certainly can iron out any little snags you might have -- for example, the Marcuses." (And if Abby doesn't acquiesce, St. Claire threatens to kill the variance he obtained for her.) It's a confluence of story-lines that takes your breath away: Wolfbridge and Apolune become one. The show would make many efforts to duplicate that sort of feat, where two seemingly unrelated plots converge -- Peter and Jill in Season 7 is one of the better examples, Danny and Amanda in Season 11 easily the worst -- but none would ever have the impact of The Wolfbridge Group moving in on Abby's dream project. You never see it coming. (Notably, the moment The Wolfbridge Group moves in, Mary Frances moves out. She's not needed anymore; the show has its hands full.)
And then in the following scene, the episode's cliffhanger, Mack finds Karen passed out in the bathtub. Everything is timed exquisitely in Season 5; no season ever read its audience quite so well. The minute you start to fear the Chip story is going on too long, he's impaled on a pitchfork. The minute you fear that Mack's investigation of Wolfbridge may be eating up too much airtime, especially for a story unconnected to anything else, Mark St. Claire shows up at Abby's office. And the minute you fear that Karen's addiction storyline might overstay its welcome, she overdoses and collapses in the tub.
Joyce Keener writes Karen's first episode in the chemical dependency unit -- it's her first script (she'll soon be hired on as story editor), and there are marvelous moments. But it's the follow-up, Gollance's "Reconcilable Differences," that's the stunner. In a clever twist, the Wolfbridge Group has used the variance that they got for Abby to incriminate Mack, alleging that it was obtained for him (because Karen remains a co-owner in the property that Abby's uncle left them), and Greg has used that information to discredit Mack and take him off the Crime Commission. (This is one of the moments the writers knew early on that the season would build to: Mack would need information from Karen in order to clear himself, but she'd be in the midst of rehab.) With a fresh spotlight on the activities at Lotus Point, the mood at Gary Ewing Enterprises is tense. The news about a variance obtained for a property that Abby co-owns convinces Gary to conduct an audit, which he announces in the season's funniest line: "I think it's time that Abby became aware of the fact that I know what's going on." Micromanaging everything, Abby's first order of business is to make sure Laura doesn't go to pieces; if she can't take the heat, she can have out. Laura insists, "I don't want out. I just want to be careful" -- but when word comes that the Marcuses' home has burned down, even Abby is stunned and frightened.
But the bulk of "Reconcilable Differences" is taken to getting Karen through rehab, and it's just as brutal as it must be to be believable. As Karen braves her first night without any drugs to alleviate the symptoms of withdrawal, she howls Diana's name as she hallucinates: "Where is my daughter? Where are you keeping her? Where's my husband? What have you done with him?" Gollance reaches back through the seasons. Karen cries out how "the parts were stolen," as if she can't separate the death of her first husband from the danger her second husband is in, and insists, "I figured it out," as if in her delirium, she's having a moment of clarity about the variance. But when Gary turns up the next day to talk addict to addict, Karen's defenses go back up: "I haven't been feeling well. I'm here for a checkup." And when he opens up about his own issues with alcohol, and offers empathy, she goes off on him, screaming, "How dare you talk to me like this? I'm not like you -- you're a drunk. Get out of here!" Mack has characterized Karen as one raw nerve, but it's more than that. Past and present are converging. She goes after Gary the same way she did in Season 3 when she discovered him in Sid's office, and started battering him with her fists. She's reprocessing years of rage.
And meanwhile, across town, Greg is putting the moves on Laura, with the same rose between the teeth and come-on line ("Bonsoir, baby") that he used on Abby. That relationship is no longer uncomplicated. He needs a simpler distraction.
Karen's second night without medication is worse than the first; Gollance refuses to minimize the extent of her suffering, both physical and mental. (He recalls that he brought in a technical advisor to assist with these episodes, to make sure they were portraying the process properly.) She begs for a drug to alleviate the agony, to let her sleep. But when Mack holds her tight, and the nurse advises him it's past visiting hours, Karen finds the strength to let him go: "It's OK. I'm OK. Maybe you should leave." Karen may have turned the corner.
And meanwhile, across town, Abby calls Laura, to let her know the audit went smoothly. We see the conversation from Laura's point of view, then we pull back to see her in bed with Sumner. She gives him the good news: "It seems that Gary Ewing Enterprises got the seal of approval. Did I?"
And back to Karen. As with so many of the story-lines in Season 5, just when you fear that Karen's hospital stay is going to drag on, she's in group, and finally able to move past the denial stage. But she's far from cured. On any other nighttime soap, the end of Karen's time at rehab would have marked the end of the story-line; it would have been tied up with a neat bow: Diana was a pill, so Karen took pills. What's impressive about Karen's addiction story-line is that it doesn't disavow Mack of responsibility for what happened to her. Her addiction not only impacted their marriage, it evolved out of their marriage -- in particular, his willful insistence that she forget about Diana. But he can't accept that. Leaving their first joint therapy session, he's annoyed and defensive; it felt like the shrink and Karen were ganging up on him. "Peter's opinion was that therapy sessions are boring," Gollance recalls, "so to get away from a therapy session, which is kind of static, let's put it in the hallway -- that's his idea -- and they'll say all the things they should have said earlier." And so, in the hallway of the rehab facility, they have it out, as Karen defends what went down:
Karen: We were talking about you, about us. We didn't have any answers.
Mack: Certainly seemed that way.
