"Curtains" was the first-season finale of Under the Dome (he said, stating the obvious, but doing so anyways due to not quite being sure how to begin the review), and for the most part, I thought it was a solid hour of television. There were the standard gaps in logic, but they were counterbalanced capably by big story advancements and by crisp pacing.
And then, it all fell apart at the end.
Look...I get the desire to do a big cliffhanger for the season finale. The goal, I suppose, would be to go out on a note that will leave people talking for the next seven months or so, and have them champing at the bit for the second season to begin. But there's a right way to do that, and there's a wrong way, and I'm afraid that what we got in this episode was the wrong way.
In order to contextualize what I mean, let's consider a season finales that got it right: the season-finale cliffhanger gold standard, "The Best of Both World" (Star Trek: The Next Generation season 3). Captain Picard has been assimilated by the Borg, and Riker, having no other choice, orders the Enterprise to fire its new weapon at the Borg vessel. The episode had, with ruthless efficiency, established a new dynamic that viewers at the time could -- take it from someone who was there -- easily assume would be the new dynamic in the next season if Picard was killed. This episode made it seem actually possible.
Whereas I can envision no scenario in which Barbie actually gets killed. Maybe I'll be proven wrong, but I do not expect to be. And even if I am eventually proven wrong, that won't make this a more satisfying cliffhanger, because currently, there is no tension. If there is no tension, a cliffhanger doesn't work. Period.
A devil's advocate somewhere is currently insisting that it's the "how" that might end up being important: i.e., what I should be interested in is not whether Barbie lives or dies, but how he ends up being rescued. Well, fair enough. If this was the sort of series where the how of things was frequently done well, maybe I'd buy that pitch. It isn't, so I don't. But I can cite for you an example of a series that does do the how of things -- as well as the why of things -- well: yes, Breaking Bad, which ended its third season by having Jesse pull the trigger of a gun he was holding up in front of the face of Gale Boetticher, a cook whose very existence made Walt and Jesse expendable. The episode hedged its bets a bit by not actually showing Gale get shot, but anyone watching the series by that point had to know that Walt and Jesse could continue to live only by means of Gale's death. The focus of the resolution would undoubtedly be the fallout; what effect would this have on Jesse? How would Gus -- Gale's employer -- react?
Sure enough, that proved to be the case.
I can formulate no scenario in which the "how" of Barbie's eventual escape/release will be anything except deus ex machina. (Series producer Brian K. Vaughan wrote a comic-book series called Ex Machina, so maybe this should be no surprise.) Who can save Barbie? Julia? She's nowhere near. Angie, Joe, and Norrie? No way. Junior? He could...but that would go so far against the grain of the Junior/Jim scenes in "Curtains" that it would be complete bullshit. Phil? Unlikely, as Phil still thinks Barbie killed Dodee. Carolyn? Yeah, right; fat chance.
There are, as I see it, two options. One: Big Jim lets him go. That would be dumb. Two: the Dome does something to cause Barbie's escape or release.
A third option might involve Annie Wilkes showing up and yelling "He DIDN'T get OUT of the COCKaDOOdie CAAR!" at everyone.
Some of my problem here has to do with the editing, which was great throughout most of the episode, but felt off in some sort of way during the final shot. We see the black of the dome begin go away, but instead of turning clear again it turns some sort of milky color. But just as we begin to be able to focus on what that is and what it might mean, cut to commercial. Except, because of the way CBS structures its shows, I was unsure as to whether this was the end of the episode, or if there was more after the break.
Whatever. It just didn't work. It fell flat, and it wounded an episode that up until that point had done a lot to restore my interest -- if not my faith -- in a series that had what I can only characterize as a weak freshman season.
Now, all that said, there were things I liked about the episode, and some of it did indeed help to restore my interest to at least a minimal level. I'll talk about some of that below in the form of bullet-points, but first, this:
I've been toying with whether or not I want to put together a season-overview wrapup post, and I think I have decided that doing so would be a good idea. However, I think I want to wait a while to do it. And honestly, the best idea seems to me to do so in the form of a review of the Blu-ray set when it comes out this fall. Yes, I'm going to buy it. Dude: I own The Mangler Reborn, such is my Stephen King mania. So yes, of course I'll be buying this series on Blu-ray. The fact that I didn't like it very much doesn't do anything to change that, sadly.
So look for that sometime down the road.
