As with Vulture’s Game of Thrones recaps, Under the Dome will remain relatively spoiler-free in regards to Stephen King’s 2009 novel. Please observe this in the comments, or flag your spoilers loudly and clearly.
We return hoping this show can deliver on its pilot’s promise, and Julia Shumway's hammy voice-over isn’t the brightest start. “Chester’s Mill is a place like any other — at least it used to be, until it was cut off from the rest of the world by a mysterious dome.” We remember. Ah, the cow — didn’t forget that, either.
The actual episode opens on a slo-mo boxing dream Barbie is having. It’s a good way to give us a flashback half-answering why Barbie killed Shumway's husband, and, of course, ends with Barbie waking and answering other pressing questions like, “What does this guy look like with his shirt off?” (pretty much like you’d expect a Build-a-TV-Stud with carefully manicured stubble to look like) and, “Did Barbie and Shumway do the sex yet?” (no).
Over at Duke’s death site, Deputy Linda Esquivel is taking charge (“you’re a cop; do your job”) and solving mysteries, surmising that the dome only screws with battery-operated things. Little Joe McAlister is also trying to probe the dome’s great secrets, with his buddy Ben tagging along. These two and their Spielbergian sense of adventure and ingenuity are basically the only source of anything like levity the show has to offer so far. Savor that Mila Kunis exchange like a dome-trapped alcoholic savors his final sips of booze.
"If you're not careful, people are gonna start callin' you Santy Claus," diner proprietor Rose tells Big Jim. The sinister saint has been all over town, helping the ailing and the elderly, hording goodwill points. By the episode’s end, he’ll leave an acquaintance in an inferno on purpose. Good guy, that Jim. (Also: notice how most everyone just calls him Jim; methinks the “Big” is a prefix he engineered himself.)
Julia Shumway figures out the dome likes tennis balls. She and Barbie share a sexually charged dome-brainstorming session. Nobody has a tennis racket, so they can’t play an actual match. Maybe next week. Shumway sloshes her morning coffee all willy-nilly on the sidewalk, which is a bad idea — newspaperfolk live on caffeine, a luxury Shumway will probably find in short supply soon, along with literally every other sundry good.
Junior, whose severe mental illness evidently never really showed itself till Domesday, believes the dome scrambled Angie's brain. Angie, whose screams are absolutely petrifying, seems to try to get Junior to murder her rather than bear this torture. Only Junior isn’t ready to snap just yet. Not at Angie, anyway — he’ll gladly have another go at Barbie.
Duke’s corpse is attended to by Lester, a creepy reverend-slash-undertaker with a hearing aid. The rev is in on the illicit propane operation with Jim and Duke, and he's also, per Jim’s description, “high as a kite.” So the conspiracy is either drugs, a hypereffective positivity-boosting regime, or kites that run on propane. Place your bets.
The creepy rev must have rubbed off on Big Jim, ‘cause next thing you know, Jimbo’s creepin' in the police department. He finds Duke's will and has to show it to Esquivel before he can presumably shred it. Big Jim, alone again with the rev, says he's got a town to take care of. This is said exclusively in the presence of another shady dude, so we have to wonder if Jim actually believes he’s altruistic.
At the radio station, electronic genius Dodee is still intercepting trans-dome intel and wants to learn as much as possible before alerting the town. Rock-star D.J. Phil wants to roll in some dope ratings. Shumway busts in to tip the scale in the favor of publicity; it’s time for the town to know it’s been endomed. "People are scared, and when people are scared they start acting stupid," Esquivel tells an increasingly ornery cop, who happens to be minutes away from passing out automatic weapons. We learn Esquivel's firefighter husband has a brother on the force, a guy who calls the dome a "magic bubble thing." Esquivel finds out Rusty was planning to surprise her with a trip to Hawaii for their honeymoon. Tough luck.
