Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Under the Dome 2.01: "Heads Will Roll"

Well, folks, Under the Dome has returned for a second season, whether you wanted it or not.  I briefly toyed with the idea of not doing weekly reviews this year.  In a way, it's no fun; I think that most modern television now works (or doesn't) as much on a season-by-season basis as it does on an episode-by-episode basis.  As such, I think it's a big old whopping mistake to lose sight of that fact, and I've found a great many modern television fans to be guilty of that weird crime.  (Don't believe me?  Go back and read some of the ludicrous reviews of True Detective and its first eight episodes; the ability of some of its fans to misread it became kind of staggering at some point.)
I was tempted to avoid becoming a part of that din by simply not writing the reviews.  But, when it came time to have the mission-control guys in my brain issue a go/no-go call, they all came down firmly on the "go" side of things.

So, what are we waiting for?
I think it's safe to say that the season premiere, "Heads Will Roll," will do nothing to alter your status as an Under the Dome fan.  If you are a non-fan, it's not apt to change that, either.  In short, it's up to the same tricks as last season.  But it's also seemingly holding out signs that things might be going in a different direction from this point forward.  Only time will tell; but it seems like a possibility, at least.
Before we proceed, a little background info is called for.  "Heads Will Roll" was written by Stephen King himself, who also evidently helped to design the course the rest of the season would take.  He was (apart from doing a lot of press appearances to help promote the series) very much hands-off during the first season; this show was the baby of producers Brian K. Vaughan and Neal Baer.  At some point, Vaughan left the series, saying that he wanted to spend more time focusing on his comic-book work.  (Given how good his two current series -- Saga and The Private Eye -- are, I support him in that 100%.)  Either due to this shakeup or not due to it at all (who can say?), King ended up coming onboard to not only write the premiere episode, but to help steer the course of the season overall.  
Whether he will remain onboard the project for hypothetical future seasons remains to be seen, but in my eyes, this all can mean only one thing: somebody, somewhere was worried about the direction the show was headed.  It's difficult to look at the first season objectively and not feel as if it ran badly off the rails at some point.  Where you place that point is a matter of personal preference, of course, and I suppose one might theoretically refute my claim altogether.  But any dispassionate analysis, I think, would reveal that the first season had some serious problems.
Depending on whose quotes you wish to believe, the first season either was or wasn't intended to be the one and only season, at least at some point in the process.  The writers either DID have a plan for future seasons, or didn't.  In recent interviews, King indicates -- in what seems perhaps a bit impolitic -- that not only did they not know what they were planning long-term, but they didn't even really think that long-term plans would be necessary.  If King is to be believed -- and I think he is -- then nobody really had any notion that the show might succeed.
Amazing, but seemingly true.
If so, then King being brought onboard seems to me like one thing and one thing only: an attempt to save the series.  CBS (and its various partners) seem to blindly found their way into making a big hit; it seems to me that somebody, or numerous somebodies, may have been looking at those last six or seven episodes of the first season and thinking that the Golden Goose was in imminent danger of being decapitated by a dwindling audience.  But the audience never dwindled to any significant degree; seemingly, the audience was committed.  If someone could put the show on a creatively prosperous path, that might -- might, mind you -- mean that CBS et. al could be in the Under the Dome business for the next six or seven summers.
A lot of that is speculation on my part, of course, and I might well be off-base.  Either way, "Heads Will Roll" represents a clear attempt to reset the chess board a bit and reposition the pieces in such a way as to make the series perhaps a bit more sustainable.  It picks up almost exactly at the moment the first season ended: with Barbie's neck in a noose and Junior about to pull the trapdoor lever at his father's command.  What happens then is that the dome starts making a loud, ominous noise, and becomes magnetized.  Oh yeah, and people start passing out in a dead faint.  Junior doubts that killing Barbie is the right thing; he thinks the dome might be warning them to stop, and says that they need to go to the dome to see if they can find out what it wants them to do.  This leads to Linda getting killed by means of a car crushing her as it is pulled toward the dome.  Barbie is able to get away, partially by means of convincing Junior that Big Jim has set him up; Jim doesn't do much to deny it, either.
Big Jim becomes trapped inside his fallout shelter, where a revenant (not sure the word fits, but I like it and am going to use it) of Dodee appears to him and tells him that what he is doing is tearing the town apart.  How literally she means this is unclear.  Eventually, Big Jim gets out, only to find that most of the town has fallen unconscious, including Junior.  Another revenant, this time of Linda, appears, and tells him that he can fix everything by sacrificing himself.  He climbs onto the gallows, puts his head in the noose, and prepares to make that sacrifice.
Meanwhile, Barbie has met up with Rebecca Pine, a high-school science teacher who has been studying the dome and its effects.  She thinks that constructing a big magnet to offset the magnetic fields being used by the dome will put an end to the ill effects currently sweeping the town.  So they wrap a bunch of copper wire around a steel tower, hook up some generators, and turn it on.  It doesn't seem to have any effect initially, and even more people pass out.  But Rebecca said it would need time to really power up, so maybe there's still hope.
Julia, during all of this, has been preoccupied by saving the life of a teenage girl whom she found drowning in the lake shortly after she dropped the egg into it.  The girl just sort of appeared out of nowhere, sputtering and flailing, and Julia dragged her to safety on the shore.  There, she was met by Sam Verdreaux, who lives in a nearby cabin.  He takes them both back to his place, and while the girl lies catatonic on the couch, he dresses Julia's gunshot wound, which has opened back up.  The girl later runs off, and Julia leaves in search of Barbie.  When she finds him, the two of them end up at the gallows, where Big Jim wants one of them to pull the lever to hang him.  Julia volunteers, but can't go through with it; she saves him instead, and as soon as she does, the dome clears up again, and everyone who had passed out wakes up.
Sam comes into town, and is revealed to be Junior's uncle, his mother's brother.  Speaking of Junior's mother, Pauline, he has had a vision of her -- seemingly alive and well -- while he was unconscious.  He tries to tell his father about this, but Big Jim -- who's been seeing things all day -- cautions him that it might not mean what he thinks it means.
Except that it apparently does.  We see Pauline sitting in a downtown apartment somewhere, surrounded by paintings (including Big Jim and James Junior, who is depicted at his current age, and not at the age he was nine years previously when she supposedly died).  We see that she is in the city that Junior dreamed of, and that there is a very distinct . . . well, let's call it an object.

