Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Under the Dome 2.03: "Force Majeure"

Son of a bitch.
I've got a friend who, when he was a younger man, saw a guy beating a woman in a parking lot.  He jumped on the guy to get him to stop, and for his gallant efforts was rewarded by the woman with a two-by-four upside the back of his skull.  The lesson to be learned here is simple: some men can beat some women and not only keep the woman coming back for more, but actually have her come to his defense when and if he himself gets attacked.
In psychological terms, I believe this is referred to as "fucked-up bullshit."
I'm not quite ready to take a proverbial two-by-four to anyone's head in defense of Under the Dome, but I do keep coming back for more, and I'd be more likely to take to the streets with a two-by-four in search of dissidents tonight than I would have been one week ago.  To give you an idea of what that might look like, here's me circa 1988.
I looked a lot like Hacksaw Jim Duggan, didn't I?  Ahem...
Anyways . . . yeah . . . as much as it grieves me to admit it, I liked this week's episode of Under the Dome.  In the midst of my enjoyment of it, I came to a realization:
The series is, overall, lousy, and is unlikely to ever be anything but lousy in terms of the big picture.  But, within that big picture, there is still room for good episodes, and for individual scenes that work.  With that in mind, I have decided to try my best to simply let go of the notion that the series is ever going to be good in the way that I would like for it to be.  I'm going to just let that go, and focus on enjoying it for what it is, to whatever extent that is possible.  He's going to beat me from time to time, I know he is; but maybe he'll say something nice to me sometimes, too.
The setup this week is simple: it begins raining "blood" under the dome, and this prompts a new character to react rather oddly.
That new character is Lyle Chumley, the town barbie barber, and he's played by Dwight Yoakam.
Yoakam is best known for his music career, but he's a very good actor, too, and if you don't believe me, look no further than Sling Blade or Panic Room for proof.  He's got some lousy dialogue to deliver in this episode, and he manages to sell most of it pretty well.  He's even better than that toward the end of the episode, when he gets scenes to play against Eddie Cahill and Alexander Koch.  These scenes won't make you think you're suddenly watching Mad Men or anything, but they are strong in their own right, and crackle with a sort of mysterious intensity that is immediately recognizable: it's what the tone of the show should be in every scene, or at least should factor in to each episode.  
Whether it's a coincidence, or is attributable simply to a better screenplay and better direction than was the case last week, there are numerous scenes this week which fit that bill.  Not merely Yoakam's scenes as Lyle, either; all the actors -- even (GASP!) Colin Ford -- suddenly seem to exist in a weirder, more interesting show, one with actual stakes.  And if I had an epiphany during the episode, it would be that the series only works for me when I am able to respond to the characters as though they are real people.  Not in a great-gramma-talking-to-the-teevee way, mind you; you know what I mean.  As it turns out, it makes a BIG difference for a show's characters to behave as real people might behave.  Last week, I'm not sure anyone did that a single time the entire episode.  Tonight, there were still problem areas, but on the whole, I believed that what was happening might bear some relation to what actually would happen in such a scenario.
Much of this came via the show's high-schoolers, Joe and Norrie.  I like Norrie relatively well, but Joe typically strains my patience.  Tonight, much of the focus involved the lake-girl -- whose name, we find out, is Melanie -- tentatively joining their circle.  Joe obviously has an immediate liking for her, and this ought to feel incredibly dumb, given that just last week he was pointing a gun at her and about to kill her.  But, somehow, it doesn't.  This may be because Colin Ford is good at looking like a puppy, and puppies are good at forgetting what happened a minute ago, much less a week ago; so subconsciously, it feels natural for Joe to flip-flop in this way.
But what sells it is Norrie's distrust for this new girl.  Mackenzie Lintz gets to make this face a lot:
Partially, this seems to be jealousy; she is obviously threatened by Melanie, and by Joe's response to Melanie.