And now, some parting thoughts about "Curtains":
- I liked this episode, but it had the requisite number of moments in which the writers assume that everyone watching is a Tom Cullen-level feebleminded moron. Tonight, when the butterfly hatched and began flying around desperately inside the minidome, the dome began turning black every place the butterfly touched. This was a cool, creepy effect, and it was promptly ruined by Joe -- that fucking idiot, Joe -- who said, "When the butterfly hits the dome, it leaves some kind of spot!" Thanks, Joe! What other things would you like to tell me about that are happening right in front of my face? That I'm typing these words via my laptop? Despite what this show's writers seem to think, I am not an idiot. And when I say "idiot," I mean it literally; I believe the writers of this show believe its audience to be composed of people who do not possess even the rudimentary skills needed for getting through daily life.
- The CGI shot of the blackened dome sitting on the landscape, with the bombed-out area on one side and a fertile-looking green area on the other side, was pretty great. Sadly, I have no means by which to screencap it for you.
- Boy, have I grown to hate Linda. She is dumber than toenail fuzz. (Maybe Joe was talking to her...) A few episodes ago, she was prepared to arrest Big Jim for his role in the propane shenanigans. Now, seemingly, she takes every syllable he utters at face value. She has no interest in talking to anyone about anything. If I were generous-minded, I might be willing to posit the idea that the seeming permanence of the dome was causing her to go a little crazy and behave in increasingly uncharacteristic fashion. But again, that's the sort of thing they do on good television shows, which Under the Dome -- for my money -- is decidedly not.
- Does it strain credulity a bit that Big Jim would have failed to post a guard on Barbie's jail cell? Yes. Yes it does. However, the episode needs somebody to be able to say that he has escaped, so the writers have a guard and Phil come strolling in just in time to have Barbie beat them up. Weak.
- God, how I hate the way this show treats the townspeople. They are a ... hell, they may as well be the Borg from that Star Trek episode I referenced earlier. They all seem to always be thinking the same things, with no individuation of any sort. The dome has been in place for nearly two weeks, and now they all begin to get the feeling that it might be time to go into a religious panic. I'm sorry, but the type of people who are apt to begin talking about Revelation would have begun to do so the moment the dome descended. It is ludicrous to trot that out now, and the producers did it only because they needed to wait until the end of the season so as to delay having Big Jim turn that corner.
- So Julia turns out to be the monarch, eh? Well, I never really cared who the monarch was going to turn out to be, so I'm okay with that.
- Dean Norris was great, as usual. I thought he was especially good in the scenes dealing with him finding out about the whole "pink stars are falling in lines" thing. And the fact that we now now for sure that his former wife was somehow involved with this whole thing is, for me, a satisfying plot development.
- I liked the Samantha Mathis scene a lot. We now know there is some sort of intelligence directing the dome, and we found out a bit about its purpose: "it was sent to protect you," says the doppelganger of Norrie's dead mother. From what? "You'll find out," the dop says. That's a frustrating cop-out cheat, but it's the kind I can live with, because I can assume that she/it would theoretically have a legitimate reason for not divulging that info at that time.
- No spoilers for the book in the comments, please.
- "You must earn the light," the dop tells Julia, convincing her to protect the egg. I am proud of myself for thinking that tossing the fucker in the lake might be a good idea.
- "You and I are in this together," Big Jim tells Junior; "we were chosen." I guess I can buy the two of them definitively ending up on the same side. That was a good scene, well acted by both Norris and Alexander Koch.
- Well, we saw the pink stars. But unless I misunderstand some things on a fundamental level, they weren't falling so much as rising. Call me crazy.
That's about all I've got to say, I guess. A decent finale to a season that was, as far as I'm concerned, a massive disappointment. But will I watch the second season next summer? Yeah, sure; of course I will. I'm a King completist, remember? So I kinda have to watch.
As I've been writing this review, I've tried to figure out whether I would watch if that King-completist thing was a nonissue. The doppelganger of Norrie's mother interested me; Big Jim's verification of his wife's (unwitting?) involvement did, too. But the things that frustrate me frustrate me regardless of any King-connected concerns, and the truth is that without that obsessiveness on my part, it is a near-certainty that I would have stopped watching after the second episode (if not the first). The bottom line is that this series simply does not meet the standards of what I expect from a television show in 2013.
I heard an argument once that went, "if you could always eat steak, why would you ever eat a hamburger?" And the answer is simple: because sometimes a hamburger is what I want.
Consequently, I occasionally find myself wanting a burger. And I don't always need it to be a restaurant-quality burger; sometimes, Burger King will suit me just fine. But if the cashier talks to me rudely, and if the burger is poorly cooked, and if it has onions on it when I've asked that there be no onions, then we've got a problem.
Under the Dome aspired to be fast-food in its first season, but it treated me as if I am stupid, and it gave me a substandard product. But the Coca-Cola and the fries were fairly good; so maybe a return visit is called for, just to see if maybe they were having a bad day or something today.
Because I do like my burgers. Let's hope the burgers that Under the Dome is selling are of a higher quality in the second season.