This episode had kernels of potentially interesting developments scattered within one of the most rote and boring renditions of a TV trope I’ve ever seen. “Outbreak” wasn’t 100% a bottle episode as Julia escaped the quarantine (which only lasted about ten hours or so) and we saw some immune or otherwise uninfected characters outside the medical center briefly, but the vast majority of the episode was concerned with a situation completely devoid of any stakes or tension. Plenty of my favorite series have suffered less than stellar or even dismal first episodes if not whole seasons (most of the Whedon TV oeuvre), and even if they weren’t necessarily bad they may have not been truly indicative of where the series ended up going (Fringe, Parks and Rec), but I can’t help but feel Under the Dome is trying my patience. Aside from the premiere, it feels as though the show is walking on eggshells around its premise and has yet to offer up any other reason to care about the inhabitants of Chester’s Mill other than bland “emergency of the week” scenarios. “Outbreak” attempted to illustrate (like the only barely superior and equally boringly titled “The Fire”) the beginnings of the town’s new civil status quo given the gradual realization that this dome situation has truly cut them off from the rest of society. Unfortunately, this attempt falls flat amidst such purposelessness plot fodder.
At the end of the episode when Alice puts back the insulin Caroline was stealing for her, Alice demonstrated a reluctance to fall into lawlessness even in the light of the paradigm shifting circumstances they’ve found themselves in. This is a very nice and hopeful statement but it’s like a small part of a decent song at the end of a terrible album – an essentially ineffective gold vein buried beneath a mountain of mediocrity. There were other such moments: the matronly Mrs. Moore, a school teacher who’s apparently taught Linda as well as Junior and probably most other Chester’s Mill residents throughout the years, passing on her round of antibiotics so Linda, a more functionally vital citizen than Moore at present, can get back on her feet that much sooner, and when Junior uncharacteristically decides to forgo the authority (and shotgun) his father gave him to secure the quarantine in order to keep the peace.
This latter moment of individual ethical decency in the face of collective hysteria would have been something I might’ve actually bought had the individual in question not recently gone nuts and locked his ex in a cellar for three days. Also, why were the patients even trying to leave? They know they’re sick with a highly contagious virus and they should’ve been aware there were people retrieving the necessary medication so what was the big rush to go outside? Just like Alice’s, neither Mrs. Moore’s noble sacrifice nor Junior’s random act of outstanding crowd control made much of an impression amongst a sea of senseless, weightless goings on, especially when Junior’s moment was apparently nothing more than a ploy by the writers to get yet another supposedly charismatic yet deeply troubled man into an authority position – more set up for a supposedly exciting plot I’m still waiting to happen.
Julia finally figured out Barbie’s actual occupation as well as his real business in Chester’s Mill concerning her husband, but as far as she knows he’s simply on the run from loan-sharks, not dead and buried in the woods. I know I should care, seeing as how this has been the only other multi-episode arc other than the propane conspiracy and Angie’s kidnapping (so far still a narrative black hole, but more on that in a sec), but I just don’t. Nothing comes of it other than Barbie no longer staying at Julia’s which carries exactly zero dramatic weight. Why should I care? The two had no real relationship. So far this show has been all plot and no substance.
Speaking of, Angie looks like she might actually drown before escaping Junior and Big Jim’s fallout shelter thanks to a broken water pipe, until the very end of the episode when Jim hears her screams through the vents and discovers his son’s captive ex-girlfriend. This is meant to be a cliffhanger but I’m pretty sure Jim’s just going to keep her locked down there because he doesn’t want to be known as the father of a psycho; it might get in the way of his plans to rule Chester’s Mill with propane drug money and an iron fist of civic pride. On the other hand, Brian K. Vaughan is set to have written the next episode (he’s literally the only reason I decided to follow this show and its only distinctive episode was written by Vaughan) so maybe he’ll be able to breathe some more tension into the proceedings.
“Outbreak”’s only other development concerned the seizure kids whose recorded experiment apparently hints at the dome being sentient, a suggestion also made by Junior so you know it’s a good one. The dome being alive is just as dumb as it sounds. Do not do this. If the structure is somehow a means by which a separate group of individuals are implementing a specific will then that’s one thing, but I swear to God if this show makes the dome a living creature I’m dropping the mic and walking away.
I’ve complained previously about how nonplussed the citizens of Chester’s Mill appear at their predicament, and while that aspect of the townspeople’s behavior has been steadily changing toward a more expected demonstration of panic, I feel no tension because of it. So far Under the Dome has been a show with potential that’s been spread extremely thin over these first four episodes. But four episodes, though containing nearly three hours – more than enough time to do something more substantial than what’s happened thus far – is still just the beginning of its planned twelve episodes. Granted the first third of a story is a huge chunk, one of my favorite shows had a somewhat similarly disproportionate first half of is first season, and with Vaughan handling writing duties next episode, I’ll remain hopeful, but this show seriously needs to start earning its audience’s suspense because so far every hiccup of potential stakes has been seemingly shrugged off and its killing the show’s efficacy, not ensuring its longevity.