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Under the Dome Recap: Matryoshka Dome

“The Fourth Hand” – Big Jim and Barbie discover their lives are more intertwined than they knew when a mysterious woman, Maxine, shows up unexpectedly in Chester’s Mill, on UNDER THE DOME, Monday, August 19 (10:00-11:00 PM, ET/PT) on the CBS Television Network. Pictured Britt Robertson as Angie Photo:  Brownie Harris/©2013 CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved.

This episode isn’t exempt from the things that make Under the Dome problematic, but it’s the strongest, most captivating hour since the pilot. Eschewing the trusty Dilemma of the Week format, “Imperfect Circles” capably carries several stories at once. The characters are still primarily plot-delivery systems, but they’re starting to feel more like actual people we might become interested in spending time with. And now we know the show is capable of treating death poignantly rather than just mercilessly.

To start, Norrie rouses Joe, asleep under his Bob Marley poster in his teenagery bedroom. A couple episodes ago, Joe was dragging Norrie out of bed for domeside experiments at dawn. Norrie is the early riser now that one of her moms is literally dying for insulin. Across town, Barbie admires a sleeping Julia after their night of rainy lovemaking. Barbie feels a mixture of woozy wonder at Shumway’s scarlet locks and intense guilt about slaying her admittedly not-great husband.

For the second time, we don’t get to see exactly how an Angie/Junior/Big Jim cliffhanger unfolded. Instead we get the morning after, with Jim smacking Junior in the face and kicking him out of the house — but not before calling his son sick. Junior doesn't have any idea he's suffering from a mental disorder, which makes it kinda heartbreaking. It’s also tough to watch how Junior vacillates between baby-faced little boy and crazy-eyed man. Dean Norris is also doing some commendable work inside the show’s confines; he’s playing like Clapton even though he’s been given a guitar with only two strings.

The dome gives Julia's pregnant neighbor Harriet a hallucination of her Navy husband, returning home despite the indestructible bubble barring his way. Harriet touches her lover's hand, except it's the dome's hand, and suddenly we're getting a chance to see her water break on the sidewalk and the baby is ready to be the dome’s first new life. Harriet is sure the dome did something to her child — meaning what? It’ll be born a zombie? It’ll have a dome for a head? It’s annoying that we’ll spend the entire episode circling back to a plot focused on a destined-to-be-minor character, only to not learn what effect the dome had on her kid. Maybe next time. Maybe we don’t want to know.

Junior knows the guys who killed Rose while raiding the diner (of course he does) and thinks he might be able to talk them into surrendering themselves to the law. So Esquivel hands Junior an immense assault rifle, always the preferred choice for expert negotiators seeking peaceful solutions.

Now — the moment we’re all re-smacking our foreheads at Esquivel’s umpteenth logic-free decision — is a good time to recommend a way to approach Under the Dome. You've got your own reasons for watching, hate-watching, or continuing to tentatively dabble. (Or you're one of the many who bail each week; understandable.) Why you tune in probably involves things like the plot, the characters, the mystery, the relatively untapped richness of the scary dome scenario. Hopefully you’re adjusting to the taste of the ingredients you unfortunately have to swallow in order to keep watching — the Dilemma of the Week, the frustrating pacing, the godawful acting from so much of the cast. But one aspect that refuses to relent is the pedantic, hand-holding exposition disguised as dialogue. I've often been tempted to quote it verbatim and abstained each time. Now I have to go there:

Esquivel: "Where do you think Waylon and Clint are headed? Not much northwest of town." Junior: "Except that salvage yard. What, you never played hide and go seek there as a kid? It's got lots of old buildings, no one around — if they're on the run, they're probably there." I get it, there's a town we need to learn, there are important locations for us to familiarize ourselves with once and never see again. But this shit is getting egregious. Here's what I do, and I advocate strongly for it: Take this show a little less seriously. Watch selectively. Don't hang on every word. Check Twitter while you watch. Play Fruit Ninja. As soon as you hear that explain-y tone deaden an actor’s voice, do anything except paying close attention. You’ll have a lot more fun. If you’re worried you missed something, you can rewind (at your peril); usually you won’t need to. The show will explain it at least one more time in words, and it’ll be visually obvious in the end. Good luck.