Don't look at that painting of Big Jim too long; it'll make you feel weird.

See that obelisk-like structure with the green segments outside?  I'm going to go out on a limb and say that that's probably important.
Back under the dome, Angie sees the girl from the lake wandering around town.  Sam had been looking for her, so Angie follows her.  They end up in the high school, where the girl looks with dismay at something inside an open locker; we don't see it, but the girl runs off, and Angie looks inside, too.  She doesn't like what she sees any more than the other girl did.  She is then killed by an axe that comes swinging at her out of nowhere.
Did I mention that Pauline was painting an open locker?
This was not exactly a great episode, but it worked for me at least as often as it failed.  The primary objective of the episode seems to have been to put Barbie and Big Jim back on speaking terms, and to call an end to the war that had broken out between them.  Such a conflict did not seem to be designed to last for long.  I mean, they're stuck in a dome; how long could such a conflict persist before one side or the other won?  Not long, I'd imagine.  So this episode dials that conflict back a notch; it more or less takes them back to where they were mid-season last year, with neither liking or trusting the other, but with no open hostilities between them.  Big Jim was a much more interesting character in that mode, so if that is indeed King's objective, and that's where Rennie will be for a while, then I'm perfectly okay with that.
King has also taken Junior and put him in a place where he can be either an ally or an adversary of either Barbie or Big Jim, depending on the needs of the story.  Potentially, that could yield good results; and it might even be able to do it without having to do some of the ridiculous plot convolutions the first season required to get a similar result.  Junior is going to have to make do without Angie, which is probably for the best; King and the other writers may end up using Angie's death as a means of motivating Junior, and don't be surprised if he begins receiving visitations from an Angie revenant.
The new characters seem promising.  Sam, played by Eddie Cahill, is clearly possessed of more knowledge about all of this than he's willing to let on.  When he sees the girl fro the lake, he looks at her with recognition of some sort; and later, he finds a (rather cool) drawing of her in one of his sister's scrapbooks.