Karen: Well, why didn't you say so?
Mack: Because I already told you how I felt about you and Diana a long time ago. You didn't listen then, why should I waste my breath now?
Karen: Because I've got to figure out what to do about it. Telling me to forget it is not the answer.
Mack: Yeah, well, it's the only answer.
Karen: That's what got me here in the first place.
He looks at her long and hard, then suppresses his anger:
Mack: I got you here?
Karen: Trying to ignore the problem did. Going to you and getting nothing did.
Mack: Getting nothing? Ever since day one, this marriage has been nothing but problems. You've been nothing but problems.
Karen: You're not the only one in this marriage.
Mack: I wanted a home, I wanted a family.
Karen: You've got a family.
Mack: Our own family. I'm living with someone else's family. I'm a visitor in that house.
Karen: You're the one who keeps pushing me away. You ignore everything that doesn't have to do with you.
Mack: Yeah, well, I've got my own problems.
Karen: Bring them to me.
Mack: You don't listen.
Karen: You don't tell me anything. This is supposed to be a marriage. You keep blaming me because you don't know how to have a marriage.
Mack: I'm trying everything I can to keep this together. My life's falling apart out there, and I'm here with you.
Karen: Do you love me?
Mack: I'm here with you. Helping you through this crap.
Karen: Mack. Tell me.
There's a long silence before he responds, "Ask your shrink." And he walks away.
"Peter said that episode was the first time he really cared about Mack and Karen," Gollance recalls. "It was the first time he was genuinely rooting for them. And it's because they were struggling together." In the 1980's, Soap Opera Digest gave out annual awards, and Mack and Karen kept winning for "Best Super Couple." In retrospect, it's easy to remember them as "the stable couple" who kept it together when all other relationships were failing. But Dunne and Gollance understand that where Karen and Mack are concerned, there are differences that cut to the core of their characters, differences in temperament and approach that can't be easily overlooked or erased. In later years, in order to create tension in the MacKenzie marriage, showrunners Lechowick and Latham would resort to the easy solution: infidelity. Mack is tempted in Season 8, Karen in Season 9, Mack in Season 10. But Karen and Mack didn't need a third party to create conflict: the conflict is built into their personalities. Tellingly, the next time the show is blessed with a creative team so devoted to developing story-lines through character, in Season 14, Mack and Karen suffer the same lack of communication, and have it out in a conversation reminiscent of this one.
"Reconcilable Differences" is a tough hour to sit through; it's tough to sit through because it cuts so deep -- deeper than just about any other Knots episode. While Mack and Karen are hitting new lows of recrimination, Ben and Val are trying to make sense out of why their relationship failed. Ben may be a newcomer to the series, but the writers make it easy to empathize with him -- after all, here are two of the clearest messages he's gotten from Valene: "Gary and I started seeing each other again, and I didn't tell you." And "It's Gary's baby" -- or, as it's better known, "Gary and I slept together, and I didn't tell you." Since she seems to have no trouble withholding information, he wonders why she bothered to tell him it was Gary's baby in the first place -- and clinging to the belief that there's nobility in honesty, she insists, "Because I had to. Would it have been better if I hadn't?" And perhaps it might have. A part of Ben wishes he'd been able to remain happily ignorant.
But three big questions remain:
Ben: Does Gary know?
Ben: Why haven't you told him?
Val: I don't know, I just can't.
Ben: Because you still love him, don't you?
Val: No. Not like that, not anymore.
Ben: You're just carrying his baby. You have a separate set of lives for each of us. Sometimes I wonder if you even know the difference anymore.
It would be a nasty takedown, if it weren't so damn accurate. Val has done exactly what she did in the second half of Season 4: letting her feelings for Gary cloud her judgment. Just the possibility of a reconciliation prompted her to back-burner the best thing that's happened to her in years. And now, when she's pregnant and Gary is so clearly unavailable, she's still unwilling to determine or commit to her next step. Season 5 refuses to gloss over its characters' failings, to let them off the hook for their mistakes. We see them for who they are: all of their admirable qualities and all of their flaws. And we appreciate them for being so human.
Ultimately, Karen walks on in a phone conversation between Mack and his dad, in which his father is being judgmental and accusatory, and seeing Mack break down in tears, she kisses him and starts to cry as well -- and the two can begin to heal. And Ben, having taken an assignment in El Salvador, walks Val home from the MacKenzies, and they talk frankly. She admits, "I'll miss you." and he confesses, "I miss you already." And although they start to veer into unresolvable territory ("Don't go." "Don't be pregnant"), Val is ready to say what she should have said weeks ago: that she'd take it all back if she could, but she can't, and Ben is the man she wants. As they start to move towards a reconciliation, Val leans in to him, much the same way she leaned into Gary on that fateful night he brought Lilimae home. And we really do believe that she's made her choice; Ben is the one who will make her happy. She's not trying to relive the past anymore; she can move on.
Hold on tight, because things are going to start moving very fast, very soon. The season is advancing boldly and swiftly again, not merely duplicating but surpassing the success of the first eleven episodes. What's remarkable is that the final spate of episodes were pretty much written on the fly. When I spoke with Gollance about how assured the season seems, how confident it comes off in its conception of where it wants to take the characters, and how, he admitted, "The season looks like that now, but we had basically gone through all the material from the bible halfway through the season. From there, we were making it up as we went along, and it was pretty scary. And people will say what you've said -- I've heard it before, that people see it as this very cohesive season. But the fact that it looks so cohesive now is a miracle, because as we neared the end of the season, we were flying by the seat of our pants. It was all on a week by week basis, and we kept thinking, 'At some point, this is gonna fall apart.' And the amazing thing is that it never did."
