Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Under the Dumb 1.11: "Speak of the Devil"

Damn, I love Breaking Bad.  It's a terrific show.  I'm not saying it's perfect; the only perfect things in life are...uh, wait, hold on, I'll remember in a second...oh yeah!...no such thing.  Maybe equations or some malarkey like that.  Anyways, my point: while not perfect, Breaking Bad is nevertheless a tremendous television series.

At the tail end of last week's episode -- (mild) spoilers, lol! -- Jesse broke into Mr. White's home and began furiously pouring gasoline all over everything.  Fade to black.  This week's episode -- last night's episode, in fact -- begins with Walter arriving home, seeing Jesse's car parked irregularly in the driveway.  He sneaks into his own home through the back door, gun drawn; he notices the pungent smell of gasoline, thick in the air.  He calls out for Jesse; he receives no reply.  He searches the rooms.  All the doors are closed; he proceeds methodically, until finally, only one door remains.  He goes inside; the camera does not follow.

A few moments later, he emerges.  Jesse is nowhere to be found.

He calls and has a crack team of probably-not-entirely-above-board carpet cleaners come over, and concocts a plan for how to lie his way out of this mess vis-a-vis his wife and son.  And by gum if he doesn't pull it off.  (Well...mostly.)

Later, the episode flashes back to Jesse.  We once again see him in his car, debating what to do.  We once again see him get out and begin furiously giving the White living room a gasoline bath.  This time, the scene continues.  We see him grab a magazine, roll it up tightly, and produce a cigarette lighter.  
He begins trying to strike it.

If you are with the show -- and if you watch the show, I find it hard to imagine you not being with it -- then you are probably aghast with tension right now.  You were aghast with tension earlier, too, when Walter was searching his own house for Jesse.  This despite the fact that you know (literally) that Walter survives.

But as you watch Jesse trying...trying...trying...to get that lighter to strike, you're almost certainly wondering what is going to cause him to stop for a moment, reflect on his actions, and decide to abandon his plan to torch the house.  What interior emotion causes this?  What crisis of confidence?  What pang of regret?  What better angel sings Jesse off of the diving board and back to the ground?

And of course, it is a voice, speaking to him.  The voice of Hank Schrader (Dean Norris), who has been following Jesse.  We don't know that he's been following Jesse; all we know is that in last week's episode, when a colleague questions Hank as to why a detail of DEA agents had been tasked with following young master Pinkman, Hank was unable to admit the reason, and had no choice but to pull the detail.

This is the crucial point: the writers of Breaking Bad assume that viewers will put two and two together and successfully make it equal four.  Imagine if there had, earlier in the episode (or even in last week's episode), been a scene in which we see Hank decide to begin tailing Jesse on his own time.  That would have drained both of the wannabe-firebug-Jesse scenes of all their tension.  We'd have known exactly what was going to happen.

As is, though, the scenes retain their tension.  And, as a bonus, the logic of it all holds together in airtight manner.

Couldn't find an actual screencap from the relevant scene of the episode, so this publicity image'll have to do.

Right about now, Domeheads might be thinking, "Hey, why is this jackanapes rattling on about Breaking Bad?  I came here to read about Under the Dome, dagnabbit!"

Fair question.  Here's a fair answer: because I felt like I had to talk about something good for a while before allowing myself to be hurled into the asp-filled chamber that my review of tonight's episode is going to be.  Yes; that was a Raiders of the Ark reference.  One in which I, oddly, am Marion Ravenwood.  Let's not dwell on that.

Instead, let's see if we can bust through a wall and get out of here.

Circling back briefly, the reason for the Breaking Bad talk is simple: I want to contrast it with a vaguely similar scene from tonight's episode of Under the Dome.  The scene in question: Barbie's plan at the cement place has paid off, and he and Big Jim are leading Maxine and Nameless Thuggish Henchman #1 out into the daylight, where Barbie plans to take the two into custody.  For no reason other than that the screenplay required him to behave stupidly for a moment or two, Barbie begins walking ahead of everyone else, which is long enough for Big Jim to shoot the two prisoners in their soft little skulls, reducing the population of Chester's Mill by two.

