NEW YORK — Who killed J.R.?
That's the mystery propelling "Dallas" through the rest of its second season as a TNT revival.
And that question hangs heavy in the upcoming episode (airing at 9 p.m. Monday), which confirms the sad truth every viewer knew was coming: glorious scoundrel J.R. Ewing has died, after decades of living-on-the-edge infamy dating back at least to 1980, when he was gunned down in his office and left for dead, with "Who shot J.R.?" the question on every viewer's lips for months afterward.
J.R.'s fate was sealed this time by the intrusion of reality. In November, Larry Hagman died of cancer at 81. And when he died, he took J.R. with him.
So the new episode — surely the first without Hagman's deliciously vile presence — stands as a fitting tribute both to him and to J.R., complete with a wake and a funeral for the rascally oil baron. Even the oh-so-familiar theme music is rearranged from its quickstep tempo to a dirge. The message of this episode, titled "J.R.'s Masterpiece": J.R. is gone but not forgotten.
Last Monday's episode featured the last, brief appearances by a visibly frail Hagman. There were three isolated scenes with J.R., who for reasons unknown had gone missing from Dallas.
But the action mostly swirled among the other characters as they squabbled over Ewing Energies, which has pitted cousins John Ross (played by Josh Henderson) and Christopher (Jesse Metcalfe) in a battle for its control.
In his final scene, near the end of the hour, J.R. was glimpsed at an undisclosed location on the phone with John Ross.
"Don't you worry, son, I've got a plan," J.R. told him. "It's gonna be my masterpiece. Because you shouldn't have to pay for my sins."
"What do you mean?" asked John Ross, struck by J.R.'s rare show of tenderness.
"Just remember, I'm proud of you," said J.R., as John Ross' eyes moistened. "You're my son, from tip to tail."
But at that moment, John Ross heard gunshots. He screamed into the phone, "Dad! Dad!"
Who shot J.R.?
"I need to know who killed my father, and why!" snaps John Ross in the new episode.
Sue Ellen, his mother and J.R.'s long-suffering ex-wife (played by Linda Gray), hoists a Dallas directory and reminds him, "Half the people in this phone book wanted to."
Yes, J.R. had legions of enemies with scores to settle. But who among them did the deed? And why did J.R.'s time run out, in all places, in a room at a Mexican flophouse?
His memorial takes place at the Dallas Petroleum Club, where high-powered mourners flock to bid him farewell.
Here are real-life local swells including Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones and Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban.
Here are "Dallas" characters from way back including former wild child Lucy (Charlene Tilton), J.R.'s niece; Ray Krebbs (Steve Kanaly), the illegitimate son of J.R.'s father; and Gary (Ted Shackelford), the "black sheep" brother who left Dallas for a long life on series spinoff "Knots Landing."
But the embittered John Ross isn't buying that any of the gathered have a kind thought for his father: "Half these people are here to make sure he's dead. The other half are here for the free drinks."
Then decorum is shattered by Cliff Barnes, the Ewings' archenemy (played by Ken Kercheval), who storms into the room and tells J.R.'s brother Bobby, "Since you lost your junkyard dog, there's nothing to keep me from taking your family down."
Is it any wonder a brawl erupts?
The next day, J.R. is mourned at a private graveside service.
Several of the principals speak, and, hearing them, it would be hard for any "Dallas" devotee not to grieve the loss of Larry Hagman, nor to wonder if some of the actors' sorrowful display comes from genuinely missing their fallen cast mate.
Among them is Sue Ellen, who tearfully reveals a letter she has just received from J.R. that begs her for a second chance: "When I get back to Dallas, will you have dinner with me?"
It also turns out J.R. left behind another letter, this one addressed to Bobby (Patrick Duffy).
But what that letter reveals, Bobby isn't saying — not to his family nor, God forbid, the audience.
"I knew you'd have at least one more (trick) left up your sleeve, J.R.," Bobby murmurs later, alone, as he knocks back bourbons poured from J.R.'s own decanter. "And it's a good one."
The task for "Dallas" to outlive J.R. Ewing is huge. Rest in peace, Larry Hagman. But there better be no peace on this show in J.R.'s absence if it hopes to survive its magnificent villain.