The challenge for any mainstream genre show is to make its real-world drama as compelling as its supernatural or otherwise offbeat mysteries. Most balance the two to appeal to a broad audience, rather than taking the Star Trek route where everything is infused with science fiction or fantasy. Lost managed this pretty well by probing its characters deeply and carefully rather than rapidly walking them through clichéd scenarios. Under the Dome does the latter, seemingly content to dredge up old-hat storylines and nudge the characters sleepily through them. Consequently, the dome mysteries are far more appealing than they would otherwise be in a superior show by pure virtue of contrast. The latest dull storyline to distract us from the good stuff? Max sets up a fight club bar to take advantage of how bored everyone is, although that doesn’t help us much.
Sure, it’s a little exotic, but it’s also laughably over-the-top. In mere days and without the (admittedly limited) authorities noticing, Maxine has turned the cement factory into an adult funhouse with booze and bare-knuckle boxing. After only a week, sleepy Chester’s Mill is apparently bored enough with no TV and internet that they’ll pound each other to a pulp to pass the time while their friends place bets. It’s a blunt, artless attempt to suggest that there’s a darkness at the heart of Chester’s Mill, utterly at odds with the cordial, inoffensive town we’ve been shown so far. Chester’s Mill has precious little identity and ambience, a complacency that ensures these little revelations about the town’s underbelly feel unearned and eager to please.
But then that may be precisely the goal. Like any primetime soap that doesn’t care too much about creating a credible community, Under the Dome may have no qualms about introducing these new elements out of nowhere. It’s content to assemble Chester’s Mill on the fly in a Frankenstein fashion, trying to get us excited about the town’s unpredictable nature as efficiently as possible. The result is an utter failure of world-building.
This also afflicts this week’s Big Jim story. Trying to track down Max’s ‘insurance policy’, which will reveal their secrets if she’s harmed or killed, Jim and Barbie find records that her legitimate real estate company owns a house on an island in the local lake. Jim takes a speedboat over there, and, instead of a discrete cabin or something, discovers a mansion! This would feel pleasantly southern Gothic if the sequence had any texture or mood at all. Instead, it feels like another gonzo warping of Chester’s Mill’s geography. We saw the town-trapping dome barrier in the middle of a street a few weeks ago, and now the lake inside is big enough to have an island with an enormous house on it that Big Jim doesn’t even seem to know about. This Frankenstein town just got an extra limb jammed between its shoulder blades.
Jim finds a woman named Agatha looking after the place, but she soon pulls a rifle on him and reveals herself to be Max’s mother. She’s working with Max and she’s the insurance policy. In some clunky exposition that Jim doesn’t remotely solicit, she explains how they were actually in the same year at high school. Jim doesn’t remember her. She dropped out when she got pregnant with Max and the town shunned her, driving her to prostitution to make ends meet. Some of her clients included the very people who had publicly shamed her as promiscuous.
A nugget of dialogue here hints at some deeper potential ideas to explore as Agatha describes the “sharp teeth behind the friendly smile” of Chester’s Mill. Like Twin Peaks and its numerous emulators, Under the Dome wants to be in the dark-hearted small town business, and Jim’s reply is intriguing: he says having sharp teeth is the only way to get things done. That rueful, ruthless pragmatism would be fascinating in a more adventurous, sophisticated version of this show.
Instead, these promising elements peek out briefly only to be left unexploited. Jim takes the rifle from her, ties her hands, and they head to the mainland. In the middle of a lame monologue about darkness and shrouds, Agatha falls overboard. Seeing an opportunity to rid he and Barbie of the insurance policy, he lets her drown. More ruthless murder from Big Jim in the name of protecting his interests, and maybe the town as a bonus too.
Talking of people looking out for the town but not doing a great job of it, we haven’t talked about Sheriff Linda in a while. She’s been investigating Coggins’s drug connections and found a surveillance video of Duke taking money from Max. She then manages to find a key (hidden in Duke’s favourite hat – how folksy) to a safe deposit box containing Duke’s confession, identifying Max and exposing Big Jim. When Jim returns home from his latest murder, she asks him to come down to the station. He asks if it can wait until morning, because hasn’t he earned enough respect in this town? Even though she’s discovered evidence that undermines all that respect, Linda obliges, just as she’s let Junior bail on his duties numerous times and generally cuts everyone way too much slack. I find this weak, deferential portrayal of a female authority figure quite disheartening, especially as her character is entirely defined by her dead father-figure boss.
Over at Fight Club, Maxine blackmails Barbie into fighting. He throws the fight, she expected him to and bet against him, blah blah story-of-the-week, and he gets mad and says they’re through (yeah, that’ll last). He decides to confess to Julia and neutralise Max’s power over him. But when helping Linda at the bank, Julia found her husband’s life insurance policy. Coupled with his missing gun, no missing bullets, and Barbie previously saying that he went to meet her husband to collect his debts but he didn’t show up, she’s already pieced together that Barbie may have been forced to kill him. Dr Shumway evidently wanted him to so Julia could claim the life insurance money after he bankrupted them.
So Julia finally learns the truth, but we thankfully don’t have to endure the “get out! I never want to see you again!” scene. Instead, a resigned Julia recognises the ambiguities and generally shitty nature of the situation, and implies that maybe she and Barbie aren’t through after all. He’s proven his integrity in how he’s risked his life for the town. While this feels a little off – especially how it echoes Angie’s burgeoning acceptance of the violent Junior – at least we don’t have to put up with their estrangement for a couple of episodes.
In the bonus dome-mythology section of the show, Angie asks a nurse at the clinic if anyone else has had seizures. She reminds Angie about her tenth grade dance, and Angie realises that Junior may be the fourth hand they need to activate the mini-dome. In the process, Angie lets slip to Joe that Junior kidnapped her. Cue the obligatory brotherly fury and pledges to kill him (Angie insists she will, apparently), before they realise they need Junior. The episode ends with him joining them. They all touch the mini-dome, and constellations of pink stars are projected all around them for no clear purpose. Time to cue up the next episode for whatever dome-related nugget we get next.