Barbie doing that is dumb.  What's even dumber is that Big Jim didn't put the first bullet into Barbie's head.  He tries to kill Barbie a few seconds later, after speechifying for a bit about why he did it, and how he was about to do it to Barbie, too.  Which, of course, is just long enough for Barbie to get the drop on him, and take his pistol, and have it trained on him.

All of that is dumb, but the scene's resolution is even dumber, if for no other reason than that it has been telegraphed.  A scene or two earlier, Linda has somehow ascertained -- can't remember how -- that Barbie was headed to the cement place.  I think Phil told her, or some bullshit.  In any case, she takes Phil's car and heads after him.  So of course, you know where every second of this is going.  You know Linda is going to show up, and you know she's only going to do it once it looks absolutely certain that Barbie is, indeed, the mad-dog killer that he's been painted to be by Big Jim.  Which is exactly what happened.  (My dad called it beat-for-beat right before it happened; if anyone knows where he can apply to be a writer on this series, let me know on his behalf, because it seems like he'd fit right in.)

Now, I'll admit that Breaking Bad is -- provided it doesn't fumble the ball in these last four episodes -- easily in the discussion when it comes to all-time best television drama.  Expecting Under the Dome to be as good is both unfair and unrealistic.  But the comparison is a useful one, because it helps illustrate one of the ways in which Under the Dome continues to be a massive disappointment.  Somewhere, there was a better version of the Jim-kills-Maxine scene that had some actual tension and surprise to it.  Take a chance on your audience being able to figure things out, producers.  (To which they answer -- possibly correctly -- "well in excess of ten million viewers every week, asshole; we're doing just fine."  I can't argue with that.)  Let the scene feel as if it has actual possibility, rather than have it feel as if every beat is lazily predetermined.  Trust your concept; trust your characters, trust your audience.


Here's what I said about the episode on Facebook: "Well, another week, and another shit episode of Under the Dome. I mean, SHIT, boy...poop from a butt."

Does that seem harsh?  Maybe it is.  But when I think about the several scenes in which characters change their minds multiple times within the same scene about some idiotic point or another (Angie can stand Junior, then she can't, then she can; Big Jim trusts Junior, then he doesn't, then he does, except he doesn't; Maxine wants to kill Barbie, but only because she wants to be with him, which maybe she could do if not for how she has no use for him at all)...or the flat staging (didn't director Jack Bender usually do better than this on Lost?)...or the overdose of contrivances (good thing that Maxine was the one to be walking along the shore when her mother's body floated up)...I think of those things and I then tell myself that, no, "poop from a butt" isn't that harsh at all.

Let's talk more about Maxine and her dead mother.

In my reviews of the previous two episode (1.09 and 1.10), I made it clear that I thought Maxine was a terrible character, both in terms of conception and performance.  I secretly hoped that the show's producers had a plan for her that would change my mind.  To be honest, I went so far as to assume that that would be the case.  None of that made it into my reviews, but regardless, that was my mindset.

This week, that idea was laid to rest.  Maxine's true purpose was revealed: she was merely a pawn used by the producers to figure out a way to maneuver Barbie and Big Jim into violent opposition to one another.

Cardinal rule: if you want two characters on a television series to come into conflict with one another, you must, whenever possible, find a way to do so via natural character growth.  Want to see this done correctly?  Yep: Breaking Bad.  Walter vs. Hank.  Genius, and it's been coming since the first episode of the series.

It gets worse.

What was the point of Maxine's mother?  Poor Mare Winningham, who is a fucking Oscar nominee, for Pete's sake, got hired to be a pawn in the producers' attempts to turn Big Jim into a out-and-out villain.  Because they want this to be a show in which the heroes wear white hats and the villains wear black ones, presumably.  Which would be fine if the series had done that from the get-go, as the novel did.  You know, the novel?  The book the series is allegedly based upon?

