Episode Title: Message in a Bottle
Season 06, Episode 10
Episode 110 of 344
Written by Joel J. Feigenbaum
Directed by Nick Havinga
Original Airdate: Thursday, December 13th, 1984
The Plot (Courtesy of TV.Com): Abby continues to search for Easton. Abby goes to see Dr. Ackerman to ask where the babies are. Ackerman tells her she is sick. She tells him that Easton is dead. Cathy and Joshua make love again. Gary has lunch with Paul Galveston. He and Galveston hit it off and Galveston gives Gary his prize horse. Tom Jessick tells Mack that Gary Loader was a policeman who was framed because he knew too much about the "Tidal Basin" murders. One of the victims was Lila Maxwell, a secretary at Galveston Industries. Mack notices Karen isn't using her right hand, so she tells him it is sprained. Karen decides to get a second opinion, and the doctor tells her she needs the operation or she will die. Ben is concerned about Val's mental health. Joshua finds Val having a conversation with someone about her babies, only no one else is there. Val has a nightmare and wakes up screaming. Val overhears Ben and Lilimae deciding to get help for her, so the next morning she packs and calls a cab.
Our last episode, We Gather Together, was the greatest episode of KL we have ever seen up to this point in the series, but that doesn’t mean we are not going to continue to get absolutely incredible television moving forward, and the trend immediately continues with the episode up for discussion today, Message in a Bottle.
I’ve gone on in the past about how, when we hit season four and the show became a serialized soap, I was worried that the eps would start to blend together and lose their individuality in my brain, that when I sat down to write about them, I would have a hard time remembering details because of the way it’s all one big continuous story, yet I have found that to not be a problem and have found that eps still manage to have consistently distinct flavors all their own, a great example of how artistic the show really is and why television directors would probably want to work on this series. Television during this era (“this era” meaning basically from the invention of the medium until the year 2000 or so) was hardly ever about trying to make art, but was more about commerce and deadlines. If a shitty sitcom would get a lot of viewers (and it would), then a shitty sitcom is what the networks would broadcast, not caring about actual quality but only about how the ratings would trend and how much the advertisers would pay them. I sound super snooty and pretentious (mostly because I am), but I’m not saying that art couldn’t slip through the cracks every now and then (and there actually are three sitcoms that I would call great art, and they are All in the Family, Roseanne, and Seinfeld), but mostly that it wasn’t what a network would be too concerned with. Also, the very act of directing an ep of television isn’t generally about being an auteur or making some grand masterpiece, but just doing it fast and getting it done on time and on budget. That’s why I’m so especially impressed by how artistic and stylish KL manages to be for so long, because I’m sure CBS didn’t give a crap about the actual quality of the series (look no further than the season of Dallas that was going on concurrently during the 1984-1985 season), but only about how much profit the show could bring for the network.
Message in a Bottle marks the third episode from director Nick Havinga, who previously helmed the not-very-good The Block Party and then the absolutely stunning Tomorrow Never Knows. After the triumph of that second effort, I’m really keeping my eyes on him and paying attention whenever his name pops up in the director’s credit, and he does not disappoint this week, getting right to work with a fantastically distinctive and unique episode of the series that keeps all the story points moving while also managing to be its own individual snowflake, as well. We open in a dream sequence, although we don’t know it’s a dream quite yet. Don’t worry, this dream doesn’t last 31 episodes like certain shows that shall remain nameless, but rather more like 31 seconds, although it’s a great 31 seconds. We start on Val joyfully flying a red kite along the beach, looking happy and almost manic. Then Gary shows up in front of her and tells her she has to let go of the kite (symbolism? Is the kite a representation of her twins?) before the two start to passionately kiss. The kissing is where I think it becomes pretty clear that this is a dream, but I suppose some people could still be going with this and think it’s happening for real. However, just a second later things turn stranger when Abs abruptly shows up and, rather than being mad that Gary and Val are kissing, just calmly says, “I believe you have something of mine,” and then she and Gary walk off together and leave Val all alone on the beach.
From here, we cut to Val waking up from her dream and thrashing around and freaking out a bit, resulting in Joshua rushing into her bedroom to, um, comfort her? I guess that’s what he’s trying to do, except someone should have probably talked to him about the top five things you should never say to people who are going through a period of intense grief, because number one would have to be “It was meant to be,” and that’s what he says to her. This made both My Beloved Grammy and I scoff in disgust at precisely the same time and then My Beloved Grammy listed some of the other things you should never say, including, “They’re in a better place” and “I know what you’re going through.” She’s a smart lady who has dealt with her fair share of loss throughout her life and she knows what she’s talking about and she’s absolutely right. Please, people, I beg of you, never say any of those things to a person who is dealing with fresh grief, because even if you think you’re being helpful, you’re actually just being awful, and I don’t blame Val for wanting Joshua to get out of her room and out of her sight right away.