Despite the insanity of the process late in the season, you never feel any sense of aimlessness; the tone seems as assured as it did in those first eleven episodes, and if anything, the new episodes are even more exhilarating, perhaps because the creative team is running on pure adrenaline. Mack, whose home and office have been ransacked, who's been beaten up by Wolfbridge thugs, knows he has to get to the bottom of the Apolune variance, and sets a trap. He has Eric leave a large orange tube at the service that handles mail for Apolune, and waits outside to see who picks it up -- and, of course, it's Laura. It's another stunning moment, and it feels like the season is about to split wide open. But consider where we are in the season: there are eight episodes to go. In any other season, Laura picking up that tube would've been the penultimate cliffhanger: the wind-up to the finale. And in fact, in a way it is -- Season 5 has an eight-episode finale.
Because from here, as all hell breaks loose, the writers manage to sustain a level of tension like nothing the show has ever seen (or will see again) -- and with one acting showcase after another. First, the rare Laura-centric episode, when Mack follows her (and that orange tube) to Sumner's hotel suite, and the omniscient Mark St. Claire -- sensing she might crack under pressure -- calls her to advise she cut all ties to Mack. Laura spends the entire episode looking over her shoulder, fearing for her children's safety, and realizing that she's gotten in way over her head. (You liked her for trying to be more ruthless, and you love her for recognizing that that's not who she is.) Out of panic, she does exactly what she's been warned not to do and comes clean to Mack and Karen: "I didn't know who those people were -- honest to God, Mack. I don't even think she meant it to go this far." "Who?" "Abby. Apolune is Abby's company." Cliffhanger!
And then in the next episode, Knots moves into hyper-drive, dramatically and structurally. For a dozen episodes now, the show has dabbled in a sort of shorthand, where a character admits to a discovery, but we're not shown how or when they made it -- or information is passed from character to character, but we're not witness to the entire chain of conversation. We're left to intuit what's missing -- but because the characters are linked in so many ways, and seem to have such vivid lives beyond what we see on the screen, we're able to make those connections easily. We don't see how Laura learns about Apolune, but she does. (She's been interrogating Jim Westmont so cannily, you figure at some point he let it slip.) We don't find out how Ben learns about Lotus Point, or Abby's connection to it, but the next thing we know he's grilling Laura. (He's an aggressive journalist; it's not unreasonable that he arrives at the truth before the others do.) And late in the season, Gary asks Karen if Mack would run a background check on Cathy, to find out why she was in prison, and she says she doesn't know if it's a good time -- and soon after, Gary receives a call from the P.I. that Mack reached out to. The writers let us fill in the blanks; they engage us in the story-telling, and we're grateful for being permitted to participate. (Gollance: "I grew to really respect the audience over the time I did the show, that they really pay attention. I learned how little I had to write; if I said it once, they got it.")
Now, in "So Shall You Reap," that practice is expanded to glorious effect, quickening the pace, tightening the noose ever more rapidly around Abby's neck. Mack confronts Abby about her relationship with Mark St. Claire -- and shortly after, Gary (newly enlightened) turns up at Laura's, to interrogate her. (We don't see the interim step where Mack fills in Gary -- what would be the point of merely repeating the conversation?) It's clear that Gary has learned from Mack that Abby owns Lotus Point; what he doesn't yet know is that she financed it through a corporation called Apolune, which siphoned money from Gary Ewing Enterprises. It falls to Laura to apprise him. ("I let [Abby] bribe me in exchange for my silence," Laura confesses. That's not quite how it happened, but good cover, Laura.) And meanwhile, Sumner, aware that Abby's empire is about to crumble, is busy doing his own damage control; he shows up at the MacKenzies' to announce that he's only just learned that it's Abby who requested the variance, not Mack -- and that Mack is cleared of all wrong-doing. (How did he learn that Laura spilled the beans to Mack? We're not told -- nor do we need to be. There are any number of ways he could have found out; we accept it and move on, breathlessly.)
And finally, the showdown to end all showdowns, as the camera hones in on Gary brooding in the sitting area off the bedroom, waiting to confront Abby when she comes home from the office. When she arrives, he inquires if anything interesting happened at work, and -- suspecting he's suspicious, but unwilling to give away her hand until she absolutely has to -- she invents some fast-food chain she's thinking of purchasing. And he wonders aloud: "Is that the kind of thing Gary Ewing Enterprises is interested in? Or is that more the sort of thing Apolune would buy?" She snaps to attention, instantly strategizing -- she deflects, she plays dumb, she goes on the offensive -- but Gary sees through it all: "You're so damned good, it's terrifying. I've never seen anybody lie as well as you do." Finally, she's left trying to paint Mack as an unreliable source, but Gary has had too many conversations -- both on- and off-screen -- to be swayed. The more she resists confessing, the angrier he gets. Finally he pushes her down on the bed, grabs a suitcase from the closet and throws it at her: "Take everything that might ever remind me of you and get out! I don't ever want to see you again, I don't ever want to think about you again, and I don't ever want to remember that I loved you."
