Big things are coming to Chester’s Mill, but they’re signified by small arrivals: butterflies which cluster on the outside of the dome, first seen by kid genius Joe (Colin Ford) and LA Goth Girl Norrie (Mackenzie Lintz). Down in the fallout shelter, Big Jim Rennie (Dean Norris) has some serious thinking to do about his discovery of the captive Angie (Britt Robertson) and her accusations towards his son, Junior (Alex Koch), who gets newly-deputized by Sheriff Linda (Natalie Martinez). Reverend Coggins (Ned Bellamy) threatens to expose Big Jim if he doesn’t repent of his sins, and tells the town he’s hearing God repeating “MOAB” to him. When the military outside the dome bring in the family members of the townies – ostensibly to wordlessly visit their relatives – hot guy Barbie (Mike Vogel) uses the heretofore-unknown sign language capabilities of radio technician Dodee (Jolene Purdy) to learn the truth: due to outside political machinations, the military plans to detonate a thermobaric non-nuclear missile on Chester’s Mill in just a few hours… instead of any Biblical interpretations, “MOAB” means “Mother Of All Bombs.” Will the townsfolk – and the dome – survive?
The final question is almost rhetorical, as this is only the fifth of thirteen episodes, but it’s the first one since the pilot that actually seems to make forward progress. With everyone about to die, relationships are changed, even more secrets are revealed by the lead cast members, and a semi-regular cast member is killed. Even though some of the romantic subplots strain credulity to almost the end of its tether point, viewers are at least familiar with the trope of “the world is ending, thus, I love you” that allows some of the scenes to actually feel some hint of emotion. Indeed, I first watched this episode at Comic-Con, pre-air, and got a tiny bit verklempt in parts… though, more at the interesting imagery – the butterflies, Linda on the balcony as the bomb fell, the post-bomb wasteland –than any of the specific cast interactions. Oddly, as stilted as the Junior-Angie subplot has been, their scenes together at the end did feature some actual emotion.
The main strength of the episode is also its greatest weakness, however; following last week’s meningitis epidemic, solved in one day, this day features no less than a missile attack, also solved in one day. Rather than boiling actual threats over time, the writers are giving Chester’s Mill a “threat of the week” syndrome that could become tiresome if played out too long. Couldn’t some of the actual menace of these two episodes been teased out in collusion, over the two episodes, instead of the “What’s the crisis today, Barbie & Julia?” style we’re now getting? Again, I refer the producers back to Lost, or perhaps even more specifically, 24, for shows that excellently introduced and developed not only character interrelationships, but amped up suspense and panic effectively.
Complaints about pacing and characterization aside, this is the first episode of Under The Dome that I didn’t mind watching a second time, and the stand-off between Coggins and Big Jim, telegraphed as it’s been for weeks (could Coggins’ hearing aid have been any more prominent?), was especially welcome. But it’s easy to invest in a good villain’s actions – and Dean Norris is playing his conflicted character nearly perfectly so far – and not so easy to care about the many characters whose actual show personalities only consist of reaction to tragedy, and the same plot elements we’ve seen for five episodes. Stephen King books are generally excellent about fleshing out individual motivation; it’s time for this show to do the same.
Burning Questions of the episode: Was everyone in the makeshift shelter given Thorazine-laced fruit punch? They all seemed particularly chilled while facing their impending doom. Why does Junior hear a warning message on the radio station at the exact same time that everyone in the shelter hears music on the radio station? And why exactly do Phil and Dodee hate each other given that there’s been no hint of that before?
Verdict: Eschewing characterization for another dramatic threat, this episode of Under The Dome still maintains an upward climb from its predecessors, and manages to bring several dead-end storylines to at least a turning point. Kudos to the Dean Norris for consistently interesting work, and to (gasp!) Alex Koch, who finally is allowed to bring some necessary depth and growth to Junior. Brickbats, however, for some stultifyingly obvious product placement for Microsoft. 7/10
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