Next up is maybe my favorite scene of the ep, even though at first glance it might not seem like that big a deal. We cut to Ben and Val walking along on the beach before stopping so Val can sit down and gaze at her favorite thing in the world, the ocean. I do wanna take this moment to ask if Ben and Val are officially back together at this point. Any opinions? We saw him send her flowers right before she went into labor in Tomorrow Never Knows, although thanks to the interference of The Desperate Horny Chick, I don’t think he ever found out that Val received the flowers or that she appreciated them. After that, Val went into labor and all the baby stuff happened, and now here we are with the two walking along together. I’m gonna go ahead and say they’re not officially back together (mostly because of how we saw The Desperate Horny Chick stroking Ben’s arm in our prior ep), but that perhaps they’re trying to get back to that state of being. Right now, Ben is just being her good friend and someone for her to talk to. And talk she does, delivering a fantastic speech that makes me want to go scream at the Emmy voters in 1984-1985 for not even nominating J.V.A for an award. Val is sorta gazing off into the distance, not looking at Ben’s face, talking quietly but very openly about the loss of her babies and how she knows they didn’t die, that they were taken away from her, and she says, “Nothing could have stopped them from taking my babies,” and then, with absolutely perfect timing on the part of the writers, who I don’t think have mentioned any of the Dallas characters since way back in the first few eps of season five, Val starts to talk about having baby Lucy and how J.R. sent his good old boys after her to steal the baby from her. “I was just poor white trash from Tennessee,” she says. “I wasn’t fit to raise a Ewing, much less be one.”
Fucking A, this speech almost made me well up again, but I managed to control it this time. While it’s been well established throughout the series (starting even as far back as the Dallas episode Reunion: Part One when we met Val for the very first time) that baby Lucy was taken away from her, it hasn’t been brought up in some time and, in a way, could have kinda receded into the back of a viewer’s mind, but bringing it up again right here at this exact moment is like a gut punch because it reminds us that this is the second time Val has had to go through something like this. Not only did she have her very first baby taken away from her when she was fifteen or sixteen or whatever, but now it is happening to her again nearly 25 years later. I’m pleased that we’re no longer in the era of Dallas characters crossing over kinda constantly like they did back in the early seasons, but I’m also pleased to see that the writers know the exact precise time to bring up characters from that series and the past history of young teenaged Valene and baby Lucy.
On that same subject, this week we also get a perfectly timed reminder of how Gary and Val met for the very first time, something that was also established back on Dallas in Reunion: Part One (making me feel pleased that I made sure to watch all those eps with My Beloved Grammy immediately before we started the KL Pilot). I’d be kinda curious to go back to Reunion: Part One and see if Val’s recounting to Lucy of her first meeting with Gary matches up with what she tells Karen here, because I think it does, but Karen gets a more detailed version of events. When Val was talking with Lucy, she said how she was a waitress and how Gary came walking into the restaurant and “he was about the prettiest thing I’d ever seen,” but I don’t believe she told this whole story that she tells here. See, she tells Karen how it was this really busy, awful, hectic day at the diner and she was all stressed out and overworked and then, out of nowhere, “This blonde God” came walking into the place and, without even speaking a word, immediately stepped behind the counter and started helping her out with everything. I know I’m crying kinda constantly at this point in the series, but what can I say, I am a fabulous gay man who is well in touch with his emotions, and all this Gary and Val stuff jumps right into my heart, because when Val says, “I think I fell in love with him right then and there,” a little solitary tear rolled down my face; I’m not gonna lie.