And here's why we adore Abby -- because her first words to Jim Westmont in the following scene (when he announces that Gary has frozen his assets) are "I'm not havin' a good day." Abby doesn't go to pieces. Abby minimizes the damage. And Abby stays focused on the prize. "Cheer up," Jim advises her: "It's not as if you're going to be poor. Half of Gary's money is a fortune." "All of Gary's money is a fortune," she counters. "Half of it is half a fortune." But fate has two more cruel blows in store for Abby, first when she makes her way to Sumner's hotel room, rose in her teeth ("Bonjour, baby"), only to discover Laura in his bed. And then when Olivia announces she wants to stay at the ranch, and Abby -- loving her daughter too much to force her to leave -- is left to make that long, long drive off the ranch alone. Our next cliffhanger.
From that moment, the writers work overtime to show Abby hurting -- and Donna Mills makes the transition seamlessly. They'd already started to do damage control a few episodes earlier, when Diana was dressing for her first day at Gary Ewing Enterprises and mentioned in passing how badly Mack had been beaten up. And you read the horror on Abby's face very clearly: this is not how I do business. This is not who I am. From the minute the Marcuses' house burns down, you see Abby regretting her actions, and how her eagerness to break ground allowed herself to become easy prey for white-collar criminals -- and that makes a huge difference in terms of how your sympathies fall once she's caught. When she returns to the ranch to pack up a few things, Gary tosses a photo of the two of them into her suitcase, and as she stares at it, we see that, for her, it's not just about the money and the power -- it's about Gary: how much she loves him, how much she had invested in that relationship. (And ultimately, how much she's willing to do for Gary, even to the point of risking her own life.) Everything works to engender your sympathy for Abby in the final spate of episodes: Gary sealing off the office while she watches helplessly from her living arrangements above; her being served divorce papers in front of Laura. She even has to suffer the indignity of having to plead for Gary's forgiveness in front of Valene: "Cathy's at the ranch. You forgave Laura. Did they treat you any better? Why me? Why am I the only one you won't forgive?" "You're my wife!" (Ultimately Gary and Abby's second blow-up, the next cliffhanger, becomes a character beat for Ben, who sees in Valene's eyes how badly she's hurting for Gary. The drama has never been headier, the action never more propulsive, but it's all character beats.)
And the more dramatic set pieces aren't merely interspersed with gentler moments; they're interspersed with poetry. With Abby run off the ranch, Gary comes upon Olivia, sitting pensively by the pond, looking at her three ducks, realizing she can't tell them apart now that they're older. And they take the time to go through each of them, and how she can remember which is which, starting with Lillian and her perfect posture.
Olivia: If Lillian's the one with the perfect posture, which one's Margaret?
Gary: Margaret's the one with the perfect eyes.
Olivia: And Harriet's the one that bumps into everything.
Gary: Right. We were thinking about getting her a pair of glasses -- contacts, I think.
Olivia: Rose colored, you said.
Gary: Yeah -- maybe that's what we need.
(Amusingly, Gollance recalls: "Peter had a thing about ducks -- and in every episode, there was some visual duck. It might be a duck in a painting. It might be ducks in the background of an exterior scene at the ranch. It could be a decoy. Every episode, there was a duck -- that was sort of his signature. I used to love that in the end credits, one of the credits was for Duck Wrangler." When I mentioned this scene to Gollance, he responded, "I bet it was written by Peter." The episode is credited to Daniel Lipman and Ron Cowen, but as with all Knots episodes -- as in most of the TV industry -- freelance scripts were typically heavily revised by the writing staff. "It sounds like something Peter would write. Peter could be very poetic, much more than I was. That was a real strength of his.")
It's a lovely scene between Olivia and Gary, and you feel for them both -- but just as the show is careful at this point not to demonize Abby, it's equally careful not to indemnify Gary. Mack comes out to the ranch, determined to use Apolune to get to Wolfbridge, and asking for Gary's aid. And Gary brushes him off, whining instead about all the people who've betrayed him. Mack sees right through him, and realizes Gary needs to play the victim card at this point, because otherwise he'd have to take some personal responsibility for what's happened to him. But it's much easier to hide out at the ranch and bury his head in the sand. (Karen, earlier in the season: "He always feels guilty, but it's never his fault.")
In Seasons 1 and 4, Gary avoided facing his problems by getting drunk. But women have often served their purpose as well -- and now he finds distraction in Cathy. And the writers make their only crucial mistake in the final third of the season. It would be one thing if Gary simply bedded Cathy to blot out the pain of Abby's betrayal. But the writers posture that what Gary finds in Cathy is true love. She moans that he was in love in Ciji, that he's trying to turn her into a dead girl, and he explodes with passion, "Ciji is dead, and if you weren't so damn stupid, you'd know it was you all along. You!" Really? Was it? Abby and Sumner had only had a couple of encounters before they hit the sheets, but you never questioned the pairing, because the sexual tension was palpable; but after a dozen episodes of Gary and Cathy together onscreen, when he declares his desire and acts on it, it doesn't ring true. What happened to him just wanting to "help somebody"? -- when did these new feelings arise: feelings so overpowering, apparently, that he's content to overlook the fact that Cathy had been conning him for months? Later, Cathy, who's equally smitten, seeks advice from Laura, who's candid about her chances: "For as long as I've known Gary, he has never been alone. You know, he went from Val to Abby without skipping a beat." Basically, it all comes down to this: "With Abby, it was excitement; with Val, security. What do you have to offer him?" And Cathy suggests, "Maybe I can give him both."
