I was watching Apocalypse Now last night. Each time I see it, I forget how impressionistic and surreal the Kurtz sequence is. We’re carried along by sense and emotion. You can detect a reservoir of meaning beneath, so it doesn’t matter that you don’t initially get why the tribespeople turn Willard upside down in the mud, or why Kurtz is reading out T.S. Eliot. You can tell that these jarring and seemingly arbitrary moments are in service of an artistic vision, and they resonate without being consciously decrypted.
In lesser hands, inexplicable images and moments aren’t instinctively loaded with meaning. They form a lazy attempt to convince the viewer that a text has meaning because it’s easier than doing the legwork of generating actual meaning that feels smart and honest. But it’s usually blatantly obvious and the creators don’t realise it, their slapdash profundity falling flat.
Under the Dome is now guilty of this, with a finale that thinks we’ll overlook how barren with significance it is by throwing some supposedly awe-inspiring supernatural moments at us. It even has the gall to turn them into a cliffhanger, as if we won’t realise we’ve been given no reason to care what they mean. The sequence perfectly symbolises how empty and pointless this show is, and I’m confident many viewers won’t bother to return for season two.
If it wasn’t clear before, the dome is just a MacGuffin. MacGuffins are fine if they’re the catalyst for engaging stories with well-drawn characters, like the briefcase in Pulp Fiction or the Ark of the Covenant. But when they’re forced to the centre and have to appear meaningful when they’re not built for it, the story sits there limply, hamstrung by poor planning.
Compare the dome to the island in Lost. I’ve compared the two shows before, but I do so again not because I lack any other reference points. The dome is so clearly modelled on the island from Lost that contrasting them is instructive. (The mini-dome is even a direct substitute for the hatch.) By its nature, the island could imply many meanings and points of relevance. It could be about our relationship with nature, or seeking change and transcendence in isolation from society, or a straightforward plot engine as Dharma stations and crashed planes turned up. The island could serve a variety of purposes because it was both a location and a MacGuffin. It prospered at the centre of the story because it was inherently rich with allusive and thematic potential.
But the dull Chester’s Mill is the location in Under the Dome, so the dome has less to offer as only the MacGuffin. While we finally get an indication of the purpose of the dome, it doesn’t counteract the other redundancies in the episode. The force controlling the dome appears in the form of Norrie’s dead mother, Samantha Mathis (another direct Lost crib), telling the kids and Julia that the dome is there to protect them, presumably referring to the whole of Chester’s Mill. Of course, when they ask why the dome is protecting them, Mathis says “you’ll see, in time”. The characters are more immediately concerned by the mini and maxi-dome turning black, shrouding the town in darkness, precipitated by the emergence of the monarch butterfly. More helpfully, she tells them they’ll need to earn light by protecting the egg.
Most of us should recognise by now to that an influential, mysterious entity only refuses to explain its reasoning to prolong a mystery. I can’t think of a precedent where withholding that information with such little evident purpose ended up having any.
So, with not much to go on, the characters try to protect the egg. Why they need to is an open question, of course. If these entities can create the dome and place the egg in the middle of the woods under a barrier, surely they don’t need Julia Shumway to look after it for them. If it’s a test, it hardly tests the whole of Chester’s Mill, who are supposedly all being protected. Julia turns out to be the monarch, by the way, rather than Barbie. There’s no indication as to why other than she’s one of the lead actors and Joe wasn’t telegraphing it. The plot again shrugs and throws a dart at some character mugshots to decide where it’s going to go.
As Big Jim gathers a crowd to watch him hang Barbie for murder, Julia drops the egg in the middle of the lake. This is particularly reckless because the unhelpful Samantha Mathis didn’t say they wouldn’t need it again. But it certainly does protect it from the likes of Big Jim, and the dome responds gratefully by sending pink stars up into the sky all around town. Then, for some reason, the dome turns from opaque black into opaque white, which isn’t exactly the same as bringing back sunlight. Samantha Mathis was tricksy.