Later on in the ep, Val is paid a lovely visit by Olivia, the young girl she loves and has clearly loved since she first met her back in Hitchhike: Part One. She’s happy to see Olivia and they hug and it’s nice for a moment, but Val wastes no time in getting straight to the point and telling Olivia what she believes, which is that her babies are alive somewhere in the world and were taken away from her. An interesting thing about how this scene plays out is that we don’t actually see Val telling Olivia this. Instead, she says something like, “Can I tell you the truth, darling?” and Olivia says yes and then we cut to Olivia talking with Abs and informing her of what Val said to her. She says how maybe the doctors made a mistake and Abs says, “Doctors don’t make mistakes like that,” but Olivia is rather persistent and makes some good points, such as the fact they were able to have a funeral for Gary even though he wasn’t dead. This is a good line because it’s another example of the show never forgetting its past history. After the Wolfbridge stuff was kinda tidied up and finished at the start of the season, it would be so easy to just move on to new stories and never bring up stuff like Gary’s fake death again, but we get to bring it up here and it’s also in a way that makes sense for the scene, for the dialogue, and for the continuing storyline of the series. Fuck me, the writing is so good on this show; I can hardly even believe it.
Abs has been running around pretty regularly trying to figure out what the hell is really going on, but she really accelerates her efforts this week, and I imagine it is due to her conversation with Olivia. First off, she manages to corner Dr. Ackerman in the parking lot of the hospital and have a little confrontation. A small detail I appreciated in this scene is the fact that Abs is dressed very unglamorously in an unflattering outfit and a rather unfortunate hat. This sends the message to me that Abs sorta just got out of bed this morning and started to go about with her pursuit of the truth; she’s not so concerned with her appearance at this point and is okay with just throwing on a bad hat (“That’s some bad hat, Abby”) and going out. Make no mistake, I’m not saying Donna doesn’t look absolutely stunning in this scene, because she always looks absolutely stunning and still looks absolutely stunning at age 70-something and is absolutely the most beautiful woman I have ever seen on television and is definitely the only woman I would ever want to have sex with (and Donna, the offer is still on the table, so let’s not waste time). I’m just saying that this isn’t her looking her best because she is in a bad wardrobe, but even a small detail like that strikes me as rather significant.
What about the contents of the scene? Well, the absolutely vile Ackerman manages to maintain his cool pretty well and keep a straight poker face during the confrontation, even though Abs is very direct and does not fuck around and pretty much says, “I know that those babies are alive and I know that you took them,” something like that, to which Ackerman, attempting to climb into his car and get away from this woman, tries to be dismissive and just says, “You’re a very sick woman, Mrs. Ewing.” He also goes on about how doing such a thing would be “completely immoral and unethical as well as illegal.” Even so, I think Abs is scaring him pretty badly, and I’m curious to continue watching this character to see how these things develop.
After confronting Ackerman, Abs is still ready for more, so she goes to some sort of big corporate building (I think it’s some subsidiary of Galveston Industries or something like that, although this stuff is kinda confusing me at the moment) to try and find Scott Easton, who continues to be absent from proceedings. When the snooty reception desk lady tries to give Abs the cold shoulder, Abs barges past her and down a secret hallway that is only supposed to be populated by employees. The reception desk lady calls security and they show up to take Abs away, but not before she manages to get into an office occupied by that other white guy with an ‘80s Rapist Beard that I believe we saw in our prior episode. The dialogue is helpful because I’m sure other people were confused upon original airing by this Easton doppelganger, but since Abs keeps going on about “Where is Scott Easton?”, we are able to realize that this ‘80s Rapist Beard white guy is not the same man. However, this guy is rather creepy in the same way that Easton was, because they’re talking about how Easton got on that plane and then never got back off of it, and he says something cryptic and evil like, “People get on planes, and some people make it to their destinations, and some people don’t.” I’m gonna interpret this to mean that Easton was, shall we say, evacuated from the plane while they were in the air, perhaps over the ocean, kinda like James Bond at the start of Moonraker. Unlike James Bond, however, Easton probably didn’t manage to have a fight with another person while in the air and steal their parachute and escape to safety; he probably just, you know, died.
All this stuff is going to somehow relate back to Paul Galveston, who I’m pleased to say we get to meet this week (I want to make note that IMDb is again completely wrong because they have Howard Duff listed as making his first appearance in our previous ep, We Gather Together, and I can guarantee you that he wasn’t in that ep). Yes, ladies and gentlemen, it’s time to introduce the fantastic character actor Howard Duff into the mix, and keep your eyes open because he’s going to be around for awhile and he’s going to fuel a lot of good stories and drama as we move through the season. Real fast, before I move on to how much I like this character and this actor, I do wanna point out that he’s a Transmorpher who appeared in two extremely forgettable Dallas eps during the eleventh season, playing Senator Henry Harrison O’Dell, a guy who was trying to bribe Bobby into buying him a……castle…..or something. Who the hell was even watching Dallas at that point (oh wait, I’m gonna have to eat my words, because shockingly and disgustingly, Dallas was still outranking KL as late as the 1987-1988 season, even though by that point it was just a completely boring turd sandwich) and who the hell could possibly care about that story? And why the hell would Dallas score a great character actor like Howard Duff and then give him such a stupid non-story with nothing to work with?