But no, Winningham's character existed only briefly, and only to make Big Jim look like a really, really bad person.  Her death didn't even need to happen in order to motivate Maxine further; Barbie's rejection was sufficient to that end.  So Emmy-winning, Oscar-nominated Mare Winningham gets used in as lame a fashion as possible.

What else, what else...?  
Ah, yes.  Still no Carolyn.  Phil shows up for the first time in weeks, just so he can tell Linda some seemingly-damning evidence about Barbie, prompting my father to say, "Boy, she'll just believe anything anyone tells her, won't she?"  Linda, allegedly a law-enforcement officer, fires, like, five shots at Barbie as he runs away; she misses with every single one.  Julia gets shot point-blank, but not in the skull or the heart, where you'd think a supposedly-seasoned hardcase like Maxine would shoot her; instead, she gets shot someplace that would cause Sylvester Stallone or Dolph Lundgren to merely grunt in surprise.  Angie screams a lot, which is actually cool, because I don't think we'd ever heard her scream prior to this episode.

Poop.  Poop from a butt.

And it's all written by Brian K. Vaughan!  The writer of Saga and The Private Eye!  Are those comics ass, and I'm distracted by the art (of Fiona Staples and Marco Martin/Muntsa Vicente, respectively)?  I know the answer is no.  And yet, "Speak of the Devil."  What gives?

Now, to be fair, there were things I liked.  Let's bulletpoint 'em:
  • Mike Vogel is a good actor, and while I thought he was a little weak during the scene in which he and Jim are measuring cocks right before driving to capture Maxine, mostly, he was good in this episode.  He does badass quite well, and he does more or less everything else well, too.  It's about time the writers were giving him something to actually, you know, do.
  • Dean Norris is pretty great in this episode.  His character goes through what I would describe as intense levels of flip-floppery on the part of the screenplay, but Norris takes every scene and makes it work individually, and gets theeeeeeeeeees close to making it all hang together as a whole.  He's killing it on Breaking Bad every Sunday, and then on Monday doing work on Under the Dome that is probably twice as good as the material ought to permit.  The Emmys never take things like that into account; if they did, Norris would deserve a nomination, and richly.  (He's liable to get one for Breaking Bad, anyways, so don't feel too bad for him.)

  • The tornado effects were cool, but there were some awful moments of limbs falling down where you could practically feel the poorly-paid grips off to one side of the camera; directed to hurl a tree trunk, they roll their eyes, keep smoking, and toss a few limbs instead.
  • I started the series impressed with how interesting and modulated a performance Britt Robertson was giving as Angie.  That has somehow vanished; she has turned into a shrill, one-note-at-a-time bore.  In the meantime, however, Alexander Koch has really come into his own as Junior.  He's playing a guy who is (probably) crazy, but oddly sympathetic and even pitiable.  At some point, he figured out how to do all of those things more or less at once, bringing one of them to the fore as needed for a particular scene but keeping the others present at the same time.  Koch and Robertson have, somehow, swapped places in terms of the complexity of their performances.
  • Dodee overheard something about the military looking for Barbie.  I think, based on the novel, that I know what that is about, and my assumption is that when and if that happens, it'll be cool.  I try to avoid mentioning the novel at all, and I definitely avoid the specifics of it, but I can't resist saying that much.  And based on that, the series is still redeemable.  I think the series needs new writers for season two, and badly; and it probably needs some new producers, and maybe a real showrunner, too.  But the series can still be saved.  (Say, isn't Vince Gilligan going to be free for a while...?)
  • Speaking of that point from the novel, if it ends up happening on the series, it could easily have served as the catalyst for Barbie and Big Jim finding themselves at odds with one another.  In other words, not only was the Maxine subplot avoidable, it was hella avoidable.
  • The climactic scene with the four hands at the dome was great.  It was cool, it was creepy, it was surprising; it was everything so much of the rest of the series has not been.  And boy, was Dean Norris good there!  You could patently tell that he was playing something that was not actually Big Jim, but something's idea of Big Jim.  This dude is really, really good.
  • Natalie Zea was pretty good as Maxine in this episode.  Her lack of emotion over finding her mother was a bit weird, but otherwise, she was good.  Why?  Because she actually got to follow through on her threats and show them to be decidedly not empty.  She had something to play, in other words.
  • Frankly, the whole episode was worth it just for me making this:

I'm not entirely sure how I ought to wrap this review up.  I think we left the asps -- "Very dangerous!" -- behind a while back; there's sunlight ahead, so I think we might be okay.

Two episodes left this season.  I'd love for those two to be awesome.  I'd love to be here one week from now, and again two weeks from now, doing a little fist-pump and talking about how Brian K. Vaughan and company pulled it out of the fire at the last minute.  Anyone who read this review would be forgiven for thinking that I'm rooting against the series; it probably seems that way at times.  To the extent I can, let me assure you that that is not the case.  I never want a Stephen King project to be something that I have to review negatively.  Not ever.

But it does happen.  The best I can do is try to explain why I feel urged to do so.  Honesty, best policy, so forth.

So we'll see.  Two weeks left, and we'll see.  Maybe it'll be great.


  1. While I like episode on the whole, the thought that stands out most in my mind is how quiet an episode it is (not that that's a bad thing, Eastwood's Pale Rider is a surprisingly quiet film and yet it's great). It's just that since it's so quiet I can't say I know what to say.

    I think I'll have to wait and see how it fits into the overall before making any judgment.

    Things I got slightly irked about with this episode:

    That old patented CBS cheese. Here's the thing, I can handle sentiment alright, if it's handled well so as not to be cheap. However I'm not very good with sentimentalism in fiction, especially if it's of the hallmark variety.

    Taking a leaf from a critic I mentioned earlier, Irving Babbitt, I'd say such maudlin handling of a scene or story is one of the worst excesses of unchecked romanticism (done badly).

    I'm thinking of the early scene between Junior and Angie. The rest of his scenes are fine, but this one just fell to the common complaint against CBS as a network (and here I am thinking once more of Jericho).

    What I liked:

    That said, most of the kids scenes were alright enough, and while this too suffered a bit from cheese, I liked the showdown scenes with Vogel and Norris. Technically, while they've clashed before, this is the first time their characters are on opposite sides (note I said "first", I'd like to see them at each other's throats, but I don't know if it's too early or not).

    Things that surprised me and am unsure of:

    I didn't expect Maxine to exit so soon until almost the split second before it happened. I knew she would get shot, but only right before the trigger was pulled, and then my reaction was a somewhat startled "Oh. Uhhhh, really? Um, okay."

    For most of the episode I was going by my earlier thinking, that she'd be the one to set off the propane.

    Now I admit I don't know where this is going, which I count as enough of a plus. I also wonder whether those kids personalities aren't in for some big changes.

    All in all, I'd have to say this episode left me wondering. So maybe in that sense it did enough of a job. Though of what kind exactly, I'm not sure.

    Oh well.


    1. I've got no problem whatsoever with people doing quiet on film. If I may point again toward "Breaking Bad," that's a show that LOVES to do quiet.

      Honestly, I don't remember a huge amount of quiet on tonight's episode, but that may be a faulty memory at work. The "Big Jim" outside the dome remaining steadfastly silent was a great touch, though. You could say that Jim uses his voice as a weapon at times, so for him -- this version of him -- to be stone-cold silent was unnerving.

    2. Well, when I say quiet what I meant was I was interested, yet never excited, except for a few scenes with the kids and a brief moment when I a character had been taken out of the story.

      One thing I can say that's interesting is whether or not the Dome is a good thing, or a bad.

      That was a question I never really bothered to ask until now, seeing it basically as something more benign. Now however, when it orders someone to kill someone else, it all just sounds more sinister.