It's oddly misjudged, in a season that hasn't misjudged anything. Cathy -- like Lisa Hartman -- has been very appealing all season, but nothing about her character suggests either excitement or security. But the writers seem to believe that any interest we had in seeing Gary and Ciji coupled in Season 4 will automatically translate into a desire to see Gary and Cathy hook up in Season 5, even though Hartman's playing a new character with a fresh backstory, under entirely different circumstances. So they don't really work on the pairing the way you feel they might have. And they're undone by one further issue they couldn't have foreseen: inexplicably, Shackelford and Hartman, who had such rapport in Season 4, have no romantic spark in Season 5. It's odd. Same actors, same show, but the chemistry doesn't reemerge. (Hartman's shorter haircut doesn't help. Every time we cut to Gary and Cathy in bed, it looks like Gary's taken up with a blond stableboy.) So the writers are stuck having to posture that he's found a soulmate, then -- when they see how unlikely that's seeming -- undoing the damage instantly at the top of Season 6.
That said, Gary's infatuation with Cathy pays off in other ways. As always, Gary's obsessions consume him, and he gets so caught up with Cathy that he pays no attention to Olivia, who manages to run away under his watch. (Again, Gary is no mere victim here.) And there's a great scene when Olivia catches the two of them together and jumps to the wrong conclusion -- that Cathy is responsible for Gary and her mother's breakup -- even though, given Gary's obsessive behavior, it's sort of the right conclusion. "I know what you want, and you're never gonna get it," Olivia screams at Cathy. "Gary's never gonna marry you." (Boy, is she right about that one. Gary will pretty much forget you ever existed in another four episodes.)
And with Olivia returned to her mother, we get an exchange that manages to be both eloquent and irreverent, in which Abby tries to explain the breakup of her marriage, cloaking it in the tenets of feminism:
Abby: Let me try to explain something to you, all right? Listen to this, because it's important. If a man were conducting his business the way I've been conducting mine, he'd be admired for his aggressiveness, but if a woman does it, she's considered a shrew.
Olivia: I don't understand that.
Abby: I don't either. But it's so. But I've never let it hold me back, and I really hope when the time comes, you won't let it hold you back either, because a career is just as important for a woman as it is for a man.
Olivia: I won't hurt people to have a career.
Abby: Look, I may have pushed a little too hard, but I didn't hurt anyone.
Of course, what Abby has done -- secretly funneling money from her husband's corporation to fund her own interests, and hiring a woman to distract him -- hardly falls under the category of "double standards in the workplace." But that said, she's not wrong about what it's like to be a powerful woman in the public eye. Abby believes it's important to break down barriers, and her determination is empowering -- as is her adaptability. Abby learns from her mistakes, and sizes up the opposition expertly. As the final third of the season progresses, she no longer cowers from Wolfbridge; she goes one-on-one with Mark St. Claire over and over, and doesn't give an inch or bat an eyelash. Unless batting an eyelash works in her favor.
The Gary-Abby breakup fuses with Mack's (now covert) quest to take down Wolfbridge, and it ultimately embraces Cathy's story-line as well, when Ray, her ex, comes to town, determined to reunite with his wife. Running counter to all this -- invaluable to the story-telling, as it gives us sweetness and sanity -- is the evolving relationship between Ben and Val. It's a profusion of wonderful scenes. Ben's proposal over lunch at Val's, because she's made "the best bacon and avocado sandwich I have ever eaten." The engagement ring hidden in a shoebox. The two of them lying in front of a fire, face-to-face, discussing how they fit into each other's lives. Lilimae offering Ben some advice about wanderlust: "This is the best part [of my life]. I mean, that other stuff is great for books. But after the adventures and strangers met and experiences had are over, well, there's nothing really to hold onto. Well, nothing tangible anyway. I don't regret it -- well, not all of it. But at some point, you have to be able to look someone in the eye and know that they know you." And when Val has an early-pregnancy scare, and admits, "I want this baby so very much -- I never thought of the possibility of losing it," Ben's there to reassure her, having embraced the idea of being a father: "You won't, you're not gonna lose it. You and the kid are gonna be great. The kid'll run so fast, we're gonna have trouble keeping up with it. Probably be a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, or a Nobel Prize-winning physicist, or a running back for the Green Bay Packers. Whatever she wants to be."
Val laughs. We laugh. Ben's calm demeanor and sense of humor are invaluable to the season; while everyone else is falling apart in the final third, he retains his composure. He keeps Val -- and the series -- grounded.
Until he's gone. Ben takes off for Central America, and within a half-episode, his jeep is hit, and he goes missing. The dazzling cliffhangers just keep coming; how will the writers top that one? Well, how about if, for the next one, Gary's murdered?
It's hard to convey the impact that Gary's "death" had in 1984. (Ted Shackelford reported that, the morning after the episode aired, he started getting job offers. Gollance recalls, "We got hate mail.") It's difficult to describe to younger fans how unjaded the viewing experience was back then; with no internet chatrooms to compare notes, and discuss possible scenarios and outcomes, and dissect and disbelieve every piece of information that was placed in front of us, we took a lot more at face value in those days. (And before I forget to mention it, recognize how the episode 22 cliffhanger -- Mack's phone call to Karen: "It's Gary. He's been murdered" -- is presented as a character beat for Valene, who's speeding her way to the ranch, looking for comfort in the wake of Ben's disappearance. Yes, Gary is dead, but more important, how will Val take it?) The "Gary murdered" scenario was David Jacobs' idea, and it's genius. The writers needed one more "big event" to get them through the final four episodes; what better ploy than to kill off a core character -- or rather, to pretend to kill off a core character. You get all the payoffs without actually having to kill him -- plus you get yet another stunning cliffhanger, when he's revealed to be alive.