Instead of being negative and focusing on how shitty Dallas was by that point, let’s be positive and focus on how good KL is right now and how wonderful it is to have Duff here playing this character. Now, if my memories of the series are correct, Galveston is actually something of a villainous character, but I’m not sure we know that yet, although I think little hints are being dropped. What I like is that the character just seems cool; you don’t want to think of him as a villain because he’s played by a charismatic actor and he comes across as a very old-style man’s man, kinda reminding me of my Grampy, rest in peace; he even sorta looks like him. He also has that cool, deep, commanding voice and when we’re introduced to him, it’s on a sexy ranch not dissimilar to Westfork (oh, and by the way, I’m pretty sure this is the first ep in which we officially hear the name “Westfork” said out loud) and he’s hanging out with Gary and the two just seem to be really hitting it off.
All that said, we get little hints that Galveston may not be such a great guy when he drops a comment about how he’s glad Gary didn’t take Abs along to meet him, saying something about how he has “old fashioned” ideas about women working (translation: He’s a sexist as well as probably a racist and a homophobe and a Trump voter). Next up, he gives Gary a really beautiful white horse as a gift, and when Gary tries to protest by saying how this horse must have cost a shit-ton of money, Galveston gives a little speech about how much he likes Gary, how Gary reminds him of himself in his youth, and how Gary is a powerful man and “Powerful men receive gifts.” Hmmm, I like how this is playing out immediately, cuz you start to think, “Is this guy a good guy or is he a bad guy?” We’ll have to keep waiting to see how this all unfolds.
Actually, now would probably be the perfect time to bring up a story that’s been growing for awhile but that I’ve been completely ignoring, mostly because I don’t understand it at all and I’m afraid that if I try to explain it, I’ll just sound stupid and get all story points screwed up. The storyline I’m referring to involves Mack and his friend Tom Jessick, who is still hanging around and being part of the series (I appreciate this sort of continuity with even minor characters). This is an elaboration on that whole Gary Loader story that I’m still not following, um, at all. I guess this has something to do with four murders that occurred in the past, all young girls, and how Loader was the dude at the trial who claimed that the latter three murders were copycats of the first one, or something like that. We also find out that one of these dead girls worked for Galveston Industries, which I’m sure will be important. Actually, I’m sure all of this will be important, which is why I’m a little frustrated that I’m having trouble following it, but I feel less dumb because My Beloved Grammy also says she can’t quite figure what this story is about. I’m a little afraid this is gonna spiral into a really exciting and epic storyline but I won’t actually know what’s going on, sorta like the first time I watched season five and drank a lot of vodka throughout all the eps and wasn’t actually following the Wolfbridge storyline all that well. Anyway, later in the ep, Jessick goes to some sort of creepy warehouse for some reason and then a bunch of thugs come out of nowhere and beat the crap out of him, which is pretty sucky for him. It’s a cool little scene but, again, I’m not entirely sure what it means or what’s going on.
Next up on the agenda, we have Cathy and Joshua, who seem to have reached a better place in their relationship since the evacuation from California of super open minded and tolerant Jonathan J. Rush. You’ll recall that a few eps back (Truth and Consequences), Joshua and Cathy had an off-screen shag and then he immediately went into Guilty Religious Mode and declared that what they did was a sin in the eyes of God and all that nonsense. Seems like Joshua’s unclenching his sphincter a little bit at this point, because this week they share another shag and he doesn’t freak out. This shag looks a lot more pleasant to me, by the way, because the last one took place at night near the ocean and I’ll bet it was pretty fucking cold, whereas this time the shag takes place in Cathy’s cozy little dressing room at Isadora’s. Post shag, the two lie in each other’s arms and talk about the quiet around them and Cathy says how Isadora probably locked up and they “could be stuck here all night.” It’s a good thing I don’t live in this series, because I would immediately jump behind the bar and start treating myself to free liquor, but Joshua and Cathy are better behaved (and I highly doubt we’ll ever see Joshua drink any liquor).