So. Farmer Fucknut is playing happy host to the thirsty townspeople. He hints that Jim's inexhaustible stash of propane may have been reappropriated, and, wouldn’tcha know, it was. Ollie busted Jim's locks in the night and hired a burly shotgun guy to guard the gas. This leads to a huge development: Jim, second to none in badness in Stephen King’s book, becomes a sniveling whiner who's been trumped by a dumb hick who happened to be a little more conniving. Is Big Jim going to become a good guy? Until he exterminates Ollie? Wounded — pride-wise and face-wise — Jim heads to Sweetbriar Rose’s to pickle himself in bourbon.

Joe and Norrie do some domeside face-smushing in the name of science. I don't mind this pair, and often like 'em. They get the same wonky dialogue everyone else gets, and they're creeping me out with their overt teenage horniness, but they've got good chemistry and they're the only ones asking the right questions. How hasn't anyone thought to check out the very center of the dome? You suck, grown-ups. There's also the fact that Joe and Norrie are often some of the first ones to voice things we've been wondering about all along. Does anyone like being inside a dome? Yeah, Joe does — it's a cool shake-up for his boring small-town life.

Norrie's moms, Carolyn and Alice, are trying to relax and ignore Alice's declining health. This episode has almost abused the sun-glowy shots device, but this scene is affecting, thanks largely to M83’s epic, emotional “Wait.” (So hip, these moms!) It certainly seems like Alice's death is near, but at least she can go to the grave knowing that in just seven episodes she got to showcase more love for her same-sex partner than Modern Family's Cameron and Mitchell have gotten to display in four full seasons.

Ollie lays his cards on Big Jim's desk: The farmer is officially relieving the councilman of his sweaty grasp on the town's throat. Jim listens quietly, inwardly planning to finish getting fucked-up enough to head out to the propane spot, blow some shit (and a human) up, then drunk-drive home. Just remember: Whiskey is to Big Jim as spinach is to Popeye.

Joe and Norrie discover a leaf pile at the dome's center. (Still irritated they're the first people to think of visiting this very obvious location.) The leaves mask a rock-looking dome. The kids waste some precious water washing it off and discover this mini-dome is transparent and protecting … a black egg. So … what the hell. Is it a rhythm egg shaker, $42.60 for a 24-pack on Amazon? Can Whiskey Jim punch through this teeny dome? Not sure, but Joe and Norrie try addressing Dome Jr. the way they would a sci-fi spaceship’s sentient navigation system. No dice. They try the hands-on technique and both get a vision of Norrie’s dying mother, which solves zero mysteries.

Barbie delivers anonymous neighbor-lady’s baby. (How much would you pay to be a fly on the wall in a writers room that gets psyched about shoehorning another baby birth into a show’s plot? I’d give at least $500.) Alice asks to hold the baby something like six seconds after the mother first holds her. The baby is named Alice, because Alice is going to die and we’ll need something to remember her by, despite the fact we’ll remember her quite well through her grieving, newly screwed-up daughter.

Inside the newly tidied Sweetbriar Rose, Junior sneaks up with a ninja walk so he can recite a Bonnie Raitt title to Angie, plus a few more clichés that are indubitably lyrics by other icons of the seventies and eighties. Junior wants to tell Angie he killed the Dundees for her, but, beginning to become aware that folks think he's a psychopath, he tempers his good news. Instead of, “Hey Ang, I blasted a weaponless fool point-blank in the chest and savored every second of it and I swear I won’t hurt you again just kiss me and love me forever, pleeeeeease!” it’s, “Hey, ah, those mean guys won’t, ah, bother you anymore. Welp, seeya!” Angie heads home to reunite with her brother for the first time since Chester’s Mill got domed.

Alice, on her deathbed, tells Norrie "it all must matter,” this dome nonsense. Her death, as Hollywood and “I love youuu”-ish as it is, is the first time the show has made a successful heartstring-tug rather than treating death mercilessly, for shock, or for plot. This is the first episode to close on a musical montage, a Lost hallmark. The emotional scenelets end with the fabled pink stars amassing within the black egg. It’s almost time. Or something. Hopefully.

Stray Observations

• Norrie's name is Eleanor. Hashtag character development.

• Know what's missing from this show? The ear-liquefying sound of gas generators running everywhere. That would be the number one cause of murder in Chester’s Mill by this point, insanity-via-generator-noise.

• Angie didn't get raped last week in the diner, if you were wondering. Now we know.

• Big Jim actually owns Sweetbriar Rose. What else does he own?

• Pro-tip for recappers and curious viewers: If music is deployed the right way, you can totally use the app Shazam to figure out what the song is. Triumph of the week for me.

Dear commenters: Please flag any spoilers referencing Stephen King’s 2009 novel  spoilers loudly and clearly.

Photo: Brownie Harris/CBS