But there is more to it than that, too.  She is mistrustful of Melanie, and knows that the girl is no mere amnesiac innocent; and even if she is that, she's more than that, too.  Toward the end of the episode, Norrie confronts Melanie, asking her how she knew the combination to the locker which bears Angie's bloody handprint.  Melanie explains that she just . . . saw it; it was just in her head.  Norrie wants to know what else is in her head, and as she makes this point, she extends her forefinger and -- none too gently -- spears her fingertip into Melanie's forehead.  This is a simple moment, but it's also a very human one, and it somehow feels extremely ugly; for a moment, Norrie reminds me of Chris Hargensen confronting Carrie White and accusing her of getting her kicked out of prom.
At the same time, due to the nature of the series, we know Norrie is correct.  We don't know the specifics yet; but Melanie is almost certainly going to prove to be key in understanding what is going on here.  So while Norrie is behaving in an ugly manner, we also sympathize with her, because we know that her instincts are correct.  And at the same time, it feels to me that Melanie will almost certainly turn out to be a sympathetic and essentially innocent character; the way Grace Victoria Cox is playing the role is almost as though she is a doe or a lamb in human form, and she exudes a sort of sweetness and vulnerability that practically cries out for us to feel protective toward her.
So, in these scenes, we find ourselves sympathizing with both of the girls at once.  (I say "we," but, of course, I mean "me."  Your mileage may vary, and wildly.)  Again, this is not exactly Emmy-winning material, but it is good, I think; and it is miles better than the idiocy we see from this show some weeks.
The episode has other such scenes in it, too, none of them AS successful as this one, but each of them at least marginally successful, provided you are willing to overlook ways in which they jibe against previous episodes.  For example, Julia and Barbie's relationship continues to deteriorate, and Barbie occasionally comes off as a bit of a dick.  "I just want you to be more careful about bringing strays into our house," he tells Julia in reference to Melanie.  Huh?  OUR house?!?  Screw you, pal, ain't no "our" to it.  Elsewhere, he is willing to listen to what Rebecca and Big Jim have to say on the subject of coming up with a contingency plan to "thin the herd" in Chester's Mill when and if the town's resources reach a critically low level.
On the one hand, these scenes do turn Barbie into a bit of a dick.  On the other hand, they turn him into an interesting dick; and in some ways, it's easier -- for me, at least -- to empathize with him in these scenes than with Julia.  Does this work with what we know from the rest of the series?  Well . . . not really, no.  Therein lies the problem.  But in the moment, at least, the scenes come close.
It's less easy to accept the idea that Barbie is willing to partner up with Big Jim.  Barbie at one point tells Julia that as he sees it, "If this town's going to survive, it's going to need a firm hand to keep everybody in check."  And he seems to be indicating that he'd be willing for Big Jim's arm to be the one that hand is at the end of.  Now, bear in mind that just a couple of days ago, Big Jim was about to hang Barbie by the neck until dead, and not as a mistake, but as an execution for a murder for which Jim had framed Barbie.  Realistically, this is unforgivable.  
Thing is, that plot thread with the framing and the near-hanging should never have happened.  It was a mistake, a narrative dead-end.  The first season occasionally became interesting when it found ways to put Barbie and Big Jim in alliance with one another.  There was somewhere to go with that, and having Big Jim be a character who sort of sat on the fence with one leg in villainy's back yard and the other leg in heroism's was a good direction to take that character.  He was interesting that way; he was no longer the mustache-twirling semi-cartoon villain of the novel, he was somebody with complexities and shades.  When the series decided late in the season to go away from that and toward cartoon-villain with Jim, it was a massive step in the wrong direction.
So, in a sense, what has been happening with Jim in these first three episodes is an obvious attempt to return him to that middle-ground existence of the first part of season one.  In order to get there, the show is having to ask us to just flat-out ignore the fact that Big Jim murdered Dodee, framed Barbie, and nearly killed him.  This is not, for me, impossible.  If you give me a reason to roll with you, I'll roll with you; the second season of Friday Night Lights had Landry actually kill somebody, and when later seasons decided to simply ignore that, I said okey-doke and went with it.  I can do it.
But it really is asking an awful lot, and this series has not earned the goodwill that Friday Night Lights had earned from me.  It's trying.  Sort of.  But it loves me, and even though it hurts me, I do want to forgive it, you see...
Anyways, I thought it was basically an okay-ish episode.
What else is there to say?  Well, this:

  • When Melanie is going through Barbie's things, she finds his driver's license, which apparently says that he is from Zenith.  Zenith, of course, is the town Junior went to in his dream, and where Pauline is apparently still alive.
  • "We'll figure it out, sweetie," Julia says to Melanie at one point.  Later, while trying to console Joe, Melanie repeats those words to him.  It's almost like she is in the process of learning to be human, a la Starman or something like that.
  • In the scene in which Joe is temporarily able to get emails from the outside world, we find out that he is getting emails from somebody with the username "houndsofdiana."  I'm guessing this is a mythological reference, and one which will become more important as the season/series progresses.
  • Sidebar: I like Mackenzie Lintz as Norrie.  However, the champion "Mackenzie" in my book is currently Mackenzie Davis of Halt and Catch Fire, who is so hot I can barely stand it.  You can Google her if you want, but she seems to be one of those people who does not always photograph particularly well.  Why do I mention any of this?  Because why not, that's why; because why not.
  • Anyways, back to Under the Dome.  Lyle, at the beginning of the episode, is giving Big Jim a shave for a "date" with Rebecca.  (It seems unlikely to actually be a date, but Jim himself seems to be sort of treating it as though it were.)  Lyle ends up kidnapping Rebecca and nearly killing her, and at some point in this process she asks what has happened to Big Jim.  "You know," Lyle says, "he's gonna be tickled you're this concerned with his well-being."  I got a good chuckle out of this line, which Yoakam sells like a pro.
  • "I believe we will find a way," says Julia of the town's resource problems.  "Belief only gets you so far," counters Barbie.  On the one hand, the writers are inserting the wedge between these two with a crowbar, rather than allowing it to just manifest itself.  On the other hand, I can sort of buy that this is how these two would end up diverging.  Julia, with her irrational and immediate belief that Barbie is a good person seconds after meeting him, and her even more irrational and immediate belief that Peter, her husband, was killed by Barbie because Peter wanted Barbie to kill him (and that he wanted this for her own good), is obviously the sort of person who believes shit just because she feels like believing it.  Barbie, meanwhile, does seem like a practical, realistic kind of guy, one trained to rely on what he can see and hear rather than on what he merely believes.  The writers are not doing a great job with it; but I can believe it nevertheless.

And now, a few more photos:
I like this shot of Lyle's eyes reflected in the straight-razor he is using to shave Big Jim.

I also liked the scenes between Junior and Sam.  Sam might as well be wearing a shirt that says "I HAVE A SHADOWY AGENDA," but I'm okay with that.

I love it when an actor's credit actually appears while the actor is onscreen.  Karla Crome is pretty good as Rebecca.  I can't entirely get a read on whether the series wants us to like her or not, though.  I think it wants us not to, but if so, her introduction ran contrary to that, and the show has not quite managed to turn a corner in the other direction.

It didn't screencap well at all, but the raining-blood effects are excellent, particularly in this driving scene.  The "blood" beats against the window just like regular rain, but is all red and gross and stuff.  It's nice to see a horror-movie touch like this on the series.

Joe finds Melanie's photo in the 1988 yearbook -- and she looks the same age as in 2013!  (Remember, it's still 2013 in the show.)  What I appreciate here is how effortlessly the makeup and hair department were able to eighties-ize Cox for this photo.  And they did so without resorting to obvious tactics like crimped hair or shoulder-pads or something.  It's a small touch, but a very successful one, and details like that do count.

Speaking of which...that's Sam, Pauline, and Lyle circa 1988.  Now, according to IMDb, Eddie Cahill was born in 1978, Sherry Stringfield in 1967, and Dwight Yoakam in 1956!  So having these three characters be allegedly roughly the same age is ludicrous.  This is similar to how the first season asked us to believe that Big Jim and Ollie were classmates, despite Leon Rippy obviously being two full decades older than Dean Norris.  The age gap between Dwight Yoakam and Eddie Cahill is just as pronounced, and I'm not sure why the producers would expect us to buy this.  And yet, somehow, I can accept it; not buy it, precisely, but merely accept it and get on about the business of watching the show.

And there you have it, folks.  Another week down, another episode reviewed.  I'm back to feeling at least vaguely optimistic about the series, which is almost surely a mistake.  As a result, I am going to end the review with a trio of Mackenzie Davis photos, two of which which arguably disprove my hypothesis about how well she photographs.

That's from Halt and Catch Fire, which is a pretty good series; not without its own problems, but vastly better than Under the Dome in almost every way.



  1. I'll admit, I had high hopes for this episode based solely on it's preview last week. Thankfully, it's more or less delivered. I think the reason why is because it's taken things in a direction that's more or less in keeping with the characters' original premise.

    I think the issue is less a matter of realism and more a matter, again, the original limited run outline for the characters and story. I don't pretend to know what the original direction for UTD was before it became a series, but I do now agree that after a certain point (roughly the intro of the Dodie side-story) that the show went off track.

    In terms of whatever the original direction the show was going for, it's moments like Dodie that not only throw things off track, but the total detouring of events blurs whatever cohesive outline the show may have, making it hard to tell (for the most part) what the whole outline is even supposed to be. When that happens, the best rule of thumb I have is to just wait, watch, and see which sequences work, and which don't. If it works, it was probably a part of the original outline, if not, then it's probably just mandated padding.

    To be continued.