One last note on Cathy: We get another fabulous cover song this week, and this time it’s Words, in a scene that is shot beautifully with Cathy (sporting one of her most unfortunate hairstyles; I think she just really went to town with a hairspray bottle, but her hair is so expanded outwards that it looks like she got electrocuted or something) framed in the center in a rather cool almost 1950’s looking dress while people dance dreamily on either side of her. This looked like something shot by David Lynch for Twin Peaks, yet another example of the show really going above and beyond what is generally expected for a network television show in the 1980’s. I did some research and found a quote from some KL cast member about how they would shoot longer than any of the other soaps and be up into the wee hours of the night trying to get it just right, and I can believe it. This scene could be put into a movie and shown in a cinema on a real big screen and it would become only more entrancing. Also, when Joshua and Cathy are about to have their shag, the orchestral background score kicks in with an instrumental of Words, providing some cool linkage from one scene to the next.
Karen continues to be busy dying this week, and after being frightened by her numb hand while preparing Thanksgiving dinner, we catch up with her seeking a second opinion from a white doctor. I miss her black doctor (Garner) and so did My Beloved Grammy, who spoke up to say, “Where’s Karen’s black doctor? I liked him.” I don’t think he’s gone from the show; I think Karen is just trying to get a different opinion from another doctor, although this one basically says the same stuff Garner said, how he doesn’t understand why she has given up, why she has chosen to die, all that good stuff. We are also reminded that she could still have this surgery if she chose to, although by now her chances of survival are evil lower than they were nine episodes ago in Buying Time.
Remember how I thought Mack might be getting slightly suspicious of Karen last ep when she gave that toast about, “We never know how much time we may have”? Well, I think his suspicion grows this week cuz as they are preparing for bed, Karen’s combing her hair at the mirror and she’s using her left hand, to which Mack asks, “When did you become a southpaw?” Karen makes up a quick lie about how she was working outside and some papers blew away from her and she tried to get them real fast and sprained her hand. Mack says how maybe he should take a look at it or put some ice on it, but she says it’s no big deal and tries to sorta hide her hand from him, continuing this secret that I’d really like for her to drop soon (and I think she will). It’s been ten eps and I think she needs to tell Mack the truth already, don’t you?
This ep bookends nicely by having another bizarre and symbolic dream sequence for Val right near the end. In this one, she’s lying in a bed and holding her babies, happy as a clam, when those swinging hospital doors sorta just open up and Dr. Ackerman comes walking in, a cloud of fog trailing behind him, and tells her he’s got to take the babies away. It doesn’t stop there, though, because Lilimae, Ben, Joshua, and Gary are also there, donned in hospital gear, telling her this is what has to happen and forcibly removing the baby from her arms. The fact that Val dreams of her friends and family members betraying her in this way relates to the fact that she’s been hearing whisperings about having her taken someplace (“People always call a madhouse ‘someplace,’ don’t they?”). Earlier in the ep, Joshua walked into the living room in the middle of the night to find Val speaking to the air as if someone was directly in front of her, even though nobody was. I can see how they’re concerned about her, since she does appear to be coming apart, but I also see her perspective, which is that nobody believes her and nobody is truly listening to her. Our cliffhanger for the ep is Val awakening in the middle of the night, grabbing her suitcase, packing it up real quick, and then sneaking out the front door undetected, bound for territories unknown to us at this point, but I can guarantee you that it will lead to excitement and brilliance.
Alright, let’s go ahead and wrap up my thoughts for this ep and for this whole disk that spanned Truth and Consequences through Message in a Bottle. I’m gonna go into gushing fanboy mode, so be prepared, but how fucking good was this episode? Okay, I’ll say it wasn’t quite as amazing as We Gather Together, but I also declared We Gather Together as the best episode of the series up to this point, and I think it’ll be some time before that title is taken away from it (if that title is taken away from it). Message in a Bottle continues the run of quality and is beautiful to look at, directed splendidly by Nick Havinga, has great writing that consistently reminds us of past histories while also moving us onward to new stories, and is acted impeccably by absolutely everyone in the cast. The really amazing thing is that I feel like we’re super deep into season six, but we still have twenty more eps to go and I feel comfortable in saying that this season is going to stay incredible for all twenty of those eps. I have been almost nervous to get to season six and see if it wouldn’t quite live up to the glory I had in my memories, but not only has it been living up to that glory, it’s actually even better than the last time I watched it. It’s just remarkable how well written and directed and put together this whole thing is.
Next up we will start a fresh disk of eps that are sure to be packed with drama and genius, starting with the episode entitled Distant Locations.