And then, as if it’s happily achieved enough, the episode ends.
Bad cliffhangers are usually clichéd. This one is just incomplete. I’d be sure the episode cut out before the end if Ten’s “Under the Dome will return in 2014″ graphic didn’t appear, as if we’ve been given cause to be eager to see what happens next. For most of the episode, the dome has been black. Why is it turning white somehow worthy of a nine month wait? The whole sequence is devoid of not only emotional or spiritual meaning, but narrative consequence beyond “the dome’s doing something”. Then again, I suppose there’s only so many things the dome can do anyway: stay up, change colour, or come down. It’s a limited plot device.
I’m sure plenty have compared this finale to Lost‘s first, which ended with the characters staring down into the open hatch. However, we were inevitably going to find out what was down there next season. I don’t know what we’re supposed to look forward to following this cliffhanger.
Which brings us back to arbitrary meaning. With these developments, the writers are trying to make the dome seem otherworldly, spiritual, and enigmatic. But tonally, Under the Dome is a straightforward, narrative-based show. Asking us to suddenly be satisfied with strictly impressionistic plot developments will usually fail because no space has been assigned for inference and implication. A show whose characters consistently explain not only what just happened, but what’s plainly obvious on the screen (“it opened up”, Joe says, when the mini-dome barrier falls on camera) can’t then ask us to appreciate the mystical unknowability of pink stars rising in the sky. It hasn’t earned that degree of obfuscation. Instead, it’s just handwaving.
The only part of the climax that works as a cliffhanger is Barbie’s fate, but only in the most objective sense: there’s no way Barbie’s dying in the opening scene next year. So with no suspense or indication of why we’re meant to be enthralled with this latest development, Under the Dome just sits there, staring at you expectantly with no idea what it’s done wrong. We shouldn’t reward shows like that by continuing to watch them.
So as I knew from early in the season, I won’t be returning to Under the Dome next year unless I develop an irrational affection for it in the intervening months. The occasional bright spots (creepy dome seizures, Mathis’s moving death sequence) weren’t the beginning of an upswing. So, as fun as it’s been to deconstruct such a misguided show, 13 episodes is more than enough for me.
Under the Dome‘s true value is as a cautionary tale. If this is the best that American genre television can muster (and there’s not much competition, save fellow adaptations Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead), we need to stop anticipating the next one in line in the hope that it’ll finally be the one that’s ambitious, intelligent, and exciting. The next great genre show is going to sneak up on us, as Lost and Battlestar Galactica did, so getting excited will only lead to disappointment. But with luck, surprise will make the discovery all the more exhilarating.
Odds and Ends
- The portent of Big Jim’s death isn’t furthered at all – another reason why this episode feels undercooked. If the characters are eventually forced to kill him, hopefully that descent into moral relativism will give the show a little verve.
- The potential hanging of Barbie again highlights how toothless this alleged survival drama is. Something so unpleasant and visceral feels utterly out of place. It’s not remotely intimidating because it almost doesn’t feel real. And what a neat, elaborate gallows the townspeople constructed from some old plans. It has a lever and everything.
- Linda became a true caricature this week. Instead of listening to the level-headed people telling her about the mini-dome, she blunders in declaring it police property. She tries to pick it up, and gets zapped unconscious in the process. Maybe Stephen King, who will write next year’s premiere, can start to rescue this character. King is a big supporter of the show, amazingly. Having endured so many underwhelming adaptations of his work, perhaps he just embraces them now to make life less painful.
- Big Jim shows us an even more prophetic painting his wife did of pink stars, this time falling over a black egg. He later tells Junior that this means she knew the two of them were “chosen”, ignoring that the mental illness these revelations caused meant she had to die to reveal this to them. Hopefully this sanctifying of a dead wife so the men can follow their destiny and lead is just some bullshit the characters believe rather than the show’s attitude to women. Jim also quotes her as saying “there’s nothing a good man won’t do for the people he loves”. A woman said that? Yeah, looking more like the show’s issue…