Dunne writes the funeral episode, and Jacobs directs, and it's the most glorious showcase Donna Mills ever received on the series. She's been particularly brilliant in the final moments of the previous episode, once Abby has realized the steps Wolfbridge will go to to get Gary out of the way (with the company assets frozen, the Lotus Point construction has ground to a halt); with palpable terror, she begins phoning anyone who might listen: first St. Claire, then Sumner, then Gary. Now, in Dunne's brutally good "Finishing Touches," with Wolfbridge presumably having murdered Gary, she bursts into Sumner's hotel room, as Laura looks on:
Abby: You bastard!
Greg: I'm sorry about Gary.
Abby: You're sorry! (She starts pounding his chest.) You said you'd take care of things, didn't you? Is this the way you do it? Is this the way you and Wolfbridge take care of things? It was St. Claire, wasn't it? It was you and St. Claire.
Greg: You don't know what you're talking about. You're making dangerous accusations -- serious accusations. You're calling people murderers.
Abby (composing herself): I'm calling us murderers.
In "Finishing Touches," Abby is everywhere and all things. When her daughter Olivia, rowing on the pond, becomes distraught ("Why, Gary, why?") and falls overboard, Abby wastes no time jumping into the water to rescue her. Back on dry land, she gently advises Diana on decorum during difficult times -- then ignores her own advice during a visit from Val, who comes to offer condolences. Val extends an olive branch, "for Gary's sake." She says she's aware how much he loved Abby, and how much Abby loved him: "I know how much pain you're in right now. I share that with you." But Abby rejects her offer of civility. She's too consumed with guilt to respond respectfully: "I won't let you share my pain. You have no right to share my pain. Gary's dead. And I'm his widow, not you. Me. You are nothing to him. Absolutely nothing."
Having unloaded on Val, she summons up enough restraint for a brief truce with Karen:
Abby: Diana has been a big help.
Karen: She loves her Aunt Abby.
Abby: She loves her mother too.
Karen: I know. Abby, we're family. If I can help, I want to.
Abby: Thank you.
Finally, unleashed and undaunted, she demands an audience with Mark St. Claire, whom she pulls away from a dinner engagement. She insists he get rid of his goon, and when St. Claire declines, she calls his bluff. "Well, maybe you can still make dessert," she informs him, and slings her purse over her shoulder, prepared to walk -- and St. Claire dutifully dismisses his bodyguard. (He does, of course, because it's Abby. Men break all their own rules where Abby is concerned.) Her voice shaking, she launches into a defensive speech that turns into a threat: "Mr. St. Claire, I loved my husband. You may find that hard to believe. I've had my affairs, I've skimmed profits off the top. A lot of things. I did those things for me. I never did them to hurt him. Because I loved him. He counted in my life. So I'm not going to rest until I settle the score."
(How perfect is it that Abby's only declaration of love for Gary the entire season is to Mark St. Claire, the man who had him murdered.)
And mind you, although Abby cries herself to sleep, the next morning she reopens the offices, reinstates the architect's model for Lotus Point, runs her fingers across it to see how much dust has gathered in her absence -- and gets back to work. No one can compartmentalize like Abby Fairgate Cunningham Ewing.
As for Val, her reaction to Gary's death is not what we expect, but it's exactly what we want. She has a brief speech about how Gary will always be a part of her, but then she's right back to worrying about Ben and caring for his orchids. "I had something I would do for Joan especially," Gollance admits. "I would call them non-verbal arias. And it was a scene with her, usually alone, no dialogue. The one I remember the most is from the episode where she comes home after leaving Lilimae at the sanitarium. And she's in the house, and it's very quiet -- and in the script, it was about three lines of description. But between Joan and the director, it became this two-minute non-verbal aria that was fascinating -- and certainly kept your attention."
Van Ark has an equally powerful one later in the season when Ben goes missing; she silently wanders through his beach house -- memorizing everything, like Garbo in Queen Christina. A lacy shawl draped around her, she picks up a photograph of the two of them and strokes it. The day of Gary's funeral, as she's dressing, she's still staring at that photo, pleading, "Come back. Come back to me." Crucial to the success of Season 5 is this determination of Val's to break old habits, to move forward. Because Lechowick and Latham, in the later years (once Doug Sheehan had left the series), did four years of "will they, won't they" with Val and Gary, it's become difficult not to see them as the endgame, but it's important to recall that during the glory years -- Seasons 5 and 6, when the largest audiences were watching -- that's not what was written. Val and Ben were the endgame; Gary was the impediment to their happiness. (I asked Gollance point blank: when he was writing the show, did he see Gary and Val reuniting? "Oh God, no. We teased the audience with it, but there was no intention of bringing them back together.") And it's not coincidental that Val is never more radiant than she is in Season 5; Ben makes her feel the happiest she's been since she was 15, when she first met Gary: a time in their lives that, as adults -- as we would learn the following season -- they could never recapture.