Four red hands, eh?

Creepy and beautiful.
The girl also seems to recognize Sam in some way.  I can only assume that she is related to the dome in some way; she may -- I'm just guessing here -- be some sort of anthropomorphized embodiment of the egg.  But she also acts in human ways at times: she runs from Angie (or, possibly, from the sight of Angie's soon-to-arrive fate) in fear, and she behaves tenderly and apologetically toward Linda's corpse.  
I'm less persuaded by Rebecca, the high-school science teacher.  The actress is okay, and the character seems designed to facilitate some tension between the idea of the dome as a natural (i.e., scientific) phenomenon and the idea that the dome is being controlled by higher powers of some sort.  Julia, in her new role as the (never-mentioned-by-name-in-this-episode) Monarch, finds herself firmly in the camp of believing in those higher powers.  Rebecca is on the opposite end of the spectrum.  Barbie shows signs of being a bit more sympathetic toward Rebecca's ideology, and I suspect that this is the beginning of a tension that will split he and Julia apart in some way as the season progresses.
If -- and this is a big "if" -- subsequent episodes follow up on the new wrinkles King has introduced, then what we have is fertile ground for a refocusing of the series.  Will that happen?  I'm not sure.  Based on this episode, I see that the intent is there; but whether it will happen or not is another matter altogether.  And hey, let's be honest: I might be reading WAY too much into things.
But I don't think I am.  If it turns out to be that way, so be it; I won't hold it against the show.  I'm willing to let it go wherever it goes, regardless of my perceptions of where it might be going.  All I ask is that the series begin developing a bit of consistency, and grace, and subtlety.  This episode makes a few steps in those directions.  We'll see where it goes from here, but I am cautiously optimistic.
And now, leftover screencaps, plus leftover observations:
This lake-girl character is played by Grace Victoria Cox, whose only other film credit is for a short film named Scarlett.  Her character is a complete cypher so far, and having a neophyte actor in the role may prove to be a good decision.

Julia in a wet white shirt and you think I'm NOT going to screencap that?!?

See!  I told you he wrote it!

That's Karla Crome as Rebecca.  My dad hated this scene, because about thirty seconds later, the two of them are on the road to becoming friends.  But I thought it worked well.  Barbie disarms her, and then immediately gives her the gun back.  If that doesn't prove to somebody that you don't need to hold them at gunpoint, what would?

There haven't been all that many creepy moments in this series, but when the revenant Dodee sticks a finger in her bullet "wound" and then holds the bloody finger up for Big Jim to wince at, that's worthy of Stephen King.

This establishing shot of the high school comes complete with pigs rooting around outside.  This is both a sign of the town's state, and also a sign of where food might be coming from in the future.

Rebecca has built a fairly cool model of the dome.

Here's Junior, walking around while dreaming.  I assume that obelisk (I'm calling it that until a better word presents itself [and I purposefully do not want to call it a tower lest associations be made with THE Tower, and I don;t believe such associations would be at all warranted]) is CGI and not a real structure wherever this was filmed (Wilmington?), but I do not know that for a fact.

Is the name of this city "Zenith"?  I'm sure the word's various definitions are important ("
the highest point reached by a celestial or other object"; "
the point in the sky or celestial sphere directly above an observer"; "the
time at which something is most powerful or successful"
).  I'm less sure that any crossover with The Plant is intended.  But you never know for sure with King, so time will tell.

