I can think of a few reasons you might be here. You could be a hate-watcher, already heading to the comments to question Under the Dome’s need to exist as an ongoing television series. Perhaps you’re a fan of Stephen King and/or his 2009 novel, and you’re hoping season two can do what season one couldn’t: find some consistency, grow beyond the Problem of the Week structure, and make us genuinely care about these characters and the unexplained predicament they find themselves in. Maybe you’re just into pulpy genre TV. You could, like me, be a little of all of the above.
For much of the first season, Under the Dome had no idea if it was creating a self-contained story or the beginning of an annual summer affair. Now that we know it’s the latter — King recently speculated in Emmy magazine that Dome may go four or five seasons — let’s move forward in hopes that whatever brought you here manages to get at least a tiny bit better. (Even if that means better hate-watchability.)
Per Dale “Barbie” Barbara’s new voice-over intro, it’s been two weeks since the day an invisible, impenetrable dome clapped itself over the small town of Chester’s Mill. A quick sum-up from there: Dome Day led to an assortment of local power struggles, troubles dividing the limited resources, and teenager-fronted investigations into the dome’s nature and origin. There are lots of characters; a few of them are pretty good, and a ton of them are inscrutably frustrating caricatures. Brian K. Vaughan, author of the all-time-great graphic novel series Y: The Last Man (and the excellent, ongoing Saga) adapted King’s 1,100-pager for the small screen; he’s one of a handful of executive producers including King, Steven Spielberg, frequent Lost director Jack Bender (he helmed this episode and four from season one), and Neal Baer, a writer/producer from ER and Law & Order: SVU. (Baer’s the showrunner.)
The premiere — our first episode penned by Stephen King — opens on a new character, another handsome addition to Chester’s Mill’s pageant of beautiful people with shadowy backgrounds. The man’s in a Twin Peaks–ish log cabin, pondering a drink, when the dome does what it did in the final moment of the season-one finale: goes from pitch black to blinding white. A high-pitched whine fills through the air, and because this show loves itself some Americana (recall the pilot’s bisected bovine), a Liberty Bell facsimile bursts from a trembling church steeple and slams into the suddenly magnetic dome. (Barbie, after witnessing a lawn sale worth of metal items stuck to the dome: “It’s magnetic.” Thanks, bro.)
We get a good mini-setpiece out of the dome’s latest mystery property, with Sheriff Linda Esquivel’s gun belt flying from her waist, followed by Barbie being yanked to the dome, handcuffs first. Linda, who helped Big Jim Rennie arrest Barbie hours ago in the show’s timeline, has not only confusingly rescued Barbie from Jim’s attempt at a public hanging, but she’s now risking her life to save Barbie from an oncoming SUV.
And then, five minutes into the new season, Linda gets squashed by that very SUV. Chester’s Mill is a town obsessed with hierarchy, and Esquivel’s death is a good time to start examining who’ll move up and down the power ladder this week.
DEMOTED: Linda Esquivel. Tortured soul in season one, given no time to mourn her mentor, Sheriff Duke, before taking his place. Was frequently on the brink of being someone we could root for, but knocked herself back with each new awful decision. Now relegated to Jim-educating spirit-entity-dom. Seems for a moment like she’s done something right by encouraging Jim to end his life, but the suicide gets busted up by do-gooder/new dome monarch Julia Shumway. Farewell, Linda. Wish things could’ve been better for you, but can’t say your death was a shocker.
PROMOTED: Julia Shumway. Within five minutes, our favorite glamorous journalist recovering from a very recent bullet to the chest is diving into a lake to rescue a thrashing woman who’s somehow surfaced from the depths. Recall that season one prominently featured a miniature version of the dome, and that within this play-size mystery was a monarch butterfly, which landed on Barbie. This seemed to represent Barbie’s Chosen One–ness, till Julia seized the mini dome’s rhythm-shaker egg (ah, there was an egg in the mini dome, too) and revealed herself to be the actual prophesied monarch. So that’s her deal now. Even if we don’t know what it means to be the monarch, it’s gotta be an upgrade from Julia’s scattered season one role. She wins a morality point this episode by refusing to kill a pleading Big Jim. Julia’s of the opinion that the dome wants Chester’s Mill to stop the cycle of violence, and sees the end of the dome’s magnetism/unconsciousness siren/bright whiteness as proof. (It seems like the only way to a peaceful town is without Big Jim, though, right?)
DEMOTED: Dodee Weaver. After becoming Big Jim’s fifth or so murder victim (that we’ve seen, at least), is now back as an exposition-prone spirit with a formidable cosmetics budget. New Dodee is unnecessarily fond of sticking fingers into her bloody chest wound. Yuck. Who’s actually moralizing to Big Jim through the dead, though? The dome? In last season’s finale, the dome inhabited Norrie’s dead mom, Alice, and said, “Forgive us — we’re still learning to speak with you. We’ve taken on a familiar appearance to help bridge the divide.” Dome-as-Alice went on to say “the dome wasn’t sent to punish you; it was sent to protect you.”