More interesting than honeymoon gossip is the knowledge that the dome is like a sieve, at least for water. How about air, though? That's going to get dicey. People breathe on a daily basis, and this town has a decent amount of people. And back to the liquids: Does beer seep through? Does milk? Shortly after the water discovery, Joe and Ben stumble by a pair of dome-severed legs. There’s a freaked out dog sitting with the legs; his name’s Truman, which obviously works as a Truman Show wink and maybe as a Harry S. reference in some way. I’m not digging that deep — fool me into thinking a dog’s name is significant once, that’s called Lost; try to fool me again, and I plainly refuse to spend ten minutes on a dead president’s Wikipedia page.
Speaking of Lost: Remember how much all-out face-punching that show featured at the beginning? It was more or less a show about Jack and Sawyer and Sayid slugging each other in the face. Tonight is a little like that, with Barbie getting sick of Junior sneaking up on him. One assumes Barbie will pay face-punching penance in due time.
The reverend sneaks into Duke's house to see if there's any info about the propane shenanigans. This guy feels like he's not long for our show — he tosses Duke's house like a belligerent fool, which would definitely come back to bite him if he didn’t also accidentally torch Duke's entire house, and almost himself.
Big Jim tries to let the reverend burn alive with barely any visible conflict; the less people who know his secrets, the better. Jim watches Esquivel head into the blaze, maybe hoping he'll luck out and both his pests will get squashed in the same burning building. The town does an admirable job pretending garden hoses and buckets of water could ever quell a roaring house fire. Solid go-getter attitude, Barbie, but c’mon. Nonetheless, the townspeople line up in a super-organized, everybody-lends-a-hand fashion. Joe and Norrie, both seizure sufferers and pink-star prophets, share a meaningful-seeming look. There are a lot of connections going on — Norrie’s mom's comment on how communal and cooperative everyone is, how they don’t even know their neighbors’ names back in California. Big Jim shows up in a big bucketloader to smash the house and save the day. This is an interesting villain — a man who genuinely loves his town and the people in it, so much so that he's blindly driven to control it.
Junior has a note for Angie, but it's just a bullshit photobooth printout. Please don’t keep this woman — who might be one of the show’s better acting presences — in this bunker for too many more episodes.
Team-building time at Duke’s posthumous bonfire is a success. Everyone’s feeling good about themselves, rallying around Big Jim and Esquivel. And then Psycho Cop has to steal the moment and put his paranoia on a giant soapbox. He fires a pistol at the dome, which we now know is a ricochet-friendly dome. Linda's brother-in-law is our latest closing-moment dome victim dying with a bloody hole in his chest. Just when everyone was getting along so well.
* This episode was directed by Jack Bender, who helmed nearly all the Lost season finales, including the series finale.
*Lingering questions: Who is Barbie's boss? Has Barbie been in prison? Is that how he knows the cigarette trade? How is the water seeping through the dome going to come into play? Is Shumway really onto Barbie’s sketchiness or is that a red herring?
*Based on rewatching the pilot a few times, I can’t tell if Barbie and Big Jim know each other or they’re each just threatened by the other. I’m suspicious.
*The plot of the novel lasts a week. Producers Brian K. Vaughan and Neal Baer have said at least the first ten episodes of the show span one day apiece, and that the overall reach of the series may show Chester's Mill for months under the dome.
* The show got insane ratings — nearly 17 million people watched the pilot, counting DVR people and whatnot — so a second season feels kinda likely.
* If you've read the book and are distraught about the differences, Stephen King wrote you a letter. "It’s best to think of that novel and what you’re seeing week-to-week on CBS as a case of fraternal twins,” says Uncle Stevie. “Both started in the same creative womb, but you will be able to tell them apart. Or, if you’re of a sci-fi bent, think of them as alternate versions of the same reality."
* Speaking of alternate realities: Joe's buddy Ben painting a door on the dome is a freaking awesome Dark Tower nod.
* This week, Vulture’s Gilbert Cruz — the only writer I’ve worked with who’s more of an ardent Stephen King than I am — ranked all the various miniseries, TV movies, and series made from King’s work. Check it out, and suggest where you’d slot Under the Dome.