The final scene of last week’s Under the Dome premiere was a literal heart stopper. Chief Duke (Jeff Fahey) was on the verge of telling Linda about his part in the shady propane mystery going on in Chester’s Mills, and then—kapow!—his pace-maker literally exploded from his chest. Within a 45-minute window, one of the show’s sturdier characters is dispatched with little fuss. I will surely miss Fahey, but this death was cleverly placed, and did a neat trick of unseating the audience’s expectations.
Both those new to the story and those who read King’s novel are united in mutual uncertainty; as we walk into the second episode, ’Into the Fire’, none of us really knows who will live and who will die, or when it will happen. There have been enough changes already to King’s novel that things simply can’t play out the same way they did on the page. The author seems to think this is a good thing, and I’m inclined to agree with him. We are in the same position as those confined in Chester’s Mill; we have no clue what comes next. Which is why the second week’s episode, ‘The Fire’ is such a disappointment; it coasts on the set-up and dawdles with the existing plot threads, creating a blasé atmosphere that does little to establish suspense or excitement.
Of course, I’m not checking out of Under the Dome that easily. Second episodes are consistently hard to develop across the board because they have to draw on the energy of the hook, while establishing fixed points that can translate into a weekly structure. If this were a four or five episode miniseries then the undercooked session would probably undermine the pacing of the entire story. Instead, Under the Dome seems to be following the usual season guidelines, and as such, a mediocre second episode is not surprising. Things need to heat up soon, though, if Dome wants to ride that big opening ratings number to the other side of the summer and beyond.
The second chapter convinces that the townspeople trapped within the invisible dome are in it for the long haul, and Vaughan and team plan to draw the trap closed slowly over the next few weeks. Sensational effects littered the first hour, but the dome itself is a relatively subdued presence the second time through. Already, the characters are growing accustomed to it, just as they strive to understand what it is. More straightforward in its plotting, The Fire could have easily been the second half of a feature length pilot, except that it shrinks the focus too soon.
There are no big revelations or answers provided—certainly not about the dome, and not about the secretive deal that Duke, Big Jim and Rev. Lester Coggins (Ned Bellamy) all had a part in. There are hints and whispers of movement, but it’s minimal at best; the propane looks to be connected to the drug ring issues, while the McAllister boy and his dimwitted friend realize the dome works like a sieve, letting some liquids through. The kid with the skateboard offers up one of the dumbest observations by anyone on the show; he asks McAllister why they can’t just squeeze through the dome, seeing as how human beings are 70 percent water.
For the most part, this episode keeps banging away at character traits already revealed to us and connecting the dots for the townspeople even when the audience is already clued in. Junior continues to be a show-stopping terror (and not in a good way) and the subplot involving his holding of Angie in the bunker is the most unconvincing aspect of Under the Dome. Angie’s own actions make less sense in light of Junior’s wet-blanket psychopathic tendencies; there are numerous times she could pounce on and likely overwhelm him, taking the keys and escaping. If she suspects he’s as crazy as he seems, fabricating a story about screwing another guy is probably not the best way forward.
The two characters who come out best in The Fire are Big Jim Rennie, who is starting to feel like a real person despite his clear status as villain, and Barbie, the man with the ambiguous purpose. In both cases, there’s a dichotomy between what these men do in the moment and the shadow of their past. I like this sense of uncertainty that crouches in the corner of their characters, and both actors are doing their best to show Jim and Barbie as people who have a certain level of care and concern for the people foisted into their stewardship. The question comes down to how long will they be altruistic when it no longer directly serves their game plan. I think Rennie is going to crumble in this regard long before Barbie.
The fire itself, set when the reverend got carelessly sloppy and tried to be burn records in Duke’s house, was underwhelming but also a measuring stick for how things are escalating now. The house on fire did allow us to see how even small, often dismissed events are going to grow and expand with the presence of the dome hovering over everyone. I was more interested in the dynamics between honest, forthright deputy Linda and the men trying to cover-up the truth than I was by more obviously contrived moments like the police officers losing their cool and firing on the dome, only to have it ricochet bullets back.
Several of last week’s characters are stranded or mostly absent this week, although everything finally slowed down enough for me to realize that the radio station’s Dodee Weaver is played by Jolene Purdy, who most remember as Cherita Chen (Chut Up!) in Donnie Darko. There’s doubt cast on whether the government had anything to do with the wall, and it’s only the second day but some are ambivalent enough they are already spray-painting doors on the surface of it. It’s going to take a bit of time for the effects of what’s happening to really manifest in the residents of Chester’s Mill, and when supplies and resources start expiring, I think that process will accelerate greatly.
The only two take-aways this week for me are the following items. Once the rest of the town realizes that the dome works as sieve, will they test to discover that it’s letting in air as well, and that’s the reasoning for why everyone doesn’t suffocate as the time stretches on? If that revelation happens regarding the air, then when do people start making the obvious conclusions? It was clearly constructed to work that way, to allow people to breathe, and if that’s the case what is its ultimate use? The people need to be isolated and herded, but alive? For what end? Finally, I’ve also realized that the current pace of the show has been at a ‘day at the time’ sort of rate. Based entirely on the underwhelming The Fire, I have to question if this tactic is best for the long haul.
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