PROMOTED: Junior Rennie’s uncle, Sam Verdreaux, the new guy we see in the opening scene. Terrible family member — “You got big in the nine years since I’ve seen ya, kid; well, bye!” — but clearly a mover/shaker-to-be. Seems to have more in his past than the garden variety alcoholism/job loss.
DEMOTED: Big Jim Rennie. At his best last season, Big Jim was a snakily charismatic dictator hiding in a car salesman’s stocky body. Now he’s got crap lines, like “Shut up and be dead! I’m busy!” Still clever, rigging an explosive solution to un-trap himself from the bomb shelter/armory in his front yard, but is looking increasingly impotent. Dome could easily survive a complete removal of Jim. Would be nice to see more — and better — baddies this season.
PROMOTED: Dale Barbara. Delivers a hearty smackdown to Jim, escapes a death sentence, and reasserts himself as the town’s problem-solver-in-chief. One of just three people the dome doesn’t knock unconscious — assign your own meaning to that.
Junior James Rennie. Realizes his dad’s a monster for the nth time; might finally be done with the back-and-forth dance. Gets his own music-video hallucination and has a vision of his mother, who insists Junior’s still a good boy. Also comes in touch with some new mythology, namely a distinctive green and brown pillar and a bloody snow globe featuring the same pillar and the word Zenith. File that away somewhere, if you dare.
PROMOTED: Junior Rennie’s mom, Pauline. All this time we’ve wondered if she really committed suicide or was murdered by Jim, and it turns out the answer appears to be NEITHER. She’s living outside the dome, near the green and brown pillar, sitting with portraits of her estranged son, perhaps crafting a psychic bond with him. She watches a news report about the Chester’s Mill crisis while painting an ominous door with an ominous red streak above it. (Was it the bomb shelter?) Inside the dome, Pauline’s brother, Uncle Sam (hahaha), pores through an old scrapbook/sketchbook of hers; we discover she not only painted the pink stars falling in lines a long time ago, but also the four hands of the Domekidz (bloodied) and a haunting black-and-white portrait of the Girl From the Lake.
PROMOTED: Melanie. That’s Wiki’s name for the lake girl. Becomes either an axe murderer or a murder witness by the episode’s end. Absolutely no clue what she’s all about.
DEMOTED: Joe McAlister. Our buddy Joe, chief dome investigator, likable character, and fearless leader of the Domekidz, (a) doesn’t get much significant screen time and (b) has a nail magnet-sucked THROUGH HIS HAND. I didn’t sense the Stephen King–iness of this teleplay too many times, but this was definitely a classic King moment.
PROMOTED: Rebecca Pine. High-school science teacher with a serious data on the dome; comfortable with a shotgun. Eerily well-suited to pick up where Dodee left off, and has more or less nominated herself as the town’s chief engineer by the time the credits roll. Also the team captain for an upcoming science versus faith battle, with Julia monarching Team Faith.
PROMOTED: Philly Phil Bushey. Gone from chilled out DJ to Chester’s Mill’s gallows-construction foreman to sheriff in the span of days. All you have to do to be part of this troubled town’s law enforcement is hate Dale Barbara.
PROMOTED: The dome. Threatens to murder 99 percent of the townspeople at once, knocking out first all the nameless pedestrians and then all of our main characters except Barbie, Julia, and Big Jimbo. A new level of power play.
DEMOTED: Angie McAlister. Probably dead, but maybe just wounded in a brutal axe attack. What did she see inside that high-school locker? Who else was reminded of Scream with that final shot?
And that’s most of the Under the Dome season-two premiere. This show’s still heavy on clunky dialogue and pregnant pauses before and after every line. It’s still a supernatural free-for-all with a buffet of mysteries. And it’s still kinda fun … and making a good effort at avoiding flat-out terribleness.
Minutes From the Town Meetin’
• Stephen King’s cameo lasts less than ten seconds. He’s one of those diner patrons who doesn’t bother saying “please”; “refill, Ange?” is good enough for Uncle Stevie.
• As mentioned above, the King flashes in this King-written episode were few. But those knives flying into the wall at Joe’s house were definitely a Carrie nod, and the possessed (by magnetism, but still) oven lumbering across the kitchen felt very King-y.
• The first shot mimicked the pilot’s opening close-up on a dome-shaped item. Last year: a bird’s egg. This year: a lightbulb.
• Barbie and Julia commenting on how nicely everything resolved itself is already too much to handle; our new friend Ms. Pine saying “you went from grand theft auto to a gold star, Mr. Barbara” is even worse. Not looking forward to Julia and Rebecca vying for Barbie’s affection, either.
• I try not to nitpick this show too much. I really do! But why do we have to believe that Angie can scream at Big Jim in one of the town’s main gathering places and no one really turns a head except Junior? Jim’s been leading the town for the majority of its domed life. You’d think he’d receive the attention any local celebrity would.
• Nitpicking continued: Linda’s dead body was in pretty good shape considering a multi-ton SUV flattened her?
• Dunno if it was intentional, but the final fainting sequence — Norrie plopping to the floor, the redshirt falling off of a truck bed — was some great comic relief.