Persevering through the third episode of Under the Dome felt a lot like being in the middle of a pie-eating contest. You’re bloated with something that barely sustains you and feel a powerful urge to flee, yet there’s still more in front of you. You want to reach the end, but you know it’s going to feel unpleasant and ultimately be a mistake.
Watching and recapping all 13 episodes of Under the Dome will be a challenge, because it’s remarkably hollow and lazy. It feels half-heartedly assembled from common parts, the result ugly and barely functional. The characters never rise above their stock roles, saddled with dialogue that almost aggressively stifles any signs of life they might exhibit.
Worse still, the premise has already been all but squandered. Chester’s Mill has no atmosphere or sense of place, so we don’t feel anything for this town’s plight. The townspeople are still just wandering around, most not terribly bothered by what’s happened. Any sense of menace and atmosphere you might expect from a Stephen King story is nowhere to be found. Halfway through you find yourself wondering if you accidentally changed the channel and should get back to that show about the dome that some people are trapped inside.
The A-plot has Paul, the cop-killing cop from last week, escaping from custody and fleeing into the woods with a rifle, because he might as well. While Linda hunts him alone for inexplicably prideful reasons, Big Jim arranges a manhunt, but for some reason only recruits two bigoted guys and Barbie to cover an entire forest. Jim and Barbie wander in the woods and chat, sizing each other up, with Jim relating a handy and supposedly intimidating anecdote from high school about how he uses force to command respect. Then they find Paul, and Linda appears to shoot him from behind and save the day. The dome story isn’t furthered, and we learn nothing about Barbie or Jim that we didn’t intuit from the beginning. We get no sense of the town and its people, or whether Paul is the tip of the paranoid, violent iceberg. Instead, it’s a placeholder. A show shouldn’t be treading water in its third episode.
Jim’s son Junior finally does something other than tormenting Angie, but his story is still only connected to the dome by a thin gossamer of rationale. Why would anyone think that a story about a psycho locking up his girlfriend was remotely apt for a survival story like this? The dome contributes and adds nothing, and it shouldn’t be merely incidental this early in the show’s run.
So at Angie’s suggestion, Junior descends into tunnels beneath the local cement factory to see if the dome reaches down that far. With virtually no reason to suspect him of anything, Julia sees him and follows. The dome does, of course, go down that deep because this is only episode three, so the subplot’s an excuse for the two characters to talk. Yet, the interactions are rote and useless, delivered dutifully without resonance. Junior alludes to his aloof, macho dad while Julia spouts platitudes about how we all have secrets and decides to reveal the reason she’s in Chester’s Mill: she’s a disgraced journalist who got too close to the truth. She didn’t tell Barbie any of this when he asked earlier, because she suspects him of hiding something. Not Junior though: oh, the irony. Well, Barbie is hiding that he accidentally killed her husband, but of course that’s going to turn out fine in the end.
Something vaguely resembling texture emerges when Big Jim seems to befriend Barbie even after Junior claims he beat him up. Despite seeing the evidence on both of them, Jim may have so little respect for his son and prize old-fashioned manly values so highly that he’ll look favourably on the guy who gave his wussy son the pounding he needs, whatever the reason. That has enough messed-up human logic to be compelling, and is certainly the kind of dynamic, counterintuitive characterisation I wouldn’t have expected from this show. More likely, however, is that Jim sees military-trained Barbie as a threat to his plans and is keeping him close, learning what he can. Much less interesting, but much more likely.
Joe’s resourcefulness and intelligence take a back seat this week, when word spreads that he has a generator and an empty house. His schoolmates flock there, as does Norrie, who’s run away from her parents for no particular reason and may be crushing on her fellow Mystery Seizure sufferer a bit. Some bully also turns up, taking over the place for a while and pushing Norrie around. Joe stands up to him, Bully says ‘this isn’t over’, and so on. Joe’s of better use to us focusing on the dome like it actually matters rather than being a socially awkward teen, so this drift into cliche is disappointing. His story climaxes with he and Norrie both suffering Mystery Seizures after they touch hands, so maybe we’ll learn something about them next week. I usually resent impatient demands that TV mysteries be answered as soon as possible, but I definitely want rapid progress with this one since there’s not much else to latch on to.
We also get more of Big Jim and Reverend Creepy alluding to their drug operation, with no mention of the propane this week. And Julia is getting more suspicious of Barbie after he does a poor job deflecting her questions about his bruised knuckles, thinking that not answering her questions while smouldering at her will defuse her concerns. No such luck, of course, because Julia’s a resourceful journalist who’s way too good for this backwater burg, or at least that’s what her history seems to be telling us. The outsiders and misfits are being positioned as influential players in Under the Dome: Barbie, Julia, Joe, and Norrie facing off against Chester’s Mill lifers like Big Jim, and maybe those bigoted guys, I don’t know.
But the town has a lot further to descend before those major conflicts will rear their heads, to the point where it’s hard to see how this was ever set up as a potential mini-series. The pace is so glacial, with so many time-wasting stories that don’t fulfill the premise, that Under the Dome seems to have a much longer, duller vision in mind than that. The ingredients are all there for a straightforward saga about a town that slowly tears itself apart due to both human weakness and an unknowable force that may be continuing to harm them. How we ended up with this limp, meandering version of that basic story is unfathomable.