That's Sherry Stringfield as Pauline.  I do hope she has more to do than some of the guest actors from last season (Mare Winningham, for example).

Couldn't help but be reminded of Dolores Claiborne here as Julia looks down at Big Jim.

Eddie Cahill as Sam.

More observations:
  • The show has a new saga-sell this season, this time narrated by Mike Vogel instead of Rachelle Lefevre.
  • The magnetized-dome stuff is mostly cool; I especially like the church bell flying out of the church spire and crashing against the dome.  But some of the effects inside Joe’s house look suspiciously like things flying on wires.  And the editing of Linda’s death is badly off: I counted about three seconds between her pushing Barbie out of the way and the car crushing her.  Three seconds is handily enough time to at least try to get out of the way.  I mean, shit, if all else fails, just drop to the ground; you’ve got a better chance of missing the body of the vehicle that way.  The idea is probably that she has only a split-second to make this decision, as an instinctual, protective act of heroism; but the editing simply makes her look like a deer in the headlights.  It’s a really poor way for a character to go out, even a character as relatively crappy as Linda Esquivel.  She was used in an extremely poor fashion during the first season; if the writers couldn't find a way to right that wrong this season, they probably made the correct decision in killing her off.
  • I sure was hoping that Phil would be the second character killed in this episode.  Instead, Big Jim makes him the new sheriff.  WHAT.  THE.  FUCK.  Dude was a deejay just a few days ago, and now he's a lawman?!?  Even worse, when Big Jim tells Phil that Barbie is innocent of Dodee's murder, Phil fails to ask him the obvious follow-up questions: "He is?!?  Say, you don't happen to know who actually did kill her, do you?"  I want to give King and his fellow producers the benefit of the doubt and assume that they have a plan for Phil, and that asinine plot developments like these are simply necessary to get him to that point.  But even if that's the case, this is genuinely horrible writing.
  • Methinks I spotted hints of potential romance between Julia and Sam, and also between Barbie and Rebecca.
  • Rebecca also seems to make an ally out of Big Jim, who is receptive to the idea of meeting with her to discuss potential unseen damage caused by the recent activity of the dome.  Will this mean that as the faith/science rift develops (assuming such a rift ends up being part of the series), Barbie will possibly find himself allied with both Rebecca and Big Jim?  Possibly against Julia, Sam, and Junior?  We'll see.  I'm not a big fan of making predictions like that, to be honest, because more often than not I think they lead to false expectations, and to holding a series accountable for something it ought never to have been held accountable for.  Normally, I'd keep such thoughts to myself.  But I'm making an exception here, because the episode feels palpably like a reshuffling of the deck.
  • I was thrilled by the brief trip outside the dome to "Zenith," or wherever it is where Pauline lives.  The brief news report about the dome having returned to a state of transparency, and about how the attention of the world is still riveted on the dome, was really cool.  I really hope the series will open up a bit at some point to permit occasional glimpses of what is happening in the outside world.  I wouldn't want it to go too far in that direction; but a taste here and there would be cool.
And with that, this review is over.  I'm up a good solid hour-and-a-quarter past my bedtime, which is already late to the point of being vampiric.  But hey, what's the day for if not sleepin' one off?  Even if the "one" in question is a too-late bout of Under the Dome blogging?
See you folks next week!


  1. Way back in an interview from 2013, Neal Baer said the following:

    ""There's sort of a perhaps slightly different explanation for the dome," says Vaughn. "I nervously pitched Stephen King what a different version of the ending might be ... He said, 'I wish I'd thought of that.'"

    Brian K. Vaughan also said a few things about the outline of the show:

    "Under the Dome" is coming to CBS this summer, the story of a small town that suddenly finds itself encased in a giant dome. Creator Brian K. Vaughn teases the outline of the show for SFX, which he says will have three distinct sections."