    1. Continued from last comment,

      As far as what I've seen from last night's episode, I think some guesses (at least) can be drawn as to what the nature of the characters SHOULD be, and where they should go. Rebecca and Jim seem to work best as flawed, yet likeable people whose evil is almost incidental (if I even chose the right word) to how they view the world. In other words, I think they would work best if the show made Jim and Becca the Louis Creed (and cohort) of the show.

      Julie seems to work in similar, yet opposite direction, and I wonder what would happen if they tried to make an actual sympathetic version of Mrs. Carmody. Barbie I see as actually sort of the Wolverine of the show. He's a guy whose caught in the middle of a situation he really doesn't want any part of, and who's just trying to make the best of it he can (which sort of makes me wonder if Kurt Russell shouldn't have got the part).

      For the kids, Joe seems best as the kind of clueless novice, Norrie as the tougher, world-weary type, and Junior as a secondary psychopath who is more often the mid-point of a tug of war rope between various other crazies. He can be crazy, but he can't be the lead crazy.

      To be concluded.


    2. Conclusion,

      As for Melanie, she's a bit of the familiar wild card in the show for me. By that I mean sometimes when she's on screen i'm reminded of this element from an early Rob Mccammon novel called Scorpion. Curiously, the plot of that novel features an entire New Mexico town being covered by an alien force-field, and at one point, an alien presence takes possession of this five to seven year old girl, and the rest of the town has to protect it/her from another alien, this one decidedly less friendly.

      That's what Melanie puts me in mind of. I don't really know enough about her character yet to say I know where she's supposed to go, however. I'll admit seeing the previews for next week's show, I'm cautiously nervous. After the decent pay-off of this week, next seems like it might be a bit of a comedown.

      I do think it doesn't have to be, however. The thing to do is to make the Melanie character all three of the following:

      1. Interesting.

      2. Sympathetic

      3. Freaky as hell.

      The next episode could work IF it is staged as a series of suspenseful buildups to her big reveal, with each moment making her steadily more creepy yet sympathetic in a steady stream of building tension, and then the should would have to hold that tension on her character so that you literally are always on your toes about what she'll do next.

      However, I doubt the writers on this show will be that smart (especially not if they once worked for Smallville).


    3. Kurt Russell as Barbie -- absolutely. In-his-prime Kurt Russell, at least.

      The name of that McCammon novel is "Stinger," incidentally, not "Scorpion." It's a good one, too, from what I remember.

      Yeah, boy...that "Smallville" connection does not inspire optimism, does it?

    4. STINGER!

      Right, sorry, I knew I either hit dead on, or just to left of target. Stinger's one of Mccammon's best, I think, even if it's a bit clunky in places. It also says something if an author other than King can freak the hell out of me.

      An ironic post-script to my above musings:

      Lilja's Library claims Mr. Mercedes is being made into a "10 Episode Series".


      ...Isn't this where I came in?


    5. "I think the reason why is because it's taken things in a direction that's more or less in keeping with the characters' original premise." -- Yes! Definitely. And I'm perfectly okay with that.

      "Rebecca and Jim seem to work best as flawed, yet likeable people whose evil is almost incidental (if I even chose the right word) to how they view the world. In other words, I think they would work best if the show made Jim and Becca the Louis Creed (and cohort) of the show." -- That's a really interesting point, and I think that not only are you correct about it, but that part of what King seems to have been trying to do with his season-premiere episode was put the show back on track to be able to do something very like what you are suggesting. Will it work? Based on the second episode, I'd have said "no," but the third episode swings me back toward "yes." So let's call it a "maybe."

      "I wonder what would happen if they tried to make an actual sympathetic version of Mrs. Carmody." -- Oh...that's a fascinating thought! I'd actually love to see that.

      "Stinger's one of Mccammon's best, I think, even if it's a bit clunky in places." -- I remember liking it a lot, but the specifics are lost to me. I'll be rereading it at some point in the next year or two, though, and I'm looking forward to it.

      "Lilja's Library claims Mr. Mercedes is being made into a "10 Episode Series"." -- I'm all for it. And the best thing is, it doesn't even HAVE to be a limited series, since there are evidently two more novels on the way. So if it works, a second and a third season are already eminently doable. What I'm curious to find out is what the venue will be. CBS, perhaps, although that would bum me out. I'm hoping for either HBO or Netflix. AMC would also be perfectly acceptable, or even FX. We'll see! I'd love to see more King adaptation go this route, personally; his work is a natural fit for long-form tv.

      By the way, Chris, thanks a ton for reading and commenting on these posts every week! I always look forward to reading what you have to say about the show.

    6. Don't mention it. Right now i'd say I'm cautiously optimistic, if nothing else.

      I was also hoping that at least Mercedes would get picked up by HBO.