  2. Angie is so, so bad. It's just painful when she's on the screen. It's starting to bleed over to Norrie and Joe, too, whom I never especially liked but could tolerate. Now when the three of them hook up with Junior, I'm secretly rooting for the Junior of the novel to appear and just kill everyone.

    This is such a poorly characterized, confused, contrived mess. Yet... I keep tuning in. (Sometimes I think it's just so I can leave a comment here on Tuesday mornings...!) I definitely won't come back for season 2 unless some miracle happens in the last two season 1 episodes that makes me re-evaluate everything I've seen.

    1. Yep, it's pretty bad alright. Ratings have been extremely good, though, AND extremely steady, so CBS had obviously figured out a way of getting the show in front of the eyes of 11 million viewers who must not mind how retarded it is. Or maybe all 11 million are determined to keep watching just to see how bad it gets.

      I agree about Angie. Regretfully. I liked her for quite a while. I think Junior could do better.

  3. I like to pretend Hank somehow made his way east—perhaps following Walt’s New Hampshire ID from the opening episode of season 5—and somehow along the way got stuck under the dome. After that, he and everyone else stuck inside were somehow drained of any intelligence and common sense.

    The four “dome” kids I can’t stand and can’t remember their names. I just call them We Bought a Zoo, Funhouse Mirror, Monarch and Hank Jr. It seems all their dialogue only exists to give us dumbasses outside the dome information about why they are currently doing what they’re doing.

    Aside from a few mentions early on, the lack of any military/government presence seems ludicrous. Because, you know, the government doesn’t like to stick their noses into things. Briefly mentioning that military connection with Barbie when Hank (yes, he’s always Hank now) spilled the beans on the radio last episode feels like they’re just continuing to polish the surface. I mean actually NOT casting crucial characters outside the dome certainly seems a missed opportunity to create an ocean of drama in an infinite number of directions.

    The writing feels rushed and sophomoric. I gave it one more episode because I do enjoy Mike Vogel—Can he be resurrected on Bates Motel? C’mon … somehow?—and out of loyalty to Hank, but as I briefly said over at Talk Stephen King, I’m over the dome.

    1. Normally, I'd guess that a lot of people would be with you, in terms of being over the dome...but the ratings have barely budged since the premiere. Essentially, EVERYONE who began watching is still watching. That surprises me. I'll be very curious to see if that carries over to a second season, of if six million or so people will wake up at some point in November and think, "Hey...! That was a REALLY mediocre show!" and decide to not watch season two. I won't be betting on it, though.

      You make a good point about the military aspect of the show sucking. It's clear that the writers are holding onto that aspect so that it can be used later on in the series; I get that. But it robs the story of any credibility. The ONLY excuse I'd accept is that the military has its hands full elsewhere, and just can't spare the manpower. But if that were the case, there'd be hordes of lookie-loos outside the dome; and there's seemingly NOBODY outside the dome, so that can't be the case, clearly.

      Ugh. Every time I stop and think about this show more, the more it sucks. What a colossal disappointment.

  4. Summer TV expectations are pretty low, huh? Have you ever watched Siberia, which is in the same time slot as Dome? It's absolutely horrible. I'm not saying it is why Dome has high numbers, but it certainly doesn't hurt Dome to be up against such lame competition.

    1. I have not watched "Siberia," but I might try to find time for it at some point. It seemed vaguely interesting. Maybe not, though, given your opinion of it!

      I honestly have no clue why UtD is getting such great numbers. And they ARE great, not merely good. It isn't solely the Stephen King connection; else, "Kingdom Hospital" would have been huge. It isn't the Spielberg connection; most shows with his name seem to struggle. It can't simply be that it's a sci-fi/horror show; that didn't help all kinds of similar shows in the past. It can't purely be good marketing, because that doesn't explain the audience retention from one episode to the next.

      My best guess is that the vast majority of people who watch must actually like it; or, at least, like it well enough to keep watching. It's kind of a fascinating case.