1.02 “The Fire”
Am I alone in hoping that Under the Dome starts getting more creative with its episode titles? If you want a vague summary of how the season will unfold, all you have to do is check out the upcoming episode titles and consider whether they'll be as self-explanatory as this week's was. Episode two of Under the Dome was, of course, about a fire, which opened the episode up to a whole lot of “how'd it get burned?!” preemptive theorizing and a bit of a letdown when everything went more or less exactly as you'd expect.
The episode kicked off with a flashback to the killing Barbie was trying to clean up when the series began. It's clear that the show will keep coming back to this death, as we've learned that it was basically an accident and Barbie only meant to intimidate the doctor, not outright kill him. But if the writers want us to care about this at all, something has to change about the details that are getting doled out. The main issue I had in this episode was that everything just kind of slumped into place– Barbie can't find his dog tags, we know they're at the crime scene, he finds one but not the other, Junior walks in on him and thinks this is the love shack he and Angie were using for the affair they weren't actually having, Barbie fights him and wins, then he wanders back and tells Julia an extremely stupid lie that she is clearly already suspicious of. There is no art to the proceedings and the twist is that they play out without any twists.
It's hard to figure out who to blame for the sophomore slump of this second episode– is it because Rick Cleveland subs in for Brian K. Vaughan? Possibly, but it's hard to believe that a writer with credits on Six Feet Under and The West Wing could be so tone deaf. What is certain is that, for once, it's not the source material, as this episode made it extremely clear that not only will the deviations from the book continue, but some of the most important characters and plotlines from the book seem to have been entirely excised. That's not necessarily a bad thing, except when it's something like the fire the title references, which in the episode is almost farcical in its execution.
Big Jim is of course relieved that Duke's death means that the sheriff won't be spilling the beans about what they're up to with their propane hoarding. But now he has a far worse dilemma as his sort of partner in crime, Rev. Lester Coggins (Ned Bellamy), is a creepy buffoon who sneaks over to Duke's house before Linda (who has inherited it from Duke) can get there, hoping to find the papers Duke had about the propane deal. Lester decides the best course of action is to set the papers on fire and drop them into a wastebasket which inevitably bursts into flames, catches the drapes on fire and burns down the house, while Lester is trapped inside. Big Jim saves the day after stealing a bulldozer, but he's visibly disappointed that Linda saved Lester and is now asking questions.
The fire also functions as an extremely heavy handed metaphor for the importance of community, as the neighbors all get together and try to put the blaze out with garden hoses and buckets. At one point, we even get Samantha Mathis' character Alice asking her partner if she thinks their neighbors in LA would have helped out like this, to which her partner replies “I don't even know who our neighbors are.” It was the kind of exchange that I would have expected from an episode of Sesame Street, not a sci-fi drama on CBS adapted from a Stephen King novel with the involvement of Steven fucking Spielberg. While it did give us some glimpses at the dangers the survivors face– that air is clogging up and fires are going to make that worse, and all that wasted water is going to come back to haunt them– it felt low-stakes and goofy rather than tense.
Still, there were some genuine high stakes scenes, specifically the death of Linda's partner at the hands of Deputy Paul, who we discovered is kind of crazy and has been holding onto a cache of automatic rifles. The death is accidental– Paul, as well as being crazy, is kind of a moron, and fired a gun at the impenetrable dome, causing the bullet to ricochet and hit his fellow officer right in the heart– but with the power struggle happening between Linda, Big Jim and a frustrated Barbie, it's clear it will provide some leverage for the less appealing of those three. If the show can get a better handle on that kind of tension and shed the weight of the go nowhere Junior/Angie scenes (trust me when I say Junior is far fucking creepier in the books and much more dangerous) and the increasingly worthless radio station detours, it stands a better chance of living up to its potential. Second episodes are usually low points for high concept series, so there's no reason to be too afraid of the show's chances just yet, but another episode like this could cause an exodus.
Nick Hanover got his degree from Disneyland, but he's the last of the secret agents and he's your man. Which is to say you can find his particular style of espionage here at Comics Bulletin, where he reigns as the co-managing editor, or at Panel Panopticon, which he started as a joke and now takes semi-seriously. Or if you feel particularly adventurous, you can always witness his odd rants about his potentially psychopathic roommate on twitter @Nick_Hanover and explore the world of his musical alter ego at Fitness and Pontypool.