The sturm und drang that consumes the core characters as Season 5 nears its conclusion is palpable and unsettling. The only ones seemingly having a good time are the writers, who pull out every stop to keep us off-balance. They're crafty; they ostensibly play fair with us, letting us know something about Gary's death doesn't add up. (Mack claims that Gary called, needing to see him, but that never happened. Cathy returns to the hotel where Ray had been staying, sees a mirror he shattered, and cries, "Oh, Ray." Why?) But every time the creative team permits us a moment of clarity, they throw another red herring in our path. Halfway through the episode, they reveal that Ben is still alive, which only reinforces the likelihood that Gary is dead -- they probably wouldn't have killed off two leading men, but one: why not? And ultimately they use Laura, one of the cul-de-sac's sharpest shooters, as an unreliable narrator. She's taken Cathy in, following Gary's death, and overhearing mysterious phone conversations, grows suspicious. When the police arrive to bring Cathy in for questioning, Laura heads straight to Sumner's, telling him all she's learned about Cathy's prison stint, and that Cathy's husband -- who had threatened Gary -- has gone missing. As if clearing Wolfbridge of blame will absolve herself of guilt, Laura becomes convinced that it was, in fact, Ray who killed Gary. (The possibility has already been floated earlier in the episode, when the coroner estimated the distance from which the shot was fired, and Detective Morrison argued that it was "too close for an pro.") It's a splendid stratagem: by making us wonder who killed Gary, we're less likely to consider that he's not really dead.
The writers stay one step ahead of us, yet we're never left with a feeling of having been cheated or manipulated. Ultimately, we learn that it was Ray that Wolfbridge murdered by mistake, and that Mack concocted a plan to flush out St. Claire by having it appear that Gary had died. But shortly after Gary is revealed to be alive, and being held at police headquarters, he's kidnapped from his cell. And again, we buy into it -- if anything, we can't imagine the writers would pull the same stunt twice. (But of course, that's exactly what they do, and they know full well that we won't believe they'd be so shameless. By the season finale, Gary's been "killed" so many times that ultimately, when one character announces to another, "Gary's alive," you have to stop and think if they're referencing the first time he was presumed dead, when he was murdered, or the second time, when he was abducted.) And from there, the rapid-fire story-telling is nothing short of inspired: Cathy informs Laura that Gary has been taken from his prison holding cell; offscreen, Laura tells Sumner; Sumner goes to St. Claire; offscreen, St. Claire calls Abby; and then Abby shows up at Karen's, looking for answers. Gollance notes that it was Dunne's idea to initiate this kind of shorthand, where key information is passed from party to party, but we see only half the conversations, and are left to intuit the rest. It propels the action ever faster, and draws us in that much closer.
The season finale, Gollance's "Negotiations," is easily one of the best -- and best-remembered -- Knots episodes. Every strategy that's worked so brilliantly through the course of the season -- the story-telling shorthand, the advancement of plot through character beats, the unifying of all the core characters into one story-line (it starts with Val being told to expect a message from Mark St. Claire) -- comes to a head. It's a string of resonant and remarkable scenes; as Gollance notes, "The cliffhanger was very character-based. It's plotty, but it's character-driven plot." Karen -- upon discovering that Mack is still investigating Wolfbridge, that he's lied to her and to their friends and put their lives in danger (he even risked Val's unborn twins, for which Ben has already slugged him) -- removes her wedding ring and instructs him to leave. ("Is that what you want?" he asks, throwing things off the kitchen counter: "You got it." And there's disgust in his voice. Stable couple, my ass.) Laura, meanwhile, is starting to fear how her involvement with Sumner has remolded her morality: "I don't even know the difference between right and wrong anymore. I would just settle for nobody getting hurt and being able to live with myself." She had called Greg to inform him that Gary wasn't really murdered -- now suddenly Gary has been grabbed from his holding cell. "What happened after I called? What did you do?" And when he feigns ignorance, she's not having it: Laura may have learned she doesn't have what it takes to be ruthless, but she's developed a new kind of strength over the last few months, and expects to be treated with dignity: "Don't lie to me." But although Sumner the politician hasn't changed since we met him, Sumner the man has. Laura has become important to him; he wants to assuage her fears and dispel her doubts -- even if it means saying more than the tight-lipped politician normally would. Knowing that he's about to expose and dissociate himself from Wolfbridge, he reassures her, "It's almost over."
As for Val, who's been informed by one of Wolfbridge's henchmen that Gary is still alive, she's fixating, trying to make sense of it all, and goes exactly where she shouldn't: to Ben. She's agonizing that somehow she can make things right; she's desperate and delusional, because unlike the end of Season 4, where there was something she could do, here there's nothing she can accomplish except reminding her fiancé of the depth of her devotion to another man. "What are you trying to prove, Valene?" Ben screams, "because the man is dead. What difference does it make who killed him? He's dead!" All the insecurities and disillusion and frustration that he's been masking all season come to the fore, and he finally loses it, smashing a wine glass against the wall. Ultimately, when the truth about Gary comes out (that Mack put him into hiding), Ben admits to Val that he was momentarily relieved when he thought Gary was dead, that a weight felt lifted off his shoulders; she insists that's no basis for a marriage, and hands over her engagement ring. (The Val-Ben breakup is gratuitous, but everyone is miserable by that point, so it has sort of a sadistic symmetry to it.) Throughout "Negotiations," even as the shadow of Wolfbridge looms large, the focus remains squarely on the core characters, and they are driven not by plot, but by their own passions, frailties and compulsions.