    ""The first section is fate. The second section is fear. And the third section is fascism. I won't say who is the fascist or what exactly that means, but I think you get the sense that things are going to go wrong very quickly under the dome, and we're going to need an iron fist keeping order," says Vaughn."

    To be continued.


    1. continued from last comment.

      What all the above tells me is that they at least had some kind of outline, and a definite ending they were working toward.

      What all that makes me wonder, though, is whether or not things got rearranged somehow in the shuffle from writing to shooting. Granted that they have a definitive end in mind, I'm curious what was their original outline, and how much was changed? I agree that it sounds like they almost did have a much shorter run for the series in mind. In fact, I believe at one point it was thought to have been a limited-run series, which means it would have been just a season long mini-series, rather than a television show.

      Maybe there lies the crux of the matter. With orders to turn it into a TV series, the writers had to find ways of padding out the original outline and scripts. I don't know, this is conjecture added to conjecture.

      To be concluded.


    2. Concluded from last comment.

      I do know I was sort of ambivalent at first on how things were going. Then I noticed some of the dialogue had a particular King like feel, and the stakes seem to have been a bit more dire. All in all, I agree that what I've seen so far at least makes me want to see more, and to a least be cautiously optimistic.

      I also can't help but think of the Tower when I see that structure in the background of the city during Junior's dream. Maybe it's just a reference and won't have any other part to play in the overall story (unless it's one of the plot points that was in the original scripts) and it may just be a wink to the audience.

      Also, it introduced one of the things I liked, a kind of trippy, off-kilter quality that I think works for the show.


    3. I honestly don't think the "Tower" reference is even a reference, even though it was the first thing I thought of when I saw it! So much so that toward the end, when Pauline is painting the open locker, I briefly saw it as a door -- as in Prisoner/Lady of Shadows etc.

      By the way, the ratings for the premiere episode were down from last season fairly sharply, but still pretty good. Down to 9.38 million viewers from 12 million for the season finale, which is not great. Still, it was by far the top show for Monday night on any channel, so there's that.

    4. The ratings are an interesting point. Neither high, nor low. I don't know what networks think with numbers like those. Apparently they thought them important enough to be worth taking a risk on. Still have to wait to see if it pays off.

      The more I think about it, the more the nature of the episode's writing. It's a strange mixture of King's normal style, and what I still think of as CBS cheese. King has worked well with colabs in the past, but this time it's like a higher style of writing trying to work with a lower. It almost makes me wonder if King's script was rewritten by the show staff or something, but that's baseless until proven otherwise, or someone gets a hold of two separate copies of the script.

      I have a theory about that door painting. I think, time may prove me wrong, that it may be pointing to an opening, or door into and out of the dome itself. The promos did say, "The outside comes in". Although that could just as well refer to something Lovecraftian (which could be interesting as well). We'll have to see.


    5. Hmm. You might be right about that. Velly intellesting...!

      I understand what you mean about the odd mix in tones. I don't think it represents any sort of interference from CBS or any of the other producers, though; I doubt they'd risk alienating King in that way. To me, it seems like two things: (1) King's natural weakness at screenwriting compared to prose; and (2) the fact that he was an outsider to the writing staff. It may be that he didn't even watch along with the first season, to be honest. If so, even though he originated the concept and most of the characters, he might essentially have been playing a game of big-time catch-up in writing this episode.

      Still, I think it worked fairly well. And depending on where the season ends up going, it may have worked even better than that.

  2. So much cheese.
    37 Domes if you're playing along.
    We had a great time watching it.

    1. I don't believe I'm familiar with this game, but it sounds deadly.

    2. Drink every time they say Dome!

    3. And there were 37 of them last week?!? Holy smokes, Indy my friend . . . it is a wonder you recovered in time for THIS week!

    4. We watch it on weekends.

  3. On a sort of related note every time I see the Guardians of the Galaxy trailer I think of how a awesome a Saga movie would look.

    1. I'd love to see a great "Saga" movie, but a lousy one would break my heart. I'll settle for "Guardians" being good.