In the end, Mack and Abby becomes the unlikeliest of allies, when he offers her a way back to Gary, and she seizes it. At the end of the day, she loves him, and she's fearless. Gary's not convinced -- not by her visible relief in seeing him alive ("It's the speed that gets me. I mean, don't you ever trip up? Don't you ever have a second where you can't think of a lie?") nor by Mack's plan ("I agreed to be a moving target for you, but I did not agree to put the gun in her hands"). But Mack and Abby have no such qualms; he briefs her on his strategy to take down Wolfbridge, and Abby's apprehensive -- but when it comes to the execution, she's impressively cool. (While Karen and Val are wallowing in self-righteousness and self-pity, Abby is getting the job done.) But during her meeting with St. Claire, he spots the wire she's wearing, and takes her hostage. Knowing by now that Mack has Gary holed up at the Belmar Hotel, St. Claire hatches a plan to lure Gary out into the open, so they can take another shot at him. He makes a set of phone calls, and it falls to Abby to decipher it all for us: "Gary will be with Mack, and you can't kill Gary unless you get him by himself. Karen will run in and beg Mack not to get into his jeep because of the bomb. Gary'll see Val in the jeep, run out to save her, and then you can get a clear shot." And of course, that's precisely what happens, except Mack and the police spot the assassins. But when Mack tackles one of them, the shot goes awry and hits Karen instead.
And it's here -- at the moment when that stray bullet strikes Karen -- that we revert back to character beats. It's easy to remember the Season 5 cliffhanger as a whirlwind of Wolfbridge-driven activity, but it all comes down to these final moments. Gary grabs Val, and pulls her out of Mack's jeep -- but Abby manages to open the door of the limo in which she's being held captive and calls out to him, begging him to rescue her. And he doesn't give it a second thought -- she just risked her life to save his, and maybe, just maybe, he's more in love with her now than ever. He drops Val like a sobbing sack of potatoes, and rushes after her. Plus ça change: at the end of the day, Gary is pretty much the same man he was at the end of Season 3; he'd rather chase after Abby than sit still with Val. (A part of you thinks, "Oh Val, you poor fool. He was never going to pick you." And perhaps, if you study Valene's face hard enough, you see her own realization that she's blown it -- again.) And Mack, even as he's left holding Karen's limp body, declares the hollowest of victories: "We got 'em. Oh Karen, we got 'em." Mack's obsession with taking down Wolfbridge has so consumed him that he actually sees this outcome -- one that resulted in his wife being shot, perhaps fatally -- as a win.
Season 5 has been both the headiest and most upsetting of seasons, at once the most intoxicating and the most sobering. It's the one where plots piled sky-high in breathless construction still managed to seem deeply character-driven -- and driven by characters who never seemed too perfect: whose flaws at times were so blinding that it would be damned hard to like them, were they not so fascinating. After Season 3, which proved that David Jacobs' initial dream was possible -- that you could, in fact, transplant Scenes From a Marriage to Southern California, and come away with something powerful and persuasive -- Knots has taken a season to reinvent itself, and has emerged transformed: in tone, in content, in approach. And its ratings have soared. Not to be overlooked in a reexamination of Season 5 is that it was the highest-rated season of Knots: that as it was proceeding, viewing figures were rising, till they went through the roof. It became the talk of the trades. Audiences were embracing it, in a way that, sadly, they had never quite embraced Season 3.
There's a moral in there somewhere, and perhaps it can be found in episode 20, in which Greg explains to Laura his evolution as a politician. He takes her back to his last birthday: "For 12 years I've been a member of the state assembly. For 12 years I've stood for all the right things. And in 12 years, I've never gotten one bill passed." But on that birthday, he decided to become flexible, "and since I've become flexible, I've gotten six bills passed. And I am one step away from the United States Senate. I've gotten more idealistic work accomplished through my compromises than all the idealists could." Ultimately, Assemblyman Gregory Sumner, introduced four episodes into Season 5 and so good they never let him go, becomes a metaphor for Knots, and the realization that sometimes good intentions only take you so far, that idealism untempered by compromise can be self-defeating. And that, on the right occasions, you can accomplish wonderful things by being flexible.
Knots Landing Season 5 wasn't necessarily the Knots that David Jacobs wanted -- but it was the Knots that audiences adored. And crucially, even as they ratcheted up the drama, broadened the backdrop and upped the income bracket, Season 5's remarkable creative team -- Dunne, Gould, Gollance, Feigenbaum and Keener -- kept the characters front and center: adamant that, unlike all the other primetime soaps, Knots remained very much a character-driven series, and that those characters had a degree of complexity that no other show remotely approached, brought to life by a group of actors with ample skill to explore and bask in those complexities. Taking just over a year to fully transform Knots was a stroke of genius. The creative team didn't drive away any viewers who loved the series' middle-class roots; the transformation was so gradual that you didn't always notice the subtle ways in which the show had changed. What you were aware of is that by raising the stakes, the writers were able to peel back more layers of character, providing even more vibrant acting opportunities for the show's extraordinary ensemble. At the top of Season 4, Peter Dunne -- handed the reins of a show that had almost been cancelled -- was charged with goosing the ratings by making it more like Dallas. What's remarkable is that he accomplished it by making it more like Knots.
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 6, one of the series' best story-lines, and perhaps its greatest acting showcase; 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, then 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.